According to Kenneth J. Bindas’s Modernity and the Great Depression: The Transformation of American Society, 1930–1941, the United States underwent a major cultural transformation in the 1930s, as Americans embraced “modernity.” What does this mean? During the Great Depression, Bindas claims, Americans became much more accepting of the idea that they could create a better future by turning to “order, planning, and reason” (1). This attitude not only became widespread in the 1930s, this book suggests, but also peaked during that decade. In support of this bold framing argument, Bindas provides five topical chapters. The first and weakest of these offers a brief account of how modernity was discussed in the 1930s by Christian ministers and theologians, as well as by secular intellectuals. The second chapter turns to the New Deal, by describing the operations of the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) and the National Youth Administration. In the third chapter, Bindas, like many cultural historians before him, examines the representations of science and technology at world’s fairs and expositions. That chapter covers six different events, the two largest of which were the Century of Progress fair, held in Chicago in 1933–1934, and the New York World’s Fair (1939–1940). Chapter 4 discusses interior decorating and home furnishings, with a special emphasis on the contributions of women working as professional decorators. The final topical chapter, on the music of the era (which the author has discussed in two earlier books), provides a wide-ranging survey of the subject, with sections on cowboy singers and Federal Music Project orchestras, as well as swing. These five chapters provide informative discussions of a variety of important topics. Each chapter offers some original summary and analysis of primary sources (mostly published works), along with a synthesis of relevant studies by other historians. In most cases, this book adds relatively little to what has been described previously by those studies. For example, in the intriguing essay on home decorating, the most original of the book’s chapters, Bindas makes good use of dozens of contemporary magazine articles and treatises on home decorating while following a path blazed in recent years by other scholars, such as Kristina Wilson, Monica Obniski, and Bridget May. Because this book presents an especially bold argument about Americans’ embrace of modernity in the 1930s, it is especially vulnerable to criticisms—often leveled even at less ambitious cultural histories—having to do with the difficulty of measuring popular opinion, reception, and response. The chapters in this book mostly describe discourses and artifacts generated by relatively elite producers, including intellectuals, scientists, professional designers, and government officials. But the book’s framing argument is a claim about a cultural transformation that supposedly took place across the American population. Bindas assures us that this shift in the national popular culture did occur. For example, the chapter on the expositions confidently declares that the “fairs promised salvation,” in the form of modernist assurances about the benefits of science, “and they delivered” (107). But even in this chapter, which contains at least a few bits of evidence from reviews of the fairs and audience surveys, there remains a giant chasm between what we know about the design of the fairs and the goals of their organizers, on the one hand, and the fairs’ reception and effects on the broader culture, on the other. Leaving aside the question of the extent to which various topical chapters support the main argument, there remains the larger problem of how the limited, selective evidence presented by Bindas can possibly sustain the book’s grand thesis. The 1930s are singled out as the decade when modernity was most fully embraced; but without any comparative evidence from other decades, it is impossible to assess this claim. Throughout the book, Bindas presents sweeping arguments about the cultural sensibilities of millions of Americans but does little to discuss contradictory evidence. In several places, as in the discussions of fundamentalism, nostalgia, and romance in the chapters on religion and music, Bindas suggests that because modernity was capacious enough to embrace all these things, even the most apparently antimodern cultural expressions were actually part and parcel of the national acceptance of modernity. Such logic threatens to make meaningless the central concept of the book. Even more disturbing, it suggests that for the sake of presenting a tidy argument, the author has chosen to overlook the considerable conflict, pluralism, and complexity that defined American culture in the 1930s, no less than in other decades. In the end, this book succeeds in presenting several solid chapter-length essays, but fails to sustain its crude argument about modernity. A more satisfactory book of this kind would have engaged more deeply with major studies in the field, including the now-classic studies by Warren I. Susman and Michael Kammen, along with the rich scholarly literatures on popular fiction, photography, film, Jim Crow, and empire. Such works have emphasized the complexities of American culture during this era, while raising challenging questions about how the Great Depression and New Deal affected nationalism, radicalism, and conservatism. Many of them have pointed to the various ways in which the Great Depression (as well as the Great War) may have undermined, rather than boosted, popular faith in modernity. Perhaps it is true, as Bindas suggests, that we have underestimated the extent of Americans’ collective embrace of reason and order in the 1930s. But before we can accept that claim, we will need more capacious, better-designed studies of the subject. © The Author 2018. Published by Oxford University Press.
The American Historical Review – Oxford University Press
Published: Feb 1, 2018
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