Connecting with the Great Depression?

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Political leaders, economic analysts and journalists are comparing the current financial meltdown to the Great Depression. “Worst Crisis Since the ’30s, With No End Yet in Sight” was a recent baleful headline from The Wall Street Journal. But while many senior citizens who lived during that time have personal memories of the Depression, for most Americans, the events that occurred between 1929 and the early 40s seem long ago and far away, and they are difficult to imagine as a likely eventuality for the near future.

Popular culture expert Jeffrey Hyson, Ph.D., assistant professor of history at Saint Joseph’s University in Philadelphia, says that many people will recall images from the black and white films and photojournalism that chronicled the Great Depression for a reference, but will have trouble relating those images to today.

“The Great Depression has become a distant iconic event for most Americans,” says Hyson. “When this financial crisis is compared to the Depression, it’s hard for many to get their brains around that – partly because the underlying financial and economic issues are so complex, but also because images from then are so remote. In the end, I’m not sure that comparing today’s circumstances to the Great Depression has tangible meaning for contemporary Americans.”

Hyson cites John Ford’s feature film “The Grapes of Wrath,” based on the 1939 novel by John Steinbeck about one family’s epic struggle that starred a young Henry Fonda, as well as Walker Evans’ and Dorothea Lange’s photographic series of poor Southern families – which were all shot in black and white – as cultural artifacts that help to create a sense of alienation.

“That whole era is literally in black and white, so it looks gray and hazy – it doesn’t look like today, so there is a disconnect,” he notes.

Hyson adds that pop culture of the Depression also features a strain of  “sentimental populism," an underlying optimism that Americans can get through anything, which speaks to societal values placed on strength, fortitude and resilience, as evidenced in films like Frank Capra's Depression trilogy – “Mr. Deeds Goes to Town,” “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington” and “Meet John Doe,” – “Gone with the Wind," the '30s movie musicals, and Walt Disney's animated shorts, especially "The Three Little Pigs.”

“That image of cultural optimism contradicts the starker images of Ford, Evans and Lange, and implies that even a financial disaster like the Great Depression couldn't keep America down,” says Hyson. “Looking back at such cultural artifacts, we may think that it’s possible to get through a Depression simply by energetic tap-dancing, witty banter and a house made of bricks.”

Hyson can be reached for comment at, 610-660-1746, or by calling the Office of University Communications at 610-660-1222.

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