Left-wing writing tends to loom large in accounts of the 1930s, though such work accounted for only a small part of the decade’s literary output—and an even smaller fraction of what was actually read at the time, notes Peter Conn, the Vartan Gregorian Professor of English. In his new book, The American 1930s: A Literary History (Cambridge University Press), Conn sets out to redress the balance.
Drawing on government reports, newspaper accounts, a series of state guides produced under the aegis of the Works Progress Administration (WPA), literary masterpieces, popular blockbusters, and a host of books both justly and unjustly forgotten, Conn portrays a much richer and more complex cultural response to the Great Depression during the so-called “red decade.”
He recently answered some questions about the book from Gazette editor John Prendergast.
What brought you to this topic?
I have a longstanding interest in the relationship between art and its political and social contexts. The Depression decade, in which Americans confronted the most profound national crisis since the Civil War, offers an especially rich field for that sort of investigation. How did writers and other artists respond to the turmoil? And, seven or eight decades later, how can those responses help us understand that extraordinary period in our history?
You make the point that the Depression narrative has been oversimplified—that most people still had jobs, for example, and many others were struggling economically in the 1920s, too. Could you talk about some of the ways you sought to enrich that portrait in the book?
Over the past several decades, scholars of the Thirties have tended to focus far too exclusively on the literature of left-wing protest. This so-called proletarian literature has a certain interest, but it made up a tiny fraction of the artistic work of the Depression period, and it reached an even smaller fraction of the reading public. By looking at a much broader range of 1930s art and literature, I demonstrate that the “red decade” is a misleading cliché.
Your chapters examine views of the past in the 1930s—the recent past of the 1920s, as well as the appetite for historical fiction, and the attempts by writers on the Left to enlist traditionally heroic historical figures like Lincoln and link Communism with patriotism. Was there something unusually fluid about the idea of the past then?
As many historians have pointed out, Western people have since the Renaissance frequently turned to history to establish a sense of national identity, especially in times of crisis. So the American experience in the 1930s is not surprising. When the nation’s institutions and core values were shaken by economic collapse, an exceptional number of writers and painters looked to the past, whether for inspiration, explanation, or possible solutions to the ongoing crisis. While some of these artists excavated the past on behalf of protest and revolution, an even larger number discovered in the nation’s history a source for reaffirming their commitment to America’s traditional values.
The treatment of the state guide series was fascinating and very illuminating. I knew a little about them, but hadn’t realized how much they encapsulated attitudes in the different states.
For anyone interested in the American 1930s, the state guides are indispensable. They were funded by the WPA, the same agency that put unemployed men and women to work building roads, bridges, schools, and post offices. The American Guides, as they were officially called, comprised over 50 volumes, one for each state and several for individual cities. They are encyclopedic aggregations of geography, culture, politics, and history, adding up to 31,000 pages of writing. Taken together, the guides comprised what critic Alfred Kazin called “an extraordinary contemporary epic.” Aside from their value as historical sources, the guides are often wonderfully readable, and a delight to browse in. They offer snapshots of every nook and cranny of a bygone America.
The ways that race was written about was also striking. From the context you give, the reader can see the impact of a book like Gone With the Wind, how it reflected attitudes and ideas in the culture that were still respectable, even at that date. And it’s stunning to think that a nonfiction book like The Tragic Era, which follows a similar line, could still be used in colleges in the 1950s!
Gone With the Wind recycles the misty-eyed mythology of the Lost Cause: gallant Southern gentlemen defending their land and their womenfolk from marauding Yankee hooligans and rapacious black men. Margaret Mitchell presents black people who are happily dependent in their bondage, sexually dangerous if not kept under restraint, and incapable of governing themselves, much less governing others. The novel’s retrograde racial attitudes not only rhymed with popular white opinions, but were also supported by a broad scholarly consensus. You mention The Tragic Era, published by Claude G. Bowers in 1929, which is indeed a compendium of racial insult and slander, but it is only one of the texts of the 1920s and 1930s that trafficked in such stereotyping. W. E. B. Du Bois did what he could to rectify this destructive misinterpretation in his revisionist masterwork, Black Reconstruction (1935), but it would take another 30 years before historians caught up with his progressive ideas.
From the very wide range of references you cite, you clearly spent a lot of time doing research for the book. What did you find that was most surprising or changed your perspective along the way?
To a greater extent than I anticipated, I discovered that a commitment to self-reliance survived among countless men and women who blamed themselves for their unemployment or poverty. Although they were the victims of an enormous and systemic collapse, far beyond their personal control, they typically held themselves responsible for their fate. For example, journalist Lorena Hickok, reporting to her boss Harry Hopkins, head of the WPA, referred to a young woman who refused either aid or encouragement: “Oh, don’t bother … If, with all the advantages I’ve had, I can’t make a living, I’m just no good, I guess.” Likewise, novelist Sherwood Anderson reported on an unemployed man who told him: “I failed. I failed. It’s my own fault.” This sort of self-reproach was commonplace, and it is surely one reason why there was so little revolutionary activity in a dangerous time.
I noticed a number of references to online sources in your notes. How has the Internet changed historical research?
I cannot imagine any scholar who does not take advantage of the enormous resources now available on the Internet. Everything from fact-checking to retrieving scholarly articles to sharing ideas and drafts with colleagues has been transformed.
Another thread I enjoyed was the various discussions of photographs and paintings from the era. Why include them?
My particular focus was the role that the past played in the imaginative work of the 1930s. I included some comment on the decade’s history painting, as a way of further widening the scope of the analysis. The Depression decade was among the busiest of all American decades for the production of historical pictures: highbrow and lowbrow, populist and elitist, serious and comic. Such works demonstrate that painters, like writers, found in the past a means of responding to the dislocations of the present moment.
You mention John P. Marquand’s The Late George Apley as “one of the fine, neglected books of the 1930s.” Any other suggestions for further reading, based either on literary merit or ability to capture some flavor of the decade?
When The Wall Street Journal recently asked me to identify five “must-read” novels from the 1930s, I put Now in November, by Josephine Winslow Johnson (1934) first on my list. This was a bestselling novel that also won the Pulitzer Prize, before sinking into undeserved obscurity. The Haldmarnes, a mother, father, and three daughters, leave the city for the countryside when the father loses his job. Here the family’s bad luck turns worse. Nothing will grow on the parched and dusty soil, and despair thickens like the dust that covers everything. The novel provides a painfully detailed account of the family’s destruction in the relentless heat and drought that devastated the Great Plains in the 1930s.
The past year has made the 1930s seem closer to us, imaginatively. Can you draw any connections between the cultural response to the financial crisis this time around and to the Great Depression?
At the moment, it appears that we have avoided a reprise of the Depression. So the circumstances are—fortunately—not comparable.