Email this review


Part literary analysis, part cultural history, this is an engaging and perceptive study of the philosophy, achievements, and limits of the ""documentary"" -- a style and genre which was born and perfected during the '30's to convey the social realities of America during the Depression. Stott (American Studies, Univ. of Texas) draws on an amazingly wide range of sources: the novels of Steinbeck, the radio broadcasts of Edward R. Murrow, the choreography of Martha Graham, the speeches of FDR, the anthologies of the Federal Writers' Project and the photography of Dorothea Lange and Walker Evans. Stott contends that these works belie the notion that the essence of the documentary is ""informational""; on the contrary the intent was primarily and powerfully emotional -- the aim to arouse pity and anger by revealing, in the words of James Agee, ""a portion of unimagined existence."" It was through the social documentary that America discovered the plight of the sharecropper, the immigrant, the Negro, the Indian and the poor; an essentially populist if not proletariat genre, it dignified the usual and leveled the extraordinary. Its underlying aim was always to extend compassion, the first step in rectifying social and economic inequities. To achieve that goal documentaries consciously appealed to primitive emotionalism, which meant their reportage was often distortive and reductivist. In the final section of this study -- a gold mine for anyone interested in the social and psychological impact of the Depression -- Stott turns to Agee's Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, a work which perfected and paradoxically subverted the documentary mode. When evaluating the impact of the Evans-Agee study of southern sharecroppers, Stott points out that it was neither reform-minded nor ameliorist; Agee despaired of progressive social improvement though he struggled powerfully against his own tragic vision of the ineradicability of human suffering. One can disagree with this reading of Agee but what is indisputable is StoWs contribution to our understanding of this crucial decade in America's coming of age and his superlative exploration of that era's documentary heritage.

Pub Date: Nov. 1st, 1973
ISBN: 0226775593
Publisher: Oxford