THE DEEP END: THE LITERARY SCENE IN THE GREAT DEPRESSION AND TODAY
By Jason Boog
OR Books. 241 pages. £16. ISBN 978-1-935928-91-1
Reviewed by Jim Burns
Writers are having a hard time in the current climate of economic uncertainty, cutbacks, Covid-19, and major changes in the ways that information and entertainment in the form of literature is disseminated. Libraries are either closing down or limiting their activities. Jason Boog says that “San Francisco Library pulped 250,000 forgotten books to make way for computers and reading spaces”. And bookshops have been seeing a steady decline for decades. As someone who has spent well over sixty years prowling around bookshops old and new, market bookstalls, book fairs, and any other kind of location where books might be sold, I can testify to their disappearance. Towns that once had several bookshops now have only one, and that often part of a commercial chain. Any independent shops that are still open struggle to survive. As for attention to books in the press, an editor at The Guardian newspaper announced the closure of the weekly book-review supplement and said she wanted to focus on “lifestyle journalism”.
Boog, thanks to his own situation of suddenly finding himself losing a steady job as a writer, and retreating to a library to study what had happened in the 1930s, has come up with the idea of selecting several writers from that period and looking at their experiences at a time when it seemed as if the capitalist system in the United States was about to collapse. He also discusses the current problems facing writers generally, though occasionally he seems to be focusing mostly on opportunities and outlets for journalists. It might be argued that, even at the best of times, uncertainty for novelists in terms of being published is a way of life. And even if their work does appear in print there’s no guarantee it will sell. I’d guess that most creative writers have other jobs. And when it comes to poets, a regular job, often not directly linked to literature, is usually a necessity.
Things are bad now, and were even worse in the 1930s. But writers still wrote and their work was published. Edward Newhouse’s You Can’t Sleep Here, appeared in 1934 and told the tale of an out-of-work journalist who drifts into the shanty towns set up by the unemployed and unfortunate. He sees himself as part of the “crisis generation”, educated to a level where he should have been able to find professional employment, but suddenly having to come to terms with a bleak future. Boog doesn’t mention him, but another Thirties writer, Alfred Hayes, caught the mood of such people in the poem, “In a Coffee Pot”, where the narrator says that “I brood upon myself. I rot/Night after night in this cheap Coffee Pot”, and reflects on what has happened to a friend who seemingly had bright prospects, but is now a “bus boy in an eat-quick joint/At seven per week twelve hours a day”, and another who is “on the bum”.
Newhouse wrote a second novel, This is Your Day, which pointed to his links to the Communist Party, but later drifted away from radical politics and became a staff writer for the New Yorker, where he published numerous short stories. His 1949 novel, The Hollow of the Wave, was satirical about communists in New York. It’s interesting to note that Alfred Hayes, who had appeared widely in left-wing publications, likewise cast off his radical roots. After service as a war correspondent he wrote novels, worked in Hollywood and for TV and, it’s said, tended to dismiss his earlier inclinations as youthful follies.
Boog praises Maxwell Bodenheim for an act which, he claims, drew attention to injustices in the way that relief funds were dispensed. Bodenheim, because of his past escapades as a bohemian poet who attracted many female admirers, could always get the attention of journalists. He’s perhaps a difficult case to deal with when it comes to a question of his political leanings. He wrote two novels, Run, Sheep, Run and Slow Vision, which have a place in studies of American radical literature, and some of his poems (“To a Revolutionary Girl” and “Southern Labour Organiser”, are two examples) point to left-wing tendencies. But when he’s remembered now it’s largely because his 1920s affairs made headlines in newspapers across America, and for his slow decline into the poverty and alcoholism of the late-1930s and 1940s which led to his murder in 1954. The fact that he wrote twelve novels and nearly as many poetry collections, as well as contributing poetry and prose to most of the leading magazines of the day, is overlooked. Or if it’s acknowledged it’s usually with the comment that his work was often flawed. But there are passages in the novels deserving of attention, and some of his poems can still be read with pleasure.
