The Un-thirties: The Other Side of Depression-era Literature


American/Diaspora / Interdisciplinary Humanities

Sara Rutkowski (Kingsborough Community College, CUNY)

Depression-era literature is often regarded in stark contrast to the periods that frame it—the 1920s and the postwar—which have been deemed altogether more compatible with each other both thematically and stylistically. American writers of the Thirties, as the story goes, tended to immerse themselves in the political culture of the period, eschewing modernist concerns in favor of deterministic narratives that offered scathing social criticism and echoed a leftist agenda. Indeed, the period has been critically defined by the work of writers like John Steinbeck, Jack Conroy, James Agee, Michael Gold, and Richard Wright and more generally by the mode of the proletarian genre.

Critics such as Michael Denning and Michael Szalay have in recent years done much to showcase the Thirties as a dynamic period of literary invention that would anticipate the personal, surreal, and darkly comic narratives of the postwar writers. Yet more work can be done to challenge the literary-historical paradigm of Depression-era literature as deeply and necessarily entwined with political discourse and the proletarian genre.

Proposals are invited that address the other side of writers and writing from the 1930s.

Themes to consider include but are not limited to:

Humorous and satirical fiction and poetry of the 1930s

Fantasy and horror texts from the 1930s

Harlem Renaissance writers of the 1930s

Work from the 1930s of notable postwar writers (eg: Ralph Ellison and John Cheever)

Modernist writing in the 1930s

Lesser known or forgotten Thirties writers

Expatriate writers (eg: Gertrude Stein and Henry Miller)

The Detective form


American writing from the 1930s was funnier, freakier, and more personal than many critics have painted it. This panel explores Depression-era literature from a fresh perspective, unearthing the voices of the Thirties that looked past the proletariat for inspiration and lay the groundwork for a new body of humorous, surreal, confessional, and autobiographical literature in the postwar era.