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Everything Was Better in America

Everything Was Better in America: Print Culture in the Great Depression

Copyright Date: 2008
Pages: 280
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    Everything Was Better in America
    Book Description:

    As a counterpart to research on the 1930s that has focused on liberal and radical writers calling for social revolution, David Welky offers this eloquent study of how mainstream print culture shaped and disseminated a message affirming conservative middle-class values and assuring its readers that holding to these values would get them through hard times. Through analysis of the era's most popular newspaper stories, magazines, and books, Welky examines how voices both outside and within the media debated the purposes of literature and the meaning of cultural literacy in a mass democracy. He presents lively discussions of such topics as the newspaper treatment of the Lindbergh kidnapping, issues of race in coverage of the 1936 Olympic games, domestic dynamics and gender politics in cartoons and magazines, Superman's evolution from a radical outsider to a spokesman for the people, and the popular consumption of such novels as the Ellery Queen mysteries, Gone with the Wind, and The Good Earth. Through these close readings, Welky uncovers the subtle relationship between the messages that mainstream media strategically crafted and those that their target audience wished to hear.

    eISBN: 978-0-252-09281-7
    Subjects: Sociology, History

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. ix-x)
  4. INTRODUCTION: “A Time Not to Rock the Boat”
    (pp. 1-14)

    It was a decade of broken dreams and hard times.

    Many Americans believed in 1929 that their country was scaling a never-ending ladder of prosperity. Like many, E. Y. Harburg, who later wrote two of the Depression decade’s great anthems—“Over the Rainbow” and “Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?”—assumed the economy was as solid as “the Rock of Gibraltar.” Republican presidential candidate Herbert Hoover insisted that “we in America today are nearer to the final triumph over poverty than ever before in the history of any land” just fourteen months before the stock market began its long tumble.¹...

  5. Part One: Newspapers

    • 1 The Press Encounters the New Deal
      (pp. 17-27)

      Because a newspaper represents “great investments of capital,” journalism professor O. W. Riegel argued in 1935, it instinctively promotes “political doctrines which will assure it the greatest freedom in an economic sense” and tries to “bring into existence a state of society which it believes to be most advantageous to the people it serves.” In Riegel’s view, financial considerations go hand in hand with cultural preferences. The press showed this most clearly in its delicate dance with the Roosevelt administration. The majority of mainstream editors and publishers wanted to preserve old values because they saw profit in a conservative economic...

    • 2 Kidnapping America’s Child
      (pp. 28-44)

      Damon Runyon felt his stomach lurch as he joined the line outside New Jersey State Prison’s death house. William Randolph Hearst’s star reporter thought he had seen it all. He had covered Al Capone’s income-tax evasion trial, written extensively on the underworld, trekked across Mexico with Black Jack Pershing, bivouacked with the First Army during the First World War, and observed Lindbergh’s triumphant return from Paris in 1927. Yet this was like nothing he had ever experienced. He fumbled with his cigarette as he approached the guards. Officers inspected his watch and cigarette case, confiscated his penknife, and tapped his...

    • 3 Olympic Feats of Americanism
      (pp. 45-66)

      “No single classification of news” sold more papers than the sports section, theNew York World’s W. P. Brazell noted in 1929. Dailies covered important horse races and prizefights as early as the 1830s, but publishers did not fully recognize the drawing potential of a sports section until the Yellow Journalism era of the 1890s. It was a standard feature by the 1920s, and, by the early 1930s, most men who read the newspaper read the sports section every day. Its popularity and importance as a circulation builder led editors to assign many of their best writers to the sports...

    • 4 The Gumps: America’s Comic-Strip Family
      (pp. 67-80)

      In a 1937 article,Fortunemagazine warned the future “social historian of the U.S. of the 1930’s” that dismissing comic strips as “mere juvenile entertainment irrelevant to [their] serious purpose” would cause them to miss a vital clue to unlocking “the nation’s adult dream life.” After emerging during the Yellow Journalism days of the 1890s, the funnies grew into an integral part of the daily paper. Papers could choose from more than two hundred strips by 1930, and comics graced the pages of every major American sheet except theNew York Timesand theBoston Transcript, and even that blue-blooded...

  6. Part Two: Magazines

    • 5 How to Slant a Magazine
      (pp. 83-95)

      “Magazines,” wrote two journalism professors in 1938, “are as much a commonplace in America as neckties.” Americans bought about three billion periodicals even in the worst year of the Depression, an average of two per month for every man, woman, and child. Intellectuals recognized magazines as “an educational force of the first magnitude,” disseminating “a large proportion” of the nation’s well of common knowledge. Americans also used magazines as statements of social rank. A household displaying theSaturday Evening Postpractically shrieked its middle-class status. The same family would never leave a copy ofTrue Storywhere polite company might...

