Historic Events for Students: The Great Depression. Editor: Richard C Hanes & Sharon M Hanes. Volume 1. Detroit: Gale, 2002.
In every period in the history of American literature a diversity of talented writers appear. Likewise readers always exhibit a vast diversity of taste in what they want to read. The Depression years were no different in this regard. Prompted by the economic struggles of the Great Depression many of the 1930s writers authored an array of socially conscious books generally referred to as proletarian (working class) literature. Those writers sought to bring to readers a realistic picture of the hardships endured by their fellow Americans as the economic and social darkness of the Great Depression closed in. Another type of literature that developed in the 1930s was documentary journalism, with titles such as The Road: In Search of America, Puzzled America, and My America. Documentary journalism also resulted from the Depression as out of work journalists decided they might as well take to the road to discover how the Depression was affecting the country’s people as a whole. Other journalists still on the job were sent out to “document” the social changes due to economic difficulties. These works tended to build a national self-awareness, a nationalistic spirit of who the “real” America was. Throughout the troubled times brought on by the Depression there was an undeniable public interest in economic and political subjects. Many writers sat at their typewriters attempting to supply solutions to help put America back on course. Still many other authors went along in their own individualistic ways paying no mind to current issues and topics, providing an escape for their readers’ daily lives and problems. Self-help books were also popular as were histories and biographies.
Beginning in 1935 between six and seven thousand writers received support through a branch of a New Deal program, the Works Progress Administration (WPA). That branch, the Federal Writers’ Project (FWP), hired many unemployed writers to work on specific publications about the United States. Up to this time federal support for writers was nonexistent. An astounding number of articles, pamphlets, and books on all aspects of life in the United States resulted. Millions of American readers who generally looked no further than the daily newspaper headlines picked up pamphlets and books to try to discover just what was going on in their country.
Literature of the 1930s continued to enlarge the meaning of earlier movements toward realism and modernism. Realism was an attempt to show life as it really was—its cruelties, problems, harsh conditions, sorrows, as well as its joys and successes. Realism was regarded as a revolt against styles of writing that always portrayed life as romantic and idealized. Modernism called for new and different styles and writing techniques to reflect a world order vastly different than the world of the 1800s. Modern fiction stripped away simple descriptions of scenes, characters, and simple plots. Instead complex plots, contradictory viewpoints, and multi-dimensional characters arose.
A wide variety of authors in the 1930s, ranging from John Steinbeck to Richard Wright and Sinclair Lewis, produced books that revealed an America caught in the economic devastation of the Depression. Conversely many wrote without much regard to the situation surrounding them offering escape to their readers. Some passionately wrote of a particular struggle or cause, then fell silent. Others went on to be recognized among the most important and distinguished writers of the twentieth century. This chapter explores the diversified mix of 1930s literature and its authors.
Moving to the Left
In a country as vast as the United States writers from widely varying backgrounds were bound to go down different pathways. Many writers in the 1930s felt betrayal by the old capitalist society. They looked on the competitive rather than cooperative spirit of capitalism as a chief cause of the Depression. Brilliant business oriented individuals became wealthier and wealthier at the expense of the majority of people who fell further and further behind. Vast wealth was in the hands of a few while the working class remained poor. This feeling of anger and betrayal at the hands of capitalism led many writers to a new vision of American life. That vision was wrapped up in the leftist theory of Marxism, which was the sum of the theories of German philosopher, social scientist, and revolutionary Karl Marx. In 2000 the political “left” referred to persons who tended to be liberal, advocating active government intervention in the economy and in daily lives of citizens. In the 1930s literary world “leaning left” referred to those writers who had become disgusted with capitalism and supported Marxist theories of class struggle.
Marx believed societies were strained as a result of the division of people into two classes, the working class or proletariat and the bourgeoisie or the owners of the means of production, the ruling class. He believed all unfair institutions and customs would disappear when the working class revolted against the ruling class. Marxism teaches that the means for producing of goods must be owned by the community as a whole resulting in general economic and social equality. These ideas of class struggle formed the basis of the communist movement of which Marx is considered the founder. Marx believed free enterprise or capitalism was doomed and that societies must move toward communism.
To many American writers Marxism stood as a rational way to reorder a fairer society. The proportion of writers turning to various degrees of Marxism far out numbered the proportion of the general public turning in that direction. The communist movement in America never took hold in the general public or in the American working class. Nevertheless it appealed to the idealism of many gifted novelists, poets, playwrights, and critics who rejected the greed and materialism they associated with capitalism. They viewed Marxism as a potential solution to the problems of capitalism that had contributed to the Depression.
Support for the brutal communist regime in Russia led by Joseph Stalin, however, was rare. Most all defined Marxism in their own ways, refashioned its ideas, took what they liked and disavowed the rest. What resulted was a theme of the leaning left writers that literature must reveal the suffering of American society during the Depression and actively contribute to social change. Works from this point of view were known as proletarian literature.
Four of the most intense left leaning writers were Michael Gold, Grace Lumpkin, Albert Halper, and Albert Maltz. In 1930 Michael Gold, editor of both left-leaning magazines Masses and New Masses, was the first American writer to announce the beginning of a proletarian literature in the United States. That same year Gold published Jews Without Money, the story of his immigrant parents’ struggle to achieve a decent life for themselves and their children amid the squalid slum of New York’s Lower East Side. Grace Lumpkin’s To Make My Bread (1932) was considered the best of several novels concerning the 1929 unsuccessful strike of textile workers protesting their horrible working conditions in Gastonia, North Carolina.
Albert Halper published Union Square (1933) that sympathized with the plight of the working class individual whose life was made all the more dismal by the Depression. He followed with two books, The Foundry (1934) and The Chute,that supported the radical movement reaching toward a more equitable society by embracing left leaning philosophies. Albert Maltz gained fame in literary circles as a playwright, novelist, and writer of short stories. His well-known proletariat story, “The Happiest Man on Earth,” first appeared in Harper’s Magazine. These four revolutionists, although they stirred emotions at the time, slowly sank from sight by the end of the decade as their radical communist-like solutions appealed less and less to the Depression and people took little note of their work. Rather for most Americans the New Deal programs, economic relief and recovery programs introduced by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt (served 1933-1945), represented the best approach to ending the Depression.
Of those authors who produced proletariat literature, those who survived and went on to fame were John Dos Passos, James T. Farrell, Erskine Caldwell, Richard Wright, and John Steinbeck. Dos Passos began his writing career in the 1920s with novels relating his World War I experiences and successfully transitioned into the 1930s with a series of three novels, or trilogy, known as USA. Dos Passos experimented and wrote with every innovation developed by writers after World War I. He used slices of life, quick cuts, narrative streams of consciousness, newspaper-like headlines as a literary technique, and sequences of life from real historical figures mixed with his fictional characters. A revolutionary in art and politics, Dos Passos aligned himself staunchly with the left.
In the 1930s Dos Passos believed much of the United States’ promise was being destroyed by a small class of wealthy and powerful. This belief was brought home more by the stark distinctions seen during the Depression—the small percentage of the very wealthy in contrast to the large percentage of the population in poverty or barely getting by. In his USA trilogy consisting of three books: The 42nd Parallel 1930), 1919 (1932), and The Big Money (1936) Dos Passos created a historical saga from the growth of American materialism in the 1890s to the Depression of the early 1930s. Readers eagerly followed each episode of the exciting trilogy. USA is considered one of the great fictional works of the twentieth century.
