Extending the document: American poetry and the cultural politics of Depression documentary
Parks, Justin Michael
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The purpose of this dissertation is twofold: first, it contributes to a revisionist cultural history of documentary as prolonging, rather than departing from, earlier modernisms. It does so by claiming that documentary, as a set of social practices, displays a fundamentally modernist attitude concerning aesthetic interventions as solutions to social crises. As such, documentary constituted a sustained effort to come to terms with--and rectify symbolically--the unevenness of American modernization, especially as it was exposed by the crisis of the Great Depression. Second, this project maintains that poetry during the period "extended the document" as it tested and critiqued the cultural and political agendas associated with documentary during the thirties. Recent critics have argued that documentary represents racial, gender, class, geographic, and cultural differences self-consciously, by attempting to account for the presence of the documentarian in the scene she documents. This project proposes that the self-consciousness of modern poetry enabled its practitioners to engage in similarly self-reflexive commentaries. The first chapter, on Muriel Rukeyser's "Book of the Dead" (1938), contends that Rukeyser's work expresses a critical skepticism concerning photography's Depression-era rise to cultural dominance by suggesting that the language of poetry is capable of creating and maintaining a generative tension with the photographic image. The second chapter argues that Charles Reznikoff's 1934 prose poem Testimony tacitly rejects documentary's search for a "usable past" through its suggestion of a recursive history comprised of violent spectacles from the nineteenth century that continue to haunt the present. The third chapter argues that the poems of Lorine Niedecker's 1946 collection New Goose reflect the surrealist tendencies animating the period's ethnographic work as they disrupt the relegation of folk culture to the sanctioned space of the museum. The fourth chapter situates Sterling A. Brown's blues poems from his 1932 collection Southern Road in relation to the period's search for authentic folk practices, suggesting that the authentic is constructed through performance. Drawing examples from the work of these four poets, this project suggests that Depression-period poetry contributed to documentary's exceptionalist project of American cultural revitalization even as it self-reflexively critiqued this project's legitimacy.