Thursday, 20 May 2010

Peter Conn's America

Peter Conn’s “The American 1930’s: A Literary History” (Cambridge University Press, 2009) is such a scholarly wonder that it made regret for the first time ever at Walter Annenberg and Charles Lee’s conniving to welch on my right to return to Penn if The East-West Center’s directorship didn’t work out. (A $3000 salary cut from their first offered contract, a house too dinky for three teens when we had just left our new Louie Kahn manse in Philly, and the unapproved appointment as my number two a Ph.D. from Iowa who had spent his first decade in the CIA were my three reasons for fleeing Honolulu.) So whatever the opposite of nostalgia is I experienced as I read for the first time a book by Conn who would have been a colleague.

His Penn presence now even compensates for the the sad disappearance of the Department of American Civilization in the interim. Both this book and his website of class assignments and educational ideology establishes that American Studies is alive and kicking in what used to be a creaky English Department (always excepting my poet pal Daniel Hoffman!)

And in the lee of reading with great pleasure Morris Dickstein’s “Dancing in the Dark”, I’m astonished to see how their diverse complementary perspectives make so comprehensible the complexities of that tortuous decade. Dickstein’s angle is more esthetic, Conn’s sociological.

Together my perspective became more and more three dimensional. Dickstein is better at compare and contrast, Conn at making sure nothing important is ignored. For example, Robert Penn Warren’s Southern vision is clearly explained by Dickstein , but Conn shows how Warren’s first book ,”John Brown: The Making of a Martyr”, denigrated the heroic outsider. (It was long before Malcolm X changed his Southern mind!) And he shows in Warren’s “Night Rider” how his Guthrie, Kentucky home folks fought the American Tobacco Company monopoly.

And beyond the usual dominance of “Gone with Wind” Conn points out how Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings’ “The Yearling” revealed how poor Southern whites dealt with Reconstruction. (Conn’s book contains a list of Pulitzer Prize fiction and nonfiction winners as well as bestsellers in that decade: his website shows how his classes use these aids to broaden and deepen student literary sophistication.

He prefaces his book with a cultural and political timeline which I will copy before I send the book back to Jena, checked out on the Common Book Network, an indispensable aid to an American in Germany. There are so many details he deploys: WPA writing, theatre, and painting. Handbooks of American Design and Architecture. The Dictionary of American Biography. You get the impression that this joint appointment with College of Education wants every English teacher trained at Penn to know about every aid that will make them more professional.

And while Dickstein alludes to the way left wing black intellectuals rsented wealthy whites “slumming” in Harlem, Conn actually quotes Richard Wright’s putdowns. He described the Harlem Renaissance writers as “prim and decorous ambassadors who went a-begging to white America. . . .They entered the Court of American Public Opinion dressed in the kneepants of servility, curtsying to show that the Negro was not inferior, that he was human, and that he led a life comparable to that of other people. For the most part these artistic ambassadors were received as though they were French poodles who do clever tricks.” P.189.

Wright lampooned Zora Neale Hurston as the character Sweetie May Carr, and needled poet Countee Cullen as Dewitt Clinton. Similarly, Conn analyzes the many left wing manifestoes that thrived in the decade.

He seems to know everything cultural in that era, even the pioneering Cleveland Karamu House where Langston Hughes’ “Emperor of Haiti”(1936) was first performed. It was about the 1791 revolt of Jean-Jacques Dessaline motivated by the French Revolution but ultimately a political failure. And William Levi Dawson, Professor of Music at Tuskegee (where he taught Ralph Ellison), arranged dozens of African-American spirituals to form his “Negro Folk Symphony”(1934). Leopold Stokowski conducted the premiere with the Philadelphia Symphony.

Conn also explains the social contexts of these cultural sorties. Deflation meant that those with regular income “prospered”. Life expectancy rose from 57.1 in 1929 to 63.7 in 1939. 52 million people in 15 million cars spent $5 billions on motor travel. Motels proliferated alongside the new highways. (The Pennsylvania Turnpike opened in 1940 as the decade ended.)

This piece also appears at Broad Street Review.

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