Posted December 1, 2008

Great five books of the Great Depression

John Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath (1939) is not the only Depression-era
work worth taking a second (or a first) look at from
our current perspective in what some are calling
the New Depression.

Common themes found in the literature
and film of the period are despair, poverty, corruption,
strife between labor and management, the need to
work together

and the desire to escape, notes Miles
Orvell, professor of English and American Studies

at Temple University. Does any of this sound familiar?

If you’re looking to deepen your understanding
of how Americans weathered the global financial crisis
of the 1930s, Orvell recommends the following:

  • Let
    Us Now Praise Famous Men
    (1941), James Agee and Walker

    “Produced by a writer and photographer as part
    of an assignment from Fortune magazine, this book
    is extraordinary not only for the way it meticulously
    describes the day-to-day life of southern tenant
    farmers in Alabama, but also for its honest portrayal
    of how one social class views another during the
    heart of the ‘30s.”

  • Miss Lonelyhearts (1933) and The
    Day of the Locust
    (1939), Nathaniel West

    “West invents black humor to portray, in Lonelyhearts,
    the dilemma of a ‘Dear Abby’ columnist
    dealing with the troubles of all of his letter-writers
    and, in Locust, to contrast the lives of those at
    the fringes of Hollywood with those at its center.”

  • Come Back to Sorrento (1932), Dawn Powell

    “Powell, one of the great unrecognized writers of the 30’s, beautifully
    describes the quiet despair of people living in a small town, with their dreams

  • They Shoot Horses, Don’t They (1935), Horace

    “This is also a good movie, starring Jane Fonda,
    but a great book set near Hollywood during a grueling
    dance marathon about the need for hope.”

  • Call It Sleep (1934), Henry Roth:

    “Roth offers us the interior perspective of
    a young immigrant boy growing up in the slums of
    New York.”

“And for the truly ambitious, I recommend
the John Dos Passos trilogy U.S.A., which covers
the three decades leading to the Crash.”