Monday, February 16, 2009

Reading 1930s Literature, Watching 1930s films, Looking at 1930s Photos

If one wanted to look at 1930s culture, a good way to start would be to watch two films:

1. Tim Robbins' The Cradle Will Rock is a fun account of the government's failed attempt to censor Mark Blitzstein's musical- everybody shows up in the film from Diego Rivera to Orson Wells to Rockerfeller

2. John Ford's Grapes of Wrath- Ford was a great American film director and this film is an excellent rendition of the novel.

As for poetry, Carey Nelson's wonderful Anthology of Modern American Poetry included such poets as Genevieve Taggard, Joseph Freeman, Lucia Trent, Sterling A. Brown, Kenneth Fearing, Langston Hughes, John Beecher, Kay boyle, Joseph Kalar, Richard Wright, Edwin Rolfe, Sol Funarof, Tillie Lerner Olsen, and Muriel Rukeyster. To me, the three most important 1930s poets are Langston Hughes, Muirel Rukeyser's US 1 with its great poem "Book of the Dead" about silicosis lung disease among West Virginia miners, and Kenneth Patchen.

Any look at 1930s culture should include photographers such as Dorthea Lange and Walker Evans, especially the photos from the book Let Us Now Praise Famous Men written by James Agree.

For a good anthology , Paul Lauter's Heath Anthology of American Literature Modern Period 1910-1946 Volume D 6th edition has an excellention selection of poets and fiction. The book has "A Sheaf of Political Poetry in the Modern Period" including Joseph Kalar, Kenneth Fearing, Alfred Hayes, Tillier Lerner Olson, Kay Boyle Langston Hughes, Lola Ridge, Edwin Rolfe and Genevive Taggard. The fiction includes a selection from Michael Gold's Jews Without Money, John Dos Passos' USA, Albert Maltz's short story "The Happiest Man on Earth," and Meridel LeSueur's "Women on the Breadlines," an excerpt from Steinbeck's Grapes of Wrath, two Richard Wright short stories, and an excerpt from Pietro Di Donato's Christ in Concrete, one of the great works of Italian-American literature. The book also includes the 1930s most popular play Clifford Odet's "Waiting for Left," which was performed all over the country in union halls and community centers. Students can perform it in a classroom in about an hour and a half.

If one was interested in United States women writers of the 1930s, look at Charlotte Nekola and Paula Rabinowitz's excellent Writing Red: An Anthology of American Women Writers, 1930-1940. The book has three sections: fiction, poetry, and reportage, theory, and analysis. The book argues that the 1930s was a period of great growth for women's writings as women in the 1930s no longer just wrote about domestic issues. The female reporters like their male colleagues covered strikes, wars, revolutions. During the 1930s women made great strides as journalists, covering the world: Josephine Herbst reported from Cuba; Agnes Smedley from China; Tillie Olsen on the San FRancisco general strike; and Elaine Ellis on "Women of the Cotton Fields."

A hard-to-find but wonderful anthology is Jack Salzman's Years of Protest: A Collection of American Writings of the 1930s (1967, Bobbs-Merril Educational Publishers). The book includes a great range of 1930s poets, fiction writers and critics who included social or political issues in their writing in Part I: Alfred Hayes, Erskine Caldwell, Steinbeck, Woody Guthrie, James Agree, Dos Passos, Edmund Wilson, Clifford Odets, Hemingway, Auden and even Ezra pound. Part II titled the "Social Muse" includes argument by left, center, and right literary critics of the 1930s including Michael Gold, Archibeld MacLeish, John Crowe Ransom, James T. Farrel, and Malcolm Crowley. The last section "Blazing Sun" includes 1930s writers who avoided politics such as Henry Miller, Robins Jefferson, William Saroyan, Daniel Fuchs, Nathanel West, William Saroyan, and Henry Roth. Hopefully a publisher should reprint this excellent anthology.

For teaching an Introduction to Literature class, the anthology Understanding Literature edited by Walter Kalaidjian et al has a good selection "Critical Perspectives: A Casebook on Poetry and social Activism Between the Wars" including poets Kenneth Fearing, Langston Hughes, Alfred Hayes, Tillie Olsen, Genevieve Taggard, Edwin Rolfe, Mureil Rukeyser, and Joseph Kalar. The anthology also does a good introduction to postmodernist theories good for freshman students.

Two other films:

1. Scarface (1932) with Paul Muni starring, Howard Hawks direction, and screenplay by Ben Hecht-one of the very best on the 1930s gangster films

2. Charlie Chaplin's Modern Times (1936)- Chaplin's wonderful comedy about the assembly line

Reading 1930s literature and looking at 1930s film can remind ourselves that despire the Great Depresion American fiction writers, poets, playrights, critics, filmmakers, and photgraphers did brilliant innovative work. Life carried on.

Anybody else have any ideas about favorite 1930s writers? films? photogrpahers?


Lyle Daggett said...

Some more literary anthologies (not sure how many of them are in print these days, some surely aren't, though might turn up in libraries):

Proletarian Literature in the United States edited by Granville Hicks et al., includes fiction, poetry, drama, essays and reportage. Published 1935 by International Publishers. (The excellent introduction to the anthology, by Joseph Freeman, is available online in Cary Nelson's Modern American Poetry website, here.

New Masses: An Anthology of the Rebel Thirties edited by Joseph North. Published 1969 by International Publishers. Similar to the above.

Portable Harlem Renaissance Reader edited by David Lewis. Published 1995 by Penguin Books.

You Work Tomorrow: An Anthology of American Labor Poetry, 1929-1941 edited by John Marsh. Published 2007 by U. of Michigan Press. An anthology made up of poems that were originally published in labor union newspapers and similar publications, mostly by "non-professional" poets (though there are some exceptions). Includes work by members of "mainstream" AFL and CIO unions, and by members of the IWW and other radical unions of the period.

Writers in Revolt: The Anvil Anthology, 1933-1940 edited by Jack Conroy and Curt Johnson. Published 1973 by Lawrence Hill. Includes fiction and poetry.

The Wound and the Dream: Sixty Years of American Poems about the Spanish Civil War edited by Cary Nelson. Published 2002 by U. of Illinois Press.

A couple of good critical works that cover literature of the period:

Repression and Recovery: Modern American Poetry and the Politics of Cultural Memory, 1910-1945 by Cary Nelson. Published 1992 by U. of Wisconsin Press.

Revolutionary Memory: Recovering the Poetry of the American Left by Cary Nelson. Published 2001 by Routledge.

A vast wealth of photography from the period, made for the Farm Security Administration (and including work by Walker Evans and Dorothea Lange among many others), is online here.

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