Standing as tall as Dos Passos in the artistry of his literary work was another Marxist, James T. Farrell. Farrell’s epic, also a trilogy, was entitled Studs Lonigan and consists of Young Lonigan (1932), The Young Manhood of Studs Lonigan (1934), and Judgment Day (1935). The trilogy follows a young Irish American named Studs Lonigan in his attempt to rise from his poor beginnings. Farrell paints a bleak brutal picture of the working class in an Irish Chicago neighborhood as they try to cling to respectability as the Depression closes in. Studs Lonigan is proletarian literature that lives on and on.
Erskine Caldwell was a powerful, daring writer who concentrated his work on “poor whites” and the exploitation and brutal treatment of black Americans. His 1932 novel Tobacco Road, a study of a poverty stricken Southern tenant family whose life turned desperate in the economic crisis of the Depression, was adapted into a play that ran on Broadway for many years. In 1933 Caldwell published God’s Little Acre about a poor family who follows only its instinct in digging for gold. It sold twenty million copies in various languages by 1949. Caldwell teamed up with photographer Margaret Bourke-White for You Have Seen Their Faces (1937) probably the most engrossing documentary of Southern rural poverty ever published. The book infuriated some Southern city officials, who were trying to keep their towns alive in the Depression, because it showed their communities in a bad light revealing massive poverty. You Have Seen Their Faceswas banned in several localities.
Although not a Marxist, John Steinbeck wrote several decidedly proletarian novels: The Pastures of Heaven (1932) concerns people of a farm community near Salinas, California; Tortilla Flat (1935), a story of migrant workers and poor farmers; In Dubious Battle (1936) portrays labor strife in California; and, The Grapes of Wrath (1939) won the 1940 Pulitzer Prize. The Grapes of Wrath chronicled the life of a displaced Oklahoma family, the Joads, who lost their farm in the drought of the Dust Bowl and migrated west to the California promise land. The Dust Bowl was a region in the Southern Plains of the United States especially Oklahoma, Arkansas, Colorado, Kansas, and northern Texas that experienced severe drought and damaging windstorms stirring up massive clouds of dust. By 1935 the farmlands in these areas suffered severe erosion of their topsoil causing a large number of farmers to abandon their land and move to other regions of the country. Many sought work as migrant farm laborers in California. In 1937 Steinbeck toured the Dust Bowl and traveled with migrants seeking to find work in California. He wrote of experiences families encountered along the way to California and after arriving there.
Richard Wright, a supporter of the political left, was one of the few black authors recognized for literary excellence in the late 1930s. Wright took on the issue of racial prejudice and the plight of blacks in a collection of four short stories entitled Uncle Tom’s Children (1938) and his first completed novel, Native Son (1940).
Other writers involved during the Depression in the proletariat writers’ movement were Jack Conroy with The Disinherited (1933), Henry Roth with Call It Sleep (1935), and Edward Dalberg with Bottom Dogs (1930) and From Flushing to Calvary (1932). Conroy, Roth, and Dalberg wrote of their parents’ experiences and linked them to the terrible struggles of the Depression. Conroy and Roth fell silent as their faith in leftist politics declined. Only Dalberg would write again in the following decades. Nelson Algren, who would author books into the 1970s, was best known in the 1930s for fiction describing those on the bottom level of the social scale, the lumpenproletariat, known as the “social scum” to communists. His “A Place to Lie Down” originally appeared in the January-February issue of Partisan Review (1935). He completed Somebody in Boots that same year.
Memorable authors and books describing the actual trials of factory workers and immigrants included Ruth McKenney who wrote with emotional communistic conviction about Akron, Ohio, rubber workers in Industrial Valley (1939). Louis Adamic wrote a colorful narrative, Dynamite (1931), which dealt with labor violence in America. Adamic, a 1913 immigrant from Slovenia, published several books dealing with immigrants. They included Laughing in the Jungle(1932), The Native’s Return (1934), Grandsons (1935), and Cradle of Life (1937). Robert Cantwell’s The Land of Plenty(1934) deals with a spontaneous strike in a wood veneer factory in the State of Washington. Mary Heaton Vorse in her book Strike (1930) dramatized the struggles of workers for justice as did Clara Weatherwax in the largely forgottenMarching! Marching! (1935). Meridel LeSueur became well known for writings about labor in the Depression and the unemployed. Her factual book Women on the Breadlines (1932) told of women trying to survive during the Depression. Other writers of proletarian novels included Olive Dargan writing as Fielding Burke in Call Home the Heart (1932) and A Stone Came Rolling (1935); Josephine Herbst, Pity Is Not Enough (1933) and The Executioner Waits (1939); William Rollins, The Shadow Before (1934); and, Tess Slesinger, The Unpossessed (1934).
Every now and then a victim of the Depression rose up to write about his experiences bumming across the United States. One such person was Tom Kromer who wrote Waiting for Nothing (1935) about the agonies of bumming across the country. His book was autobiographical and largely written while enrolled in a California branch of Roosevelt’s Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC). After being turned down repeatedly by publishers, the manuscript found its way to the publishing house of Alfred A. Knopf who published the book in 1935. His story was hailed as extraordinary, but Kromer wrote no more important works. Suffering from pulmonary tuberculosis by 1935 Kromer rode the rails to the dry climate of Albuquerque, New Mexico. While in a sanitarium where he received treatment he continued to write several articles and short stories. Largely an invalid by the late 1930s Kromer ceased writing.
Despite all the literary fervor surrounding social issues during the Depression the idealization of the communist way of ordering society began to evaporate at the end of the 1930s. The signing of the Stalin/Hitler pact of 1939 was highly dismaying, and various eyewitness accounts of a less than perfect state by individuals who traveled to Russia dramatically changed perceptions. Promoting class struggle and revolution seemed divisive when, more and more, the United States needed to present a united front against Hitler and Mussolini.
By 1939 most writers had distanced themselves from Marxism’s class struggle and the communist state. What remained was an interesting sort of social literature, a sort of made-in-America proletarianism. Writers in the United States would continue to write about people of all class levels and tackle difficult political issues fearlessly from all points of view. By 2000 Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath continued to rank as the most successful proletarian novel ever written. The proletarian literature of the 1930s had spoken to fundamental concerns of the American society. Depression writers had seen their fellow Americans suffering under an unequal social and economic order and had exposed what they saw to the public.
Although 1930s writers produced proletarian literature, much of it with Marxist underpinnings, writers never extended support to fascism nor suggested it as a remedy for the Depression. Fascism embraces a strong centralized nationalistic government led by a powerful dictator. Increasingly writers showed concern for the rise of Fascist dictators Adolph Hitler of Germany and Benito Mussolini of Italy. The first American novel concerning Hitler’s Nazi regime was Edward Dahlberg’s Those Who Perish (1934). Sinclair Lewis wrote a book with more political purpose than any he had previously authored. Lewis’ It Can’t Happen Here (1935) showed how fascism might come to the United States. Reflecting the public’s mood of social consciousness It Can’t Happen Here reached into the top ten of the bestseller list for 1936. It was one of the few such books to reach the New York Times bestseller list.
Supporting the anti-fascist Loyalists, Ernest Hemingway was deeply involved in Spain’s fight against Fascism. He told the 1937 American Writers Congress that, “There is only one form of government that cannot produce good writers and that system is fascism. For fascism is a lie told by bullies” (Salzman, Years of Protest: A Collection of American Writings of the 1930s. p. 191). A year after Spain’s Loyalist defeat he wrote an anti-fascist novel, For Whom the Bell Tolls (1940). John Dos Passos also wrote an anti-fascist book, Adventures of a Young Man (1939). Thomas Wolfe, who had traveled to the 1936 Olympic Games in Berlin, Germany, returned as an ardent anti-Fascist appalled at Hitler’s oppression. He incorporated his experiences in the novel You Can’t Go Home Again, which was gathered and published after his death in 1940.
