America in the Thirties, which is part of Syracuse University Press’s “America in the Twentieth Century” series and grows out of a freshman seminar taught at Mercyhurst University, is an engaging and well-written work that successfully achieves its goal: deepening students’ knowledge about social, cultural, and political trends of the decade and highlighting its long-term
The book incorporates three non-consecutive, chronologically organized chapters on the Great Depression, Franklin Roosevelt, and the Second New Deal with six thematic ones focused on the environment, African Americans, labor, gender, media, and isolationism. Drawing on fine sketches of both well and lesser known figures, it argues that during the 1930s, a range of people sought to re-establish order over their lives by building coalitions that continue to play important roles in the twenty-first century.
Building on the interdisciplinary skills of its authors, the book skillfully approaches its subject from a range of perspectives. Each chapter opens with a lyric relating to its theme. Although the absence of visual images is striking in a work that foregrounds culture as much as this one, a wide range of cultural expressions including movies, documentary films, ballads, radio shows, theater, paintings, dance, and comic books enliven the book and are distributed throughout the work, not just in the chapter labelled “media.”
The book’s treatment of time represents another core strength. America in the Thirties draws back to the early twentieth century even as it primarily focuses on the 1930s. In discussing African Americans, it begins with the Great Migration and the Harlem Renaissance; and its analysis of the labor movement refers back to industrial trends during World War I. The authors’ expansive use of time adeptly contextualizes the decade’s activism and reform.
For all of its strengths, America in the Thirties still leaves room for improvement. The series’ decision to avoid footnotes so as not to “distract or intimidate the student reader” underestimates the importance of such documentation for training students to do research and think historically (ix). Furthermore, by not highlighting debates among historians as well as the key questions that have animated the field, America in the Thirties implies that the decade’s core trends have already been determined rather than stimulating debate about the decade’s many openly contested questions. For example, what caused the Great Depression and why was it so severe?
The same could be asked about the Dust Bowl. Advanced undergraduate and graduate students could profitably read this work alongside Aaron D. Purcell’s The New Deal and the Great Depression (Kent State University Press, 2014), which examines scholars’ debates about many similar themes, including race, labor, culture, and the environment.
In sum, America in the Thirties provides essential context to key trends animating the decade. Its lively portraits, dynamic writing, and nuanced integration of culture will draw in students and general readers alike, exposing them to the decade’s complexities and ongoing relevance.
Sharon Ann Musher (Richard Stockton College of New Jersey)
This book review also appears in print in American Studies 54.2 (2015) and is available via Project Muse.