The Great Decade
A Review of David Eldridge’s American Culture in the 1930s
David Eldridge teaches American history and American cinema at University of Hull. He has published major volumes on the cultural history of the 1930s and Hollywood’s construction of history, along with papers on subjects as diverse as the New Deal’s Federal Theatre Project and Bret Easton Ellis’s American Psycho.
BY GRACE HAN
David Eldridge thoroughly analyzes all the gravitating moments in the 1930s, and the effects on American Culture of the time. Even though the 1930s were well known for being the Depression Decade, they were also known as the Red Decade, New Deal Era, Fervent Years, Age of Roosevelt, Age of CIO, Fervent Years, Anger Decade, Years of Protest, New Ear of Nationalism, and arguably The Great Age of the Novel.1 These defining characteristics were rooted in the Depression, drawing from the intellectual, political and cultural responses to the Great Depression.2 Eldridge provides an insightful overview of the major cultural forms in literature and drama, music and radio, film and photography, art and design, and federal government in the development of the arts. Throughout the book Eldridge weaves a connection among the poets, photographers, composers, novelists, dramatist, film-makes and designers who often worked together in both their artistic and political commitments.3 While discussing the variety of each form, Eldridge also expounds on concerns about radicalism, nationalism, regionalism and contemporary concerns about the cultural relativism.
Some call the 1930s the great age of the novel, even though the number of authors was halved and drama productions were scarcely publicized.4 Literature became a weapon in the fight between the Marxist social realism with proletarian literature as fiction and drama as their fuel.5 Critics of Marxists described Marxism as selling a person’s soul to capitalism and pursuit of money, whereas proletarian literature captured ideological obstacles and dedicated their works to the workers revolution. The John Reed Club, a communist movement, also supported the worker revolution. Left wing poets followed the modernist approach of incorporating movies, advertising and photography into their art to make radical political statements. The most popular documentaries exposed the experiences of America’s people, telling the stories of immigrants and their first impressions of America. From the adversity of Depression there were mixed results from the authors. Some writers studied in different areas of America while living there and gave voice to the different American cultures which had not been heard before. Giving a voice to America meant giving voice to the minority, which at times focused on women, who raged against being viewed as a possession to men at the time. Other writers exposed suffering while others were more of an escapist, producing novels to give relief to people in misery with humor through comic books instead of reminding the people of their daily troubles.6,7 Escapism can be “escaping” through romance stories, or stories of simpler times. However, famous pieces of work of the time were comic books and detective fictions like the Nancy Drew series. Critics of the escapism method believed bitterness and anger would come to those who bought into such cheap ideas and would result in violence when societies placed the pursuit of attainable for the pursuit of happiness. Others began to criticize the Americans Dream as naïve and as being a melting pot. Some works suggested Americans were beaten psychologically and others suggested Americans were dignified in the face of adversity. More importantly, the writers’ number one goal was not to become a best-seller or become famous, but to spread awareness of the problems at the time. Like writers, photographers captured images though photos, instead of words. Photography was a strong protest to circumstances of stricken Americans, capturing humanitarian causes and showing them visual to others.8 Photography was either pictorialism–soft focused images, or straight–precise, sharp, crisp and glossy. Unfortunately, the best known photographs weren’t for humanitarian causes but glamour portraits or landscape shots. Besides the variety of different type of photographers,’ their most significant purpose was to fix and show the whole aspect of our society. The movie productions also tried to same purpose as the photographers. New Deal’s positive spirit changed audiences’ entertainment to make it seem possibilities for progress seemed to be renewed. Hollywood was general viewed as escapist, always entertaining people with fantasies which comprised of happy ending. Critics claimed escape was what Hollywood did best: distract people from reality needed to be faced.9 On the other hand, some said Hollywood was a medicine for distracting the depression people were going through. Whether Hollywood was an escapist or not, most of the films released a moral message which was implanted in the American Culture.
