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Things of the Spirit

Art and Healing in the American Body Politic, 1929-1941


George Van Cleve Speer

In the 1930s, the crises brought about by the Depression, climatic devastation, and the rearmament of Europe led Americans from all walks of life to believe that capitalism and technology had synthesized into a monstrous force that threatened the human race. And yet, this chaotic decade also witnessed an unprecedented level of support, both rhetorical and institutional, for the importance of art in the lives of everyday Americans. This book investigates that paradox, asking why, when simple survival presented its own obstacles, our historically pragmatic culture began to define art as a necessity rather than a luxury. To answer this question, the book traces the symbolism of the embattled and recuperative body across a broad spectrum of American culture in the Machine Age. The book situates this symbolism within the commentary of artists, novelists, critics, and educators who trusted in the power of artistic expression and the experience of art to restore the health of the body politic.


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Epilogue 209


Epilogue On May 6, 1937, the German airship Hindenburg exploded and burned at its mooring in Lakehurst, New Jersey. Seventeen months later, on October 30, 1938, the Mercury Theatre of the Air threw millions into a panic, convinced that Martians were taking over the Earth. These unrelated events—one terribly real and the other a complete fiction—sustained the climate of anxiety that had characterized American life since the Crash of 1929. The economy veered toward disaster yet again and by March 1938, the stock market had lost almost half its value, four million more Americans were unemployed and industrial production had dropped by forty percent.1 Many Americans who had looked to Roosevelt to solve their problems throughout the decade blamed him for the nation’s apparent inability to extricate itself from a series of disasters. The President’s right–hand man, Harry Hopkins, wrote in the New Republic that Americans were “bored with the poor, the unemployed and the insecure.”2 Congress was emboldened by Roosevelt’s political misfortunes and, in its appropriation for 1940, effectively cut all funding for the WPA and prescribed the dismantling or absorption of its arts–related projects. The pulling of the plug came about largely through the fears of Congressmen Martin Dies of Texas and J. Parnell Thomas of New Jersey—whose Special Committee to Investigate Un–American Activities had just been established—that the Communist Party was using federally sponsored programs, including its arts initiatives, for seditious purposes.3 The convictions of American artists regarding political...

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