Making Modern America: In Search of the Great Depression and New Deal

taught by David M. Wrobel and Ronald Keith Gaddie

Download complete syllabus at this link.

Course Description

The Great Depression of the 1930s transformed both the relationship between the national government and its citizens and the physical landscape of the nation through massive public works projects.  In addition, the human suffering of the decade fundamentally transformed the relationship of artists and intellectuals to the American public.  The nation’s intellectual class had viewed the public derisively in the 1920s, but during the Depression portrayed that public as noble, even heroic.

In addition to being an era of economic and political transformation, the 1930s was one of the richest periods of creative cultural activity in the visual arts, literature, and music that the nation has seen.  This course introduces students to the historical, political, economic, and cultural developments of this remarkable decade.

“Making Modern America” moves well beyond the goal of merely understanding the developments and legacies of the 1930s.  We will travel in search of the physical presence of the 1930s in the built environment and the archival records of the University of Oklahoma, City of Norman, and state of Oklahoma.  We will work with the OU Libraries (including the Western History Collections and Carl Albert Congressional Research and Studies Center), to create a three-part interactive website from our scholarly investigations and historical reconstructions:

  1. In Search of the Great Depression and New Deal in Norman and at OU
  2. The Federal Writers’ Project Guide to 1930s Oklahoma Revisited
  3. Landmarks of Greatness from the 1930s

The first part of the website is a digital archive comprised of oral histories (with the last of the surviving Norman residents and Oklahoma residents with Norman/OU connections who were alive during the 1930s), photographs, maps, works of art, and artifacts, and a digital mapping and reconstruction of the surviving built environment of the New Deal.

The second website segment is devoted to an updating of Oklahoma: A Guide to the Sooner State (1941), part of the Works Progress Administration’s (WPA) Federal Writers Project State Guides Series.  The 1986 reprint of this work is required reading for the class.  Our plan is to create a “then and now” documentary record of the physical and cultural landscape of parts of the state by re-taking four or five of the tours/road trips conducted by the Oklahoma guide authors in the late 1930s. These tours will examine how much of the built environment of the thirties remains along those routes and how much has been transformed, and how the cultural landscapes have changed. Each of these four or five tours will be re-taken by a small group of students from the class.  This part of the website will coincide (in Spring 2016) with the 75th anniversary of the original publication of the Oklahoma guide.

The third part of the website is comprised of group projects on a single landmark from the decade: an event, a piece of legislation, court ruling, literary work, film, song, musical score, work of social or political theory, theology, philosophy, or even a building, museum, monument, or public work that serves as a testament to the enduring significance of the Depression Decade.  These papers will be housed on the website in a format that parallels the most innovative and user-friendly historical and literary content websites, e.g., SteinbeckNow: Each paper will feature photos and other illustrations, and, potentially, accompanying audio files and/or film clips.  We will be encouraging groups to work on topics related to The Grapes of Wrath.

Course Objectives

In addition to providing a deep introduction to the political, economic, and cultural history of the 1930s, the course offers instruction in a wide range of research skills—including fieldwork, oral history, archival research, geographic information systems, and digital history.  Course projects will involve a good deal of writing and re-writing, and students will also participate in the process of editing each other’s work prior to posting on the websites.  Thus, the course is designed to help students develop expert knowledge on the 1930s and participate fully in the application of research methodologies in creating and presenting new knowledge.

Film Series

We are running a film series comprised of five movies: Scarface (1932), Our Daily Bread (1934), Modern Times (1936), Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939), and The Grapes of Wrath (1940). You are required to attend at least three of the five screenings (or make special arrangements to view the films privately).  All screenings are open to the public. 

Required Course Readings

  • Gaddie & Wrobel, In Search of the Depression & New Deal: A Digital Reader (2015)
  • David Kennedy, Freedom from Fear: The American People in Depression and War (Oxford, 1999)
  • John Steinbeck, The Grapes of Wrath (1939, Penguin, 20th-Century Classics, 2006)
  • Susan Shillinglaw, On Reading The Grapes of Wrath (Penguin, 2014)
  • Works Progress Administration, Oklahoma: A Guide to the Sooner State (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1941)

Distinguished Guest Speakers

Charles S. Bullock, III (Richard B. Russell Chair in Political Science, and Josiah Meigs Distinguished Teaching Professor, University of Georgia).  Bullock is a prolific author or more than ten books on Southern politics, including The New Politics of the Old South (1998), and David Duke and the Politics of Race in the South (1995).  He is also an award-winning teacher, and consultant to state attorney generals and to state and local governments all across the country.  Bullock will lecture on Southern Politics During the Depression Years.