Searching for the “Real” America
American writers often came from the ranks of newspapermen rather than being highly educated “men of letters” in the European tradition. It seemed perfectly natural for them to earn a living in between more scholarly efforts with investigative reporting. When the economic disaster of the Depression struck some novelists decoded to leave their solitary desks and travel about the country to better understand their fellow Americans and the impact of the Depression on the ordinary individuals and families. Their works are often referred to as nationalistic, not the patriotic nationalism spurred by wars, but a new awareness that America’s distress was nationwide. Solutions to the pain and misery would need to be national solutions. For the first time, writers rather than focusing on local and regional difficulties would write to the nation as a whole. The word “America” or “American” appeared in virtually all the titles. One early work came from literary critic Edmund Wilson, The American Jitters: A Year of the Slump (1932). In 1933 the brilliantly intense and witty Sherwood Anderson began a two-month trip around the United States “looking and listening.” He collected his stories in a 1935 book entitled Puzzled America. James Rorty, in Where Life Is Better: An Unsentimental American Journey (1936) showed his dismay that Americans continued to resist radical societal change as a solution. Nathan Ashe also took to the road to discover what was happening to his country and reported in The Road: In Search of America (1937).
One book stands tall above all others; James Agee’s Let Us Now Praise Famous Men (1941). Although it was not published until 1941 it was formed in the summer of 1936. The book stands as a symbol of the creative and daring bravery of a few writers of the 1930s to “pry intimately into the lives of an undefended and appallingly damaged group of human beings, an ignorant and helpless rural family…” (Swados, p. xxxii). Coupled with poetic photographs by Walker Evans the book meaningfully examines the life of an Alabama sharecropper’s family. Agee found unity and strength of character in those people and above all he found hope in American culture. This effort to look at the “real” America, at the lives of unexceptional people was in part made possible by the Federal Writer’s Project.
The Federal Writers’ Project
Beginning in 1935 the Federal Writers’ Project (FWP), a program of the Works Projects’ Administration (WPA), supported over six thousand novelists, journalists, poets, and other professionals such as lawyers, ministers, newspapermen, teachers, and anyone else willing to work in the publication field. The FWP, under direction of Henry Alsberg, hired these unemployed individuals to produce a series of state and city guides, to write ethnic histories of immigrant groups, and to record folklore and foods of the entire nation. The project completed 378 books and pamphlets published commercially between 1935 and 1939. The FWP’s publications contributed greatly to the New Deal’s focus on documenting the cultural heritage of geographic regions in the United States. The most famous series published under the FWP was the American Guide Series, which included a separate guidebook for each state. The books not only described principle cities and towns but the history, geography, and culture of each state.
Several writers supported by the FWP went on to fame. The FWP helped support Richard Wright so he could complete Native Son (1940). John Steinbeck also received FWP support as did Zora Neale Hurston who wrote a relatively apolitical novel, Their Eyes Were Watching God, a classic work of black literature which portrays a young black woman’s discovery of her identity as a woman in society.
In 1939 the FWP came under state control as directors were appointed by governors. After the Pearl Harbor bombing in 1941, the FWP was renamed the Writers’ Unit of the War Services Division of WPA. Its last publication was a series called “Serviceman’s Recreational Guides.” When the WPA expired in June 1943, the FWP ceased operation.
The FWP writers pioneered techniques of researching peoples’ traditions and life histories. They employed interviews to collect oral histories. One of FWP’s most critically acclaimed products was These Are Our Lives (1939). Members of the FWP in North Carolina, Tennessee, and Georgia recorded the stories of the people from all ordinary walks of life, 35 were published in These Are Our Lives. A sampling of the stories includes: “You’re Gonna Have Lace Curtains” about white farm laborers; “Grease Monkey to Knitter” about a young man who wandered about looking for work; “Tore Up and A-Movin'” about black sharecroppers; “Till the River Rises” about people of a shanty town in the river bottom; and, “Weary Willie,” about a CCC boy.
Going Their Own Way
The 1930s are remembered in American literary history as a decade of literature dominated by social issues. A large group of left leaning intellectuals and writers claimed to speak for American writers as a whole. Few of the proletarian novels, however, ever got very high on the bestseller lists. One exception was Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath, a proletarian novel that topped the list in 1939 and was still at number eight in 1940. Two other novels that ascended to the top ten were the anti-Fascist works, Sinclair Lewis It Can’t Happen Here (1935) and Ernest Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls in 1940.
Many 1930s writers, however, simply continued on their individualistic pathways writing books unrelated to sociological Depression topics. Most Americans, as always, continued to read what appealed to them not what someone told them they ought to read. Many sought out literature that removed them from their daily struggles with Great Depression hardships. Authors such as Hemingway, Pearl S. Buck, Thomas Wolfe, William Faulkner, and Hervey Allen all wrote popular books that allowed readers to momentarily escape from the Depression.
With the exception of For Whom the Bell Tolls Hemingway, one of America’s most celebrated authors, showed little interest in depicting concerns and difficulties brought by the Depression. Death in the Afternoon (1932) dealt with bull fighting, Green Hills of Africa (1935) with experiences on an African safari, and To Have and Have Not (1937) was based on Key West, Florida.
Many other exceptional writers of the decade showed the same detachment. Pearl S. Buck’s The Good Earth (1930) took readers to China. The Good Earth remained at the top of the best seller list in 1931 and 1932. Buck was awarded the 1938 Nobel Prize for literature for this novel. Thomas Wolfe’s two classics, Look Homeward, Angel (1929) and Of Time and the River (1935) were modeled on his own life as a young man. William Faulkner, considered one of America’s greatest writers, was known for his carefully shaped novels, his artistic use of language, and the vividness of his characterizations. His novels published during the Depression include The Sound and the Fury (1929), Light In August(1932), As I Lay Dying (1930), and Sanctuary (1931). F. Scott Fitzgerald, a popular author of the 1920s, wrote Tender Is The Night (1934) but it did not become well known until much later. This finely written story of the decline of a few glamorous Americans living in Europe proved to be of little interest to readers during the Depression. All of Nathanael West’s books were published in the 1930s but only after his death in 1940 did his reputation grow. His books offered a harsh, surrealistic picture of contemporary life. Miss Lonely Hearts (1933) and The Day of the Locust (1939) became minor classics.
Editors of Laura Ingalls Wilder, Harper and Brothers, believed her first book, Little House in the Big Woods (1932) had so much appeal that even the Depression would not hinder its sales. They were not disappointed as it was a Junior Literary Guild selection and sold well. Wilder then put out a steady stream of popular books relating her childhood memories of frontier life. Farmer Boy (1933), Little House on the Prairie (1935), On the Banks of Plum Creek (1937), By the Shores of Silver Lake (1939), The Long Winter (1940), Little Town On the Prairie (1941) and These Happy Golden Years (1943) all became best sellers. Five received Newberry Honor awards. Depression families related to Wilder’s tales of survival in the face of grasshopper plagues, blizzards, illness, and debt. Her novels, which always ended in hope, transferred that hope to the weary nation.
Two of the biggest sellers of the decade were long historical fiction novels that were far removed from the 1930’s Depression. Hervey Allen’s Anthony Adverse topped bestseller lists in 1933 and 1934. The romantic historical story took place in the late 1700s and early 1800s. It follows a young man on his travels and adventures through Italy, Africa, and finally to New Orleans in the United States. The wildly popular Gone with the Wind by Margaret Mitchell topped bestseller lists in 1936 and 1937.