Something that crops up in connection with Bodenheim is his involvement with the Raven Poetry Circle. This group of mostly lesser-known poets met regularly in Washington Square Park and pinned their poems for sale on fencing. Boog writes sympathetically about them instead of adopting the usual patronising line of commentary, when dealing with such groups, which says that the poems vary wildly in quality, and some of the poets are eccentric in their dress and behaviour. One of them, Anca Vrbovska, was perhaps more-talented than many of the others, and did establish something of a minor reputation as a poet. And May Swenson, who became a leading poet in America, had exhibited with the Raven Circle when she was young.
Poetry then and now was and is often printed by little press publishers and magazines. And in some ways it’s perhaps easier than it was in the 1930s to publish a small book or a magazine. Or just put poetry on-line. But even in the depths of the Depression there were people prepared to commit themselves to producing magazines and pamphlets, especially if what was in them had a radical edge. I’ve got in front of me a copy of When the Sirens Blow, a collection of poems by Leonard Spier, published by B.C. Hagglund (based in Holt, Minnesota) in 1933. A glance at the acknowledgements will indicate where both Spier and Hagglund resided in political terms: Daily Worker, Left, The Industrial Democrat.
Another publication on my desk as I write is a slim book, We Gather Strength, published by the Liberal Press in 1933. It features four poets, Edwin Rolfe, Joseph Kalar, Herman Spector, and Sol Funaroff, all of them from the Left. Neither this nor the Spiers book received subsidies from government sources. Both the poems and the lives of the four named poets continue to be worthy of note. Rolfe wrote movingly about his time in Spain during the Civil War. Funaroff died young from poverty and tuberculosis. His poem, “What the Thunder Said: A Fire Sermon”, was sometimes declaimed by the folk-singer and political activist, Ewan MacColl during his street-agitation days in Salford and other places in the 1930s. Spector referred to himself as “the bastard in the ragged suit”, and wrote dark, bitter poems. Kalar lived in Minnesota and worked in sawmills when there was work. His poems created a “landscape of shut-down factories, peopled by hard-drinking, down-on-their-luck workers”.
Kenneth Fearing’s work has survived better than that of Spiers, though I suspect it’s largely known mainly by academics curious about the 1930s and a few individuals who like to look outside the usual sources for what was of value in the past. I would guess he might retain some interest for readers of crime fiction. His The Big Clock is still in print. Boog says that Fearing’s poems “blasted the bankers, fats cats, and politicians who plunged the country into an economic dark age”. Like a lot of poets on the Left he was probably too idiosyncratic to ever fit neatly into a fixed political category. There’s an anecdote about him being asked by an FBI investigator if he was a member of the Communist Party and replying “Not yet”. He was, perhaps, the kind of communist who, as Ben Hecht said of Maxwell Bodenheim, “would have been booted out of Moscow, overnight”.
Fearing had, like many other writers, been hired to work for the Federal Writers Project (FWP), a branch of the Works Progress Administration (WPA), part of President Roosevelt’s New Deal. Boog writes favourably about the FWP, seeing it as giving struggling novelists, poets, and others a basic income in return for carrying out surveys, compiling guide books and similar activities. In some cases it allowed writers to focus on their own creative work. It didn’t always function smoothly. There were strikes and other actions that disrupted the smooth running of the organisation. And not everyone classified as a writer turned out to have any literary skills. It was as if some people were directed to the FWP when they were unsuited for anything else. There’s a passage in a novel by Eric Ambler where a police chief, examining someone’s documents, says, “Your passport describes you as a writer but that is a most elastic term”.
