- Modernity and the Great Depression: The Transformation of American Society, 1930–1941 by Kenneth J. Bindas
Modernity and modernism, as historians have understood at least since Richard Brown published his seminal Modernization: The Transformation of American Life, 1600–1865 (New York, 1976), are more than temporal concepts. Modern not only is synonymous with now but also conveys values and principles that help societies interpret the world around them. Historian Kenneth J. Bindas draws heavily from contemporary magazines, newspapers, and other printed sources to argue that the Great Depression marked the zenith of modernism in America. Unlike historians who stress the sociocultural continuities between the 1930s and previous decades, Bindas maintains that the economic collapse created space for a new worldview called modernism, which preached that rationalism, order, planning, and progress were the keys to solving contemporary problems and ushering in a brighter future.
This brand of modernism had both secular and sacred roots. It emerged from the technological advances of the early twentieth century, the efficiency movement epitomized by Frederick Taylor, the writings of technocratic thinkers, and the ideas of liberal Christians seeking up-to-date methods of perfecting society. Ultimately, modernism became a kind of civic religion, steeped in a language of salvation—as evidenced by, for example, Franklin D. Roosevelt's appropriation of biblical metaphors in his first inaugural address—that was fixated on improving this world rather than accessing the next one.
Bindas acknowledges that modernism is a slippery concept that meant different things to different people and was more of a zeitgeist than a fixed set of principles. He links the search for rationalism, order, planning, and progress to four areas of 1930s America: the New Deal, the world's fairs, interior decoration, and music. The Civilian Conservation Corps, for example, inculcated young Americans with the belief that centralized direction could transform virgin nature into organized, useful, and communally beneficial spaces. World's fairs highlighted the social importance of rational-minded scientists whose research paved the way toward a future without shortages or suffering.
Modernism's grip loosened in the 1960s and 1970s, in part because of the return of prosperity. Americans watching their new televisions in suburban living rooms grew suspicious of modernist values such as community and centralized planning. Moreover, modernism became a victim of its own success. Americans had been told that modernism would create a utopia. When that failed to materialize and as the protests of the 1960s exposed lingering fissures in the country's social fabric, the disillusioned turned inward and sought meaning in individualism, laissez-faire conservatism, New Age spiritualism, and other antimodern philosophies. What was once revolutionary had become stale and square.
Bindas's thesis is compelling, and his well-drawn examples point to the importance of the loose conglomeration of concepts called modernism. While this reviewer appreciates his focused treatment, one wishes he had expanded his exploration in a few additional directions. A more thorough analysis of [End Page 207] modernism in Hollywood film seems crucial to the larger picture. Although Bindas briefly addresses the modernist bent of cowboy movies, the topic seems ripe for further discussion. Moreover, while he astutely shows how modernism repackaged traditionalist ideas for a new generation, a deeper treatment of how modernism coexisted with the various traditionalist movements of the age would have been welcome. Finally, the author implies connections between capitalism, consumerism, and modernism; the world's fairs that promoted reason and order also sold products and enhanced brand awareness. Modernism, it seems, was at times as much a business venture as a social blueprint. A clearer demonstration of how these forces intermingled and of the ramifications of those interactions might shed light on the tensions that animated the modernist impulse. Nevertheless, Bindas's provocative and imaginative interpretation of a crucial moment in the development of contemporary America is both thoughtful and thought provoking, opening new avenues of inquiry for future historians.