Other Prominent Literature
Many other popular books enabled readers to escape the Great Depression woes. Dashiell Hammett’s The Maltese Falcon(1930) was a hard-boiled detective novel. James M. Cain published The Postman Always Rings Twice (1934). A selection of titles from the 1930s fiction best seller lists includes: James Hilton’s Goodbye Mr. Chips (1934) and Lost Horizon(1935); John O’Hara’s Butterfield 8 (1935); Walter D. Edmond’s Drums Along the Mohawk (1936); A.J. Cronin’s The Citadel ; Virginia Woolf’s The Years (1937); W. Somerset Maugham’s Theatre (1937); Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca(1938); Rachel Fields All This and Heaven Too (1938); and, Richard Llewellyn’s How Green Was My Valley (1940).
Some non-fiction titles of interest were Believe It Or Not (1929) by Robert L. Ripley; Ely Culbertson’s Contract Bridge Blue Book of 1933 ; Anne Morrow Lindbergh’s North to the Orient (1935); T.E. Lawrence’s Seven Pillars of Wisdom(1935); and, Clarence Day’s Life With Father (1936).
Self-improvement books remained popular in the 1930s. At the top of the 1933 New York Times nonfiction bestsellers list was Walter B. Pitkin’s Life Begins at Forty. Edmund Jacobson’s You Must Relax was in ninth place in 1934. Live Alone and Like It by Marjorie Hills sold 100,000 copies in 1936 and she followed with Orchids on Your Budget in 1937.
Proving not all Americans subscribed to replacing individual aspirations with a collective, cooperative Marxist spirit, Dale Carnegie’s How to Win Friends and Influence People, which outlined the keys to success in business, a strictly capitalist pursuit, bolted to the number one non-fiction bestseller in 1937. It is still available in bookstores today.
Histories, Biographies, Other Countries
A marked revival of interest in histories and biographies took place in the 1930s. The Rise of American Civilization by Charles and Mary Beard made its way to the non-fiction best seller list of 1930. Likewise H.G. Wells’ The Outline of History made the same 1930 list. Biographies of historical figures included Emil Ludwig’s Lincoln (1930), Douglas Southall Freeman’s R.E. Lee (1935), Carl Van Doren’s Benjamin Franklin (1938) and Carl Sandburg’s Abraham Lincoln: The War Years (1939).
In the second half of the 1930s, with the war looming in Europe and unrest in much of the world, there was great interest in foreign affairs. John Gunther published Inside Europe in 1936 and Inside Asia in 1939. Winston S. Churchill published Blood, Sweat and Tears in 1940. Nora Waln’s Reaching For The Stars described the tragedy of life in Germany under Hitler. In a class all its own Mein Kampf by Adolf Hitler was published in its full text in America for the first time in 1939. Few Americans could understand it as written, therefore it was largely ignored in the United States. Its importance in Germany, however, was undeniable; Mein Kampf was the “bible” of Nazi Germany.
Poets, with styles ranging from iconoclastic (not following the traditional forms) to conservative, made their own marks in the literary world of the 1930s. Nonconformist E.E. Cummings, conservative Robert Frost, black Poet Laureate Langston Hughes, multi-talented Archibald MacLeish, bohemian Edna St. Vincent Millay, and the beloved Carl Sandburg all wrote and published during the Great Depression.
E.E. Cummings, son of a Harvard professor, received two degrees from there himself, but never displayed the air of a Harvard man. He was a congenial nonconformist who mocked the established system and was iconoclastic to the end. An aristocratic individualist at heart, he never took up the communist ideology.
In 1931 Cummings visited the Soviet Union briefly. Those who thought he was sympathetic to communism, however, were quickly set straight with the 1933 publication of Eimi, Cumming’s diary of his trip to Russia. It was a scathing attack of the Soviet system. Again attacking communism, he published No Thanks (1935), a volume of poems whose name came from its many rejections by publishers. Cummings, however, also criticized the capitalistic system for destroying the individual. Two of his most profound anti-capitalist speeches were “Speech From a Forthcoming Play: I” that first appeared in the New American Caravan and “Speech from a Forthcoming Play: II” which appeared in Partisan Review.
Cummings’ style of poetry, written unlike any ever seen before, generally disregarded grammar and punctuation rules. He often ran words and sentences together and made up his own words. Illustrated by the use of all lower case letters in his name, “e.e. cummings,” he generally did not use capitals.
The 1930s proved to be professionally successful but personally tragic for Robert Frost. His daughter Marjorie died in 1934, his wife Elinor died in 1938, and his son Carol committed suicide in 1940. Professionally he won Pulitzer Prizes forCollected Poems of Robert Frost (1930) and A Further Range (1936). A Further Range was published in the middle of the Great Depression when war was also about to engulf the world. Frost took criticism for his casual, conservative politics revealed in A Further Range.
Langston Hughes, often referred to as the Negro Poet Laureate, was a prolific writer from 1926 until his death in 1967. Through his writing he spoke for the poor and homeless black Americans who suffered during the Depression. He wrote of their daily lives, anger, and love. He called Harlem home and enjoyed sitting in its clubs listening to blues and jazz and writing poetry. Black Americans loved his works and hearing him read his poems at public presentations all over the country. His long and distinguished list of works included many published during the Depression: Not Without Laughter (1930),The Negro Mother and Other Dramatic Recitations (1931), The Dream Keeper and Other Poems (1932), Scottsboro Limited: Four Poems and a Play in Verse (1932), A Negro Looks at Soviet Central Asia (1934), and The Ways of White Folks (1934).
Archibald MacLeish led a long and varied life as a poet, scholar, gentleman, librarian of Congress, and friend of President Roosevelt. He went on to be an Assistant Secretary of State and later a professor at Harvard.
Perhaps more than any other writer MacLeish came under fire by the left leaning writers. MacLeish believed a poet must remain true to his art. To do this he must be apolitical and antisocial. If MacLeish remained supportive of capitalism it was because such a system was more favorable than either fascism or communism to the writers’ artistic and intellectual freedom. In 1935 MacLeish published a verse play, “Panic.” The play had a three-day run in New York’s Phoenix Theater. Editors of the New Masses including Michael Gold and his Marxist friends criticized the play on stage at the theater at the end of the third performance. They proclaimed the familiar communist charge that the downfall of capitalism was historically inevitable. MacLeish’s play reflected his own belief that man’s loss of vision, courage, and love had caused the Great Depression and man could make it right again. Some of the poems in MacLeish’s Public Speech (1936) also attacked Marxists.
Edna St. Vincent Millay’s concern with social issues was life long. She lived a bohemian lifestyle in Greenwich Village, New York, after graduating from Vassar College. Penning verse in simple traditional forms, Millay wrote of personal experiences. In 1931 she released her most acclaimed works Fatal Interview, with its 52 sonnets it was compared favorably to Shakespeare. Through the 1930s Millay went on many poetry-reading tours and also took advantage of the new radio medium for readings. Her book sales strong, she lived comfortably through the Depression.
Not until 1939 did her work enter the social commentary arena. Although opposed to war, the crisis in Europe concerned her and convinced her that sometimes war was indeed necessary. Her 1939 sonnet, “Czechoslovakia,” expressed concern for Czechoslovakia after Germany invaded the country. That same year she appeared with First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt and black American leader George Washington Carver at a New York Herald Tribune sponsored forum. Millay spoke, urging repeal of the Embargo Act of 1937 that stopped the United States from selling arms to Britain and France. She encouraged Americans to rethink their isolationist approach and held defend cultures closely akin to the United States from fascist leaders.
