Peter Conn


On his book The American 1930s: A Literary History

Cover Interview of June 11, 2009

In a nutshell

With the exception only of the Civil War, Americans faced in the Depression of the 1930s the most wrenching and divisive domestic crisis in their history.  An economic structure that had seemed unshakable simply collapsed, and neither experts nor ordinary citizens were ever sure why.

The political and economic debates of the decade have produced a long shelf of books, and the current financial slump has renewed interest in those controversies.  However, the literature and art of the thirties have been less thoroughly documented.  A few images – photos of soup kitchens and Dust Bowl migrants – have survived, which offer an important but selective and ultimately misleading version of the Depression years.

In fact, the 1930s were years of rich and diverse creativity, in which artists and writers responded to the crisis in a wide assortment of ways.  In the imagination of the thirties, optimism competed with pessimism, and comedy co-existed with tragedy.

My book discusses well over a hundred novels, stories, plays, and paintings, offering one of the most comprehensive accounts of this decade ever published.  In addition to fiction, the book refers to much of the nonfiction writing of the period, including biographies, memoirs, and works of history, and quite a few of the Pulitzer Prize winners.

Among the men and women whose work is explored in The American 1930s are William Faulkner, F.  Scott Fitzgerald, Gertrude Stein, Dorothea Lange, John Dos Passos, Pearl S.  Buck, Carl Sandburg, Zora Neale Hurston, Thomas Hart Benton, Langston Hughes, Grant Wood.  I also include a host of less familiar writers and artists.