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``It strikes home'': Documentary constructions of the American family in the Great Depression

Roxanna Pisiak, University of Massachusetts - Amherst

Abstract

Historian Warren Susman has proposed that the response to an experience is perhaps more important than the experience itself, and the American public responded to the Great Depression of the 1930s by documenting it in different forms and genres, and with different purposes and goals in mind. Given the complex nature of the crisis, the structure and function of the family served as central points of focus toward which many Americans directed their fears, concerns, anxieties, and hopes during the decade; consequently, the family was a frequent focus of the era's documentary texts. This dissertation examines documentary texts from the Depression-era which represent the American family, in an attempt to understand how documentary made sense of the Great Depression and its effects on families, and to determine what family "realities" documentary constructed and sanctioned as valid or depicted as undesirable. Its goal is not to determine how accurately or inaccurately documentary represented some objective "truth" or "reality" of family life, but to explore the complex interrelations between cultural ideals or myths of the family and constructions--representations--of actual families.^ The study considers works of fiction, nonfiction, and photography which are characterized by similar documentary methods and goals. It is organized according to three interconnected topics as they were presented by writers and photographers during the decade in question: the reactions of male heads of household to widespread unemployment and financial insecurity; the changing roles of wives and mothers both in and out of the home during a time of economic hardship; and the experiences of children and young adults in a society which provided limited opportunity and promise for the future. Issues of work and poverty are important subtexts of this analysis, given the Depression's effects on society in the way of unemployment, bank failures, homelessness, and destitution. The dissertation concludes with an examination of documentary constructions of "otherness" which are based on class and race, and illustrates how images of family were used to qualify or otherwise influence these concepts of otherness and difference. ^

Subject Area

American Studies|Art History|Literature, American

Recommended Citation

Roxanna Pisiak, "``It strikes home'': Documentary constructions of the American family in the Great Depression" (January 1, 1993). Doctoral Dissertations Available from Proquest. Paper AAI9408329.
http://scholarworks.umass.edu/dissertations/AAI9408329

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