Through Carl Sandburg’s work ran two major themes, his support for the common man and democracy and a search for meaning in American history. Sandburg worked as a newspaper journalist in Chicago from 1912 to the late 1920s part of a community of important American writers called the Chicago School which included among others Sherwood Anderson and Theodore Dreisen. Sandburg won fame for his poetry during that period. One famous poem, “Chicago,” published in 1914 both portrayed the harshness of the cities at the same time the power and energy of industry. In the 1920s Sandburg completed the first part of an excellent biography on Abraham Lincoln. The sales enabled him to leave newspaper employment and concentrate fully on his literary works.
In the early 1930s Carl Sandburg, known as the Poet of the People, established a life long friendship with Archibald MacLeish. The two carried on long discussions about the obligations of the poet to issues of the day. Sandburg believed the economic inequality, so striking in the Depression, was the root of all social injustice. He responded to the 1930s economic and social strife with The People, Yes. In it he praised the struggling people who were immigrants just as his own parents had been. By 1939 he finished his six volume biography of Abraham Lincoln that won a 1940s Pulitzer Prize for history.
The Publishing Industry
The 1920s were a prosperous time for publishers. Many publishing companies still in business in the twenty-first century were established in the decade before the Depression. Some of those formed in the 1920s were Harcourt, Brace and Company, 1919; Simon and Schuster, 1924; Viking Press, 1925; and, Random House, 1927.
When the stock market crashed in the fall of 1929, publishers were just as confused as the rest of the business world about how severe it would be. Publishers began trimming lists of titles for publication declining from 10,027 titles in 1930, to 8,766 by 1935. Overall publishing suffered less than many other businesses and no major publisher failed due to the Depression. Several new publishing companies even managed to start up including Julian Messner, 1933; Reynal and Hitchcock, 1933; Basic Books, 1935; New Directions, 1936; Crown, 1936; and, Duell, Sloan and Pearce, 1939.
Publishing houses fared better during the Depression for two reasons. Publishers showed creativity in marketing and pricing their books. Book jackets became irresistibility colorful drawing readers to pick up the attractive books. Also nearly 200 books were made into movies. Often a special movie edition was published as the movie premiered. Publishers were also aggressive in cutting prices of their books. Secondly people during the Depression had more time on their hands and reading was one way to fill it.
The publishing industry faced increasing difficulties during World War II (1939-1945) that spelled recovery for most businesses. The problem was a paper shortage. The number of titles published in 1941—11,112—declined to 6,548 by the war’s end in 1945.
The Paperback Revolution
Although paperback books had appeared and disappeared in the United States many times before, their production had always been short lived. In the 1930s the low-priced paperback was especially appealing. A distribution network had developed over the years for books to be in drug stores, food stores, and railroad and airline terminals. Also the public’s attitude that books were objects to be preserved forever had changed.
Penguin paperback books appeared in 1935 in England. Penguin was so successful it opened a branch in the United States in 1939 with 100 titles and Sam Ballantine as manager. As hostilities increased in Europe with World War II, Penguin began printing more and more titles at facilities in the United States. Even with the shortage of paper during World War II American branches of Penguin continued to produce the popular paperback.
Another paperback publisher also emerged in 1939, Pocket Books. Pocket Books actually began in the United States a few months before Penguin arrived. Started by Robert Fair de Graff along with Richard Simon, Max Schuster and Leon Shimkin, Pocket Books first test marketed Pearl Buck’s The Good Earth. It quickly followed with ten more titles. Macy’s Department Store ordered 10,000 books, which was ten percent of Pocket’s first press run. Wire rack book holders appeared in store after store. The little kangaroo logo adorned the cover of each Pocket Book. The paperback industry got another positive nod when the Armed Services Editions for those serving their country were published. Additionally Sam Ballantine formed his own paperback company thereby spreading paperbacks even farther.
Book-of-the-Month Club (BOMC) and Literary Club both began in 1926 and flourished during the 1930s. Most all homes nationwide had mail service, but many did not have access to bookstores or libraries. In addition to the ease of obtaining a book, the clubs pre-selected a book each month. A panel of literary experts selected books, both fiction and nonfiction, of broad appeal. Members could reject a selection but could only order books the club stocked. Book clubs ran special printings of their selected titles but almost never published original works.
At first publishers and booksellers feared the competition, but it soon became apparent that a selection of a title by a club actually increased sales overall. A greater volume of printings to keep up with sales allowed lower retail prices that in turn spurred more sales.
American fiction in 1919 just after World War I took on a rebellious new energy. Writing in the genteel tradition that politely guarded high culture with stylized and romantic characters and plots faded rapidly. Authors who burst to the forefront were Sinclair Lewis, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, Sherwood Anderson, critic Henry Louis (H.L.) Mencken, and John Dos Passos. They urged freer patterns of behavior, thought, and forms of writing to express their feelings and lambasted American society as boring and full of hypocrisy. They expressed disillusionment and contempt for both traditional and contemporary society. They scoffed at the promises that bureaucrats had made about World War I being a war to end all wars. They dealt frankly with sexuality and called the Victorian ideas of decency hypocritical. Despite innovative writing few successfully made the transition to the Depression decade of the 1930s.
Sinclair Lewis criticized the narrow life of the small town in Main Street (1920), the middle class businessman and middle sized city in Babbit (1922), the medical profession in Arrowsmith (1925), the clergy in Elmer Gantry (1927), and the big business man in Dodsworth (1929). Lewis received the Nobel Prize for fiction in 1926, the first American to do so. In the 1930s his only notable work was It Can’t Happen Here (1935). F. Scott Fitzgerald became the prophet of rebellious youth and stayed obsessed with World War I’s “lost generation,” young adults who had lost their way. In This Side of Paradise (1920), The Beautiful and the Damned (1922), and The Great Gatsby (1925), Fitzgerald portrayed the lost generation as living a fast, materialistic life to make up for the meaninglessness of their lives. He remained fixed on this theme in the 1930s and produced no notable works.
Hemingway’s first popular success was The Sun Also Rises (1926) about a disillusioned group of Americans in Europe. Hemingway, until late in the 1930s, continued use of European settings for his novels rather than dealing with issues in America. Sherwood Anderson, even though he was active in the 1930s leftist movement, produced his two final novels in 1932 and 1936, both considered inferior works to his previous works. H.L. Mencken was the most widely read and listened to social critic, essayist, reporter, and editor of the 1920s. He was known as the man who hated everything. Mencken ridiculed with gusto ministers, doctors, lawyers, Southern leaders, educators, and opponents of birth control. He delighted in getting a rise out of his readers. The rebellious writers of the 1920s felt a kinship with Mencken. In the troubled years of the Depression his influence declined and popularity faded.
One writer who made the jump from the 1920s to 1930s was John Dos Passos who was willing to experiment with every new writing style developed since World War I. He successfully extended the 1920 innovation of portraying life more realistically including all life’s oddities and cruelties. Dos Passos widened his focus from the 1920s to the people in the sad society of the Depression.
The center of the literary world in the 1920s was Greenwich Village in New York City, a virtual stronghold of artists and radicals. Many writers translated their boredom with America into a move to Paris where Gertrude Stein, author of The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas (1933) held court. Fitzgerald and Hemingway also lived in Paris during the 1920s.