Radio was the most memorable cultural movement in the 1930s. Radio introduced music, soap operas, theatrical performances, and news into the homes of families’ living rooms. Music artists had it surprisingly rough even before the Depression. Many of them were out of work even before the depression, and things only improved for them when the prohibition was improved for them to perform in clubs. From the radio, music artist aimed to refine American music and believed the right way to do that was through folk music. Folk music was filled with American cultural roots and rejected European influences which degraded American originality in music.10 African American music was toned down by American influence, and made unauthentic African American music. For example, swing, which originated from jazz, was heavily toned down to place a mass appeal originating from jazz. Radio, while providing wild entertainment such as music and love soap opera, also in some way promoted capitalism by promoting different advertisement for listeners to buy. Even Roosevelt used it to promote himself to the American people. Roosevelt used the radio in his “Fireside Chats” to create intimacy between broadcaster and audience, seeming to talk with each person, one on one.17 News, instead of being delivered through slower means of newspapers, was instantly reported into homes, often delivered in the form of on sight coverage. Radio became a huge influence to America giving broadcasts the great powers to persuade and promote through propaganda, and beliefs. Radio communicated to people by making them listen, art communicated with people by making them see. Reproduction of art was becoming easy because of the technologies of cinema and photography. A copy of artwork soon lost its originality, but at the same time was allowed it to be enjoyed by many who could not afford to before. Many art movements called for artwork which did not come from New York or European influences, but American rural life. In an attempt to attract buyers to trust manufactures, advertisers enhanced product appearance. The depression gave urgency to the artist desire to connect with people who were going through the economic crisis.11 Artists captured images of lynching, oppressive working conditions, sweat shops, and other urgent social problems often.12 Regionalists gave art back the ordinary folks to connect deeper with the American people, but at the same time were guilty of being escapist. The 1930s were the age of Art Deco, comprised of a hint of modernity and streamlining. Streamlining improved necessary items people used and promoted the items by creating an image of purpose and grace decorated with simplicity. An important thing about Art Deco was that it combined visual and functional simplification and rejected European Deco. Spectacular achievements of American art and design were greatly influenced by talented immigrants from poor living condition in Europe. A good design for everyone sought to establish an American way by developing stylish products sold at reasonable prices.13
To help support the artistic and literate people in America t through the New Deal, Roosevelt set up the Federal Music Project, Federal Theater, Federal Writers Projects, Federal Arts Project, Public Works of Art Project, and U.S. Treasury’s Section of Painting. The Federal Music Project organized groups offering free classes and set up music therapy projects. The whole project conducted 168 symphonies. The Federal Theater was widely popular, with over 30 million shows, but the shows were so thinly spread across the country that it almost died out. The Federal Writer Project had over 1200 publications; one famous work was American Guide Series. Additionally the different projects gave new voices to African Americans, Native American, immigrants, ethnic minorities, share croppers, blue collar workers and the unemployed. The government favored the Federal Art Project more than any other project due to the fact Federal Art Project supported the government the most out of all the other projects. Federal Art project produced over 600 easel works, and Public Works of the Art Project produced over 1100 murals. Every project had to depend on its own creativity and vision to compensate for the lack of talent they were given. Thorough the limitations each project had, New Deal attempted to give each region a chance to develop its own cultural expression and emerging by diversity and forming unity.14 Federal Projects aimed to help an artist who could not make a living simply by singing, dancing, acting, or writing. Although the New Deal may have appeared to be helping out unfortunate artist by proclaiming the vision for American was to be diverse and united simultaneously this was misleading. Roosevelt, however, used these projects to control the public’s way of thinking. Which then lead to the bringing the cultural democracy, which then encouraged Americans to give voice to their own artistry, particularly those who have been underpresnted.15 Creative art soon lead propaganda for World War II and its war purposes.
Eldridge repetitively emphasizes connection between different cultural forms: literature and drama, film and photography, radio and music, art and deign through radicalism, nationalism, and regionalism. Literature and drama in the 1930s pulled the most various directions at once: political radicalism vs. escapism; literary modernism and theatricalism vs. realism; region vs. nation, man vs. nature; and nostalgia vs. hope for the future.16 Film and photography both captured scenes of America’s social problems, and producing new formulas of debates by showing the American people problems that needed to be fixed. Radio and music shaped America culture through providing different genres of music, live news coverage, entertaining soap operas, advertisement, and connection with FDR. Art and design created objects to be attracting or dependable looking while using the Art Deco and streamlining as techniques. Overall, every cultural form was affected by two reactions to the Great Depression escapist or giving voice to the people unrepresented. The Great Depression, by far, played the most important role in shaping American culture of the 1930s. To Eldridge it was the time when poets, photographers, composers, novelists, dramatist, film-makers and designers worked together in their artistic and political commitments.18 Different styles of artist were not actively aware of each other, but they all worked together to promote and expand their skills while having stable political commitments to either Marist, social realism, proletarian, and left-wings.
