Louisiana State University Press (1989). xx + 338pp. 6.25 x 9.25 inches. Hardcover. ISBN-10: 0-8071-1447-2.
In the years between 1936 and 1943, some three hundred artworks — primarily murals but also some sculptures, terra-cotta reliefs, and limestone reliefs — were installed in federal buildings throughout the South as part of a nationwide project by the Treasury Section of Fine Arts. The murals depicted aspects of southern history and life ranging from scenes of Indians and settlers to portraits of modern life and industry.
In Depression Post Office Murals and Southern Culture, Sue Bridwell Beckham investigates the cultural implication sof the Section murals. She makes use of the extensive correspondence preserved in the Section records to sound the values of working- and lower-middle-class white southerners, who voiced their objections to the murals as well as their approval, the attitudes of the artists who painted the murals; and the outlook of the Section itself, which had strong views about art and what was appropriate.
In the 1930s, many southerners were acutely sensitive to how they and their region were portrayed. They wanted to rid themselves once and for all of the lingering effects of Reconstruction and become a fully recognized and respected part of the nation. New Deal efforts to help the South, such as the murals project, were often interpreted as signs that Reconstruction had never ended. However, Beckham's study of Section records and the process of a mural's coming into being demonstrated that the same people who resented outside forces seeking to remake the South in some preconceived image were most appreciative when the government listened to their wishes and acknowledged their capacity for self-determination. When southerners felt free to contribute to the creation of murals, those artworks became for them a form of participatory popular culture.
With humor, perception, and a storyteller's sensibility, Sue Bridwell Beckham offers an informative commentary on southern society in the 1930s as well as a penetrating look at a vital New Deal agency. Ninety-three of the completed murals or proposed designs are reproduced in the book, and an appendix contains a listing of the Section artworks throughout the South.
Sue Bridwell Beckham is professor of English at the University of Wisconsin - Stout.
Jacket photo of the mural in Chatham, Virginia, courtesy National Archives.
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