- Modernity and the Great Depression: The Transformation of American Society, 1930–1941 by Kenneth J. Bindas
Bindas’ new book explores the meaning and context of modernity in the 1930s—a period in American history when the Great Depression challenged the role of government and the capitalist economic system, along with almost every other aspect of society. Accepted notions and concepts, such as the very idea of modernity, also came under question during this period. Bindas argues that “the times demanded a new language, new solutions, and new meanings for terms that reflected back on America’s religious traditions” (2). More generally, the book seeks to examine how “the abstract idea of modernism became manifest, replicated, accepted, celebrated, and even worshiped in American society during the Depression era” (8).
The first chapter analyzes the thread of religion as a constitutive element—a mantle or an anathema to the 1930s understanding of modernity—describing how theologians, ministers, and other religious activists and intellectuals interpreted modernity. It demonstrates that words such as modernism and modernity assumed many meanings. A debate stressing the unity of science and faith in the mid-1930s shifted to more secular themes in the decade’s second half. Although in this first chapter, Bindas’ criteria for the selection of his sources (including newspaper and journal articles, books, and other contemporary publications) are unclear, as are the relationships between such terms as modernity, modernism, and modernization, he offers interesting insights into the changing meaning of these central concepts for understanding the 1930s.
Unfortunately, the following chapters do not capitalize on this interest with an intellectual or conceptual history. Chapter 2 offers a summary of the institutional history of two New Deal agencies, the Civilian Conservation Corps (ccc) and the National Youth Administration (nya). Building mainly on the existing literature, this section hardly breaks new ground, instead celebrating the New Deal’s achievements that “guided the nation’s youth to identify and internalize the modern core values and ideals of social commitment and service” (81).Glossing over the major differences in the institutional structures, educational philosophies and practices, and general notions of modernity within the ccc and the nya, the chapter offers only a superficial understanding of how modernity was perceived and negotiated at the time.
Similar criticisms apply to the book’s other three main chapters, dealing with expositions and world fairs, interior decoration, and the [End Page 164] role of music. The rationale for selecting these case studies remains implicit and, even more fundamentally, the book’s notion of modernity is ambiguous throughout. Whereas certain chapters highlight how contemporaries defined and re-defined modernity, other parts of the book use modernity and modernization as heuristic concepts—for instance, in Bindas’ description of young ccc and the nya members as “in many ways the new model army of modernity” (81).
The book’s methodological basis is ambivalent, and its understanding of modernity elusive. Its deliberations are not based on the ideas of such thinkers as Foucault, Bauman, and Scott, which might have helped to create a clearer analytical focus.1 Instead, Bindas refers mainly to Singal, according to whom modernity reflects “a ‘pattern of beliefs and values’ and ‘comprises a culture’” (4).2 As used by Bindas, this definition proves too vague to guide the analysis. A deeper interdisciplinary scrutiny of the literature about modernity and a more precise methodology would have been helpful.
Many books have already been written about the decade of the Great Depression and the way in which Americans came to embrace and reject, to project and negotiate, modernity at the time. Although Bindas’ stated intention at the book’s beginning—to assess the role of religion in this context—has also found a certain degree of coverage already, it could have become the topic of a fascinating monograph. Bindas provides ideas for such a project, but unfortunately, that book remains to be written.
1. See, for example, Michel Foucault (trans. Richard Howard), Madness and Civilization: A History of...