A Reversal of Fortune: Culture and the Crisis, Yesterday and Today
This essay contends that the accumulated characterisations
of 1930s literature have been shaped through the use of the past
as present-day resource. As
At least part of the difficulty of the 1930s as the object of historical study is the methodological problem contained in the premise that a decade is self-contained and easily characterisable. Even cursory study, whether of social and political trends or individual biography, will reveal tendencies present in the decade prior to the one under scrutiny and continuing long afterwards. For instance, the shift towards government intervention under the Roosevelt administration actually commenced in a more limited form during Herbert Hoover's term of office (Romasco 321). Likewise, while literary histories of the 1930s invite us to consider the leftward movement of writers as producing a significant if not dominant literary form, such writing was frequently rooted in the 1920s or practised by those who would find their creative maturity (or at least their most lucrative employment) in the post-war years. Chronological devices for apprehending past realities are convenient, but they can lead to confusion and oversimplification.
Despite these inherent problems, the appeal of 'decade-ology' remains substantial. Reducing key characteristics of an era to the notion of a 'decade' – be it Roaring Twenties or Greedy Eighties – is an attractive form of shorthand for summarising events. The pervasiveness of this approach to historical narrative can be made apparent by simply listing some relevant book titles appearing after 1939: The Red Decade (1941), The Fervent Years (1945), The Angry Decade (1947), The Aspirin Age (1963), The Anxious Years (1963), The Years of Protest (1967), Dark Valley (2002) and the Age of Extremes (1994), in which the 1930s constitutes one half of the 'Age of Catastrophe' (Hobsbawm 21-222). Whatever their content, such volumes indicate the ascendancy of particular themes in cultural history.
One way to surmount some of these problems is to distinguish between the actual decade in question and the tropes which dominate subsequent attempts at representation. As a typographic indicator of this process, this essay uses 'the 1930s' and 'the Thirties' on the page, in order to indicate history and historiographical concept – and perhaps 'reality' and 'myth'– respectively. Discussions of this interaction allow us to distinguish both between historical developments in the years 1930 to 1939 and the received image of the 1930. This second type of 'period' denotes not merely the passage of ten years, but a selection of a number of trends and events, reconstructing history according to particular interpretations. 1 In this process, 'the Thirties'– a decade itself often presented as marking a distinct break from any previous influences – can be characterised in terms that, taken collectively, further solidify an extant 'master narrative'. As the titles cited above suggest, such construction has tended to involve the privileging of particular themes.
'The Thirties' narrative places radicalism and protest at its forefront. Yet other accounts suggest that this is an exaggeration. In Warren Susman's influential essays the 1930s was an essentially conservative decade, characterised by individual survival strategies and a reluctance to break with political convention (150-183). Perhaps in keeping with the theme of the past as a present-day resource, "The Culture of the Thirties" involved Susman's own generational differentiation from his Old Left predecessors. Yet the essay also captured some of the intellectual trends unfolding in the 1930s but not easily identified through their presence in manifestos and movements (for instance, by indicating the way that self-help books outsold proletarian novels). By emphasising anthropological methods rather than intellectual or literary history, Susman arrived at a very different picture to the normative view of the 1930s discussed below. Such findings are an important exception to the usual literary-critical views of the decade, however.
Susman's attempts to rework 1930s historiography
as disclosing an essentially conservative or even consumerist character
is insufficient to dislodge 'the Thirties' as a dominant narrative. Nevertheless, we see a number of attempts to
rewrite the usual accounts. Even before it was clear that economic
conditions were improving at the end of the thirties historiographical
dogfights were well under way on both sides of the
Political allegiances formed in the
Depression era shaped the intelligentsia for decades to come: witness
the row over
appropriate place to start is The Red Decade (1941), a polemical
tract stressing communist infiltration of American institutions,
with a number of chapters devoted to the arts.
Drawing in part on Max Eastman's essay "Artists in Uniform"
(1933) – an account of Soviet suppression of artistic freedom –
author Eugene Lyons presented the US Communist Party (CPUSA)
as almost omnipotent, with the power to dictate cultural trends,
generate careers for the mediocre and control US foreign policy,
all in accordance with the interests of the Soviet Union.
