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Literature Based Movies for History, American Lit and Economics Classes

History educators are often accused of teaching ‘war-based’ history; in other words, we explore history from war to war and don’t adequately cover the years in between. After first world war (and perhaps because of) before the second world war, Americans faced a time of struggle and poverty known ironically as the Great Depression. Literature based connections are an excellent way to explore history from the inside out. Here are several movie and book connections to explore to help students understand this difficult time. First here is a list of factors causing this time of hardship:

A series of dust storms in the middle and west of the US which destroyed farms, crops and livestock and forced already impoverished small farmers to foreclose on the property. This created what is called the ‘dust bowl’ in Kansas, Oklahoma and several other states. Loss of land and property created huge numbers of destitute families.

The 19th Amendment called Prohibition. Prohibition outlawed the production, consumption and sale of alcohol. Many legitimate businesses were shut down and alcohol sales and manufacture was taken over by criminal sources. This ushered in the era of organized crime, hired gunman, and illegal, unregulated, dangerous and untaxed alcohol sales and consumption.

Black Tuesday: the stock Market Crash of October 29, 1929: When the bottom fell out of the market, stocks became virtually worthless and many went bankrupt. There were also runs on banks in which people wanted to remove all their money. This caused bank bankruptcies also.

Non-unionized labor and union busting: with no union companies could do as they pleased to workers. With unions, workers had a voice and some control over decisions made. Labor issues became some of the bloodiest struggles ever seen in the US. Company Goon squads were ruthless and vicious.

Mass unemployment. Soldiers returning from France had no jobs. Factories did not have the demand for goods and so many workers lost jobs. No one could afford to buy products, so sales and production plummeted. This became a vicious downward spiral.

Mass numbers of rural homes without hydro electric power. Machinery ran on power sources not available in many rural areas. These people could not keep up with those who had power.

The Grapes of Wrath (John Steinbeck) Tom Joad returns home after being in prison to find that his family has moved. Joad’s family home and farm have been foreclosed on and plowed under by the mortgage companies. Takes the Joad family from the Dust Bowl of Oklahoma on a trek west to California in search of fruit picking jobs. The entire family of about 10 travel in an ancient truck laden with all their possessions. On the road they encounter countless other families some called ‘Okies’ who have lost everything as well. The Joad’s experience death, dangerous work camp conditions in ‘Hoovervilles’, brutish work camp guards, starvation, illness, childbirth all while ‘on the road’, and finally some better conditions at a government run New Deal camp. This story helps students envision some of Roosevelt’s New Deal programs. 1938 Henry Fonda, John Carradine

Boys-town Father Flanagan’s project to rescue boys from the dangerous depression era streets in large cities where many turned to crime for survival. Fr. Flanagan created a town where boys were safe, well fed, disciplined and respected. They learned personal skills, a useful trade and to run their own community.

Oh Brother, Where Art Thou? This is a rather tongue in cheek story based loosely on Homer’s epic poem, The Odyssey. Oh Brother, includes many elements of the depression and Roosevelt’s New Deal alphabet soup programs in the southern United States: the Tennessee Valley Authority, WPA, bank foreclosures, rise of the Ku Klux Klan, gangster problems (Baby Face Nelson, Tommy guns) corrupt political issues, The music is extremely metaphorical and essays can be written on the musical symbolism alone. Students will enjoy tracing the story of Odysseus in the story of Everett (George Clooney) and the Soggy Bottom Boys. Students will have to think outside the box to find many of the connections to Homer but they are there. Look for Neptune, the cyclops, the Sirens, the Furies, Athena (rather unlikely but effective portrayal), the suitors, Telemachus and maybe more that I’ve missed.

Matewan (John Sayles) A labor union organizer comes to an embattled mining community brutally and violently dominated by the mining company. 1987 Chris Cooper, David Straithorn, James Earl Jones

These literature and movie connections should help your students to become more familiar with the issues surrounding the Depression.

1) What year was the Declaration of Independence signed? ( 1776 ), ( 8 ) As a bonus I asked what July 4th was and 11 got that right, one said it was a holiday.

2) Which country did the United States win its freedom from? ( England ), ( 8 ) One said China.

3) How many states are there? ( 50 ), ( 12 ) At least they knew this.

4) Name the first 5 Presidents. ( Washington, Adams, Jefferson, Madison, Monroe ), ( 2 ) I was shocked by this. Only 4 knew Adams was the second. One of them could not even name Washington.

5) Name the last five. ( Bush, Clinton, Bush, Reagan, Carter ), ( 1 ) I had to explain that “last” did not mean the current President. They all knew Obama and Bush Jr, 10 of them knew Clinton, 2 knew Bush Sr, 2 knew Reagan.

6) Which President ended the Vietnam War? ( Nixon ), ( 0 ) Blank stares every time I asked this one. As a hint I said the peace treaty was signed in 1973. 1 responded with Kennedy. When making the test I figured this would be a hard one.

7) Who was President during the Civil War? ( Lincoln ), ( 12 ) No hints here.

8) Who invented peanut butter? ( George Washington Carver ), ( 0 ) This question might not be fair but when making this test I did not look anything up and was going off of memory from more than 20 years ago.

9) When was Ben Franklin President? ( never ), ( 6 ) 6 said ” I don’t know”. One of the students didn’t want to answer any more and walked back to the crowd. He had only gotten 2 right.

10) What is the Bill of Rights? ( the original 10 amendments ), ( 8 ) Unbelievable.

11) Does the Bill of Rights protect the government from the people or the people from the government? ( people from the government ), ( 7 ) Three said both. The funny thing is one of the correct answers did not get the last question right. That mean only six got both correct.

12) Name the branches of American government. ( Executive, Legislative, Judicial ), ( 3 ) “What?” was the most common answer.

In my opinion by the time a student reaches high school every student should be able to answer at least 10 of these. These results are more proof of the failings of the public school system. None of these teenagers were home-schooled or were students of a private school. I would be interested in comparing the results from these types of schools.

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