The Great Depression and the Arts
"And then the Depression came." This familiar lament more than distinguishes one decade from another. Within its meaning are the images and realities of disaster: the crash of the stock market, the howl of the dust storms, the cry of the hungry, the silence of the shamed. Thousands of Americans watched their destinies evaporate. The horizon of prosperity looming "just around the corner" seemed to fade from view. While the Depression may have jolted many out of the American Dream, its pattern of unemployment, frustration, and despair was neither a universal nor identical condition.
Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal was the political response to the Great Depression. Establishing the foundation of the modern welfare state while preserving the capitalist system, the New Deal experimented with unprecedented activism in an attempt to relieve the social and economic dislocation experienced by "one-third of the nation." Federal programs extended not only into American business, agriculture, labor, and the arts; but into people's daily lives. Despite a mixed legacy with respect to recovery and reform, the political response under Roosevelt proved that economic crisis did not require Americans to abandon democracy. Moreover, American popular culture during the 1930s revealed that economic and social "hard times" did not cause an abandonment of imagination, humor, or fun.
The material in this unit is designed to impress upon students the varying effects of the Great Depression and New Deal on the lives of ordinary Americans. The unit's focus is primarily (but not exclusively) on the people rather than the policies, especially their fears, uncertainties, resilience, commonality of suffering, and survival. Individual lessons ask students to make inferences and to develop historical perspectives based upon evidence. The New Deal's documentary impulse and funding for the arts provide a unique opportunity for students to expand their skills in "reading" the visual and literary records of the 1930s. Still, it is important to note that the exercise of documenting the Great Depression gained momentum as the crisis wore on. What students see and read as records of life in the thirties tells only part of the story.