Other post-World War I writers were William Faulkner, E.E. Cummings, and poet Edna St. Vincent Millay. Faulkner would become an important author with stories set in the South. His first highly successful novel, The Sound and the Fury (1929), took a dark look at the demise of a Southern family. He would skyrocket to fame in the 1930s with his carefully structured novels and characters. E.E. Cummings experimented with language in poems, plays, and novels. Millay perfectly expressed the defiant desires of the 1920s with clear, direct poetry that was widely published.
The rebellious literature of the 1920s made for exciting times. 1920s literature constituted a broadening and flowering of writing styles resulting in a new image of American literature. It offered no constructive ideology, however, for building a new America with a fairer social order, an important aspect of 1930s literature.
The proletarian novel in America is generally accepted as a Great Depression decade phenomenon. Men and women of considerable energies and talent wrote proletarian literature. In the 1930s it touched at places that a majority of Americans could relate to, nevertheless it failed to gain wide acceptance.
The first American proletarian novel actually appeared before the American Communist Party and predated the years 1929-1940 by decades. Fata Morgana by Adolf Douais was published in 1858 in St. Louis, Missouri. This work, written in German, was the beginning of the proletarian novel in the United States. Its development paralleled the development of the socialist movement in the United States. Socialism refers to political and economic theories calling for common ownership of the means of production and distribution of goods under a strong central government. It is sometimes thought of as an in-between step between capitalism and communism. American socialism emerged between the Civil War and World War I with the struggles of American labor in an industrializing era. Many Americans hoped social experimentation would lead to a utopian (perfect) American society. Socialist oriented novels appeared between 1890 and 1915, but no one writer became well known. The first decades of the twentieth century saw experimentation with poetry and fiction and attempts to link the world of social progress to literature. Authors and journalists such as Van Wyck Brooks, Waldo Frank, and Walter Lippmanall envisioned a sort of socialism to make a perfect country with everyone equal. World War I shattered this spirit and after the war, Americans understood the Industrial Revolution was about power. In the 1920s people got down to the business of getting their share of prosperity often disregarding civil rights along the way. There was a large proletariat, a working class, but no proletarian literature. Instead bourgeois (ruling class) literature looked at the American worker as stumbling into the city from rural life or just off a boat from across the Atlantic. By far the majority of the 1920s writers were not intent on changing society or social justice. They were politically disenfranchised, just not interested in politics or social ills.
Although the old socialist utopian ideas seemed lost, there was some evidence that a Marxist perspective based on programs of international socialism and class struggle was growing in America. Marxist philosophy was the basis of communism. Young writers such as Michael Gold, Joseph Freeman, and Waldo Frank envisioned a brotherhood of workers where the common ownership of all means of production would stamp out inequalities. This American Marxism was closely tied to the growing international Marxist or communist movement. In the late 1920s the American Communist Party formed.
If not in Europe, members of the American literary community lived in New York City, with a few in Los Angeles and Chicago. Few had made much money at their craft so they enclosed their lives and value systems within a brotherhood of writers, separated from the rest of society. Identifying this group as one that might be moved to revolutionary ideas, the Communist Party focused on these poets, novelists, and playwrights to build a propaganda base. John Reed Clubs, branches of the Communist Party, formed for this purpose. So by 1929 the old American socialist impulse was being replaced by a communist influenced leftist movement among the intellectuals and writers of the New York City bohemian community.
The American economic collapse in 1929 and 1930 created many angry disillusioned Americans. Writers were determined to move this disillusioned society to a new equal and classless order through their writings. From ongoing discussions carried on in literary left leaning magazines, the proletarian novel emerged.
New York City’s Intellectual Elite
Cocktail parties in the 1920s were popular gatherings for New York City’s sophisticated, talented writers, critics, artists, musicians, and professional men and women. These were individuals setting the pace with the newest ideas and tendencies. At 1925 cocktail parties, with martinis poured, lively conversation always turned to the issues of the day. Individuals unleashed their beliefs for all to hear. The discussions ran along the following lines: America was considered a boring machine-dominated culture. More personal freedom such as sexual freedom would generate a more exciting society. Businessmen and their organizations such as Rotarians or the Chambers of Commerce were hopelessly dull and conservative. America had too many laws but reformers amazingly lobbied for more. The writers who clung to Victorian or Puritan themes of the 1800s needed to open their minds. Any really creative person headed for the artistic freedom of Europe.
Only ten years later in 1935 conversation at a cocktail party for the community of writers and artists in New York City would hardly be recognizable. No longer did discussions of more sexual freedom dominate. Instead the chief topics of interest concerned a drastic need for reform of social and economic conditions. Some members raised in capitalist America were calling for a communist revolution to benefit the masses. These masses of poor Americans in the working classes were considered the proper focus for writers and artists. Careful attention to the conversations revealed numerous writers labeling themselves as proletarian (focusing on the working class). This talented group of Americans now saw the Untied States as the most fascinating country in the world and it needed to be studied at every level of society. Writers needed to expose problems and push for correction.
Over the last ten years, a 180° shift had occurred in the beliefs of the literary world. The literary world had been deeply moved by the Depression and the suffering it had caused. The writing community had awakened to social consciousness, acutely aware of those millions in trouble in their own country. Both writers and patrons (supporters of the arts) questioned what good art for art’s sake was when people were starving. No longer was there any point to write pretty novels of ladies and gentlemen. Writing of factory workers and sharecroppers got at issues that mattered and would help expose and correct situations. Among the intellectual elite a mood of social evangelism prevailed. Some felt if it took a communist revolution in America to correct social inequality then so be it. This new mood was most widespread in New York, long the center of intellectualism. It was more widespread among the young, rising and frequently unemployed rather than older more established intellectuals. Some writers refused to be restricted to the immediacy of the class struggles in America or refused to be identified with any one cause. Nevertheless the proportion of writers moving to the revolutionary left far outdistanced the number of the general public that did so. The best and most talented American writers had discovered that America was a fascinating subject for exploration and dissection.
Outside New York Intellectualism
Many successful individuals across the United States were quite untouched by the revolutionary spirit of New York. This was strikingly apparent among the affluent people who had always surrounded themselves with books and socially correct magazines. Also academics remote from the new creative efforts in arts would have hardly subscribed to leftist ideas. As for businessmen and bankers who considered themselves sustainers of the arts in their communities by helping to make up the annual deficits of symphonies and local colleges they likely were angered by it all. Likewise club women in book groups, who attended literary lectures, subscribed to concerts and the Book of the Month Club were suspicious, bewildered, and frightened of leftist talk.
Every now and then through the 1930s a few decidedly proletarian or leftist pieces did achieve wide popularity. Erskine Caldwell’s Tobacco Road was rewritten as a play by Jack Kirkland and opened in New York on December 4, 1935. After almost failing, it ended up running year after year. Only two proletarian books made it to the best seller’s lists, Sinclair Lewis’ anti-fascist novel It Can’t Happen Here and John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath. Otherwise bestseller lists reflected that only a limited number of people cared to read the socially conscious books. For many it seemed the Depression was too painful and disturbing to read about. They needed escape, often to other parts of the world or into history. For example Pearl S. Buck’s The Good Earth, set in China, topped bestseller lists in 1931 and 1932. Anthony Adverse by Hervey Allen sat atop lists in 1933 and 1934. Then Margaret Mitchell’s Gone With The Wind was at the same position in 1936 and 1937.
