“If it’s true that adversity and hardship can bring out creativity,” said Miles Orvell, professor of English and American studies at Temple University, “then the Great Depression was one of the great creative periods of our time.”
The Great Depression is currently all the rage, with New Yorkers hosting Depression parties, peasant skirts and newsboy caps making a return on the runways, and Netflix rentals of The Grapes of Wrath on the rise. But that 1939 Steinbeck novel is not the only Depression-era work worth taking a second (or a first) look at from our current perspective in what some are calling the New Depression.
Common themes found in the literature of the period are despair, poverty, corruption, strife between labor and management, and the need to work together, noted Orvell. Does any of that sound familiar?
“The period also birthed several new genres, such as the melodrama, which laid the foundation for today’s soap opera, and it brought the detective novel to fulfillment, with the heroic detective stoically dealing with corruption and the underside of life in cities like New York, Los Angles and San Francisco,” he said.
“The literature of the Depression has been largely dismissed from the cultural record,” explained Orvell. “By the post WWII era, the anti-communist and neo-conservative movements looked back at the depression and anything from the left as the work of the ‘communist devil.’ And that has carried over into our own day” he added.
According to Orvell, a current standard survey textbook of American literature devotes just three pages out of 1500 to Depression Era literature. “Yet, the literature of the Depression reflects a critical period in our history and one that had a lasting impact by bringing us social security, roads, post-offices, and banking regulations,” he noted.
If you’re looking to deepen your understanding of how Americans weathered the global financial crisis of the 1930s, follow the links below for Orvell’s “Great Five” books and “Great Five” movies of the Great Depression.
http://www.temple.edu/newsroom/2008_2009/12/stories/fivemovies.htmOrvell’s work demonstrates his broad range of expertise in American culture with a special focus on the Great Depression. He recently edited a collection of Farm Security Administration photographer John Vachon's work (John Vachon’s America: Photographs and Letters from the Depression to World War II, 2003).
His other books include The Real Thing: Imitation and Authenticity in American Culture, 1880-1940 (University of North Carolina Press), which was co-winner in 1990 of the American Studies Association's John Hope Franklin Publication Prize, and After the Machine: Visual Arts and the Erasing of Cultural Boundaries (Mississippi, 1995).
Orvell is Editor in Chief of the Encyclopedia of American Studies Online.
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