Rousing the Nation: Radical Culture in Depression America

By Laura Browder | Go to book overview

INTRODUCTION
FROM UNCLE TOM'S CABIN TO GONE WITH THE WIND Writing for a Nation in Crisis

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."1Carl 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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