[Later this month I start teaching a new online class, a variation of my Ethnic American Lit course that will focus on representations of work in American literature. So this week I’ll AmericanStudy a handful of such representations, leading up to a special weekend post on some of my favorite pop culture worker-characters!]
On two unique novels that together help us remember the Great Depression’s effects on America’s urban settings and workers.
To my mind, the most famous artistic works to emerge out of and chronicle the Great Depression are almost entirely focused on its impacts on rural American communities and lives: the Dust Bowl farmers of John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath (1939) and John Ford’s subsequent film version (1940); the sharecropping Southern farmers of James Agee and Walker Evans’ Let Us Now Praise Famous Men (1941); the rural African American communities of Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God (1937); and even, if more symbolically and allegorically to be sure, the Kansas that Dorothy seeks to escape and then learns to value in (especially) the film version of The Wizard of Oz (1939). Even the most prominent voice in a musical soundtrack to the era, Woody Guthrie, focused much of his attention, as in “the wheat fields waving and the dust clouds rolling” of “This Land is Your Land” (1940), on those kinds of rural settings.
I don’t begrudge any of those their spots in our national consciousness, and if anything I think that we could probably think more fully about most of them. But today I want to add two other late 1930s novels to the conversation, two books that, while entirely different in almost every way (from size, style, and structure to focus and themes), can combine to help us engage more fully with how both the decades leading up to the Depression and the era itself were also deeply felt in and connected to the nation’s urban centers and their working communities. Focusing on those preceding decades is John Dos Passos’ sprawling historical trilogy U.S.A. (1938; previously published as the individual novels The 42nd Parallel , 1919 , and The Big Money ), which narrates (in over 1300 pages) much of American history between 1900 and the Stock Market crash of 1929 through multiple stylistic lenses, including biographies of significant historical figures, “newsreel” collections of headlines for key events, “camera eye” portrayals of his own evolving identity, and the fictional narratives of a dozen representative characters (all of whose experiences unfold in major cities). Focusing on the Depression itself is Pietro di Donato’s Christ in Concrete (1939), which tells the story (in about 200 pages) of one Italian American bricklayer (modeled on both Donato’s father and his own experiences in the profession from a very young age) whose struggle to provide for his family in 1930s New York ends tragically.
Again, two texts that are different in almost every way, but for both it is the cities—already home by the opening of the 20th century to a huge range of ethnic, national, racial, and work and economic identities and communities—where both the Depression’s causes and its effects can be seen and narrated in all their scope and complexity. For at least the prior half-century numerous astute observers, from sociological reporters like Jacob Riis (in How the Other Half Lives ) to social reformers like Jane Addams (as captured in her Twenty Years at Hull-House ), had focused on America’s cities, and particularly the lives and communities of impoverished immigrant and ethnic city residents, as a key site in which to find, analyze, and attempt to strengthen the nation’s evolving and fragile social fabric. And while Dos Passos’ tone is largely cynical and Donato’s largely elegiac, and both books deeply biting in their portrayals of class and politics in America, their existence themselves serves precisely as an artistic attempt at such strengthening of our social fabric; both books, that is, demand that their audiences confront and attempt to understand the lives and experiences that they represent, and thus to recognize what has happened and is continuing to happen in the nation and most especially (in their lens) in its cities.
I don’t in any way want this to read like a blue-state/red-state, coasts vs. flyover kind of dichotomy—for lots of reasons, but mostly because, in this equation as in most every other one, it is in no way either-or. The Depression hit the Joads and the sharecroppers and the Janeys and Tea Cakes and the Auntie Ems just as hard as it did New Yorkers and Chicagoans and Pittsburghers and Angelinos. We should remember and read and engage with Dos Passos and Donato not in place of those other works, but alongside them, and in so doing, hopefully, come to a fuller and more layered sense of what the Depression was and meant, and how the era’s artists sought to capture and respond to those complex realities. Next literary work tomorrow,
PS. What do you think? Other representations of work you’d share?