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Popular Culture During the Great Depression Previous Next
Digital History ID 3452


The popular culture of the 1930s was fraught with contradictions. It was, simultaneously, a decade of traditionalism and of modernist experimentation; of sentimentality and "hard-boiled" toughness; of longings for a simpler past and fantastic dreams of the future.

It was a decade in which many Americans grew increasingly interested in tradition and folk culture. Under the leadership of Alan Lomax, the Library of Congress began to collect folk songs. Plus, folk singers like Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger attracted large audiences.

Henry Ford, who had revolutionized the American landscape through the mass production of cars, devoted his energies and fortune to a new project: Greenfield Village, a collection of historic homes and artifacts located near Detroit. At the same time, the Rockefeller family restored colonial Williamsburg in Virginia.

Many prominent intellectuals saw modern society as excessively individualistic and fragmented. In response, they looked to the past. Eleven leading white southern intellectuals, known as the Southern Agrarians, issued a manifesto, I'll Take My Stand, urging a return to an agrarian way of life. Another group of distinguished intellectuals known as the New Humanists, led by Irving Babbitt and Paul Elmer More, extolled classical civilization as a bulwark against modern values. One of the decade's leading social critics was Lewis Mumford. In volumes like Technics and Civilization (1934), Mumford examined how the values of a pre-machine culture could be blended into modern capitalist civilization.

And yet, for all the emphasis on tradition, the 1930s was also a decade in which modernism in architecture and the arts became increasingly pronounced. Martha Graham developed American modern dance. William Faulkner experimented with "stream-of-consciousness" in novels like As I Lay Dying (1930). John Dos Passos's avant garde U.S.A. trilogy combined newspaper headlines, capsule biographies, popular song lyrics, and fiction to document the disintegration of Depression-era society. The architect R. Buckminster Fuller and the industrial designer Walter Dorwin Teague employed curves and streamlining to give their projects a modern appearance. Nothing better illustrated the concern with the future than the 1939 New York World's Fair: the self-proclaimed "Fair of the Future" promised to show fairgoers "the world of tomorrow."

Beset by deep anxieties and insecurities, many Americans in the 1930s hungered for heroes. Popular culture offered many: superheroes like Superman and Batman, who appeared in the new comic books of the '30s; tough, hard-boiled detectives in the fiction of Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler; and radio heroes like "The Lone Ranger" or "The Shadow."

The Depression was, in certain respects, a powerful unifying experience. A new phrase, "the American way of life," entered the American vernacular. Public opinion polls and statistical surveys that gave the public a better sense of what the "average American" thought, voted, and ate also emerged. The new photojournalism that appeared in new magazines like Life helped to create a common frame of reference. Yet regional, ethnic, and class differences occupied an important place in the literature of the 1930s. The great novels of the decade successfully combined social criticism and rich detail about the facts of American life in specific social settings. In his novels of fictional Yoknapatawpha County, William Faulkner explored the traditions and history of the South. James T. Farrell's Studs Lonigan trilogy (1932-1935) analyzed the impact of urban industrial decay on Catholic youth, while Henry Roth's Call It Sleep (1934) analyzed the assimilation of Jewish youth to American life. John Steinbeck's Grapes of Wrath (1939) examined the struggle of a poor Oklahoma farming family migrating to California. Richard Wright's classic Native Son (1940) analyzed the ways that poverty and prejudice in Chicago drove a young African American to crime.

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