Posted December 1, 2008

Great Depression, great creativity

Unemployment during the Great Depression
Photo courtesy of Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, FSA-OWI Collection, [reproduction number LC-USF33-001645-M5 DLC]
Unemployed Men in Gateway District: Minneapolis, Minnesota, September 1939 by Farm Security Administration photographer John Vachon. As part of a New Deal program, FSA photographers were hired to document economic conditions during the Great Depression and produced many of the iconic images of the period.

“If it’s
true that adversity and hardship can bring out creativity,” said
Miles Orvell, professor of English and American studies
at Temple University, “then the Great Depression
was one of the great creative periods of our time.”

The Great Depression is currently all the rage,
with New Yorkers hosting

Depression parties, peasant
skirts and newsboy caps making a return on the runways,
and Netflix rentals of The Grapes of Wrath on the
rise. But that 1939 Steinbeck novel is not the only
Depression-era work worth taking a second (or a first)
look at from our current perspective in what some
are calling the New Depression.

Common themes found in the literature of the period
are despair, poverty, corruption, strife between
labor and management, and the need to work together,
noted Orvell. “The period also birthed several
new genres, such as the melodrama, which laid the
foundation for today’s soap opera, and it brought
the detective novel to fulfillment, with the heroic
detective stoically dealing with corruption and the
underside of life in cities like New York, Los Angles
and San Francisco,” he said.

“The literature of the Depression has been
largely dismissed from the cultural record,” explained
Orvell. “By the post WWII era, the anti-communist
and neo-conservative movements looked back at the
depression and anything from the left as the work
of the ‘communist devil.’ And that has
carried over into our own day” he added.

According to Orvell, a current standard survey textbook
of American literature devotes just three pages out
of 1500 to Depression Era literature. “Yet,
the literature of the Depression reflects a critical
period in our history and one that had a lasting
impact by bringing us social security, roads, post-offices,
and banking regulations,” he noted.

Any discussion of creativity during the Depression
must include mention of the work generated by several
New Deal Programs, Orvell said. “Many of us
are familiar with the striking images taken by the
photographers working for the Farm Security Administration,
but are unaware that programs such as the Federal
Writers and Theater Projects were equally critical
to the culture of the time,” said Orvell.

Under these programs, young aspiring writers and
directors, such as Saul Bellow, Richard Wright, Arthur
Miller, John Houseman, and Orson Welles were employed
at minimal wages to produce great work and bring
it to people in free theater productions and exhibitions.

“Orson Welles, for example, produced the critically
acclaimed ‘black MacBeth’ which was set
in Haiti and used actors from Harlem,” said

Orvell’s work demonstrates his broad range
of expertise in American culture with a special focus
on the Great Depression. He recently edited a collection
of FSA photographer John Vachon's work (John Vachon’s
America: Photographs and Letters from the Depression
to World War II, 2003
); and he has written a history
of photography in the United States for the Oxford
History of Art Series (American Photography, 2003).

His other books include The Real Thing: Imitation
and Authenticity in American Culture, 1880-1940
of North Carolina Press), which was co-winner in
1990 of the American Studies Association's John Hope
Franklin Publication Prize, and After the Machine:
Visual Arts and the Erasing of Cultural Boundaries
(Mississippi, 1995).

Orvell is editor in chief of the Encyclopedia of
American Studies Online. He is currently at work
on a cultural history of the notion of ‘Main