22 March 2009

Rethinking meaning of mass culture in the Depression years

"Like the forces of war, depression shows man as a senseless cog in a senselessly whirling machine which is beyond human understanding and has ceased to serve any purpose but its own." - Peter Drucker quote, describing the emotional and subjective effects of the economic crisis of the thirties; taken from "Rita Barnard's The Great Depression and the Culture of Abundance.

"The worse the machine behaved, the more were men and women driven to try to understand it. As one by one the supposedly fixed principles of business and economics and government went down in ruins, people who had taken these fixed principles for granted, and had shown little interest in politics except at election time, began to try to educate themselves. For not even the comparatively prosperous could any longer deny that something momentous was happening."

Comment & Review: (book) offers a rich and insightful study of the Depression as seen through the work of two of its most important, albeit insufficiently recognized, cultural observers: Kenneth Fearing and Nathanael West." American Literature

Quote: "This book will force scholars to rethink the meaning of mass culture in the Depression years....

It's available here for free

Here's another:, by Frederick Lewis Allen

"Do you remember what you were doing on September 3, 1929?

Probably not--unless you have an altogether exceptional memory.

Let me refresh your recollection. For if we are to understand the changes in American life during the nineteen-thirties, we must first recall what things were like before this period began--before the Panic which introduced the Depression.

Perhaps the most convenient way of doing this is to imagine ourselves re-living a single day in 1929: seeing what things look like, listening to the talk, glancing at the newspapers and magazines and books, noticing what are the preoccupations and assumptions and expectations in people's minds--and doing all this with the eyes and ears and intellectual perspective of today.

I have chosen September 3, 1929, as the day to re-visit, for it was then that the Big Bull Market reached its peak: that the Dow-Jones average of stock-market prices, which had been rising so long and so furiously, made its high record for all time. If there was any single day when the wave of prosperity--and of speculation--which characterized the nineteen-twenties may be said to have attained its utmost height before it curled over and crashed, September 3, 1929, was that day.

So let us go back and look about us."

September 3, 1929 -- September 3, 1939 (free)

And then, there’s my favorite.

"Looking Backward"
, Background and discussion found here

In “looking Backward” by Edward Bellamy, Julian West, the protagonist tries to explain how someone could live as a social parasite...

"I myself was rich and also educated, and possessed, therefore, all the elements of happiness enjoyed by the most fortunate in that age. Living in luxury, and occupied only with the pursuit of the pleasures and refinements of life, I derived the means of my support from the labor of others, rendering no sort of service in return. My parents and grand-parents had lived in the same way, and I expected that my descendants, if I had any, would enjoy a like easy existence.

But how could I live without service to the world? you ask. Why should the world have supported in utter idleness one who was able to render service? The answer is that my great-grandfather had accumulated a sum of money on which his descendants had ever since lived. The sum, you will naturally infer, must have been very large not to have been exhausted in supporting three generations in idleness. This, however, was not the fact. The sum had been originally by no means large. It was, in fact, much larger now that three generations had been supported upon it in idleness, than it was at first. This mystery of use without consumption, of warmth without combustion, seems like magic, but was merely an ingenious application of the art now happily lost but carried to great perfection by your ancestors, of shifting the burden of one's support on the shoulders of others."

Bellamy proceeds to make his famous comparison of the world to a gigantic coach, with few riders and many pulling the coach along a rough and steep path. The few rich mime sympathy for the many poor during times of special stress, and "at such times the passengers would call down encouragingly to the toilers of the rope, exhorting them to patience, and holding out hopes of possible compensation in another world for the hardness of their lot, while others contributed to buy salves and liniments for the crippled and injured. It was agreed that it was a great pity that the coach should be so hard to pull, and there was a sense of general relief when the specially bad piece of road was gotten over. This relief was not, indeed, wholly on account of the team, for there was always some danger at these bad places of a general overturn in which all would lose their seats".

Yet the true sentiments of the select riders were that they were riding because they were of superior stock. Nothing could be done, and to do more than utter a pious expression that such was a shame was a waste of time and sympathy.

Besides there was a ...singular hallucination which those on the top of the coach generally shared, that they were not exactly like their brothers and sisters who pulled at the rope, but of finer clay, in some way belonging to a higher order of beings who might justly expect to be drawn. This seems unaccountable, but, as I once rode on this very coach and shared that very hallucination, I ought to be believed. The strangest thing about the hallucination was that those who had but just climbed up from the ground, before they had outgrown the marks of the rope upon their hands, began to fall under its influence.

Bellamy was also pretty prescient about the bailout of the giants of corporate finance-though he didn't separate them from industrial corporations. Much as the corporations decried help to the lowly (like mortgage holders), they were quite willing to muzzle down at the government trough themselves.

The records of the period show that the outcry against the concentration of capital was furious. Men believed that it threatened society with a form of tyranny more abhorrent than it had ever endured. They believed that the great corporations were preparing for them the yoke of a baser servitude than had ever been imposed on the race, servitude not to men but to soulless machines incapable of any motive but insatiable greed.

Free: Project Gutenberg

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