- The Depression Cohort
How should American literary history—or any literary history—be organized? In leading anthologies of American literature, the Heath or the Norton, for example, the editors divide literary history into periods, "Late Nineteenth Century: 1865–1910" or "American Literature between the Wars, 1914–1945." Within those periods, editors arrange authors by dates of birth. By this logic, date of publication—the historical moment when a work of literature appeared—trumps date of birth, although date of birth still matters. This hierarchy makes sense, but it also leads to slight chronological anomalies like Muriel Rukeyser (b. 1913) preceding Lorine Niedecker (b. 1903) in the Norton because Rukeyser began publishing some of her most famous work in the 1930s, while Niedecker's poems did not appear until after World War II.
In anthologies devoted to a single period or genre, though, like The Norton Anthology of Modern and Contemporary Poetry, authors appear strictly by birth date, undivided by periods or schools. In the case of The Norton Anthology of Modern and Contemporary Poetry, this leads to anomalies like Niedecker appearing in the first volume, "Modern Poetry," while Rukeyser appears in the second, "Contemporary Poetry," even though, as noted above, Niedecker did not begin publishing until after World War II (the contemporary period), while some of Rukeyser's most important poems appeared before the war, in what we conventionally call the modern period. [End Page 470]
One could make a case, of course, that Niedecker was influenced by the Objectivists of the 1930s, while Rukeyser's postwar poetry was as or even more influential than her pre–World War II poetry, but whichever organizing method an editor chooses, anomalies like these will inevitably appear. Literary lives rarely map well onto literary or national history. Few poets are inspired to write or stop writing by a war, for example, yet wars commonly divide periods. And while many poets begin publishing in their twenties, just as many don't get started until their thirties or forties, occasionally even later. Such anomalies—and far more serious ones—have led many critics to conclude that literary periods are as arbitrary and misleading as they are convenient.
In History, Memory, and the Literary Left: Modern American Poetry, 1935–1968, John Lowney offers a new way to think about literary history: as a procession of literary generations. In a footnote, Lowney refers to Michael Denning's Cultural Front, which, following Raymond Williams, ascribes to each generation a certain "structure of feeling," by which (to quote Williams) the "new generation responds in its own ways to the unique world it is inheriting."1 This theory of literary generations has two results. First, instead of defining generations by when its members were born—the baby-boom generation, for example, born in the years after World War II—one would define generations by "the years in which young people enter the labor force" (Lowney 231). In Lowney's case, he is interested in those writers, especially poets, who were born between 1904 and 1923 and thus constitute a "Depression cohort" (231) because they entered the labor force (turned between eighteen and twenty-six) during the decade of the 1930s. Second, the work of a literary generation would not be limited to what was written and published during any given decade (the 1930s, for example) but, rather, would include work by that generation of writers regardless of the date of publication. In the case of the Depression cohort, then, the literature of the 1930s—if we can even speak of such a thing—is not that published between 1930 and 1940 but, rather, from 1930 to, effectively, the last decades of the twentieth [End Page 471] century, when this Depression generation gradually began to die off. Viewing literary or cultural history by generations, Denning writes, in an important formulation for Lowney, "reminds us that decades are by no means the most adequate way of periodizing cultural history" (26).
If this theory about literary history is accurate, then the...