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  • The American 1930s: A Literary History
  • Harvey Teres
The American 1930s: A Literary History. Peter Conn. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009. xiv + 265. $81.00 (cloth); $27.99 (paper).

Before long the 1930s will be three-quarters of a century past, but that will not likely dim its memory much, for every time the American economy descends the crisis-ridden decade ascends. The economic downturn of the past few years is a case in point. It has aroused renewed awareness of the Depression and the efforts to end it, not to mention the way the victims coped with unemployment, foreclosures, failed investments, lack of health insurance, and their own personal depression. Indeed there has been one small group that has never taken its eyes off this persevering decade—the company of left academics who have played reveille thousands of mornings in America with the music of 1930s militancy. To the old anthologies of the New Masses and the Anvil have been added such harbingers as Cary Nelson’s Repression and Recovery 1989, Paula Rabinowitz’s Labor & Desire 1991, Barbara Foley’s Radical Representations 1993, Constance Coiner’s Better Red 1995, Michael Denning’s The Cultural Front 1996, and Alan Wald’s Exiles From a Future Time 2002. Only in the last of The American 1930s’ seven chapters does Conn discuss literary radicalism, and there rather selectively (he neglects, for instance, the important differences between the proletarian literary movement and the Popular Front, as well as Partisan Review’s successful battle with political and literary Stalinism).

In the other chapters Conn discusses some of the decade’s more popular historical novels, biographies and autobiographies, Southern writing, African American writing, and visual art. The overarching concern throughout is not with future-oriented agendas and movements but rather with the preoccupation with the past. This above all, according to Conn, allows for an exploration of the decade’s “rich heterogeneity.” Conn’s decision to organize his material around this issue certainly yields interesting insights as well as some unusual choices when it comes to the books he discusses. The great virtue of his approach is that the intensity of feeling for the past, as distinct from particular interpretations, does not distinguish left from right, white from black, or high from low culture. Conn’s purview widens as a result, and takes in the everyday cultural experiences of a broader range of Americans than most other accounts of the 1930s.

Conn hastens to remind his reader that the severity and duration of the Depression notwithstanding, most Americans were not unemployed and did not lose their homes, those with jobs were better off than they were in the 1920s, spending on cars and recreation rose dramatically, commercial air traffic increased twelve-fold, and life-expectancy increased by six and a half years. Conn does not follow Warren Susman and others in arguing that the 1930s was essentially a conservative [End Page 955] decade, but he does encourage readers to understand that literary and cultural politics cannot be procrustean when the good people of Rochester, Indiana are afforded the same respect and solicitude as Alabama sharecroppers. “Literary history,” Conn remarks, “should take at least some account of books that were actually read, and were admired in their generation” (7).

And so Conn devotes many pages to discussing once popular but long-forgotten books that illuminate 1930s attitudes toward history—books like William March’s powerful anti-war novel Company K 1933; Herbert Gorman’s Suzy 1934, unusual because it was a World War I novel with a female protagonist; Ayer Barnes’ Pulitzer Prize winning novel Years of Grace 1930; Clyde Brion Davis’ The Great American Novel 1938, a faux-documentary account of the three decades leading up to the 1930s as reported by a journalist working on a novel. Conn comments on a couple dozen historical novels set during the Revolutionary War era, the Civil War and Reconstruction era, the fin-de-siècle (he devotes several interesting pages to the seventy-two year old George Santayana’s first, and only, novel The Last Puritan [1936]). A full chapter, “Backward glances: Biography and autobiography” (sic) looks at the decade’s treatments of the founding...


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