- Real Folks: Race and Genre in the Great Depression by Sonnet Retman
In her Real Folks: Race and Genre in the Great Depression, Sonnet Retman examines the representation of “the folk” during the Great Depression. During this period the proper representation of the folk, seen as possessing “the ‘raw stuff’ with which to remake American identity” (1), was fought over by authors from across the political spectrum. In concentrating on representations of the folk in works of the left, in particular the Popular Front left, Retman is doing nothing new. Amongst others, Alan Wald, Barbara Foley, James Smethurst, and Bill V. Mullen have extensively explored the literary and documentary works on the folk produced by authors on the left in this period. Yet Retman’s argument that we have missed the connection between satire and documentary in our representation of the left’s interest in and portrayal of the folk is intriguing and ultimately convincing.
The book analyzes two satirical works, George Schuyler’s Black No More (1931) and Nathanial West’s A Cool Million (1934); two documentary works, the Federal Writers’ Project’s Florida: a Guide to the Southernmost State (1939) and Zora Neale Hurston’s Mules and Men (1935); and one movie, Preston Sturges’s Sullivan’s Travels (1941), as well as offering an afterpiece on the Coen brothers’ O Brother, Where Art Thou? (2000). The basic premise of the book is that together these exemplify a hybrid genre, which “formed a site of theorizing in which conventional epistemologies of the folk were both staged and queried” (4). In other words, these works create and question representations of the folk as authentic and truly American. On top of that premise, Retman presents a dialectic (although she does not use that word) in which on the one hand, the satirical works are [End Page 877] “modernist burlesque” (5), aimed at disturbing our easy acceptance of the folk as authentic rather than produced by their representation in popular culture, and on the other, the documentaries are “signifying ethnography” (5), showing the authors and readers involved in defining and delineating who and what constitutes the folk.
The section on modernist burlesque succeeds in making the troubling works of West and Schuyler understandable once again. Retman is right in arguing that these novels can only be understood if viewed as challenging stereotypical representations of the folk during the Great Depression. Thus Schuyler’s Black No More “takes up the violent manufacture of race in its more hyperbolic form—passing and blackface—to subvert basic epistemological assumptions about race” and “participates in a central conversation about the African American encounter with the shifting racial and gender coordinates of consumer culture in the interwar period” (70). It is in this light that Schuyler’s disturbing novel takes on meaning and can be seen as connected to the work of others writing in this period. While Retman is careful to limit such connections to the works under discussion and straightforward New Deal documentaries, I would argue that this could and should be extended to such works as Richard Wright’s Native Son and James T. Farrell’s Studs Lonigan trilogy, which also, although not in such a violent fashion, work on challenging the constitution of race and folk.
Retman’s argument about West’s A Cool Million as a sardonic twist on the popular Horatio Alger stories allows us to see the shocking scenes of mutilation and rape as performing the deconstruction of the rags-to-riches model. Particularly powerful is Retman’s analysis of the “one hundred per centum American” whorehouse where West’s heroine Betty ends up (94), showing how “West’s ersatz whorehouse sells America a nostalgia for no period in particular, rather it sells nostalgia itself. He demonstrates in the crassest terms how retroactive conceptions of the preindustrial past emanate from the corporate capitalist present” (95). Thus the construction of the folk, and indeed the authentically American, is shown to be a product of the capitalist present and, in this novel, of the fascist political movement. Yet, while Retman is...