Frontiers

Post-Crash Poetry and Prose

English scholar Peter Conn presents a literary history of the American 1930s.
June 2009

A new book by Peter Conn, Professor of English, argues against the assumption that the Depression decade was characterized culturally by leftist politics and aesthetics. In The American 1930s: A Literary History, Conn explores both historical events and the literature of the time to support his claim that, despite the pressures of the Depression, the United States was “a place of enormous ideological and imaginative complexity.”

“The past few decades of scholarship have tended to simplify the imaginative work of the decade by concentrating overwhelmingly on left-wing writing,” Conn says. “On the contrary, as the material in my book demonstrates, the 1930s saw a vigorous cultural debate in which the left, the right, and the downright apolitical competed for attention.”

"This sustained absorption in the past became for writers on all sides of the various debates a vehicle for testing their competing views of American values." - Peter Conn

Conn examines this complexity through the lens of a subject to which many writers in the 1930s turned—the past. Responding, in part, to a present in crisis, many Depression-era novels, nonfiction books, plays, poems and paintings deliberated over history and its symbols. “This sustained absorption in the past,” Conn says, “became for writers on all sides of the various debates a vehicle for testing their competing views of American values.”