Friday, December 20, 2019

John Marsh's "The Emotional Life of the Great Depression"

John Marsh is Associate Professor of English at Pennsylvania State University. He is the author of In Walt We Trust: How a Queer Socialist Poet Can Save America from Itself, Class Dismissed: Why We Cannot Teach or Learn Our Way out of Inequality and Hog Butchers, Beggars, and Busboys: Poverty, Labor, and the Making of Modern American Poetry. In addition to these, he is the editor of You Work Tomorrow: An Anthology of American Labor Poetry, 1929-1941.

Marsh applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, The Emotional Life of the Great Depression, and reported the following:
If readers turn to page 99 of The Emotional Life of the Great Depression, they will find the closing pages of a discussion about the polio epidemic that struck New York City in 1931. Although this epidemic afflicted fewer people than the more famous 1916 outbreak, thanks in part to the development of the iron lung, it nevertheless left its mark on the city. (The borough of Brooklyn took the brunt of it.) In the spring and summer of 1931, slightly more than 4,000 people, most of them children, contracted the disease, and 490 of them died.

The polio outbreak refutes the famous assertion by Franklin Delano Roosevelt in his First Inaugural Address that during the 1930s the only thing Americans “had to fear was fear itself.” In fact, I argue, Americans had plenty to fear during the decade, and I use the polio outbreak—as well as a Cleveland serial murderer who preyed on petty criminals and the homeless—to inquire into how fear works. I argue that fear comes in two forms: terror, or the fear of a sudden, specific stimuli (a snake in the grass, for example); and dread, the fear of a looming, prospective threat. Polio represents the latter form of fear. Thousands of people succumbed to the disease, but many more people feared that they or, more likely, their children, would contract it. As with polio, many of our fears have to do with the body, with “what illnesses, injuries, and, finally, death might do to our physical selves,” as I put it. As polio also demonstrates, we tend to fear what lies beyond our control. Fear thus exposes our helplessness; it infantilizes us. In this sense, I write, “polio prefigures another prominent fear of the Great Depression—perhaps the prominent fear of the Great Depression: unemployment,” and page 99 looks forward to the rest of the chapter, which discusses white-collar unemployment in the 1930s and a particularly weird H.P. Lovecraft short story.

On the one hand, readers might not get an entirely accurate representation of the book from page 99 alone. In the book as a whole, I explore how Americans responded emotionally to the economic crisis of the Great Depression. I do so by documenting emotions most people do not usually associate with the decade, including righteousness, panic, awe, love, and hope. But fear, perhaps almost as much as despair, is an emotion that most people do associate with that decade. Indeed, fear may be the quintessential emotion of the decade. That does not make it any less interesting, of course, but that chapter, and that page, do not quite do justice to one of the motives for the book, which is to tell a different story about the Great Depression than most people have heard by telling a different story about the emotional life of the decade.

On the other hand, the page does represent how I try to tell this new story about the Great Depression, which is not—or not only—by recounting the most familiar narratives about the decade but by examining texts and incidents that often receive only passing mention, if that, in histories of the decade. In other words, the book tries to make the Great Depression new by turning to its ephemera, from comic books to stock investment manuals to, yes, polio outbreaks in Brooklyn. These pages about polio also illustrate my attitude toward emotion more generally. That is, I try not to judge whether people were right to feel what they felt did during the 1930s. (For example, in terms of what to fear, polio had nothing on measles, which annually killed more people than all but the mostly deadly of polio outbreaks.) Rather, I seek to understand what Americans felt during the 1930s, and how what they felt can help us understand this crucial decade. Following contemporary psychologists, I argue that emotion helps people appraise their environment and adapt their purposes to it. In that respect, emotions simultaneously tell us a lot about the people who experience those emotions and the world that elicited them. Viewed from this perspective, emotions make an ideal entry into understanding the past. And readers will find that perspective animating almost every page of the book, including, and perhaps especially, page 99.
Learn more about The Emotional Life of the Great Depression at the Oxford University Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue