Here is a question to gnaw your brains at night. Who is writing fiction and poetry and memoir about the Great Recession? Not about the migrant farm workers of the Great Depression (now the migrant day laborers and farm workers scattered across America), but the people going under water on their mortgages, families living in shelters, the middle class dropping off the edge. Is it because we’ve now managed to romanticize the Great Depression that we cannot find the literary fire in the meanness and terror of our current fate? Have we managed to convince ourselves that we need only write about the current chi-chi Cause of the Moment (immigrants, sex trafficking, genocide in Africa)? Who is going to catalogue the deep sadness, hopelessness of the present, and where are their stories?
I can hear my screenwriter and novelist friends saying it is too soon for work reflecting the human cost of the downturn – the Lehman Brothers collapse was only three years ago.
“We writers need time to let these events percolate through our sub-conscious before we turn them into art,” they might argue.
I’m not sure about that. Three years into the Great Depression Steinbeck had already written Of Mice and Men, a tale of migrant farm workers, and had started on The Grapes of Wrath.
At the same time, Henry R Luce, founding editor of Time and Fortune, a right-wing Republican, sent writer James Agee and photographer Walker Evans to the rural American South, to report on the Great Depression’s devastating effects.
Their report was so grim that Fortune declined to publish it. The pair published it as a book instead, the classic Let Us Now Praise Famous Men.
I’m not certain that today’s editors at Fortune have sent top talent out into the field to document the slow-motion collapse of middle-class life in America.