Erenberg’s “Steppin’ Out” is Still Relevant


Erenberg, Lewis A. Steppin’ Out: New York Nightlife and the Transformation of American Culture, 1890-1930. United States: Greenwood Publishing Group, 1981.

Lewis A. Erenberg, the author of Steppin’ Out: New York nightlife and the Transformation of American Culture, 1890-1930, is a professor of history at Loyola University Chicago.  Currently working on projects titled The Rumble in the Jungle and Boyle Heights Boy: A Memoir of Growing up in Los Angeles, the Loyola University history professor is a doctoral graduate of the University of Michigan. In addition to penning Steppin Out, Erenberg is also responsible for authoring the books The War in American Culture, Society and Consciousness during World War II and Swingin’ the Dream: Big Band Jazz and the Rebirth of American Culture.

Steppin’ Out…

Steppin’ Out, first published in 1981, is reminiscent of aspects typically associated with the magazine the New Yorker. Articles pertaining to such subjects as the theatre, fashion, publishing and finance play a significant role in the magazine. Erenberg seems to have adopted a similar approach to crafting Steppin’ Out. The same is especially true in his approach to Nightlife.

Based on the reading, Erenberg feels for writing about New York nightlife, considering his vibrantly elaborate descriptions of the décor which could be seen in Broadway lobster palaces, is distinctly realistic. “In nightlife,” Erenberg writes, “people from varied social worlds found outlet for their desires, found representations of themselves with which they could identify. In the 1910s and 1920s, they helped create a new style public dream, one concerned with vitality rather than sexual separation, personality rather than character, all contained by a degree of social selectivity.”[1]

The Waldorf Astoria…

The description of the Waldorf Astoria is spectacular. The hotel is a symbol of “New York’s ‘aspiration to lead an expensive gregarious life as publicly as possible… the Waldorf was famous for its private banquet and ballrooms … The Waldorf’s ability to attract the wealthy to its public dining rooms marks a transition in New York upper-class life…”[2] is apt. The same level of detail was afforded to other well-known New York attractions in equal measure. New York nightlife would not be complete without a detailed description of the theatre.

Erenberg’s exactitude to detail is not lost on the way in which he approaches the business which we call show. “The emergence of a cabaret-style and structure,” the Loyola University history professor writes, “not only indicated changes in theatrical forms but also symbolized broader changes in the culture.” The changes Erenberg describes indicate a longing for freedom from the constraints of past ideologies. People were apparently no longer satisfied to allow a previous generation’s norms stipulate what their actions should entail. “In the pursuit of a vital and informal personality, prosperous people broke from formal boundaries that had separated the entertainers from the respectable, men and women, and upper- from lower-class culture.”[3]


Even though Erenberg’s book is worth reading, reviewers must remember there is a tendency towards generalization. We understand, by the end of the nineteenth century, new roles for women had become available. This continued into the twentieth century.

The relationship between genders was significantly more informal than previously seen. “A spirit of life that was closer to one’s emotional nature,”[4] Erenberg writes, is barely sufficient in scope to the realities of the era.


[1] Lewis A Erenberg, Steppin’ Out: New York Nightlife and the Transformation of American Culture, 1890-1930, (United States: Greenwood Publishing Group, 1981), p. xiv.

[2] Erenberg, Steppin’ Out, p. 34-35.

[3] Ibid, p. 113.

[4] Ibid, p. 171.