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.
William Vollmann is doing some work in this area. He had a eye-opening piece in Harper’s two or three months ago about staying in a tent-city in California with a number of families who had lost their homes. If anyone is interested, I can email a PDF of this story to you.
I would love to read that.
Thanks, Jason. I was hoping to draw some suggestions.
I would also love to read that.
I think we’re all blogging!
See Sandra Birdsell’s Waiting for Joe, published last year.
I don’t think she’s necessarily a Steinbeck, and her books aren’t memoir (though they are nonfiction), but how about Barbara Ehrenreich? “Nickled and Dimed” or “Bait and Switch.” Neither are about the Great Recession, but they are about middle class life, hourly wages, rejection, unemployment, etc. and, because they are a few years old (2002 and 2005, respectively), they show just how slow-motion of a collapse it has been.
Nickled and Dimed is a pretty good one. Another one is Methland, by Nick Reding.
The salient features of 2011 America include hyperconcentration of wealth for the few, increasing vulnerability for the majority, and impoverishment for many. Wasteful wars motivated by expansionist goals consume vast resources, jeopardizing minimal standards of social welfare. While corporate power rages unchecked, fundamental rights of workers are subject to relentless attack. Were Steinbeck alive today he would recognize a society little changed from the first half of the last century, a time when he wrote his era’s most moving and cogent novels of the class war. DG raises the pertinent question, “Where are today’s Steinbeck?”
All right, Doug. I’ll take a crack at it.
Before we search for today’s Steinbeck, let us consider our treatment of the Steinbeck that we have. I use the present tense because Steinbeck will be with us always, whether we’ve read the text or listened to Henry Fonda narrate Tom Joad’s soliloquy. We can take comfort that, “Whenever they’s a fight so hungry people can eat, I’ll be there. Whenever they’s a cop beatin’ up a guy, I’ll be there.” And so on.
When The Grapes of Wrath appeared in 1939 it received a generally favorable response from both critics and the public. Some, however, called it sentimental. Others condemned Steinbeck’s portrayals of “the greedy bastards responsible” for the Depression, as if the tender feelings of politicians and landowners might ache from this characterization. Still others accused him of being a socialist or a communist.
Steinbeck’s personal politics defied simple characterization, as exemplified by his support for American aggression in Vietnam. Yet today his reputation and his standing in the literary canon is jeopardized less by attacks on his politics than by those directed at his craft. Even some who sympathize with the politics of his novels consider him a propagandist.
A peculiar feature of the modern literary establishment is its demand for drilling into the core of the human being in terms of psychology, sexuality, relationships, spiritual beliefs–but as soon as the political aspect of the individual is brought into play, an additional test presents. Now it becomes necessary to prove one has no “agenda.”
And there can be no doubt that Steinbeck did write with an agenda. No one can conceive of Steinbeck contemplating, “A middle-aged guy . . . I’ll call him Tom . . . suffering from ennui. He lives in New York City and he writes books. No, he’s an accountant. Oh, wait, I’ll put him in Oklahoma, and make him bored by life in the Midwest. I’ll call it Ledgers of Wrath.”
Nobody would argue that even the most compelling and articulate political position can stand the test of literary excellence by itself, that craft does not matter, that storytelling and character may be dispensed with if the politics are sufficient. To accuse Steinbeck of melodrama or sentimentality, however, suggests that he inflated the harsh conditions of cannery work or sharecropping or itinerant labor for dramatic purposes. In fact Steinbeck softened these portrayals, believing a truer reflection would prove too troubling to the reader.
Contemporary educators show limited respect for Steinbeck. If he appears on the curriculum at all, it is mostly at the high school level, where the historical and sociological value of his work receives the greatest emphasis. Creative writing classes at any level tend to disparage his literary merit. Thus, if today’s writers don’t aspire to be Steinbeck’s heirs, perhaps one cause is the lack of honor paid to the original.
The class war remains the central internal conflict of post-Civil War America, with one side firing all the weapons and the other taking all the casualties. Yet to use the phrase “class war” is to be regarded as a boor, a barbarian, and a propagandist. Steinbeck’s America did not suffer our modern bashfulness at the acknowledgement of class, which helped his novels resonate with his readership.
Indeed, the political landscape of the country was more favorably disposed to embrace the subject of Steinbeck’s work than it is today. When The Grapes of Wrath appeared in 1939 America had a President dedicated to Social Security, rural economic development, and the rights of labor unions. He didn’t win many fans among his opponents. Nor did he care to. “I welcome their hatred,” said President Roosevelt. Not only were the brand name parties more distinct in 1939, Americans had other political movements to choose from, not least of which was an effective Communist Party that contributed to the strength of unions and the fight against racial injustice.
In contrast, today’s nominally Democratic President couldn’t be more averse to inspiring hatred by his opposition. Instead, he compromises traditional Democratic values in the interest of “getting things done,” the “things” being unspecified, and upheld with the larger goal of, one supposes, getting even more things done. This week the President’s stated priority has nothing to do with jobs, nothing to do with controlling Wall Street’s voracious appetite, nothing to do with preventing the next economic bubble that we can see already being inflated. Instead, he has set a goal of more drilling for oil, something that, because American petroleum production remains a trivial part of the international market, will not lower the price at the pump by one penny according to the oil companies themselves.
