New Deal Modernism

American Literature and the Invention of the Welfare State

New Deal Modernism

Post-Contemporary Interventions

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Book Pages: 352 Illustrations: 8 b&w photographs Published: December 2000

Author: Michael Szalay

American Studies, Literature and Literary Studies > Literary Criticism

In New Deal Modernism Michael Szalay examines the effect that the rise of the welfare state had on American modernism during the 1930s and 1940s, and, conversely, what difference this revised modernism made to the New Deal’s famed invention of “Big Government.”
Szalay situates his study within a liberal culture bent on security, a culture galvanized by its imagined need for private and public insurance.
Taking up prominent exponents of social and economic security—such as Franklin Delano Roosevelt, John Maynard Keynes, and John Dewey—Szalay demonstrates how the New Deal’s revision of free-market culture required rethinking the political function of aesthetics. Focusing in particular on the modernist fascination with the relation between form and audience, Szalay offers innovative accounts of Busby Berkeley, Jack London, James M. Cain, Robert Frost, Ayn Rand, Betty Smith, and Gertrude Stein, as well as extended analyses of the works of Ernest Hemingway, John Steinbeck, and Richard Wright.


New Deal Modernism offers a strikingly innovative re-mapping of thirties literary culture that complicates long-standing oppositions of left and right, modernism and realism, production and consumption . . . . [A] provocative challenge to studies of both the literary left of the thirties and American modernism . . . . Szalay’s assertions are invariably grounded in deft, detailed textual readings.” — Joseph Entin , Novel

“[A] tour-de-force exploration of the forms and functions of sympathetic identification in New Deal discourse. . . . [A] compelling reading . . . . [An] ambitious and ultimately successful book, McCann strengthen[s] our increasingly sophisticated and variegated understanding of American modernisms in their cultural contexts. Just as importantly, [he] provide[s] an intellectual brief for [his] theoretically informed method of richly contextualized readings and show the gains scholars of most periods might realize by approaching their archives through this methodological avenue.” — Michael Thurston , American Literature

“[D]emonstrate[s] how the fragmentation and anxiety informing the arts in the early Cold War era were part of a larger crisis in nationality and politics. . . . [A]dvance[s] our understanding of the perplexing cultural patterns that divided postwar America from earlier eras. — Lary May , American Historical Review

“[O]riginal . . . . Szalay makes surprising and contentious suggestions. . . . Well worth acquiring, this title will be most useful as browsing matter; its insights will disturb readers of both the political Right and Left.” — J. M. Ditsky , Choice

“[T]his is a brilliant book. Precise and generous, it alters and invigorates the field.” — Guy Rotella , Studies in American Fiction

“Drawing judiciously on American and European criticism, this splendidly nonpartisan book explains the shaping of American modernism by New Deal reforms to constitute a change so vast that it has so far passed unnoticed by political readers transfixed by the more spectacular idea of revolution.” — Library Journal

“If there is a last word in the contemporary debates about politics and aesthetics, Michael Szalay’s study of the insurance era may be it.” — Colbey Emmerson , Modernism/Modernity

“Michael Szalay’s New Deal Modernism is that rare event in scholarly publishing—a genuinely important book. A work of great ambition and innovation, it is the most significant study of the literature of the American Thirties to have been published in years. But its significance extends still further than even this high praise suggests. Investigating the previously unnoticed affiliation between the governmental methods of the welfare state and the literary strategies that accompanied its rise, Szalay offers a striking revision of the history of modernism and, more broadly still, of the whole course of twentieth century American cultural history. . . . This is bold and brilliant work. If there is any justice, New Deal Modernism will be a defining work in its field for many years to come.” — Sean McCann , Modern Fiction Studies

"[E]xcellent . . . . [C]onvincing . . . . Szalay’s New Deal Modernism is an ambitious study of the inextricable connections between the literary/cultural movement of modernism and the welfare state that emerged during the New Deal. . . . Expertly employing an array of critical tools and demonstrating an impressive knowledge of New Deal political and social history, Szalay constructs a compelling case for his thesis. His textual analyses are rich in insights—one astute reading succeeds another throughout the book—and he reveals common threads of discourse connecting the diverse group of works he examines. . . . [G]reatly enrich[s] our understanding of the New Deal’s literary legacy . . . ." — Lawrence J. Oliver , Journal of American History

New Deal Modernism tells a strikingly new story about the relations of literature to political agency. Szalay’s work will be a welcome provocation, both to left revisionist scholarship on cultural politics and to the historiography of U.S. modernism.” — Sara Blair, University of Michigan

“An argument of striking range and precision. Oppositions of left and right, realist and modernist will look different from now on. A terrific book.” — Richard Ohmann, Wesleyan University

“Szalay brilliantly relates aesthetic debates of the 1930s to debates over how art might survive economic conditions in which art objects have little chance of competing with basic economic necessities. Szalay’s unique contribution is to show exactly how, in providing insurance against the market, the New Deal reinvented the project of making art.” — Frances Ferguson, Johns Hopkins University

“Through its frank assessment of New Deal culture, Szalay’s book adds mightily to the renascence of history-minded revisions of literary modernism. If you want to know how literary citizenship connected with the social motion of state initiatives like the Social Security Administration or the Federal Arts Project, then this is a very good place to begin.” — Andrew Ross, New York University


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Author/Editor Bios Back to Top

Michael Szalay is Assistant Professor of English and Comparative Literature at University of California, Irvine.

Table of Contents Back to Top
Introduction: The Literature of the Welfare State

1. “The Whole Question of What Writing Is”: Jack London, the Literary Left, and the Federal Writers’ Project

2. The Politics of Textual Integrity: Ayn Rand, Gertrude Stein, and Ernest Hemingway

3. Wallace Stevens and the Invention of Social Security

4. The Vanishing American Father: Sentiment and Labor in The Grapes of Wrath and A Tree Grows in Brooklyn

5. “The Death of the Gallant Liberal”: Robert Frost, Richard Wright, and Busby Berkeley

Conclusion: New Deal Postmodernism



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Additional InformationBack to Top
Paper ISBN: 978-0-8223-2562-8 / Cloth ISBN: 978-0-8223-2576-5
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