A 1941 novel by Jack Balch, Lamps at High Noon, is based on events surrounding a 1930s strike at the St Louis office of the Missouri branch of the FWP. Politics often became a central part of dissension in the FWP, with pro and anti-communist elements competing for influence. And attracting attention from politicians who were hostile to the whole idea of funding writers in any form, especially if they seemed to be left-wing. Boog writes about Orrick Johns, a one-legged poet, and one-time poetry editor for the communist New Masses, who was appointed Director of the New York branch of the FWP and struggled to maintain control in the face of recalcitrant writers, suspicious politicians, lack of funds, and general disorder, not to mention personal problems with alcohol. Congressman Dies and his supporters attacked the FWP as “a school for Communist writers” in ways that were forerunners of what the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) would later employ to demonise left-wing screenwriters, novelists and poets.
A writer some people might see as a curious inclusion among a group of left-wing authors is Cornell Woolrich, best-known for his crime novels and stories, and as a leading light in the world of pulp magazines and books. Prior to 1934, when his first pulp story appeared, Woolrich had written six novels, all of which were published, but might best be described as conventional and were none of them best-sellers. Boog says that he “wanted to be the next F. Scott Fitzgerald”. I’ve read only one of the early Woolrich novels, Manhattan Love Song, and it didn’t strike me as being in the Fitzgerald class or having any distinguishing features that might have enabled it to stand out on its own merits. When Woolrich turned to pulp fiction he was much more interesting as a writer. Books like Phantom Lady, Deadline at Dawn, and The Black Angel, to name just three of my own favourites, are examples of popular writing at its best. And they might be seen as good illustrations of how writers need to adapt to changing circumstances.
There are some passages in Boog’s book where he discusses responses to an article by a journalist, Mark I.Pinsky, which advocated the setting up something similar to the FWP. Boog says that many of the responses questioned the assumptions that lay behind this idea: “Go and develop new skills that are in demand in the market-place and get yourself another job…..You don’t have any kind of ‘right’ to a job in journalism and any kind of ‘right’ to be paid to write a single word”. I think a lot of people would agree with those comments. And I have to admit that I’ve always had an uneasy suspicion about state funding for writers.
I have perhaps been a minor beneficiary of such aid, some of the poetry readings I’ve done, and magazines I’ve contributed to, having been subsidised by government-funded arts associations and the like. I’ve also had one or two commissions to write reports for the Arts Council and similar bodies. But I’ve done lots of readings for groups that paid what little they could, and contributed to many miniscule literary and political publications that paid nothing at all. I never thought I had a “right” to be paid for anything I’ve done. It was my choice to do it. If I’d wanted to make money I’d have done something else. I have knocked out pulp fiction and popular writing for newspapers and magazines now and then. And worked part-time in adult education establishments and at other jobs in industry and local government. It did amuse me that a left-wing weekly that I contributed poems, reviews, and articles to for around thirty years was said to have received money from Russia. The thought that the small payments I got might have been partly “Moscow gold” had its lighter side.
Other writers from the 1930s that Boog refers to include Muriel Rukeyser, Nathanael West, and Richard Wright. They’re all of interest, though I suspect that Rukeyser is a poet little-known in Britain. Looking at her poems from the Depression decade shows that she had a firm sense of commitment to left and liberal causes. She went to Spain in 1936 and was there when the Civil War started. Her novel, Savage Coast, was about that experience, but only appeared in print in 2013 after being discovered in the Rukeyser archives and published by the Feminist Press in New York. Should anyone want to read her poetry the Muriel Rukeyser Reader, published by Norton in 1994, is recommended.
Nathanael West’s The Day of the Locust is a classic novel about Hollywood, and came out of his experiences there as a screenwriter. But before deciding to move to California West had published other books, none of which had sold well. One of them, Miss Lonelyhearts, had the misfortune to have only just appeared when the publisher went bankrupt. It was something that affected more than one writer. Boog draws a comparison between what happened in the 1930s and the situation during the 2008 financial crisis: “At the height of the Great Depression Franklin Roosevelt chastised our entire nation for abusing credit and mounted a massive national bailout that put everybody – from farmers to construction workers to clerks to writers – back to work. We bailed out the banks and left everybody else to fend for themselves”. West’s adventures before Hollywood had included working as a hotel clerk in New York, and inviting his impoverished friends like Edmund Wilson, James T.Farrell, and Dashiell Hammett to stay for free in any empty rooms that were available.
