GLS 536: Cultural Images of America During the Great Depression
Instructor: Mike Wentworth
Note: The following course description is based on the course syllabus for the course offering in spring 2006.
The Great Depression in America (roughly speaking, 1929-1941) was one of the singular, defining moments in American history that had a profound impact upon immediate and succeeding generations of Americans. Consistent with the interdisciplinary orientation of the graduate liberal studies program at UNCW, our course will examine the Great Depression from a variety of disciplinary perspectives, ranging from literature, photography, popular music, and popular film to sociology, transportation geography, climatology, agronomy, politics, economics, public health, and education. We will likewise focus upon a diverse range of texts, including fiction, memoir, oral history, public history, letters, travel narrative, newspaper journalism, photojournalism, children’s literature, young adult literature, and historical and sociological studies.
One of the most devastating effects of the Great Depression is the fact that many Americans found the ideological and cultural rug “pulled out from under their feet.” As such, the pervasive catastrophe of the Great Depression challenged, if not in fact refuted, various values and beliefs that presumably inform “the American dream,” not the least of which is the notion of “material success,” as modeled most memorably by Ben Franklin, which holds that industry and frugality will inevitably lead to material prosperity. The consequences of such a personally and nationally debilitating catastrophe often involved a sense of shame, guilt, insecurity, despair, and desperation, which, in turn, often let to violence, whether internalized or externally “ventilated.” On the other hand, the Great Depression led to a sense of cooperation, “togetherness,” sharing, and resourcefulness. Whether or not history does, in fact, repeat itself, the precipitating and destabilizing causes of the Great Depression and the resulting traumatic effects seem strikingly and uneasily familiar in current American life. Aside from the tragic aftermath of the most recent hurricane season and the most severe drought in the American Southwest since the “dust bowl days,” there is a pervasive anxiety in American society regarding health and retirement benefits, economic outsourcing and downsizing, the impending collapse/bankruptcy of the American automotive industry, poverty, homelessness, a deteriorating trust in government, and the escalating cost of higher education even though recent college graduates can expect to earn less than their parents, who, in some cases, due to pressing and unexpected economic exigencies, may find themselves working part-time at McDonalds or WalMart.
Technically, we, of course, are not living in the 1930s. Many of us enjoy a more sustainable quality of life compared to our familial predecessors in the 30s, current technological developments, though in some cases anticipated in the 30s (e.g., television) dwarf the technology of the 30s, not to mention the fact that such current concerns as global terrorism, dwindling fuel resources, stem cell research, and “gay marriage” would have been alien to the 30s, and, of course, FDR and George W. Bush, Jr. are markedly different in regard to their legislative and executive concerns and agendas. Still, the sense of unease, uncertainty, confusion, and a less than sanguine view of the future experienced by so many in contemporary America would seem to mirror, psychologically and emotionally if not necessarily circumstantially, the defining temperament of the 30s. History, of course, may very well be viewed as circumstantially relative, though political theorists of the Enlightenment, on the one hand, and Herbert Spenser, Friedrich Engels, and Karl Marx, on the other hand, might argue otherwise, and truth to tell, I’m not a trained historian or political scientist. But whatever such a qualifying concession, beyond providing a multidisciplinary study of the Great Depression, since individual disciplines ultimately provide only one fractional “piece of the puzzle,” our course should invite the identification and consideration of various parallels, judiciously contextualized and negotiated, between the past and the present to determine whether, in fact, “the past is prologue.”
We will begin the semester by reading selected interviews from Studs Terkel’s Hard Times: An Oral History of the Great Depression, which should provide us with an intimately personal, while at the same time socially comprehensive, “reading” of the Great Depression across such variables as age, gender, race, class, socio-economic status, geography, and professions/occupations. We will then move on to a comparative analysis of the impact of the Great Depression in rural and urban America by reading two “farm novels,” one of which is set in the American South and the other of which is set in the American Midwest—Erskine Caldwell’s Tobacco Road and Josephine Johnson’s Now in November—and two “urban” novels—William Kennedy’s Ironweed (set in Albany, New York) and A. E. Hotchner’s King of the Hill (a “coming of age” novel set in St. Louis). We will next focus on various strategies of adaptation in response to the economic devastation of the Great Depression, beginning with Horace McCoy’s They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? (an exhausting and harrowing fictional account of a marathon dance—a popular form of public entertainment and personal survival during the Great Depression) and then move on to yet another survival strategy—hitting the open road, which more often than not meant “hard travelin’”—as depicted in such texts as Edward Anderson’s novel Hungry Men, Woody Guthrie’s autobiographical travel memoir Bound for Glory, and various of Woody’s folk ballads. Along similar lines, we will focus on the transitory migration and eventual resettlement of the many dispossessed and displaced farmers from the American South, Southwest, and Midwest though a close “reading” of Arnold Rothstein’s The Depression Years (a compilation of photographs commissioned by the Farm Security Administration), Dorothea Lange’s An American Exodus: A Record of American Erosion (another FSA-commissioned photographic project), both of which include some of the most poignant and eloquent photographs in the history of American photography, and by reading John Steinbeck’s The Harvest Gypsies: On the Road to The Grapes of Wrath, a series of newspaper articles that inspired Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath. The most extended topic of our course will focus on the impact of the Great Depression on American youth at the time. To this end, in addition to selections from Dear Mrs. Roosevelt: Letters from Children of the Great Depression, we will read Jerry Stanley’s Children of the Dust Bowl: The True Story of the School at Weedpatch Camp, selections from Errol Lincoln Uys’ Riding the Rails: Teenagers on the Move during the Great Depression, as well as a children’s book, Kate Lied’s Potato: A Tale from the Great Depression, a young adult novel, Karen Hesse’s Out of the Dust, and E. L. Doctorow’s novel World’s Fair (a coming of age novel set against the backdrop of the 1939 New York World’s Fair). To provide a retrospective assessment of the Great Depression from a contemporary vantage point, we will conclude the semester by reading Bill Ganzel’s Dust Bowl Descent and selections from Geoffrey O’Gara’s A Long Way Home: In the Footsteps of the WPA Writers.
