Down in the Dumps

Place, Modernity, American Depression

Down in the Dumps

Book Pages: 344 Illustrations: 111 illustrations Published: May 2008

Author: Jani Scandura

American Studies, Geography, Theory and Philosophy > Critical Theory

Mucking around in the messy terrain of American trash, Jani Scandura tells the story of the United States during the Great Depression through evocative and photo-rich portraits of four locales: Reno, Key West, Harlem, and Hollywood. In investigating these Depression-era “dumps,” places that she claims contained and reclaimed the cultural, ideological, and material refuse of modern America, Scandura introduces the concept of “depressive modernity,” an enduring affective component of American culture that exposes itself at those moments when the foundational myths of America and progressive modernity—capitalism, democracy, individualism, secularism, utopian aspiration—are thrown into question. Depressive modernity is modernity at a standstill. Such a modernity is not stagnant or fixed, nor immobile, but is constituted by an instantaneous unstaging of desire, territory, language, and memory that reveals itself in the shimmering of place.

An interpretive bricolage that draws on an unlikely archive of 1930s detritus—office memos, scribbled manuscripts, scrapbooks, ruined photographs, newspaper clippings, glass eyes, incinerated stage sets, pulp novels, and junk washed ashore—Down in the Dumps escorts its readers through Reno’s divorce factory of the 1930s, where couples from across the United States came to quickly dissolve matrimonial bonds; Key West’s multilingual salvage economy and its status as the island that became the center of an ideological tug-of-war between the American New Deal government and a politically fraught Caribbean; post-Renaissance Harlem, in the process of memorializing, remembering, grieving, and rewriting a modernity that had already passed; and Studio-era Hollywood, Nathanael West’s “dump of dreams,” in which the introduction of sound in film and shifts in art direction began to transform how Americans understood place-making and even being itself. A coda on Alcatraz and the Pentagon brings the book into the present, exploring how American Depression comes to bear on post-9/11 America.


Down in the Dumps is a fascinating work of bricolage. . . . [It] makes texts from the residues of modernity and the myths of modern America. . . . We learn as much about ourselves as national and local submects from those places and persons which we fail to memorialise as we do from any of those sanctioned with tributes or festooned with flags.” — Caroline Hamilton, Australasian Journal of American Studies

“By analysing the meanings of refuse, [Down in the Dumps] has an element of the subversive, which makes for very exciting reading. . . . [Scandura’s] book is engaging and thought-provoking. When was the last time you read a book about dumps, rubbish, refuse and the importance of these things to the meanings of our everyday lives? Where do we draw the line between what counts as historically important and what doesn't? These are some of the questions this book seeks to answer.” — Alan Han, M/C Reviews

“Jani Scandura’s Down in the Dumps exemplifies the innovative research being done on place, space and memory in the field of new modernism. . . . [The book is] particularly well suited to elucidate the surfaces and excavate the depths of what might otherwise be discarded in the proverbial dustbin of history.” — Jessica L. Shumake, TOPIA

“The key virtues of the book are its diverse materials and its methodological innovations. Scandura offers a remarkably rich assortment of unearthed archival research, engaging visual material, and thoughtful analysis of loosely connected subjects ranging from the conventional (Bishop’s poetry and Hemingway’s fiction) to the exotic (the Key West Tropical Aquarium and the salacious story of Carl Von Cosel’s necrophilia with the mummified corpse of Elena Hoyos). The most interesting feature of the book is unquestionably its methodology. The argumentation is associative rather than deductive, and the prose happily wanders off on tangents and creates surprising juxtapositions. . . . She refuses to discard the refuse of her own research. Readers should anticipate a book that demands attention to its form as much as its content. For many readers it will be well worth the effort.” — Michael Tavel Clarke, American Literature

“A brilliant meditation on the centrality of detritus, debris, and depression to the cultural history and geography of American modernity. Jani Scandura’s book is a standout in a crowded field: innovative in its method and composition, elegantly written, and thickly documented, it is destined to become a key text in the new modernist studies.” — Rita Felski, author of Literature after Feminism

“Part history, part ethnography, part self-reflection, and part psychogeography, Down in the Dumps performs a wholly original encounter with the American 1930s. Jani Scandura displaces the national economic narrative and the archive of migration narratives, WPA guides, and leftist manifestoes with local stories that transform the Great Depression from an economic tragedy into a tragicomic account of site-specific modernities.” — Bill Brown, author of A Sense of Things: The Object Matter of American Literature


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Price: $29.95

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Author/Editor Bios Back to Top

Jani Scandura is Associate Professor of English and Co-Founder of the Space and Place Research Collective at the University of Minnesota. She is a co-editor of Modernism, Inc.: Body, Memory, Capital.

Table of Contents Back to Top
Images ix

Acknowledgments xv

Introduction: A Geography of Depression 1

1. Reno: The Divorce Factory 30

2. Key West: The Nation and the Corpse 70

3. Harlem: Blue-Penciled Place 122

4. Hollywood(land): Wax, Fire, Insomnia 186

Afterword: The Prison and the Pentagon 234

Notes 247

Works Cited 285

Index 303
Sales/Territorial Rights: World

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Additional InformationBack to Top
Paper ISBN: 978-0-8223-3666-2 / Cloth ISBN: 978-0-8223-3654-9
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