David Kennedy (McLachlan Professor Emeritus, Stanford): “Bending History’s Arc: F.D.R. and the Shape of the Twentieth Century.” Kennedy’s Freedom from Fear: The American People in Depression and War, 1929-1945 won the Pulitzer Prize and the Francis Parkman Prize.  Kennedy is also the author of the Pulitzer prize finalist Over Here: The First World War and American Society (25th Anniversary Edition, 2004) and of the Bancroft Prize-winning Birth Control in America: The Career of Margaret Sanger (1970).  A renowned public speaker, Professor Kennedy delivered the luncheon address at the 2013 Teach-In at OU on “The Great Depression and WWII.”

David Levy (David Ross Boyd Professor of History Emeritus, OU).  The University of Oklahoma Press has just published Volume II of Levy’s History of the University of Oklahoma this summer.  The work provides extensive coverage of the 1930s at OU.  Levy, a true OU treasure, has authored biographies of Herbert Croly, and Mark Twain; edited the multi-volume letters of Louis Brandeis; published books on FDR’s Fireside Chats, and on the debate over the Vietnam War.  Recipient of several major teaching awards, including the Regents Award for Superior Teaching, Levy will lecture and lead a research workshop on the Works Progress Administration at OU.

Susan Shillinglaw (President’s Scholar [2012-2013] and Professor of English and Comparative Literature, San Jose State University, and Scholar-in-Residence, Steinbeck National Center): “On Reading The Grapes of Wrath.” Recently honored as the President’s Scholar at SJSU in recognition of her scholarship on Steinbeck, her most recent book, On Reading The Grapes of Wrath is a superb guide to the novel for contemporary readers.  Shillinglaw is also the author of A Journey Into Steinbeck’s California (2006, 2011), and Carol and John Steinbeck: Portrait of a Marriage (2013).

Tentative Course schedule

Week 1:              M, Aug 24: Course Introduction (Gaddie and Wrobel); New Deal

Transformations (Gaddie); Cultural Transformations (Wrobel)

W, Aug 26: Workshop 1: Norman Geography & the Archives, I (Widener, Reese, & Clayton: WHC)

Readings:            Kennedy, Prologue & Chapter 1; Oklahoma Guide, Part I: Background;

Gaddie and Wrobel, In Search, Ch. 1: Geography & Archival Research

Week 2               M, Aug 31: Causes of the Depression & Early Responses: Historical

Perspectives (Wrobel) & Political Science Perspectives (Gaddie)

W, Sept 2:  Workshop 2: Historical GIS Applications (Widener, Clayton: HCLC)

Readings:            Kennedy, Chapter 2; Oklahoma Guide, Part II: Principal Cities

Gaddie and Wrobel, In Search, Ch. 2: Historical GIS

Week 3               M, Sept. 7: NO CLASS-LABOR DAY HOLIDAY

W, Sept. 9: Workshop 3: Field Research and Oral History (Carlisle, Wrobel, Gaddie, Widener: HCLC)

Readings:            Kennedy, Chapter 3; Oklahoma Guide, Part III: Tours, 1-8

Gaddie and Wrobel, In Search, Ch. 3: Conducting Oral Histories

Movie Night:     All Quiet on the Western Front (1930), or Scarface (1932)

Week 4               M, Sept. 14: *The New Deal at OU (Levy)

W, Sept. 16: Workshop 4: Archival Research (Levy, Reese: WHC)

Readings:            Kennedy, Chapter 4; Oklahoma Guide, Part III: Tours, 9-16

Gaddie and Wrobel, In Search, Ch. 4: Timothy Egan, The Worst Hard Time, 1-10; Donald Worster, Dust Bowl: The Southern Plains in the 1930s, 9-25.