The 1920s and 1930s were a period of innovation in American literature. Incorporation of realism in writing and the varied array of techniques of modernism made the period a time of energized experimentation. Rather than new stylistic approaches or changes the 1940s proved to be largely a refinement of the techniques. The war did provide a new sort of book—the reporting novel or war novel. War novels commanding a wide audience crowded the bestseller lists throughout the decade. Among the best were John Hersey’s A Bell for Adano (1944) and Hiroshima (1946), Irwin Shaw’s The Young Lions (1948) and Norman Mailer’s The Naked and the Dead (1948). Nonfiction titles often were eyewitness accounts of war experiences as William Shirer’s Berlin Diary (1941), and The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich (1950), Ted Lawson’s Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo (1943), and Richard Tregaskis’ Guadalcanal Diary (1943).
Novels describing the South proved very successful. Influenced by William Faulkner, Carson McCullers wrote The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter (1940), The Member of the Wedding (1946), and The Ballad of the Sad Café (1951). Robert Penn Warren published All the King’s Men (1946), Truman Capote’s Other Voices, Other Rooms (1948), and Eudora Welty’s Delta Wedding (1946). Continuing a Depression theme of examination of rural poverty, Richard Wright followed Native Son (1940) with his autobiography Black Boy (1945) about his childhood amid poverty in the South. Written in the same vein but set in a small town in California was The Human Comedy (1943) by William Saroyan.
John Steinbeck in his 1962 book Travels with Charley comments on the Federal Writers Project publications. He describes the 1930s FWP pamphlets and books about the United States as the most thorough accounting of the culture of the United States ever recorded and published. A fictional book published in the late 1960s, They Shoot Horses, Don’t They (1969), continued a Depression theme of the hopelessness of some individuals during the miserable economic time. A tersely written story, They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? by Horace McCoy, captured the hard economic circumstances people found themselves in during the Depression. McCoy’s book dealt with contestants in a dance marathon and at the end of the story the main exhausted female character is shot dead by her dance partner. She was exhausted after so much dancing that at her request he shot her. As the police lead him away he says with a shrug, “They shoot horses, don’t they?” His comment suggested human life was worth little in the marathon of living through the Great Depression.
Erskine Caldwell (1903-1987)
Erskine Caldwell ranks with Hemingway and Fitzgerald as a powerful and influential American writer. He contributed over fifty volumes of both fiction and nonfiction over his lifetime. Born in Moreland, Georgia, Caldwell lived throughout the South as a child and teen. During his high school years in tiny Wrens, Georgia, Caldwell decided writing would be his life’s work. In the 1920s Caldwell would write as much as 18 hours a day but it was 1929 before he received his first acceptance letter. During the 1930s Caldwell published four significant novels,Tobacco Road (1932), God’s Little Acre (1933) Journeyman (1935) and Trouble in July (1940). He also had more than 100 short stories published in five collections.
Caldwell would often run into censorship difficulties. Also many southerners were furious at his attack on rural Georgia poverty, especially with Tobacco Road and You Have Seen Their Faces (1937). He collaborated with photographer Margaret Bourke-White, whom he later married, on You Have Seen Their Faces. The photographs and narrative together captured the misery of black and white poor southern farmers. Caldwell’s efforts brought attention to the farmers’ plight and helped provide intellectual reasoning for government agencies as the Resettlement Administration and the Farm Security Administration. Caldwell continued writing for the next four decades, publishing approximately 150 short stories and 25 volumes of fiction.
John Dos Passos (1896-1970)
Dos Passos, born in Chicago, Illinois, the son of a wealthy lawyer of Portuguese heritage, graduated from Harvard University in 1916. He volunteered as an ambulance driver in World War I. Praise and popular recognition came to Dos Passos with his bitter antiwar novel Three Soldiers (1921), which portrays the artist sickened at the brutality around him. Traveling in Spain and other countries as a newspaper correspondent, Dos Passos developed his social and cultural perceptions and he confirmed his radical political sympathies.
By the mid-1920s Dos Passos unhesitatingly identified with the extreme left and it nourished his best work, the trilogy,USA published as a series of three books in the 1930s. He saw the United States as two nations, one of the wealthy and privileged, the other of the powerless and poverty-stricken. The USA trilogy consists of: The 42nd Parallel (1930),Nineteen Nineteen (1932) and, The Big Money (1936). The 42nd Parallel covers the period from 1900 until world War I.Nineteen Nineteen covers the war period and The Big Money moves through the booming 1920s to the 1930s.
Sometime after the publication of USA, Dos Passos underwent a change of philosophy, moving from the left across the political spectrum to the conservative right. He often said that he didn’t change, but the world around him changed. When he was young industrial capitalism was the villain according to Dos Passos, but in later years he viewed communism, big government, and labor unions as controlling and dangerous. He continued to write until his death but never again reached the creative highs he had with USA.
James T. Farrell (1904-1979)
Born into an Irish-American working class family in Chicago, Illinois, Farrell’s family was so poor that as a tiny child he was sent to live with relatives for a time. As a young man he worked at odd jobs to finance tuition for the University of Chicago, but after a few years he dropped out to become a writer. Profoundly influenced by his boyhood on the South Side of Chicago, Farrell saw his role as an artist to preserve the memory and dignity of the everyday lives and experiences of the ordinary man. He probed the human condition and the social basis of human experiences. During the 1930s his politics tended to Marxist thought, but he fervently remained true to his own viewpoints and feelings shaped by his childhood.
The Studs Lonigan trilogy consisting of Young Lonigan (1932), The Young Manhood of Studs Lonigan (1934), and Judgment Day (1935) achieved high praise from critics and readers alike. Farrell was a famous writer by 30 years of age. Through the trilogy, he revealed how American culture prevented humans from achieving full potential. He believed the only solution was to establish a classless society.
Farrell published 52 books during his career and wrote until his death. But nothing he wrote rivaled Studs Lonigan in humanity or despair. The Studs Lonigan trilogy is ranked high among the top one hundred novels of the twentieth century.
John Steinbeck (1902-1968)
John Steinbeck was born and grew up in Salinas Valley, California, a rural agricultural area near Monterey Bay. As a boy he explored the valley and the towns along Monterey Bay—Carmel, Seaside, Pacific Grove and Monterey. Big Sur, with its cliffs and forests above the ocean, awed Steinbeck and in these areas he found a great deal of the material for his stories. He graduated from Salinas High School in 1919. He entered Stanford University where he attended intermittently through 1925 taking time off to earn money to pay his way. Steinbeck wrote fiction stories at Stanford and they were published in the Stanford Spectator. He took a Marine biology class the summer of 1923 at Hopkins Marine Station in Pacific Grove where he became acquainted with Edward F. Ricketts. Ricketts’ views on the interrelationship of all life profoundly affected Steinbeck.
Steinbeck’s novels of the 1930s revealed his extraordinary sense of the spirit of ordinary men and women. His best stories were decidedly proletariat. Although Steinbeck was not a Marxist, they are about simple people doing battle with dehumanizing social forces and with their own inner souls to build lives of meaning and worth. The Pastures of Heaven (1932) is a collection of stories of people in the agricultural communities close to his birthplace in Salinas Valley. Tortilla Flat (1935) is a tale of poverty stricken farmers and migrant workers. In Dubious Battle (1936) concerns labor struggles in California. Of Mice and Men (1937) deals with a mentally retarded farm worker and his friend. In 1939 Steinbeck published his most famous novel and one of the top literary works of the twentieth century, The Grapes of Wrath. The novel tells of a poor Oklahoma farm family, the Joads, displaced by the Dust Bowl, who migrate to California seeking a better life.
Other major works by Steinbeck are The Red Pony (1933), The Sea of Cortez (1941), Cannery Row (1945), East of Eden(1952), The Winter of Our Discontent (1961), and Travels with Charley (1962). Steinbeck received the Nobel Prize for literature in 1962.