As a former enthusiast of the 'Russian experiment',
political orientation of The
Red Decade expressed a political process similar to that
sketched in Assignment in Utopia, but in an accelerated form. Some of
sense of The Red Decade requires stepping
back to the conditions which so agitated its author, also posing the question as to why the CPUSA has such a high profile in accounts
of the inter-war years. One
place to start is with Culture
and the Crisis, the manifesto launched by he League of
Professional Groups for Foster and Ford.
The League consisted of prominent American intellectuals,
a number of whom had campaigned against the execution of Sacco and
Vanzetti in 1927, supporting the Communist Party's slate in the
1932 presidential election. The launch of Culture and the Crisis
was an event significant not in its own terms, but indicative of
a broader shift in consciousness that decade. The backing of
together, the League of Professional Groups and Culture
and the Crisis presented humanity's choices as either
Soviet-style socialism or barbarism.
By linking the fate of culture so closely to the slump, they
anticipated subsequent narratives of the Depression era.
However, in contrast to the campaigning of 1932, accounts
starting with that of
development of a homologous package of anti-Soviet ideas servicing
political life in the mid to late-1940s can be located, in
part, in the previous decade's literary debates.
Most notable are the various formulations which emerged on
the question of the relationship between the committed writer and
organised politics. Significant
here are Eastman's "Artists in Uniform" (1933), a depiction
of the stultifying life of Soviet Writers, published in the Modern
Quarterly and expanded to a book-length essay the following
year, and Philip Rahv's article "Proletarian Literature: A
Political Autopsy" (1939), which appeared in the Southern
Review. Prior to Aaron's
Writers on the Left (1961), these pieces were often taken
as the last word on literary and critical matters surrounding
Subsequent years saw the often embittered
claims of the participants in this early 'culture war' incorporated
and modified into a wide range of accounts.
Their insight has varied enormously; some were scholarly,
others written according to a disingenuous, a
priori anti-communist formula.
Paradoxically, whereas those directly involved in these struggles
– like Rahv and Lyons – tended to make Communism central to cultural
questions, traditional histories of US Communism made the coverage
of cultural affairs largely perfunctory. Thus, in the main, Harvey
Klehr's The Heyday of American Communism (1984) farms off the discussion of culture to a footnote citing Daniel
Aaron's Writers on the Left. The centrality given to culture among fellow-travelling
intellectuals, which formed a key theme in the post-war construction
of 'the Thirties', is largely absent from traditionalist specialist
studies of the CPUSA.
Even as the cultural history of the 1930s ('the Thirties') took shape around stereotypes of literary radicalism, the 1950s saw the emergence of an open minded approach. Two major works challenged the depiction of proletarian literature as a form of patronage, with Party functionaries commissioning novels, of dubious artistic merit, on purely ideological grounds. Among the first to confront what had become a conventional view was Walter Rideout, in a comprehensive work entitled The Radical Novel in the United States (1956). In a manner that suggested revulsion with the 'literary' approach of both Lyons and Senator McCarthy, he prefaced his work with a warning:
Rideout's remarks reflected a perception that the preoccupations of the Cold War were distorting the study of literature. His assumptions were consolidated with the appearance of Aaron's Writers on the Left in 1961, which explicitly took issue with Lyons's characterisation of the 1930s as the Red Decade, calling it 'a polemic written without charity or understanding . . . reflect[ing] the acrimonious spirit and attitudes of the decade he deplores' (231n). The thrust of both works was to separate radical cultural production from the Communist organisation – real or imagined – that was exciting US-wide hostility. While the assessment of Communist politics was unsympathetic, the literary production associated with the movement could be disentangled, allowing a more objective assessment. The contribution of Aaron 2 and Rideout was the creation of a vantage point from which to examine 1930s literature without acquiescing to McCarthyism. Neither account was definitive, since they tended to abstract culture from some of the broader social conflicts played out in the 1930s (and beyond). As
This enabled a wide
range of publications in which the Red legacy of the 1930s could be
re-examined and some of the more specific myths dispensed with.
