Friday, May 08, 2009

Better reading than your 401(k) statement . . .

{Photo by wallyg. Used under a Creative Commons license.}

If you're in search of some historical context for Great Depression II and you've already re-read Studs Terkel's Hard Times, I'd recommend you turn to Edmund Wilson's The American Earthquake: A Chronicle of the Roaring Twenties, the Great Depression, and the Dawn of the New Deal (1958). A substantial collection of Wilson's non-literary work from the 1920s and '30s, it includes occasional writings, journalistic pieces, profiles, and even a few short fiction sketches. Flip through it for a couple of hours and you'll come away with a clear sense of the moment that the ebbing roar of the '20s gave way to the hard realities of the '30s; like Terkel's book, it's well-suited to address the problem that Wilson noted in his 1958 preface, how hard it is
for persons who were born too late to have memories of the depression to believe that it really occurred, that between 1929 and 1933 the whole structure of American society seemd actually to be going to pieces.
Wilson never seems more like Cyril Connolly than in these pieces; for once he seems entirely of his historical moment, to which he brings his ironic yet sympathetic appreciation of oddity, his eye for telling detail, and his light but elegant prose.

To chronicle the last days of the twenties, he brings us descriptions like this one, from a note about the faltering Ziegfeld Follies:
Yet the Ziegfeld show itself remains the best thing of its kind in New York: Edna Leedom, the Amazonian but amiable 100 per cent American blond grinding out the wisecracks of her songs from between a wide set of white teeth, which have the same expensive glitter as her diamonds; James Barton, with his fixed ginny stare and his partially paralyzed fingers, passing through the grisly stages of his disquieting drunken act; the sumptuous Greta Nissen, in a preposterous oriental pantomime, in the course of which, as a female Bluebeard, with a complacent Scandinavian smile, she slowly decapitates her lovers and shoves their heads out the door with her foot.
He even, unexpectedly, ranges far from New York--his profile from a piece about attendees at a Hopi snake dance in New Mexico serves as a reminder of how much the American West has changed since the 1930s:
Bill Peck is a well-meaning fellow. He started to go to Yale, but was always having awful hangovers and not showing up at his classes, and on trains he would get into card games with people who won all his money. So his father, a wealthy drug manufacturer, sent him out West to a ranch. At the ranch, Bill read books about lost gold mines and the buried treasures of the Spanish; his allowance had by that time been cut down, and he decided to go out and search for them. He wears a pistol slung under his arm and an old hat slouched over his eyes, and he goes for long walks in the woods with a pickaxe over his shoulder. One day he came back all excited and said that he had got into a cave which was all frozen full of ice and that in the ice were two American soldiers in a perfect state of preservation. But when people went out with him to look for the cave, he couldn't find the way again, and he never succeeded in getting back there.
Meanwhile, the despair of the depths of the Depression comes through powerfully in "A Bad Day in Brooklyn," which recounts, in determinedly flat language, three failed suicide attempts made on one day in 1933, all driven by the dire employment situation.

A strange contrast, however, is offered by Wilson's visits to four campaign headquarters on Election Night of 1930: the forlorn offices of the Republicans and the Socialists, the jubilant home of the Democrats--presided over by the "forcible-feeble gentlemanly face" of FDR, and the office of Dan O'Brien, the Rexobo, or King of the Hoboes. The hoboes have not won anything that night, but neither have they lost anything; O'Brien,
like other political leaders, is perhaps a little vague as to how his aims are to be accomplished
--but overall he strikes a relatively optimistic note, unusual for the period:
So far as Dan is concerned, New York is not a bad place to live: it is the cultural center of the country and that makes it interesting. He knows that for many people it must be a lunatic asylum, but a hobo doesn't worry about that--you never heard of a hobo jumping out the window: they are the most optimistic people in the world.

For our present predicament, however, perhaps no piece in the book is more appropriate than "Sunshine Charley," a profile of the former president of the National City Bank, "who did not even consider it necessary to go through the barest formailities of covering up his frauds," and now finds himself on trial. See if any of this sounds disturbingly familiar:
He was the banker of bankers, the salesman of salesmen, the genius of the New Economic era. He was the man who had taken the National City Company, that subsidiary of the National City Bank--established, according to the practice of the New Economic Era, as an institution legally distinct but actually identical with the bank, for the purpose of marketing securities which the bank was prohibited from selling--and had transformed it in six years' time from a room with a stenographer, a boy and a clerk into an organization with a staff of fourteen hundred and branch offices all over the country, which sold a billion and a half dollars' worth of securities a year--the largest corporation in the country.
Elsewhere Wilson writes that
There are people who have never recovered from the fantastic ambition and imaginings engendered by the boom of the twenties.
--the sort of line that sends chills through me, seeming instantly applicable to so many people in business and government in our time.

The pessimist in me comes away from The American Earthquake fretting about the many lessons of the 1930s that we've obviously willfully forgotten; the optimist in me looks to the lasting institutions our grandparents built from the catastrophe--Social Security, unemployment, and Keynesian economics among them--and hopes that they'll help us get through this mess more quickly than we did the first time around.

Until then, we've always got Wilson's Lexicon of Prohibition {item four at that link} by which to finely delineate our successive degrees of alcohol-aided distraction. Take your Depression how you will; I choose to take mine while burning with a low blue flame.

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