American Modernism and Depression Documentary

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9780195335682: American Modernism and Depression Documentary
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Photos filled with the forlorn faces of hungry and impoverished Americans that came to characterize the desolation of the Great Depression are among the best known artworks of the twentieth century. Captured by the camera's eye, these stark depictions of suffering became iconic markers of a formative period in U.S. history. Although there has been an ample amount of critical inquiry on Depression-era photographs, the bulk of scholarship treats them as isolated art objects. And yet they were often joined together with evocative writing in a genre that flourished amid the period, the documentary book. American Modernism and Depression Documentary looks at the tradition of the hybrid, verbal-visual texts that flourished during a time when U.S. citizens were becoming increasingly conscious of the life of a larger nation.

Jeff Allred draws on a range of seminal works to illustrate the convergence of modernism and documentary, two forms often regarded as unrelated. Whereas critics routinely look to James Agee and Walker Evans' Let Us Now Praise Famous Men as the sole instance of the modernist documentary book, Allred turns to such works as Richard Wright's scathing 12 Million Black Voices, and the oft-neglected You Have Seen Their Faces by Erskine Caldwell and Margaret Bourke-White to open up the critical playing field. And rather than focusing on the ethos of Progressivism and/or the politics and aesthetics of the New Deal, Allred emphasizes the centrality of Life magazine to the consolidation of a novel cultural form.

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Jeff Allred is Assistant Professor of English, Hunter College, CUNY.

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"Allred's work is well supported by detailed analysis of Depression-era photos and text. Recommended." --Choice


"Rather than a critique of a genre, we are presented with a redefinition of form, content, and, most importantly, the daunting import that expressive creativity exercised during a major historical period in the making of America. We are persuaded that what we have critically encoded as 'them' or 'they' turns out to be, definitively, 'we' or 'us.' Old distinctions between the masses and the rest of us are eradicated. Allred's reading of Richard Wright and the 'knot' of race is brilliant."-Houston Baker, Vanderbilt University


"Allred's book offers an impressive new take on the Depression-era documentary that dispenses with the sentimentality and commitment to realism that surrounds much criticism of this genre. More significantly, he offers a way to read documentary not as an interruption of modernist experimentation, but as an integral part of it."-Susan Hegeman, University of Florida


"American Modernism and Depression Documentary is a stirring investigation of the 'aesthetics of interruption' of 1930s-era documentary books. In sparkling, incisive, and lapidary prose, Jeff Allred luminously navigates the fissure between modernism and documentary forms, eloquently accentuating the tension between the photographic image and the surrounding text in the framework of the politics and culture of the Great Depression."-Alan Wald, University of Michigan


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Publisher: Oxford University Press, 2012
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