So extensive is the scholarship that as early as 1971 an historian
complained disingenuously that "a spate of recent publications'
have 'merely compiled a series of lengthy footnotes to Daniel Aaron's
Writers on the Left" (Singer 73). Later examples of the post-Aaron approach are
manifold. Thus Eric Homberger
points out the disparities between Soviet literary politics – including
the abolition of the Proletcult
group and its doctrine – and the proletarian editorial stance of the
New Masses magazine, allegedly the source of "the Party
line in literature" (119-140). In the process he reveals Max Eastman's
deliberate mistranslation of Soviet Writers Congress documents in Artists
Throughout the 1990s, these revisionist literary histories were emboldened by the emergence of a broad historical school known as the 'new histories of American communism'. Unlike Theodore Draper and Harvey Klehr, who depict the Communist movement as a monolith organised from the top down with Soviet Russia at the centre of its firmament, the revisionists emphasise the local activities of the Communist movement and its supporters. Symptomatic of this is "an unprecedented outburst of academic interest in American Communism . . . produc[ing] more doctoral dissertations, books, and articles on the subject during the past five years than in all the previous sixty years of American Communist history" (Draper 44). Seldom claiming to be part of a coherent 'school' in this field, such authors stress rank and file initiative as a key factor. In the study of literature and culture (and, bridging the gap, of oral history), this approach has proliferated in recent years.
'New histories' can provide a useful corrective to the conservative construction of 'the Thirties' in the US as stemming entirely from Moscow, but they also risk perpetuating a false dichotomy between 'micro' and 'macro' readings of 1930s culture. Regardless of what was happening 'on the ground', is there a 'big picture' that can account for these disparate activities? Despite a proliferation of new scholarly studies, until recently it seemed that the mainstream mythology of a literary and cultural Red Decade would live on in memoirs, obituaries and textbooks. For instance, the construction of 'the Thirties' within the teaching of literature has not kept pace with the historical research. On one hand, there are canonical works of criticism written while the proletarian controversy was still fresh. Alfred Kazin's On Native Grounds, for instance, is largely a measured consideration of the development of modern American letters. On the question of 'the Thirties', however, it is markedly partisan. Discussing 'the more fashionable kind of hard-boiled writing', Kazin claims that "the left-wing naturalist surrendered his craft to what seemed ultimate considerations beyond literature. Literature, in the Communist jargon, was a 'front' and each militant writer a guerrilla fighting in his own way for a common purpose" (387).
Kazin is both an erudite scholar and a principled liberal who avoided the red-baiting approach adopted by many of his contemporaries. However, his formulaic synopsis of radical writing forms a barrier to understanding it. The book both demands deference as a major literary work (even warranting special fortieth anniversary editions) but goes largely unread on undergraduate courses, further compounding the difficulty of identifying its precise role in constructing 'the Thirties' on the faultline of literary radicalism. Nevertheless, because it insists that a 'party line in literature' was a characteristic 1930s influence, On Native Grounds introduces the general reader to proletarian literature whilst embedding the predominant stereotypical tropes. Kazin creates the impression, never empirically demonstrated, that the CP was a powerful direct cultural patron.
This problem is often also reproduced in chronologically-arranged introductory literary histories. It reflects a generic standard that was firmly established in the 1950s. This pattern has persisted to this day, albeit in a more liberal form. Unlike Kazin, Richard Ruland and Malcolm Bradbury are sympathetic to individual radical authors like Michael Gold and Henry Roth. However, they bracket them with the left-wing critics with whom they disagree. Writing of V. F. Calverton and Granville Hicks, Ruland and Bradbury locate "the sterility of their approach" in a 'limited conception of what is real', before making an imaginative leap unsupported by evidence, with the claim that "the Marxist world of the 1930s, was a world preoccupied solely with the play of economic forces; the only place for literature in such a world was as a weapon in class warfare". (361) Likewise, Bradbury quotes Gold as urging writers to "go left", become workers identified with the workers, experience and record and radicalise the proletarian world which provided a writer with "all the primitive material he needs" (125). Aside from a synopsis of the novel Jews Without Money (1930), there is little to balance this one-dimensional portrait, conflating Gold as agitator with Gold as critic and cultural practitioner. In both examples a part is substituted for the whole, hence the inflation of Calverton and Hicks into "the Marxist world of the 1930s". Given the role that both of Bradbury's texts play as introductory guides for a general readership, it is clear that a one-sided view of the writing of the inter-war period can persist despite revisionist scholarship.
