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The American 1930s: A Literary History Paperback – Bargain Price, March 23, 2009
This month's Book With Buzz: "Little Fires Everywhere" by Celeste Ng
From the bestselling author of Everything I Never Told You, a riveting novel that traces the intertwined fates of the picture - perfect Richardson family and the enigmatic mother and daughter who upend their lives. See more
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From The New Yorker
In this literary history, Conn offers a corrective to the assumption that the Depression decade was dominated culturally by leftist aesthetics and politics. Organized as a series of case studies, the book reveals fascinating vicissitudes of art and history. In a section on frontier fiction, a genre with a long lineage, Conn notes that it developed �edges� in the thirties, its self-reliant heroes newly resonant with a nation of �diminished� men. Though the thirties� best-sellers reflected �the racism that continued to deform� society (�Gone with the Wind� appeared in 1936), it was also the decade when �the pseudo-scientific bases on which racism was grounded were decisively confounded,� as students of Franz Boas, including Zora Neale Hurston and Ruth Benedict, rose to prominence. Taken together, the studies powerfully demonstrate that, despite the strain of the Depression, the United States in the thirties was �a place of enormous ideological and imaginative complexity.�
"In this literary history, Conn offers a corrective to the assumption that the Depression decade was dominated culturally by leftist aesthetics and politics. Organized as a series of case studies, the book reveals fascinating vicissitudes of art and history."
The New Yorker
Top customer reviews
The American writers of the previous depression knew this lesson. Their pens were divining rods searching for our national well source. How timely for Dr. Conn to bring us back to this generation, following that lost generation of WWI. I had always thought of them as the avant garde, iconoclastic bringers of a new epoch. What had I missed?
Dr. Conn starts with five pages of "a cultural and political timeline". No big deal, but handy, as it gives an international frame of reference. He sets out a history of this period as an introductory backdrop. He presents a particularly stinging continuity of American behavior from that depression to this, i.e., the victims blame themselves. Sure, there is talk of the causes of that economic failure, but finally, each citizen blames only himself. One young woman says "I am just no good." These disconnects are puzzling and daunting. Evidently, we considered our depression of the 30s more akin to the dust bowl or some other sort of natural disaster. Americans are loathe to blame authority for stupidity, greed or arrogance, so we take the burden on our own backs instead.
Dr. Conn sees the resolution for holding these contradictions as looking to the past for what he terms "a usable past". Rather than Ford's "History is bunk.", Americans saw history as salve and touchstone. To relegate the 30s as "the red decade" is to loose the tremendous grit and resolve of Americans in hardship. It is to lose the complexity and the very truths of those mean years.
I like Dr. Conn's treatment of the 20s, because both the Great War and the 20's are profoundly different and so helpful before he begins his central discussion. Whether or not you buy into his argument, you will appreciate his scholarship and enjoy his study.
But you must at least consider his argument that the 1930s found American writers looking to the past to deal with the terrible present. I thought I had a fair grasp of the writing of this period until I waded into his listing of prize winners and best sellers, not only in fiction, but in all categories. I have read a mere thirty-eight of them. He says it best: "A number of texts discussed in this book, apart from their own contribution to American diversity, are worth recovering and reading on their own terms. ... History should take some account of books that were actually read."
Even if his premise leaves you unconvinced, his book is a fine reference work at the very least. More likely, you will enjoy his central chapters enough to read more of these works. I have a load of new reading to do for sure, but he is also sending me back for another reading of 'Our Town" because of his savory discussion. Scholarly as it is, this book is never plodding or ponderous. Rather, Dr. Conn breathes fresh breath into our world nearly eighty years past.
The book's seven chapters divide Depression-era literature into topics: books that lament the depravity of World War I or the freewheeling 1920s, those that document the socio-economic crisis of the 1930s and seek its causes in the past, historical fiction, biography and autobiography, the Southern Renaissance that both mythologized and condemned the region's past as racial tensions increased, Black American literature, and leftist writers who tried to place the past in service of a proletarian revolution. It's not clear to me if the literature of the 1930s talked about the past any more than the books of any other decade, as I have limited means to compare them. But there were an unusual number of biographies published in that decade, and, when a culture is in crisis, people do tend to look backward for an explanation or, alternatively, for encouragement.
Some literature of the 1930s doesn't fit into those categories. Hard-boiled crime literature, which had been around since the 1920s but fed on the urban violence of the 1930s, is conspicuously absent. Hammett, Chandler, Cain, and Woolrich were influential and popular writers, and their entire genre is absent from this study. Conn is limiting himself to literature that drew on American's history for its themes, which is fine -just don't take this book as a comprehensive study of 1930s American literature. Long-forgotten novels and non-fiction are discussed side by side with "classics" and books by still-renowned authors, so "The American 1930s" is a great source for a pre-war reading list. The author lists Pulitzer Prize winners and bestsellers 1930-1940 in the Appendix too.