    • 6 Life, the War, and Everything
      (pp. 96-113)

      Henry Luce had builtTimeandFortuneinto successes by the early 1930s. Now he wanted to reach an even broader audience. He wanted to create “the damnedest best non-pornographic look-through magazine in the United States.” The resulting periodical,Life, became a phenomenon within days of its release, reaching heights its publisher could not have imagined. Its achievement went beyond sales figures. The weekly was among the most prominent entries in the mainstream print culture world, a powerful if sometimes ambiguous tool for creating, shaping, reinforcing, and reflecting Americans’ vision of their past, present, and future.Lifeclearly shows the...

    • 7 Defining Womanhood in the Ladies’ Home Journal
      (pp. 114-129)

      Twelve times a year, workers loaded three million copies of theLadies’ Home Journal—five million pounds of magazines—onto the 165 mail and freight cars that distributed them across the United States. Costing a mere dime, each issue contained five or six short stories; colorful advertisements; pictures of the latest fashions; and advice on homemaking, child rearing, cooking, gardening, and decorating. It was the most influential member of the “most powerful group of periodicals in America.” Critics saw women’s magazines as “a dumping ground” for manuscripts unworthy of inclusion in intelligent publications, but at a time when many of...

    • 8 Patriot Number One, the Man of Steel
      (pp. 130-146)

      Yes, Superman, strange visitor from another planet. Even the most refined and all but the most ignorant know who is faster than a speeding bullet and more powerful than a locomotive. The man born as Kal-El on the planet Krypton has achieved a level of popularity here on Earth greater than any figure in mass culture save perhaps Mickey Mouse. He has fought for truth, justice, and the American Way in films, cartoons, comic strips, a Broadway musical, television shows, novels, and a radio program. Products ranging from T-shirts to moccasins to peanut butter have carried his image. He has...

  7. Part Three: Books

    • 9 Mainstreaming the Book Industry
      (pp. 149-159)

      Newspapers conjure visions of roaring presses, cigar-chomping editors, and ink-stained writers. Magazine offices feature desks overflowing with manuscripts and the frenzy of ever-impending deadlines. But books are for the lettered, the cultured, the thinking. “Fussy old men and effeminate young ones” produce books, people surrounded by “preciosity and fruit-juice cocktails and rough tweeds and Oxford accents and funny pipes.” Publishers were supposed to be uninterested in profits and cut-throat competition. Or, at least, that was the popular conception of publishing houses. Real bookmen were not so helpless, yet their propensity for clinging to outdated business models galled informed observers. “Any...

    • 10 Finding Security in Best Sellers
      (pp. 160-176)

      Because theEditor’s H. M. Hamilton spent much of the 1930s complaining about the literary world, his 1935 diatribe against best sellers was hardly out of character. They must be “full of thrills,” he grumbled. “Set the story in the Kongo, or the Riviera, or on Park Avenue; people it with murderers and millionaires and debutantes and moral imbeciles . . . and lo, your future is assured—if only your style is bad enough!” Others had more benevolent perspectives.Publishers’ Weekly’s Helen E. Haines wrote in 1932 that people used books to “find a way out of their difficulties,...

    • 11 Ellery Queen Restores Order
      (pp. 177-192)

      “Ellery Queenisthe American detective story,” declared crime-fiction critic Anthony Boucher. Queen was the top-selling detective writer of the 1930s, number one on “the whodunit hit parade.” Between 1929 and 1941, Queen—which was both the pseudonym of cousins Frederic Dannay and Manfred Lee and the name of their fictional detective—produced fourteen novels, wrote four more under the alias “Barnaby Ross,” and compiled two volumes of short stories. Queen’s books sold more than ten million copies by 1945. With slightly more than one million in print, hisThe Chinese Orange Mystery(1934) stood as the best-selling mystery of...

    • 12 Gone With the Wind, but Not Forgotten
      (pp. 193-214)

      Atlanta Constitutionstaff writer Yolande Gwin faced a slow news day, so she composed a brief local-interest piece to fill some space. “We take exceptional pride,” she wrote, “in announcing the name of Margaret Mitchell, whose book, ‘Gone With the Wind,’ is scheduled for spring publication. The author, better known as ‘Peggy,’ is a journalist of unusual talent and note, and her forthcoming book will present an interesting and charmingly prepared piece of work which will have wide appeal, especially in the south.” When Gwin filed her story in February 1936, almost five months beforeGone With the Windcame...

    • CONCLUSION: “Everything Was Better in America”
      (pp. 215-220)

      The cover of James Truslow Adams’sThe American: The Making of a New Man(1943) depicts a Spanish Conquistador, a New England Puritan, and a middle-American businessman standing on a platform. Although their contrasting outfits make them look different, they are at ease with each other. Their external disparities are insignificant compared to their basic similarities. Their common residence in what is now the United States binds them together. Operating under the assumption that the American is “different from the citizen of any other nation,” Adams examines how people from diverse backgrounds underwent the inexorable process of becoming “the American.”...

  8. Notes
    (pp. 221-250)
  9. Index
    (pp. 251-266)
  10. Back Matter
    (pp. 267-271)