Elbridge recognizes the criticism of the New Deal, but even through all the criticism he still strongly believes New Deal achievements imprinted on the political economy of the United States, overpowers all of the critics. All artists reached for the same goal, which was to empower America, and represent all the different voices of America. 1930s was the pre-war culture crating aberrant moment where politic used arts to promote themselves, writers went left, painters, musicians, and photographers abandoned creative art for social-minded work. Eldridge wrote this book in 2008, a time where America was at an economic low. He strongly believed every decade is gaining more selfish and forgetting the brutal lesion learned in the Depression.19
American Culture in the 1930s gives vivid, wide-ranging perspective to all aspect of the culture in the 1930s. It walks the reader though the maze of American Culture explains the cause and effect in which artist works was influenced by the Great Depression. Its research is astounding; it cites a multiple sources in order to giving different opinions of every topic covered and gives helpful case studies of practitioners of the decade. It focuses on numerous themes: modernity, commerce, freedom, power, resistance, community, race, class, gender, sexuality, internationalism, war, technology and popular culture for each topic researched.20 Surplus of variety of themes confuse the reader, leaving them to not fully understand any of the themes. The sentences are at times confusing, giving no transition to one idea to the next. The book goes into beautiful detail over art culture in the 1930s, but ignores any other types of cultures which shaped up people’s everyday life. Overall the book covers many themes, but only analyzes the art culture, and nothing more.
Politically and economically, Elbridge believes the New Deal as well as Franklin D. Roosevelt, whom he even compared to being superman, was the turning point the Great Depression.21 FDR gave support to the country as a whole, providing a number different reforms, gave support to people to variety of people such as farmers, immigrants, and the unemployed. FDR created Federal Projects to promote American art and culture which then reciprocated and promoted the goverment.22 FDR tried to support capitalism, but at the same time put American back into its movement of going forward. Music, films, dramas, and literature provided escape from the miseries of depression by boosting the people’s confidence and hope. The economic depression brought the country to go back into Americans roots and refine the American culture by cutting off all European influences. Great Depression kept people from becoming to selfish and reminds us not to forget the brutal lesion learned in the 1930s.
The 1920s made American lifestyle too comfortable and unproductive; the Great Depression was a good wake up call for America. From the fattening of America in the 1920s, American eventually became overpowered by European influences. During the Great Depression, America went into its roots to bring back folk culture which expressed America culture. Refining the American culture was one step into progress, but bringing back the fiery sprit of America was more difficult. FDR launched many reforms and projects to give a hand to those in need. People mainly wanted to escape from their problems by watching comedies, or reading humorous books. Humor brought little joy in people’s sorrow of depression, and slowly gained optimism which people lost before. The Great Depression of the is a huge impact on American today, because presently America is going through a recession it makes people look back at that past to see what we need to do now to more forward in the future.
Overall, David Eldridge provides mountain worth of research which is eye-catching and an appreciation for the 1930s. The connection between literature and drama, music and radio, film and photography, art and design, and analyzed though and though, while giving a wide-ranging perspective of each type of artists’ work. As easily seen, Eldridge is a great admirer of the New Deal and is awed by the amount of affect that took place in the 1930s by the Great Depression. Eldridge spent most of his life studying the American culture and is now highly knowable of all the details in the 1930s. Many varieties are written in this decade more than any other decade due to the fact all of people of American reacted differently to the depression and voiced it differently. Some of the people choose to escape problems they were going though by comical relief and thought it was the best way to boost America spirit. Whereas others strongly voiced all the social and economic woes; hoping to promote a change among the people. On the other hand the depression had been intolerable, and Americans began to find hope where illusion provided promise for the future. There is no denying much of American culture foundation was built on the Federal Projects—which also saved talented artist from working degraded jobs such as construction working or demeaning jobs. In this decade the people of American began to reject European influence and created its own kind of culture independent of any other country but themselves. In the low hopes and doubt for a future, America began to search within itself to bring true Americans flavor by redefining themselves not by European standards but by theirs, thereby producing the legendary American culture of the 1930s.
1: Eldridge, David. American Culture in the 1930s. Edinburgh: Martin Halliwell, 2008. 3,4, 21.
Grace Han is a junior at Irvine High School. Besides being in AP United States History, she balances her time with studying, running, singing, and church. She hopes to major in Education with an emphasis on Intercultural Studies and become a teacher in foreign mission sites.
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