As mentioned previously, similar trends become apparent in such 'middlebrow' forums as the literary memoir or autobiography. Thus, Kazin further enhanced his depiction of 1930s literary life in Starting Out in the Thirties (1962). Perhaps by way of disclaimer, he establishes his own position as a sharp contrast to that of his contemporaries among the Depression-era literati:
I was sick of Communists. I had the deepest contempt for those middle-class and doctrinaire radicals who, after graduating from Harvard or Yale in the Twenties, had made it a matter of personal honour to become Marxists, and who now worried in the New Masses whether Proust should be read after the Revolution and why there seemed to be no simple proletarians in the novels of Andre Malraux. (4-5)
A variation on this theme appears in Making It, where Norman Podhoretz presents Partisan Review as "refusing to accept the Stalinist dogma that experimental poets of a politically conservative bent were to be attacked as decadent while tenth rate proletarian novelists like Jack Conroy were to be promoted as great" (86). Appearing within a year of each other in the late 1960s, both memoirs employ a stereotype that conflates the Communist Party with its literary sympathisers and their cultural activities. The general and imprecise formulations of a Kazin or Podhoretz were circulated in texts intended for a largely non-academic audience, thus allowing the stereotype to acquire a purchase as ‘common sense’ to an extent disproportionate to its accuracy. On this basis 'the Thirties' was constructed through a constant preoccupation with the literary left, often presented as a two-dimensional clash of good and evil. In other words, despite the available scholarship to refute the claims made for ‘the Thirties’, the key stereotypes persevere at a 'common sense' level.
So if there was, in real terms, no 'Red Decade', why all the fuss? Estimates of CPUSA membership vary, reaching 28,849 in December 1933 (Levine 115); yet, despite these limited numbers, the party remains one of the most scrutinised aspects of the period. Likewise, whilst the struggles recounted by those constructing 'the Thirties' are narrated as epic tales of persecution and high principle, they tended to be far removed from the actual events. The CPUSA pursued its political objectives among writers in relation to the Moscow Trials (Kutulas 106-113) in a way that was often despicable, but the experiences described in Partisan Review as 'trials of the mind' were in no way comparable to their alleged Soviet equivalent. Intellectuals repelled by the left reworked their encounters in 1930s literary politics into a narrative of liberal anticommunism. Thomas Hill Schaub provides a useful summary of this process:
Correspondingly, the social protest novel declined (Hilfer 14-15) and organisational commitments beyond the Congress of Cultural Freedom were usually avoided. Yet this 'group therapy' acquired a wider social function: even as it announced the end of ideology, it forged an ideological account of the moral collapse of hegemonic ideas in the 1930s. Avoiding discussing that collapse in terms of global slump and warfare, it hinged instead upon a 1930s haunted by Communist inspired 'ideological' literature.
What are we to make of all this? Why would a representation of events in terms of 'Culture and the Crisis' become reworked in wholly cultural terms? One explanation is that crises are themselves divisible into different levels, unfolding on economic, institutional and ideological planes (Habermas; Mattick). Although too quick to discard the former categories, one author uses the idea of crisis as discourse to suggest how a crisis of ideas can take shape: "Crises do not exist in the world. They exist in discourse. Crises are not real events, but they are evaluations of the significance of what is happening. . . . We can say that crises are specific codes of significance. . . . News media can therefore be said discursively to produce crises" (Bruck 108). While maintaining that crises can have a worldly existence, I would contend that the distinction between the 1930s and 'the Thirties' is precisely a product of the discursive production of crisis. By replacing the "the news media" of Bruck's formulation with "Cold War pundits and commentators" this argument can be extended.
In the actual 1930s, conditions were such that Soviet Russia appeared axiomatically, to some, to be a beacon of progress and prosperity. Prominent and up-and-coming intellectuals alike campaigned under the assumption that humanity faced a fundamental choice between socialism or barbarism, thereby constituting crisis discursively. Their actions were symptomatic of what Habermas terms legitimation crisis. Conversely, when many of same individuals developed the '1930s without slump' narrative described above, they were, in effect, developing a counter-crisis strategy in discourse. This critical consensus was reducible to a formulation found in Rahv's widely quoted "Political Autopsy" essay: proletarian literature was "the literature of a party disguised as the literature of a class" (625). Subsequently, this phrase became incorporated into numerous hostile accounts of a significant literary tendency of the Depression years. 'Proletarian literature' came to serve as a cipher for assumptions that owed little to a direct engagement with cultural production. Instead the term signified that Depression era literature was a matter of policy, connoting a totalitarian link between social commentary in fiction and, via the CPUSA, Stalin’s Kremlin. Such claims also ensured that communists loomed large in the story of 'the Thirties'.
with the end of Cold War, the allegation that writers worked according
to the diktat of an authoritarian party has maintained
its purchase. During the 1990s similar characterisations continued to
circulate. Hence the Modern Language
Association convention was attacked by Roger Kimball (author of Tenured
Radicals) who claimed that "one might have been forgiven for
believing that the year was 1969 – if not, indeed, 1935" (75).
