Academic journal article The Journal of Southern History

Modernity and the Great Depression: The Transformation of American Society, 1930-1941

Academic journal article The Journal of Southern History

Modernity and the Great Depression: The Transformation of American Society, 1930-1941

Article excerpt

Modernity and the Great Depression: The Transformation of American Society, 1930-1941. By Kenneth J. Bindas. Culture America. (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2017. Pp. [x], 277. $39.95, ISBN 978-0-7006-2400-3.)

Modernity and modernism, as historians have understood at least since Richard Brown published his seminal Modernization: The Transformation of American Life, 1600-1865 (New York, 1976), are more than temporal concepts. Modern not only is synonymous with now but also conveys values and principles that help societies interpret the world around them. Historian Kenneth J. Bindas draws heavily from contemporary magazines, newspapers, and other printed sources to argue that the Great Depression marked the zenith of modernism in America. Unlike historians who stress the sociocultural continuities between the 1930s and previous decades, Bindas maintains that the economic collapse created space for a new worldview called modernism, which preached that rationalism, order, planning, and progress were the keys to solving contemporary problems and ushering in a brighter future.

This brand of modernism had both secular and sacred roots. It emerged from the technological advances of the early twentieth century, the efficiency movement epitomized by Frederick Taylor, the writings of technocratic thinkers, and the ideas of liberal Christians seeking up-to-date methods of perfecting society. Ultimately, modernism became a kind of civic religion, steeped in a language of salvation--as evidenced by, for example, Franklin D. Roosevelt's appropriation of biblical metaphors in his first inaugural address--that was fixated on improving this world rather than accessing the next one.

Bindas acknowledges that modernism is a slippery concept that meant different things to different people and was more of a Zeitgeist than a fixed set of principles. He links the search for rationalism, order, planning, and progress to four areas of 1930s America: the New Deal, the world's fairs, interior decoration, and music. The Civilian Conservation Corps, for example, inculcated young Americans with the belief that centralized direction could transform virgin nature into organized, useful, and communally beneficial spaces. World's fairs highlighted the social importance of rational-minded scientists whose research paved the way toward a future without shortages or suffering. …

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