Elliott J. Gorn: The Meanings of Depression-Era Culture

Roundup: Talking About History

[Elliott J. Gorn is a professor of history and American civilization at Brown University. He is author of Dillinger's Wild Ride: The Year That Made America's Public Enemy Number One, published this month by Oxford University Press.]

... There are major differences between the calamities that became apparent in 1929 and in 2008. After the stock-market crash that ended the 1920s, the economy had more than three years to stagnate, as President Herbert Hoover and Congress did what Republicans now recommend: not much. Our own crisis began with banking, but the financial unwinding was slower back in the 30s, and it was not until the months before President Franklin D. Roosevelt took office that banks began going down in astonishing numbers.

Indeed, the Great Depression took four full years to settle toward its nadir. Only around the time of FDR's inauguration, in March 1933, did unemployment hit that appalling 25-percent mark. There were so many extraordinary things going on after that — the rise of organized labor, the expansion of the social-welfare state under the New Deal, the formation of a powerful American left-wing movement, citizens organizing in the streets — that we sometimes remember the era as the sum of those activist moments.

Yet cultural stasis marked the times at least as much as cultural radicalism. As the historian David Welky, an associate professor of history at Central Arkansas University, observes in his carefully researched book Everything Was Better in America: Print Culture in the Great Depression (University of Illinois Press, 2008), only grudgingly and to a limited extent did powerful media accommodate new ways of looking at the world. Partly that cultural conservatism was motivated by a desire not to lose more audience as the economic crisis deepened. The tried and true was safer than the radical and new in an era of steadily declining sales and advertising revenues.

Moreover, Welky observes, cultural stewards — the likes of Henry Luce, of Time magazine fame, and newspaper moguls like William Randolph Hearst and Robert McCormick — believed it was their duty to bolster the old American faith in success through hard work and steady habits. The headlines might change, new journalists might write the stories, and even innovative genres like comic books might appear, but the message was remarkably consistent: Have confidence, the good times will return, the American way is the path to prosperity, capitalism will rise again. The American Society of Newspaper Editors even passed a resolution on the eve of the New Deal urging newsmen to resist advocating excessive social, economic, or political change.

Still, what we remember most vividly today are the images of poverty from photographers like Walker Evans and Dorothea Lange, the descriptions of mass marches from radical writers like Meridel Le Sueur, proletarian novels of disinheritance like Michael Gold's Jews Without Money, the flood of angry journalism from left-leaning or even Communist newspapers like New Masses, newsreels of strikes as huge new unions formed under the Congress of Industrial Organizations, and public murals of heroic workers painted by federally subsidized artists. Historians and literary scholars have paid considerable attention to those upwellings from the left, and to the less-prominent expressions of the right, such as from the Southern agrarian writers centered at Vanderbilt University, and the radio priest Father Coughlin, with his fascist and ant-Semitic leanings. And with good reason — one of the things that crises like the Great Depression do is to broaden the national discourse, put new ideological and political possibilities on the table, make the unthinkable thinkable....

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