Not insignificantly, the focus of Kimball's attack is Barbara
Foley, herself a major authority on – and defender of – the proletarian
novel. In bracketing 1990s 'Political Correctness'
with an earlier cultural milieu influenced by Stalinism,
In a conservative tour
Certainly perceptions of the 1930s are in constant flux. Shaped and reshaped to fit the priorities of the present, a decade's images and experiences are a potential treasure trove for those using history as a contemporary resource. Not all such discursive strategies are successful; few now recall comparisons between President Clinton's short-lived 'New Covenant' and the New Deal of FDR. Yet the box office success of Gary Ross's Seabiscuit (2003), based on Laura Hillenbrand’s 2001 non-fiction bestseller, suggested the scope to find present-day role models from the Depression (Denby, 2003), without the need to confront awkward issues of legitimation and past defeats. More broadly, this new interest invites an unlocking of the 1930s, opening up the decade to a less cagey and more open mainstream discussion.
recent treatment of the decade is striking for its return to economic
categories. As we saw above,
in the post-war period an ad hoc narrative centred on cultural responses
to the slump, and the role of the CPUSA therein, came to the fore. The issue of crisis was thereby positioned as
cultural rather than economic. Conversely,
today's pundits show an increasing willingness to compare present day
conditions directly to those which emerged from the stock market crash
of 1929. Contemporary anxieties
about the global economy invite dramatic comparison with the slump of
the 1930s. Predicting a possible
"return to the harsh world of John Steinbeck", Professor John Gray (1999) thinks "we could begin the new century struggling
to adjust ourselves to an older American model" (5). The
model he has in mind is Herbert Hoover’s
Before the events of
Furthermore, such articles are almost invariably illustrated with iconic photography from the Depression. (Seabiscuit plays its part in this resurgence of such imagery, with recurring documentary inserts to help set the scene.) In all probability, responsibility for this trend rests with art editors rather than with journalists, but a distinctive 'visual culture', representing the crash of 1929 yet building a bridge to the present, is symptomatic of a shift both in popular perceptions and elite discourse. Faced with this contemporary catastrophism, it is worth reminding ourselves of the evolution of 'the Thirties' as an historical and discursive construct. Whereas Cold War cultural histories have tended to emphasise the CPUSA instead of economic trends, this legacy of carefully argued apologetics is being swiftly discarded today.
It is striking just many mainstream commentators
are embracing the rhetoric of catastrophe.
The world economy has its problems, but these still pale in comparison
to the Great Depression, when one in four US citizens was unemployed
and much of the financial and banking sector was wiped out. So hard hit was the
This repeated harking back to Depression era economics is unprecedented, as establishment commentators have been almost invariably reluctant to discuss the inter-war period, as it graphically exposed the flaws of both the market system and the political elite. Widespread business failure and mass unemployment defied traditional explanations, in which idle workers were to blame. Government subsidies, nationalisation and state control seemed to offer a way out, violating entrepreneurial principles: the phrase 'we're all Keynesians now' allowed free marketers to express their embittered acquiescence in the new ways of working. Needless to say, those who had sought fascistic solutions emerged even more embarrassed.
Today the Great Depression is a key image for spreading a message of economic gloom. Although capitalism is not collapsing at the moment, the suggestion that a 1930s-style slump is just around the corner is widespread. By comparing the present and the 1930s, contemporary Cassandras acquire an aura of history. They scare the pants off their audiences and readers with their outlandish claims yet are spared the effort of looking at what’s actually happening to the economy today.
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Special thanks are due to John Baxendale, Mark Beachill, James Heartfield, Chris Pawling and Alan Wald for their continuing dialogue with me regarding the ideas in this essay. Needless to say, I take full responsibility for the finished product.
A parallel process precipitated 'the Sixties',
a construct symbolising political turmoil in the years 1968-1974.
See Fredric Jameson, "Periodising the 60s", The
Ideologies of Theory - Essays 1971-1986, Volume 2: The Syntax of History
(London: Routledge, 1988) 207.
2. For an assessment
of the influence of Writers on the Left, see Alan Wald's introduction
to the 1992 edition (