In Documentary Expression and Thirties America, Bill Stott looks at 1930s America through the lens of the documentary genre. Documentary is a form of expression that purports to represent reality but in which it is difficult for viewers to separate the false from the true. Stott argues that at its base, the 1930s documentary had a left politics, a desire to look not just at the world as it is but at the world of the poor, the downtrodden, and the ordinary, with the intention not just of rendering it vivid and lifelike but also of constructing an audience response or instigating some progressive reform. The different ways people created and used documentaries in the 1930s indicate, to paraphrase Agee, that the world can be improved and yet must be celebrated.
Stott considers a wide range of documentary forms and uses, and shows how documentary conventions were both developed and subverted. Radio, examined through Edward R. Murrow, soap operas, and War of the Worlds, was the “paradigmatic medium of documentary” in the 1930s because it combined the two methods of documentary, “the direct and the vicarious, the unmediated experience and the interpretative commentary” in constant juxtaposition with one another. Photography and documentary films, as Stott shows, were also forms in which apparent reality was actually heavily mediated, particularly when they were made by the government. By contrast, Agee and Evans’ Let Us Now Praise Famous Men explodes social documentary by both critiquing the world of the tenant farmers and celebrating it in all its beauty, all well being self-conscious about the role of the narrator in the creation of a work of art that reveals the most intimate details and suffering in people’s lives in order to, perhaps, instigate social reform.
While Stott’s analysis is somewhat limited by his choice of documentaries – he works primarily with cultural products created by people who worked for the federal government or for private corporations – and while he could do a bit more with the conditions of production, his visual and textual analysis are strong, and his discussion of documentary as a particularly valid entry into American culture in the 1930s makes sense. What better way to see what people might have thought about what their world was like?