During these doldrums of two interchangeable political parties, a weakened labor movement, and an intellectual class that has thrown in the towel, a novelist touching Steinbeck’s subjects today finds herself with an audience that has accustomed itself to lesser evils so many times that the “evil” part of the phrase is forgotten. We settle for “lesser,” in our leaders and in our writers, and a writer who challenges the “evil” may fear becoming marginalized in a way that Steinbeck did not.
Writers often revel in seeing themselves apart from economic realities. We find comfort in regarding our art as outside mere commerce, immune to market forces. Yet obtaining wide readership traditionally requires agents, publishers, editors, marketers, and store owners whose livelihoods depend on selling books. The importance of selling books has assumed gargantuan proportions, as I note with sadness while reading today’s Sunday New York Times Book Review. Over the first three or so decades that I followed this publication, its Best Seller list occupied a single page. Today Best Seller statistics, further subcategorized by Print, Ebooks, Print + Ebooks, Paperback, etc., has metastasized to fill six pages. This malignant expansion necessarily occupies space that could accommodate more book reviews. This unfortunate trend to focus on the business of art is not limited to literature of course. Even a casual radio listener cannot avoid hearing what last weekend’s movies grossed, an important thing to know, I suppose, for the person with points or a back-end deal. Why they broadcast this information in, say, central Oregon, where cattle futures, rainfall, and ski conditions have greater impact, escapes me.
The need to sell is inescapable. If writers today find it difficult enough to sell apolitical books, they can’t help but notice the huge sales (often due to bulk purchases by right-wing think tanks and religious organizations) of books that cater to conservative sympathies. Furthermore, neophyte authors may be cautioned to avoid political controversy. I once attended a writer’s meeting that featured a keynote address by a writer of political novels. More accurately, he wrote novels with political characters and settings. I remember his speech for one particular line, “Be careful about expressing your own views, because you don’t want to alienate half your potential audience.” This author, who sold a lot of books, called to mind Michael Jordan’s response to the question of why he didn’t use his influence in North Carolina to work for the defeat of Jesse Helms, “Republicans buy sneakers too.”
The audience may be changing as well. Of last year’s graduating class at Harvard, roughly fifty percent of those who obtained jobs after graduation went to work in one of two areas: finance and consulting. One might hope that these putatively best and brightest with their years of liberal education and refined literary taste would not hesitate to read authors who challenge, rather than flatter. How do we think that will really work out? I will hazard a guess that the break room at Goldman Sachs isn’t exactly littered with copies of The Grapes of Wrath. It likely won’t be littered with a modern version, either. Venturing into the contemporary literary market as an advocate for the downtrodden hardly looks like a smart career move.
For all of the obstacles and disadvantages, we have living among us writers whose work demonstrates the influence of Steinbeck.
Some effectively skewer the economic forces that plague us now, such as Gary Shteyngart (Super Sad True Love Story), and Teddy Wayne (Kapitoil). These novels, however, are written from the perspective of the insider rather than exploring the worlds of our latter-day Joads.
Writers who reflect a more consistent working class sensibility include Ron Carlson, Ivan Doig Richard Chiappone, and Denis Johnson. Before Richard Ford’s The Sportswriter and its sequels, his short story collection Rock Springs plumbed the depths of hardscrabble working men and women. There is Robert Olen Butler’s Wabash. There is Robert Ward’s Red Baker. My own benighted state of West By God Virginia has given us Jayne Ann Philips, Ann Pancake, Glenn Headly, and Breece D’J Pancake.
Contemporary writers such as these have the inclinations and the talent to claim the mantle of “the next Steinbeck.” Whether our ailing economy influences these authors to elevate their politics and the art to produce work as important as The Grapes of Wrath remains to be seen. But one can hope.
One can hope, because here’s who else can be the next Steinbeck: You. Me. All of us. The stories are out there. The people are out there, like the fifty-six-year old waitress at the bus station in Weirton, West Virignia, who sold a ticket on the last Greyhound the town will ever see. Or her brother, one of a thousand workers in a steel mill that once employed twelve thousand. The machinist in Long Beach who built airplanes for thirty years but won’t build any more. The snowplow driver driven bankrupt by his hospital bills. The social worker whose job depends on throwing one of two clients off food stamps. The Vietnam veteran living on the beach in Hawaii (no, not in a house on the beach). Don’t focus exclusively on the victims; also tell the stories of the union rep who doesn’t let the factory’s scare tactics make him accept a bad contract and the nurses who refuse to negotiate away their own medical coverage and the environmental activists who won’t let the maw of the logging company consume old growth forests. These aren’t idealized figures but real people whose stories are compelling and need to be told. They NEED to be told. And you, me, all of us can tell them.
Oh, you’ll have some challenges, mostly name-calling. Pamphleteer. Agitator. Propagandist. They called Steinbeck the same thing. And Zola. And Sinclair Lewis. So you’ll be in good company. They’ll call you a communist and a socialist. I suggest you respond with a self-deprecating smile and a sincere, “Thank you.” On the other hand, you’ll make lots of friends and get invited to the best parties.
Here’s the good news. Here’s the most charming, egalitarian, liberating, funnest part of the class war: Everyone gets to choose sides. Doesn’t matter if you’re rich or your poor. Doesn’t matter if you’re highly educated or a high school dropout. Maybe your daddy’s a bank executive, maybe your momma’s on food stamps. Everybody gets to choose what side to stand on.
Start standing. Start writing.