The black author Richard Wright had been a supporter of the John Reed Clubs set up by the Communist Party to provide encouragement for working class and black writers. He was a member of the Communist Party and attended the First American Writers Congress in New York in 1935. A glance at the Contents page of the published record of the Conference indicates that it attracted what Boog refers to as “the leaders of the radical literary world”. They included Malcolm Cowley, Granville Hicks, Joseph Freeman, John Dos Passos, and the proletarian novelist, Jack Conroy.
When Farrell some years later wrote his fictional account of the Conference in Yet Other Waters he satirised Conroy as a rather blustering and foolish speaker. It wasn’t a totally fair description and Conroy’s actual talk on “The Worker as Writer” did have some relevant points to make. But the Party was beginning to move away from its support for proletarian writing and coming out in favour of a Popular Front which would have a range of opinions represented with middle-class liberals and anyone else who was anti-fascist made welcome. The Party wanted names for its propaganda purposes. Proletarians like Conroy then tended to be pushed into the background.
Wright’s account of his days among the communists can be found in American Hunger and in his contribution to The God That Failed, a 1950 anthology that put him alongside Arthur Koestler, Stephen Spender, and others, with their stories of how they became disillusioned with communism.
What is notable in Boog’s story is that the Communist Party, or a general commitment to left-wing values in one form or another, is in evidence at all times. Can the same be said of today? Liberal ideas may be prevalent among many writers, but there isn’t the sense of solidarity that seems to have been present in the 1930s. And certainly no sense of identification with the industrial working-class. That group itself has been decimated over the years by the decline in labour-intensive industries, as automation, computerisation, and other factors came into play. And it has moved towards conservatism instead of socialism in response to hard times.
Miners, dockworkers, shopworkers, and many others, have all had to retrain for different work, sometimes at lower rates of pay, or accept long-term unemployment as a fact of life. I’ve been through redundancy and early-retirement situations myself. I’m not saying that what has happened has been a good thing. But it is what happens, and writers are no more immune to it than anyone else. It would be ideal if a united front could be formed to oppose many of the worst aspects of capitalism, but is it likely? Union membership is at an all-time low. The lack of strong unions has led to a worsening of working conditions. Reading about the way in which staff at Amazon have to work at speed made me think of Albert Halper’s 1937 novel, The Chute, where they race around on roller-skates desperate to meet their quotas at the mail-order company they’re employed by. The supervisor is always watching and ready to dismiss anyone not keeping up. And “there are plenty of people waiting to take your job if you don’t like it here”.
Jason Boog has written a useful and provocative book. It’s useful because it draws attention to some writers of the 1930s who deserve better than to be consigned to the dustbin of history. In his own small way he joins literary historians like Walter B. Rideout (The Radical Novel in the United States 1900-1954), Daniel Aaron (Writers on the Left: Episodes in American Literary Communism), Cary Nelson (Repression and Recovery: Modern American Poetry and the Politics of Cultural memory 1910-1945 and Revolutionary Memory: Rediscovering the Poetry of the American Left), and Alan Wald (Exiles From a Future Time; The Forging of the Mid-Twentieth Century Literary Left; Trinity of Passion: The Literary Left & the Anti-Fascist Crusade and American Night: The Literary Left in the Era of the Cold War) in chronicling the publications and experiences of often unjustly-neglected poets and novelists. All the books listed obviously deal with American writers, but Andy Croft’s Red Letter Days: British Fiction in the 1930s should additionally be mentioned.
And Boog is provocative because he raises questions relating to the contemporary situation to which there are no easy answers, but which need to be asked.