Real Folks

Race and Genre in the Great Depression

Real Folks

Book Pages: 336 Illustrations: 22 photographs Published: September 2011

Author: Sonnet Retman

African American Studies and Black Diaspora, American Studies, Literature and Literary Studies > Literary Criticism

During the Great Depression, people from across the political spectrum sought to ground American identity in the rural know-how of “the folk.” At the same time, certain writers, filmmakers, and intellectuals combined documentary and satire into a hybrid genre that revealed the folk as an anxious product of corporate capitalism, rather than an antidote to commercial culture. In Real Folks, Sonnet Retman analyzes the invention of the folk as figures of authenticity in the political culture of the 1930s, as well as the critiques that emerged in response. Diverse artists and intellectuals—including the novelists George Schuyler and Nathanael West, the filmmaker Preston Sturges, and the anthropologist Zora Neale Hurston—illuminated the fabrication and exploitation of folk authenticity in New Deal and commercial narratives. They skewered the racist populisms that prevented interracial working-class solidarity, prophesized the patriotic function of the folk for the nation-state in crisis, and made their readers and viewers feel self-conscious about the desire for authenticity. By illuminating the subversive satirical energy of the 1930s, Retman identifies a rich cultural tradition overshadowed until now by the scholarly focus on Depression-era social realism.


“Taking direct aim at conventional literary and cultural histories of the 1930s that exalt nonfiction and documentary modes of production, this original, provocative study argues instead that readers and scholars need to pay much close attention to more unruly genres and texts produced during this turbulent era. . . . This engaging, engrossing study considerably expands and enriches knowledge or the American 1930s. Highly recommended.” — J. A. Miller, Choice

“Sonnet Retman presents a deft, razor-sharp revisionist interpretation of Depression-era America. She argues that, rather than social realism, an insurgent taste for satire—sated through idioms of minstrelsy, burlesque, ‘signifying ethnography,’ and screwball comedy—drove the smartest cultural challenges to an economy and polity careening off the tracks. George Schuyler, Nathanael West, Zora Neale Hurston, Preston Sturges, and other artists challenged reflexive celebrations of folk authenticity, dissected the racialist logic of modern market economies, and reframed the struggle to secure the integrity of American selves, both body and soul. Real Folks is profoundly illuminating in its assessment of the Depression era, and it is highly relevant to our own times.” — Adam Green, author of Selling the Race: Culture, Community, and Black Chicago, 1940–1955

“This wonderfully engaging account of the construction of the folk is fascinating for its components and the connections among them. It is an important study of documentary and satirical genres, as well as the relationship between genre categorizations and cultural narratives. Sonnet Retman is especially insightful on the relationship between literary form and cultural change.” — Priscilla Wald, author of Contagious: Cultures, Carriers, and the Outbreak Narrative


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Author/Editor Bios Back to Top

Sonnet Retman is Associate Professor of African American Studies and Adjunct Associate Professor of Women’s Studies and English at the University of Washington.

Table of Contents Back to Top
Acknowledgments ix
Introduction 1
Part I: The Folklore of Racial Capitalism
1. "A Combination Madhouse, Burlesque Show and Coney Island": The Color Question in George Schuyler's Black No More 33
2. "Inantimate Hideosities": The Burlesque of Racial Capitalism in Nathanael West's A Cool Million 72
Part II: Performing the Folk
3. "The Last American Frontier": Mapping the Folk in The Federal Writers' Project's Florida: A Guide to the Southernmost State 113
4. "Ah Gives Myself de Privilege to Go": Navigating the Field and the Folk in Zora Neale Hurston's Mules and Men 152
Part III: Populist Masquerade
5. "Am I Laughing?": Burlesque Incongruities of Genre, Gender, and Audience in Preston Sturges's Sullivan's Travels 191
Afterpiece: The Coen Brothers' Ol'-Timey Blues in O Brother, Where Art Thou? 240
Notes 251
Bibliography 287
Index 311
Sales/Territorial Rights: World

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Additional InformationBack to Top
Paper ISBN: 978-0-8223-4944-0 / Cloth ISBN: 978-0-8223-4925-9
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