We have always had a great interest in ourselves, in our exceptionalism, in being a country of preeminent political ideals. A simple survey of political history proves our self-centeredness not altogether magical, either. Still, most citizenries (if not their monarchs) have likewise felt that they too had stumbled upon a mission from God to form themselves into "a most perfect union." And so they did -- for a time. American self-aggrandizement, like all others I believe, is just communal biology at work and based on a deep-rooted drive to survive.
Many cultures in every part of the world, from the Far East, Middle East, Europe and the Americas, have argued for their singular mastery of the human condition. Based on their perception of a precarious present -- usually at their own pinnacle of political organization, economic horsepower, and cultural omnipotence -- they have pounded their chests and planted their flags wherever they could find soil.
As I've watched and listened to the nascent movement "Occupy Wall Street," I've been driven to reread a favorite book of mine about America -- The American 1930s: A Literary History. Written by Peter Conn, a professor of English from the University of Pennsylvania, this literary and cultural history is a wonderful primer for fixing desperate parts into a whole. I would not say it explained history as it happened. I would say it explained history as it has happened.
Conn's book delivers on its key promise: "Beginning with the stock market crash of 1929 and ending with America's entry into the Second World War, the long Depression decade was a period of immense social, economic, and political turmoil. In response, writers as various as John Dos Passos, William Faulkner, Eugene O'Neill, Langston Hughes, Pearl S. Buck, and others looked to the past to makes sense of the present." Conn goes deep into these writers, and others.
Certainly, this impulse to explain history in movements makes a kind of sense. Isn't this a primary use of history -- to collect the past to make the present better, the future better. Isn't history full of warnings and signs to which, if we just pay close attention, all will be clear? If only this were true.
What can be enjoyed in a literary or cultural history is not, thankfully, the general, but instead the specific. Cultural history fingers the art-makers and stretches taut the fabric of their individual creative expressions into a single garment. It honors the desperate voices as one, but still shows the variety of individual experience as well.
In reading Conn's beautiful survey, what captured my attention (beyond the variety of confrontations with America) was the great number of social institutions founded and the number of cultural icons that survive today from the 1930s. As Conn notes, the menagerie is intense: the first opera ever broadcast from American radio is Puccini's Madame Butterfly; the Lindbergh baby is kidnapped; the first museum of American art is formed (the Whitney Gallery in New York City); the Empire State Building opens as the tallest in the world; the Chicago World's Fair opens the "Century of Progress"; Amelia Earhart disappears; Benny Goodman plays Carnegie Hall, Walt Disney opens Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs; Albert Einstein writes Roosevelt urging the development of the atomic bomb, and so on.
It seems to me, unlike most histories I have read, Conn's work more precisely reflects how history happens to us -- amongst and between our strange dailiness.
This is not to say that Conn's history wanders from its purpose -- to unfurl the many writers producing work in the 1930s. He does a fine job of discussing the literature of war by Dos Passos and Trumbo, the psychological shredding of Fitzgerald and West, the politically-tinted work of Gold, Herbst, and Upton Sinclair. Conn's book is a manageable, readable survey of literary history. Among the best.
Like many I am trying to understand what is underneath the "Occupy" movement. What is at its root. It appears to me to be a collective crying out for an "equality" that has only ever existed in theory, in our minds, in pamphlets and books. I'm sure this isn't anything most people want to hear -- or probably even something most people agree with. However, it is hard to read history and literature and art and believe otherwise. Perhaps the best we can do is read history, literature, and art and act as we believe.
When we suffer alone we call it art. When we suffer together we call it history. This I believe.
Joe Woodward is the author of the blog The Nathanael West Project and also Alive Inside the Wreck: A Biography of Nathanael West by O/R Books, New York / London.