American Culture in the 1980s

By Graham Thompson | Go to book overview
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The Cultural Legacy of the 1980s

While it is tautologic to say that a decade is a period of transition from one decade to another, the urge to define decades in the past the problem with which this book started out has sometimes meant that decades have become unjustifiably isolated units of time. What is neglected is the way in which a decade emerges out of its predecessor and rolls over into the decade which follows. In the case of the 1920s and 1930s, the decades are conveniently stitched together by the economic depression arising around the financial crash and panic at the end of the 1920s. But the convenience of this link appears suspect when one considers that what are being linked are entirely different orders of experience and activity. The discourse of the ‘Jazz Age’ is based on the idea of cultural flowering and of a sense of modernity, hedonism and decadence. While this discourse may also root itself in economic and industrial conditions of expansion, the idea of the 1930s as a decade of economic depression dominated by New Deal politics changes the angle of vision from culture to politics and economics. So, while The Great Gatsby is read in terms of conspicuous cultural consumption and its attitude towards the ‘American dream’, The Grapes of Wrath is read almost as social documentary. The impetus that drives this incoherent shifting of vision is the urge to find a way of pinning down and defining a decade.

The added problem here is one mentioned in the Introduction: the ‘illusion of synchronicity’ of which Paul Giles writes. Cultural products, in this instance two novels, are treated as transparent windows on a period on the basis of their date of publication. While there can be no argument that The Great Gatsby is a ‘product’ of the 1920s and The Grapes of Wrath a ‘product’ of the 1930s, it is the confusion of the two meanings of the word ‘product’ that lead to the ‘illusion of synchronicity’. A ‘product’ may be both an artefact and an outcome.


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