In the depths of the Depression, a year full of complex, multi-layered American moments.
Not to get all metaphorical on you, but American Studies is really quite a bit like Pringles—once you pop the lip off of this interdisciplinary approach to our history and culture, it’s pretty hard to stop peeling off those chips. A more traditional historical perspective on 1936 in America would, it seems to me, focus pretty fully on the Depression—its resurgence in and after this year, Roosevelt’s continued efforts to combat it on a variety of fronts (aided by his sweeping reelection in November), and so on. Such an approach would certainly touch upon the year’s completion of a number of significant public works projects, from Hoover Dam to New York’s Triborough Bridge. Perhaps it would engage with Dorothea Lange’s simple and eloquent 1936 photograph “Migrant Mother.” And it might even note that it was in this year that James Agee and Walker Evans received the Fortune magazine assignment that would culminate, five years later, in Let Us Now Praise Famous Men (1941).
But an American Studies approach would take us well beyond such overt historical connections, considering many other aspects of the year to which we might connect the Depression in more subtle but no less meaningful ways. There’s the release of Charlie Chaplin’s masterpiece Modern Times, a film that examines and satirizes ideals of efficiency and productivity that (for example) could be seen as having contributed to a shift away from certain labor forces and communities of working Americans. Or there are the debuts of Life magazine and of Billboard’s first pop music chart—both of which could be read either as celebrations of the resiliency of American communities and cultures or as escapes from the Depression’s harsh realities (or, of course, as connected to entirely distinct histories or narratives). Or there are the dueling Southern and American historical novels, Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind and William Faulkner’s Absalom, Absalom!: the first largely embracing mythologies that could help Americans remember that “tomorrow is another day,” and becoming one of America’s best-selling works; the second attempting to force its audiences to confront some of our darkest realities, and selling hardly any copies at all.
Moreover, an American Studies perspective would help us remember that no single historical event or issue—not even one as sweeping as the Depression—ever monopolizes our national experience of a particular year. For example, two of 1936’s most significant American events happened across the Atlantic, and were connected to very different political, social, and international histories and communities. At the year’s Summer Olympics in Germany, Jesse Owens famously defied Hitler’s racially supremacist predictions and captured four gold medals, becoming one of the nation’s most unifying and inspiring athletes in the process. And no less inspiring in their own way were the thousands of Americans who formed the Abraham Lincoln Brigade, the volunteer force who set sail for Spain to join with the forces resisting Franco and fascism in the Spanish Civil War. While the US’s official military entry into World War II would not come until late in 1941, such events illustrate just how fully connected America was to Europe throughout the Depression years leading up to the war.
As with each of these years, lots more to think about and say—and thus for us American Studiers to do! More this weekend,
PS. What do you think?
3/2 Memory Day nominee: Theodore Seuss Geisel, the son and grandson of Springfield (Mass.) brewers whose The Cat in the Hat (1957) remains perhaps the single most influential children’s book of all time, and whose long and complex American career began with World War II propaganda cartoons and culminated in a gently satirical work about aging in America.