Richard Nathaniel Wright (1908-1960)
Richard Wright was born on a plantation near Natchez, Mississippi. His grandparents had been slaves. Wright’s father, Nathan, was a sharecropper who left the family when Wright was five years old. His mother Ella, a school-teacher, became paralyzed when he was nine. Afterwards Wright spent a brief period in an orphanage before shifting between relatives. At one point Wright witnessed the lynching of a step-uncle and a friend.
Through his childhood Wright moved from town to town in the South. Wright completed the sixth and seventh grade in Jackson, Mississippi, where he delivered newspapers and ran errands to earn money. He also became an avid reader.
After briefly attending high school he left and joined the general migration of blacks northward, moving to Memphis then to Chicago in 1927 where he found a job in the postal service. In 1930 he lost his job as the Great Depression began. In Chicago he joined the John Reed Club in 1933 and the Communist Party in 1934. He began submitting revolutionary poetry to leftist magazines. On the strength of a few published poems, he joined the WPA’s Federal Writers Project in Chicago and was assigned to research the history of blacks in Illinois. Moving to New York in 1937 he wrote the WPA guide to Harlem. He also served as editor of the Communist Daily Worker while continuing his own writing.
Wright first rose to the public’s attention with Uncle Tom’s Children: Four Novellas (1938) which explores the struggles of a black man living in a racist country. The publication of Native Son (1940) gained Wright international recognition as a powerful writer of his generation. The best-selling book was transformed into a Broadway play in 1941 by Orson Welles. The following year he published 12 Million Black Voices. The volume was illustrated with approximately one hundred photographs taken from the Farm Security Administration collection. In 1944 Wright broke his connections with the Communist Party realizing his association with it hurt his acceptance as a writer.
In 1945 Wright published his autobiography, Black Boy, which explores the poverty of his childhood, the daily prejudice he endured, and his emerging love of literature. Increasingly subjected to harassment by the government over his former Communist Party affiliation, Wright moved to Paris after World War II where he remained in self-imposed exile until his death.
All of Wright’s works had presented an angry black voice against the prejudices of America. During his time he was perhaps the most famous black American author and among the first black American writers to protest white treatment of black Americans.
Federal Writers’ Project
Following is an explanation from the members of the Federal Writers’ Project of the purpose of their work and how they approached writing These Are Our Lives (1939, pp. ix, xiv).
Several months ago the writing of life histories of tenant farmers, farm owners, textile and other factory workers, persons in service occupations in towns and cities (such as bell hops, waitresses, messenger boys, clerks in five and ten cent stores, soda jerks), and persons in miscellaneous occupations such as lumbering, mining, turpentining, and fishing was begun by the Federal Writers’ Project in North Carolina. This work has recently been extended to six other states, and a large number of stories have already been written.
The idea is to get life histories which are readable and faithful representations of living persons, and which, taken together, will give a fair picture of the structure and working of society. So far as I know, this method of portraying the quality of life of a people, of revealing the real workings of institutions, customs, habits, has never before been used for the people of any region or country. It seems to me that the method here used has certain possibilities and advantages which should no longer be ignored …
Here, then, are real, living people. Here are their own stories, their origins, their more important experiences, their most significant thoughts and feelings, told by themselves from their own point of view.
“Grease Monkey to Knitters,” one of the 35 stories in These Are Our Lives, contains a recounting of riding the rails from city to city looking for work (pp. 169-171).
… in January, 1930, the café where I worked went busted. I was out of a job and I couldn’t find a single thing to work at. I was young and had no training, and lots of people were out of work. I had nothing to do all the balance of that winter, and when spring came I was down to $30.
There was another young fellow there in Fort Worth, Sam Haines. He had an old Ford car and we decided to hit the road in search of a job. Sam was a waiter, too, and we got three other fellows to go along with us. Sam was to furnish the car and we were to furnish gas and oil.
We set out in April, 1930. We traveled around over Texas—Dallas, Waco, San Antonio, Houston—but we didn’t find any jobs. We left Houston heading for New Orleans. In Monroe, Louisiana, ‘old Lizzie’ gave out. Something went wrong with her ‘innards.’ She knocked a few loud whacks, then threw off a connecting rod and busted the block. It’s a good thing that happened in a town instead of out on the road. Sam sold her to a junk dealer for $5. That was a good thing, too, because we needed that $5 before we found a job.
We all caught a freight train in Monroe and rode it to New Orleans. There the gang split up. One of the boys got a job on a banana boat bound for South America. The other two struck out for Florida.
Me and Sam stuck together. We made it to Mobile but there was nothing doing there. We rambled on up to Birmingham and there Sam found a job as waiter. We had just sixty cents between us when we got there.
Sam got his room and meals and $5 a week. The proprietor agreed for me to occupy the room with Sam for awhile until I could find something to do. I stayed around Birmingham for a week, but couldn’t find any kind of job. Sam wanted me to stay on but I wouldn’t. He was only making $5 a week, and was giving me a part of that to eat on.
We had both kept our clothes nice. I had two good suits and plenty of shirts. I left all my clothes with Sam and hit the road light. I only had fifty cents that Sam had give me. I made it to Atlanta in one night on a freight train, but things seemed duller there than they were in Birmingham.
I bummed around in Georgia and South Carolina for three or four weeks. Everywhere I went it was the same old story—’No help wanted.’ My clothes got pretty dirty and soiled from sleeping out. I could wash my shirt and underwear, but I had no money to have my suit cleaned and pressed.
But there were lots of people on the road worse off than me. I was young, in good health, and had only myself to look out for. That summer I met whole families wandering around homeless and broke, even women with babies in their arms.
The Desperate Movement West
Author John Steinbeck, in the The Grapes of Wrath (1939, p. 207), vividly describes the movement west of displaced families during the Great Depression.
And then the dispossessed were drawn west—from Kansas, Oklahoma, Texas, New Mexico; from Nevada and Arkansas families, tribes, dusted out, tractored out. Carloads, caravans, homeless and hungry; twenty thousand and fifty thousand and a hundred thousand and two hundred thousand. They streamed over the mountains, hungry and restless—restless as ants, scurrying to find work to do—to lift, to push, to pull, to pick, to cut—anything, any burden to bear, for food. The kids are hungry. We got no place to live. Like ants scurrying for work, for food, and most of all for land.
We ain’t foreign. Seven generations back Americans, and beyond that Irish, Scotch, English, German. One of our folks in the Revolution, an’ they was lots of our folks in the Civil War—both sides. Americans.
They were hungry, and they were fierce. And they had hoped to find a home, and they found only hatred. Okies—
Richard Wright describes the plight of black Americans in 12 Million Black Voices (from Wright, 1941, pp. 142-143).
We are the children of the black sharecroppers, the first-born of the city tenements.
We have tramped down a road three hundred years long. We have been shunted to and fro by cataclysmic social changes.
We are a folk born of cultural devastation, slavery, physical suffering, unrequited longing, abrupt emancipation, migration, disillusionment, bewilderment, joblessness, and insecurity—all enacted within a short space of historical time!
There are millions of us and we are moving in all directions … A sense of constant change has stolen silently into our lives and has become operative in our personalities as a law of living.
Suggested Research Topics
- What were the benefits of government support for writers enrolled in the Federal Writers’ Project (FWP)?
- Have groups of students read Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath, Wright’s Native Son, Farrell’s Studs Lonigan or Agee’s Let Us Now Praise Famous Men. Have each group engage in discussion of their book to prepare for oral presentation. Present round table discussion to class.
- Discuss the two major points of view depicted in work of the 1930: proletarianism and the new nationalism. Give examples of each.