Scholars on the culture of the 1930s agree that the period was marked by a profound obsession with authenticity. In 1940, Philip Rahv coined the term "the cult of experience" to describe this collective psychology, which he identified in Thirties fiction but attributed to something essential to the modern American imagination. He wrote of an "intense predilection for the real: and the real appears as a vast phenomenology swept by waves of sensation and feeling" ("The Cult of Experience in American Writing," 8-23).

In Thirties literature, this obsession can be detected in the popularity of the confessional and proletariat genres (Mangione, Stott). The writer's voice was able to give particularly eloquent expression to the focus on the real. Walt Whitman had written of this modern obsession nearly a century before:

Whatever may have been the case in years gone by, the true use for the imaginative faculty of modern times is to give ultimate vivification to facts, to science, and to common lives, endowing them with the glows and glories and final illustriousness which belong to every real thing, and to real things only. (Leaves of Grass,Sculley Bradley and Harold W. Blodgett, eds. New York: W.W. Norton, 1973: 564)

In the 1930s this fixation did not find its only outlet in literature, however; William Stott, in his groundbreaking work Documentary Expression and Thirties America, has traced it in popular thought, across the new media of radio and picture magazines, in education and advertising, in the academy and in New Deal rhetoric and policy.




Juliet Gorman, May 2001