Psychological/Physical Adjustment in Interwar U.S. Self-Help Cultures

Project by Dr. Kristina Graaff

My habilitation investigates mass-mediated self-help cultures of the 1920s and 30s addressed at African American and white audiences – including self-help books, newspaper and magazine advice columns, call-in radio shows and sermons recorded on vinyl. I conceptualize self-help as a narrative mode that can function as a catalyst to introduce, circulate and consolidate discourses on a national scale. As I argue, during the interwar years, self-help served as a tool to navigate the era’s fundamental changes that were brought about by, among other things, Fordism (standardization and rationalization of work modes and subjects), (im)migration and urbanization. In particular, I examine how self-help communicated instructions of psychological and physical adjustment and how these instructive scripts differed depending on the respective (Black or white) audiences. Approaching the material from an intersectional perspective, I examine how self-help of the 1920s/’30s was not only driven by processes of racialization as well as class- and gender-specific identity constructions, but also contributed to the formation of ableist norms, e.g. through the endorsement of eugenic beliefs. The close readings of selected self-help material put different disciplines in dialogue by connecting cultural and literary analyses with approaches from psychology and media studies.