Shirley Temple and John Kasson cheer up Chapel Hill

May. 10, 2014 @ 11:18 AM

Just when it seems that all the news about the university and Chapel Hill is bad, Shirley Temple comes to the rescue.
But, since Temple died a few months ago, her help came courtesy of UNC-Chapel Hill professor John Kasson.
His new book, “The Little Girl Who Fought the Great Depression: Shirley Temple and 1930s America,” has been on the booksellers’ shelves for only a few weeks. But it is getting widespread and favorable attention for the book and for the Chapel Hill author in publications ranging from “The Weekly Standard” and “USA Today” to “The Washington Post.”
Writing in the “Dallas Morning News,” Elizabeth Bennett writes that Kasson’s book “is not a traditional biography. It’s a cultural history, an informative, well-researched book about how Shirley Temple and Hollywood helped Americans survive the Great Depression.”
Kasson teaches history and American studies. His expertise is American cultural history, which examines popular culture’s impact on and intersection with traditional historical approaches.
In dealing with popular culture, Kasson’s scholarly interests also can tap popular themes. Look for instance at the titles of some of his earlier books: “Houdini, Tarzan, and the Perfect Man: The White Male Body and the Challenge of Modernity in America,” ”Rudeness and Civility: Manners in Nineteenth-Century Urban America,” “Amusing the Million: Coney Island at the Turn of the Century,” and “Civilizing the Machine: Technology and Republican Values in America, 1776–1900.”
Any of these topics would make for good beach reading, wouldn’t they? First, though, read “The Little Girl Who Fought the Great Depression.”  By itself, the story of the country’s love affair with Shirley Temple is enchanting, exciting and provocative. One cannot help but smile when her bright face, bouncing dance steps, strong voice, and cheerful resolve are remembered.
Kasson does more than retell the standard Shirley Temple story. He fits it into the history of the American film business as it came to dominate the American entertainment market. As much as 85 percent of entertainment spending in the 1930s went to the movies.
He shows how the power of Temple’s name and image along with her charming assertiveness encouraged, for the first time, a consumer culture driven by the demands of children.
Although Kasson does not assert that Temple’s cheerful spirit brought an end to the Great Depression, he demonstrates how her smiles, along with those of President Franklin Roosevelt, helped give courage and hope to an otherwise downcast country.
Writing about an earlier Kasson essay that explored this theme, Patrick Hagopian of Great Britain’s Lancaster University wrote “that it is gratifying to see a historian at the top of his game producing a complex and persuasive analysis.”
Chapel Hill can be grateful that Kasson and Shirley Temple have combined to cheer us up. By reminding us of the great strengths, widespread interests, and contributions of UNC-Chapel Hill’s faculty members like Kasson, he and Temple make us smile and give us courage and hope in this time of challenges for the university.
John Karron’s interview on WCHL’s Who’s Talking is available at

D.G. Martin’s regular weekly column appears on The Herald-Sun’s editorial page on Wednesdays and on line at