Reading with a Purpose
I hope to make this class as casual and informal as possible. While I will provide a sense of guidance and structure, what matters most in the course is your thoughtful and meaningful interaction with and response to the assigned readings. The course will thus be slanted more toward informal discussion than formal lectures. To facilitate such discussion, I would emphasize the importance of reading critically; if you haven’t already developed the habit, learn to read with a pencil or pen—underlining key points/passages, raising questions, noting personal insights and perceptions, and identifying illuminating cross-references with other texts, the current arena of local, national, and international affairs, other academic courses you have taken, and, as relevant, your own personal history and experience.
You will be expected to attend class on a regular basis. Should you miss more than one class, your final grade will be affected. More specifically, for each additional absence, beyond the one allowed, your final grade will be lowered one letter grade. For example, assume that your final grade average is an “A” and that you missed two classes; your final grade would be lowered to a “B”; if you missed three classes, your final grade would be lowered to a “C”; etc. Regrettably, our personal lives are sometimes complicated by unforeseen emergencies and developments beyond our control. In the event that you encounter circumstances over the course of the semester that would prevent your compliance with the stated attendance policy, I would encourage you to drop the course before the last day to withdraw (April 17) for graduate students. Finally, you will be expected to complete reading and written assignments on schedule unless special arrangements are made with me beforehand. Needless to say, you will also be expected to bring relevant text(s) to class.
Required Texts and Related Reading Assignments
Our course for this semester is both reading- and writing-intensive. The required texts cover a wide range of genres, including oral history, letters, memoir, newspaper journalism, photo-journalism, travel narrative, history, fiction, and children’s and young adult literature. While the number of required texts at first glance might seem unusually daunting, in the case of Studs Terkel’s Hard Times: An Oral History of the Great Depression, Robert Cohen’s Dear Mrs. Roosevelt: Letters from the Children of the Great Depression, and Errol Lincoln Uys’ Riding the Rails: Teenagers on the Move during the Great Depression, we will be reading selections rather than the complete texts. Other texts such as John Steinbeck’s The Harvest Gypsies: On the Road to the Grapes of Wrath (61 pp.) and Jerry Stanley’s Children of the Dust Bowl: The True Story of the School at Weedpatch Camp (77 pp.) are reasonably brief, though nonetheless informative and illuminating, and Arnold Rothstein’s The Depression Years, Dorothea Lange’s An American Exodus: A Record of American Erosion, and Bill Ganzel’s Dust Bowl Descent consist primarily of photographs. Finally, Karen Hesse’s Out of the Dust and Kate Lied’s Potato: A Tale from the Great Depression are both geared toward children and young adult readers, though, given their profound insight into the personal tragedy experienced by many children during the Depression, they are equally suitable for adult readers. I’ve arranged the required texts in order of presentation, along with related class dates, and have also provided descriptive and review comments for each of the required texts to give you some idea of what to expect along the way. I’ve finally provided a list of optional texts, which you needn’t purchase, which we won’t discuss in class, and for which you won’t be responsible, but which, depending upon special interests of your own as such interests evolve over the course of the semester, may be useful as sources for possible essay topics, though I suspect our required texts, in themselves, will suggest any number of fascinating investigative “leads” and opportunities.
A detailed class schedule was provided to all class members via email.
Frederick Lewis Allen, Since Yesterday: The 1930s in America
John L. Bell, Jr., Hard Times: Beginnings of the Great Depression in North Carolina 1929-1933
Andrew Bergman, We’re in the Money: Depression America and Its Films
David Carlton and Peter A. Coclanis, eds., Confronting Southern Poverty in the Great Depression: “The Report on Economic Conditions of the South” with Related Documents
Robert S. McElvaine, ed., Down & Out in the Great Depression: Letters from the Forgotten Man
Karal Ann Marling, Wall-to-Wall America: A Cultural History of Post-Office Murals in the Great Depression
Milton Meltzer, Violins & Shovels: The WPA Projects—A New Deal for America’s Hungry Artists of the 1930s
Bernard Sternscher, ed., Hitting Home: The Great Depression in Town and Country
Michael Wallis, Route 66: The Mother Road
T.H. Watkins, The Great Depression: America in the 1930s
You will be expected to produce twenty-four double-spaced pages of text over the coming semester. You can satisfy the written requirement in terms of any one of the following three options. For each option, required page length, due date(s), and the percentage value in relation to your final grade are provided.
Option Number One
Three “short” critical/analytical essays, each of which should be eight pages in length and each of which will constitute one-third of your final grade.
Essay No. One: March 1
Essay No. Two: April 5
Essay No. Three: May 3
Option Number Two
Two “intermediate” critical/analytical essays, each of which should be twelve pages in length and each of which will constitute one-half of your final grade.
Essay No. One: March 12
Essay No. Two: May 3
Option Number Three
One longer critical/analytical essay, twenty-four pages in length, which will constitute 100% of your final grade and which will be due May 3.
In closing, I’d like to extend my best wishes to all of you in the new year and the new semester, and I very much looking forward to what I am sure will be a very stimulating, thoughtful, and, I suspect, surprisingly timely exploration of the Great Depression over the spring semester.
Images obtained, as public domain, from http://www.nps.gov/elro/glossary/great-depression.htm.
Last Update: February 8, 2012