Literature at the Barricades
The American Writer in the 1930s
Publication Year: 1982
This collection captures the sense—at times the ordeal—of the 1930s literary experience in America. Fourteen essayists deal with the experience of being a writer in a time of overwhelming economic depression and political ferment, and thereby illuminate the social, political, intellectual, and aesthetic problems and pressures that characterized the experience of American writers and influenced their works.
The essays, as a group, constitute a reevaluation of the American literature of the 1930s. At the same time they support and reinforce certain assumptions about the decade of the Great Depression—that it was grim, desperate, a time when dreams died and poverty became something other than genteel—they challenge other assumptions, chief among them in the notion that 1930s literature was uniform in content, drab in style, anti-formalist, and always political or sociological in nature. They leave us with an impression that there was variety in American writing of the 1930s and a convincing argument that the decade was not a retreat from the modernism of the 1920s. Rather it was a transitional period in which literary modernism was very much an issue and a force that bore imaginative fruit.
Published by: The University of Alabama Press
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This book of essays originated in the Fifth Alabama Symposium on English and American Literature, "The American Writer in the 1930s," which took place in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, on1~21October 1978. The conference itself (and, thus, this book) was made possible by a grant from the Research Development Program of the National Endowment for the Humanities and...
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Few disagree that the decade of the 1930s embodied one of the major experiences ever to be thrust upon American life and the American mind. The Great Depression was an unprecedented material failure; yet it was more than just material in its consequences and implications. It permeated America's collective consciousness. Life's tone changed radically, values took on new perspective, and a reexamination of both seemed inescapable. ...
Part I: Writers and Politics: The Challenge of the Social Muse
1. The Thirties in Retrospect
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Once we brush aside the trivial notion that each decade in America must have its own cultural signature, what could we mean when speaking about "the thirties"? The thirties, that is, as more than a convention of the calendar; the thirties as a distinct, perhaps unique moment in our history. ...
2. Yesterday's Road
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In 1943, when I was in Washington on the German desk of our war propaganda agency, I was interrogated by two investigators who asked, among other questions, why I had gone to the Soviet Union in 1930. The common-sense answer would have been, "Why not?" but common sense always looks treasonable in wartime. ...
3. Friendship Won't Stand That: John Howard Lawson and John Dos Passos's struggle for an ideological ground to stand on
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Late in August 1937 the dramatist and screenwriter John Howard Lawson wrote from Hollywood to his friend John Dos Passos. Lawson was attempting to convince him that there was merit in trying to make a film of Dos Passos's novel The Big Money, the third volume of which would be published the next year as the trilogy U.S.A. Lawson admitted he would like to work on the film: ...
Part II: The Triumph of Literature: Writing is Not Operating a Bombing-Plane
4. James T. Farrell and the 1930s
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There is much precedent and considerable usefulness in discussing a writer and his work in relation to a specific moment in time. Artists of course differ in the degree to which they respond to the issues and events of their day, but few have successfully created works that are completely "out of space, out of time." And if the nature and quality of an art work can be clarified by reference to its moment, ...
5. Steinbeck, the People, and the Party
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In 1930 Michael Gold, the left wing's literary hit man, provided a vitriolic foretaste of the controversies of the coming decade in his review for the New Republic of the works of Thornton Wilder. Gold attacked Wilder for turning his back on the ravages of capitalism in America and for retreating into remote historical settings and decadent religiosity. The New Republic was immediately flooded with letters exhibiting such extremities of partisanship on both sides that ...
6. Trouble on the Land: Southern literature and the Great Depression
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It is a painful thing sometimes to read history books that are written for children, and to realize the view of the past that is being given them. Recently I happened upon volume 14 of the American Heritage New Illustrated History of the United States. It was subtitled The Roosevelt Era. The author of volume 14 provided his young readers with a year-by-year chronicle for the 1930s. I quote from the section for the year 1935: ...
7. The Consciousness of Technique: The prose method of James Agee's Let Us Now Praise Famous Men
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Let Us Now Praise Famous Men (1941) is a text that resulted from the happy conjunction of James Agee's vast ambition and the specific needs that he saw generated during the 1930s. Looking at the contemporary scene, he could see beyond what many artists saw, and therefore Famous Men became a text that goes far beyond the use of particular facts to...
8. The View from the Broom Closet of the Regency Hyatt: Richard Wright as a southern writer
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In his entertaining, illuminating, and authoritative essay, "The View from the Regency Hyatt," my former mentor and the distinguished southern literary historian C. Hugh Holman corrects those critics whose cultural blinders permit them to see only one main strand in southern literature and who treat that strand as though it were some primary fiber binding together the remarkable fabric of southern writing. 1 ...
9. Starting Out in the Thirties: Hariette Arnow's literary genesis
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The surging of interest in the southern rural poor during the 1930s was a mixed blessing for fledgling writer Harriette Simpson Arnow, whose fascination with Kentucky hill people predated the depression years. The revival of southern letters now termed a renaissance coincided with Americans' riveting attention on poor whites, whose perennial poverty made them likely symbols of a failed economic system. ...
10. Oppen, Zukofsky, and the Poem as Lens
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It was a bleak year, 1931, the breadlines hardly moving. "The world," George Oppen wrote at about that time, ", . . the world, weather-swept, with which one shares the century."1 It was a world in which someone approaching the window "as if to see / what really was going on" saw rain falling. All of which seems easy, pictorial, the Pathetic Fallacy in fact: a rainy day as emblem for a rainy time. ...
Part III: Criticism and the 1930s: Trials of the Mind
11. Edmund Wilson's Political Decade
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From time to time throughout his life, Edmund Wilson would step down from his critic's pulpit and speak in a matter-of-fact way about himself. Such a personal statement-"the case of the author"-appears at the end of his book, The American Jitters (1932), Wilson's report of depression America between October 1930 and October 1931. It explains, among other things, how it was that a bourgeois liberal writer could end up believing in Karl Marx's prophecies. ...
12. Revolutionary Intellectuals: Partisan Review in the 1930s
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In the third decade of this century, a generation of young American writers and critics began to turn from introverted immersion in the experimental forms and esoteric sensibilities of the years following the First World War to the political-literary activism of the early 1930s. Yet this was a far less sweeping and unqualified process than might appear from our vista in the 1970s because the achievements of the 1920s were considerable and could not be ignored. ...
13. The End of a Literary Decade
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The decade of the 1930s, which comes to a close this month, witnessed many controversies among writers, some so bitter that they led to enduring hatreds. The issues that evoked these controversies were posed by the left, and in the last years of the decade they became outright political in character. The accent of politics in literature and criticism has been increasingly more pronounced in these last ten years. ...
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Page Count: 25
Publication Year: 1982