Rousing the Nation: Radical Culture in Depression America

Rousing the Nation: Radical Culture in Depression America

Rousing the Nation: Radical Culture in Depression America

Rousing the Nation: Radical Culture in Depression America


A reevaluation of American cultural politics in the 1930s

This interdisciplinary study blends textual analysis with social history to chart the intellectual and artistic ferment of Depression-era America. In Rousing the Nation, Laura Browder explores the fiction, drama, and film produced during the decade by socially conscious intellectuals who struggled to create a uniquely American art. Challenged by a public more exposed to comic strips and tabloids than to serious artistic creativity, these writers and cinematographers used the techniques of modernism and muckraking to fashion works that would be experimental without being insular and would inspire the public to social activism.

Browder first considers authors James T. Farrell, Josephine Herbst, and John Dos Passos, arguing that their work successfully sparked a discussion about what it meant to be American at a time when the country's very future seemed in doubt. She then examines the Living Newspaper productions of the Federal Theatre Project, which brought politically and aesthetically provocative drama to twenty-five million Americans. In a final chapter, she examines social films of the period, focusing on Paramount's 1939 production of One-Third of a Nation.


The Great Depression was the biggest crisis the United States faced in the twentieth century. With estimates of unemployment rates reaching as high as a third of the American work force, 80 percent of the nation's steel mills shut down, the collapse of the banking system, millions of homeless men and women living in Hoovervilles and riding the rails and millions more living in conditions of almost unbelievable poverty and hardship, Americans had a widespread sense that the center could no longer hold, that the nation was teetering on the brink of failure. Ecological crisis exacerbated economic catastrophe: the dust storms that swept through the Midwest devastated millions of acres of farmland and forced countless farm families on a westward migration. Indeed, to remember a crisis of similar magnitude, Americans had to go back seventy years, to the Civil War.

The Civil War and Depression were, it seemed, America's two great national dramas; it is unsurprising that writers and artists of the thirties, especially those of a radical stripe, often identified strongly with their Civil War counterparts. As Matthew Josephson, former editor of the expatriate modernist magazine Broom and a fellow traveler, wrote in his 1930 study Portrait of the Artist as American, "It is at the hour of the Civil War that we find an intellectual crisis analogous to our own." Carl Sandburg's magisterial biography of Abraham Lincoln, whose final four volumes appeared in 1939 and which won the Pulitzer Prize the following year, gained enormous popular and critical acclaim. Lincoln Kirstein, in his role as editor of Hound & Horn, helped . . .

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