Modernity and the Great Depression

The Transformation of American Society, 1930-1941

Kenneth J. Bindas

Order, planning, and reason—in the depths of the Great Depression, with the nation teetering on the brink of collapse, this was what was needed. And this, Kenneth J. Bindas suggests, was what the ideas and ideals of modernity offered—a way to make sense of the chaos all around. In Modernity and the Great Depression, Bindas offers a new perspective on the provenance and power of modernist thought and practice in early twentieth-century America.

In the midst of a terrible economic, social, and political crisis, modernism provided an alternative to the response of many traditional moralists and religious leaders. Promoting a faith based in reason, organization, and planning, modernists espoused a salvation that was not eternal but rather temporal, tangible, and, for a generation with so little to hold onto, eminently practical—one that found virtue in pleasure and private pursuits. After surveying the contested definitional terrain of “modernism” and “modernity,” Bindas tracks their course and influence through such government programs as the Civilian Conservation Corps and the National Youth Administration; in the massive American Expositions and World's Fairs that heralded progress and a better future; on the efforts of women interior decorators to update and enhance the comforts of the modern home; and—thanks to the proliferation of electricity and radio—on the popular and high-culture musical recordings and broadcasts that reinforced a shift away from traditional modes of performance and reception.

“A thoughtful, wonderfully well-researched, and cogently written study. Major programs, such as the Works Progress Administration and the Civilian Conservation Corps, are a prominent part of the story, as are concerns often given less attention, such as women’s rights and music and the arts. Highly recommended.


“In Modernity and the Great Depression: The Transformation of American Society, 1930–1941, Kenneth J. Bindas beautifully illustrates how the main tenants of modernity became part of Americans’ everyday lives. While many studies describe the transition in American society from traditional to modern, few describe in detail how that transition took place in the lives of average Americans. In clear, insightful and engaging prose, Bindas’ imaginative combination of New Deal programs, World’s Fairs, interior decorating, and music illustrate the multitude of ways that modernism worked into Americans’ lives and provided meaning during the Great Depression. No other study combines such diverse topics to create a unifying understanding of how Americans responded to the tumultuous 1930s.”

—Charles J. Shindo, author of 1927 and the Rise of Modern America

See all reviews...

In the transformation he describes, Bindas also locates the limits of modernism’s influence, as later generations confronted the spiritual shortcomings of its ultra-rationalist and materialist paradigm.

About the Author

Kenneth J. Bindas is professor of history at Kent State University and author of Remembering the Great Depression in the Rural South; Swing, That Modern Sound: The Cultural Context of Swing Music in America, 1935–1947; and All of This Music Belongs to the Nation: The WPA’s Federal Music Project and American Society, 1935–1939.

Additional Titles in the CultureAmerica Series