Peter Conn


On his book The American 1930s: A Literary History

Cover Interview of June 11, 2009


Taken most generally, my book argues against the simplification of history.  Any attempt to recover the past must acknowledge that no single explanation or formula will be sufficient to encompass the multifarious motives and choices through which the men and women of vanished decades defined themselves.

In that sense, the particular example of the American 1930s merely exemplifies a larger point.  To see the thirties exclusively as “the red decade” is to reduce a complex palette to a monotone.  I quote in the book the journalist Robert Bendiner, whose family lived a hand-to-mouth existence through the American thirties: “It has always seemed to me fatuous to fix a single label on a whole decade – as though the Nineties were gay for immigrant ladies in the garment sweatshops of Manhattan or the Twenties stood for hot jazz in the mind of Calvin Coolidge.”

In other words, instead of ignoring or manipulating the past to fit the presuppositions of two or three hackneyed adjectives, it is important to address the facts and texts of any historical period and follow their lead.  This is what I have tried to do in The American 1930s.  Again, the New Yorker review captures the book well: “despite the strain of the Depression, the United States in the thirties was ‘a place of enormous ideological and imaginative complexity’.”

© 2009 Peter Conn.  (This interview incorporates excerpts from The American 1930s: A Literary History (copyright © Peter Conn, 2009), reproduced here with permission of Cambridge University Press.)