Peter Conn


On his book The American 1930s: A Literary History

Cover Interview of June 11, 2009

A close-up

Many browsing readers – this is certainly true for me – would take a look at a book’s introduction.  Here, the introduction gives a relatively full explanation of what I am up to in my book.

On the other hand, a reader might take a first look at the epilogue.  Here, the Epilogue does more than review and survey what the earlier chapters have accomplished.  I recall the New York World’s Fair of 1939-1940.  The Fair’s inspirational symbolism was calculated and timely.  Fully ten years after the Crash, the nation’s crippled economy continued to resist the solutions of the New Deal.  The Fair, mainly intended to generate revenue for the city, turned into one of the great public events of the decade.  For a few hours at least, visitors could leave behind the dreariness of unemployment and class struggle and enter an ideal world of rational planning in which social problems found elegant solutions.  As conceived by the corporate leaders of General Motors, General Electric, and Kodak, among others, America’s future would be orderly, clean, lily-white, and free of smog and slums.

It was called “The World of Tomorrow,” but in fact the World’s Fair brought the past and future together, often in unexpected ways.  While the Fair was famous for its predictions of the technological marvels that lay in store in the decades to come, it was officially conceived as a celebration of the hundred-and-fiftieth anniversary of Washington’s inauguration in New York.  The Fair counseled hope, but the hope was rooted in nostalgia: like its sleek, modern buildings, America would rise out of stagnation and discover a prosperous carefree future – a future that bore some striking resemblances to the past.

For example, visitors to the Perisphere – one of the Fair’s two iconic buildings, along with the Trylon – stood on two rotating platforms that circled “Democracity 2039.”  The city of the future would be small in scale, set in wooded preserves, with machinery subordinated to human use.  Upon inspection, the city as foreseen by the designers of Democracity was less urban than suburban, despite disclaimers to the contrary.  It was a dream of the past decked out in the deceptive glamour of the future.

In short, the World’s Fair offers a compressed illustration of the argument I make throughout the book.  The turbulence of the Depression decade impelled Americans toward a sustained and lively inquiry into the past, as a way of finding answers to the questions posed by the longest economic crisis in the nation’s history.