Reaction Paper 1 Due

Week 5               M, Sept. 21: New Deal and Nation, I: Relief & Recovery (Wrobel)

W, Sept. 23: Workshop 5: PSC Research Methods (Gaddie, Gerth: CAC)

Readings:            Kennedy, Chapters 5-6;

Gaddie and Wrobel, In Search, Ch. 5: PSC Qualitative Research Methods

Movie Night:     Our Daily Bread (1934)

Week 6               M, Sept. 28: Populism, Nationalism & Conservatism (Gaddie)

W, Sept. 30: Workshop 6: Creating and Online Collection (Carlisle, Clayton: HCLC); + Project 1 Presentations, Group A

Readings:            Kennedy, Chapters 7-8;

Gaddie and Wrobel, In Search, Ch. 6: Introducing Digital Humanities;

Week 7               M, Oct. 5: *Bending History’s Arc: FDR & the Shape of the 20th Century (Kennedy)

W, Oct. 7: Workshop 7: Creating an Online Exhibit (Carlisle, Clayton: HCLC)

+ Project 1 Presentations, Group B

Readings:            Kennedy, Chapters 9-11; Gaddie and Wrobel, In Search, Ch. 7: ________________

Movie Night:  Modern Times (1936)

Reaction Paper 2 Due

Week 8               M, Oct. 12: New Deal and Nation, II: Reform & Decline (Wrobel)

W, Oct. 14: Workshop 8: Curating an Online Exhibit (Carlisle, Clayton: HCLC);

+ Project 1 Presentations, Group C

Readings:            Kennedy, Chapters 12 & 13; Gaddie and Wrobel, In Search, Ch. 8: ____________

Project 1 Due

Week 9               M, Oct. 19: Ideology & Demagoguery in State Politics (Gaddie)

W, Oct. 21: Workshop 9: Open Workshop; Discussion of Next Project (Clayton, Gaddie, Wrobel: HCLC)

Readings:            Gaddie and Wrobel, In Search, Ch. 9: _____________________________

Week 10            M, Oct. 26: *Southern Politics During the Depression Years (Bullock)

W, Oct. 28: Discussion: Regional Politics & New Deal (Gaddie, Wrobel: HCLC)

Readings:            Gaddie and Wrobel, In Search, Ch. 10: Bullock, __________________________________

Sat, Oct. 31: Field Trip: Following the Guide (Bus Tour)

Reaction Paper 3 Due

Week 11            M, Nov. 2: Rediscovering America: The Arts in the 1930s (Wrobel)

W, Nov. 4: Fred Jones Museum Tour: Art of the 1930s (White, FJMA)

Readings:            In Search, Ch. 11: Picturing the Depression

Movie Night:     Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939)

Week 12            M, Nov. 9: Will Rogers & 1930s Popular Culture (Gaddie)

W, Nov. 11: Open Workshop (Carlisle, Widener, Clayton, Reese, Gaddie, Wrobel: HCLC)

Readings:            In Search, Ch. 12: 1930s Popular Culture

Week 13            M, Nov. 16: *On Reading The Grapes of Wrath (Shillinglaw)

W, Nov. 18: Discussion: The Grapes of Wrath, I; Landmarks Workshop I (HCLC)

Readings:            Grapes, 1-5; Shillinglaw, On Reading, Part I;

In Search, Ch. 13: Steinbeck, Harvest Gypsies

Movie Night:     The Grapes of Wrath (1940)

           Reaction Paper 4 Due

Week 14            M, Nov 23: The Negro Leagues & Race Relations (Gaddie);


Readings:            In Search, Ch. 14: Race Relations in Depression America

Week 15            M, Nov 30: John Steinbeck’s America: The Depression Years (Wrobel)

W, Dec. 2: Discussion: Grapes, II; Landmarks Workshop II (HCLC)

Readings:            Steinbeck, Grapes, Ch.’s 6-19; Shillinglaw, On Reading, Part II

Week 16:            M, Dec. 7: Reflections on the Thirties (Gaddie and Wrobel)

W, Dec 9: Discussion: Grapes, III; Landmarks Workshop III (HCLC)

Readings:            Steinbeck, Grapes, Chapters 20-30; Shillinglaw, On Reading, Part III

Finals Week:   T. Dec. 15: Group Presentations, Projects 2 & 3.  Projects 2 & 3 Due