No Federal Writers Project for our Great Recession, but great writing sure to come

Writing in The New Yorker, Caleb Crain finds the bright side in economic disaster. Without work, people make art:
Not all the unemployed found careers in literature, music, and film, of course, but, even for those who didn’t, the idea of choosing to do something other than make money—the idea of being like Cary Grant—was more than a rationalization or a fantasy. During the Great Depression, the word “holiday” sometimes served as a euphemism for a strike or a bank suspension, and art, whose purpose lies a step away from moneymaking even when money changes hands, offered a way of keeping work in perspective despite a desperate need for it. As Morris Dickstein writes in “Dancing in the Dark”, a bighearted, rambling new survey of American culture in the nineteen-thirties, “The arts bound people together in a collaborative effort to interpret and alleviate their plight.” They were something to turn to when faith in work seemed lost.
And that larger point is always true. When faith in work seems lost, there’s art. Art is a kind of uber work; one’s work, pronounced with the passion that Baron von Frankstein poured into the word, is one’s art, and one’s work, performed in a cubicle under fluorescent lights, is what keeps one from one’s work.
In the Great Depression we had a moment of socialist utopia as the Federal Writers Project briefly aligned government, work, art, and writers like Nelson Algren, Saul Bellow, John Cheever, Ralph Ellison, John Steinbeck, Richard Wright, Zora Neale Hurston…
Meanwhile, back in the 21st Century, our own economic disaster fell short of all that. The people who give things names had just started calling our time ‘The Great Recession” when lo and behold, the banks did not collapse, the unemployment rate did not skyrocket, and soup kitchens did not open on every corner. All of these still seemed likely in January, with a cowboy still piloting this jumbo jet, but then came a stimulus bill, blindly criticized by amnesiacs everywhere, that brought America’s EKG reading back to normal.
Caleb Cain on all that:
As dismal as the current recession is, the Great Depression puts it to shame. Unemployment today hovers just below ten per cent, but in the winter between Herbert Hoover’s defeat and Franklin Roosevelt’s Inauguration it reached nearly twenty-five per cent. States and cities offered some relief, but when the stock market crashed, in October, 1929, the national government was not able to cushion the blow with unemployment insurance, payments to retirees, or welfare for mothers and children; the New Deal did not create Social Security until 1935. The poor lived in city dumps, in so-called Hoovervilles, and fought over garbage thrown out by restaurants. Fewer Americans married, fewer divorced, and it’s even been suggested that there was less sex. Babies became relatively rare. “I thought they’d gone out, like horse-cars,” a character in a 1934 novel quips. Raised on the belief that success was available to all hardworking Americans and was almost a duty, many of the new poor blamed themselves. Shame compromised relationships and destabilized families, and anxiety left lifelong scars. Even after the Second World War, Dickstein writes, “members of the Depression generation were easy enough to recognize by their social conscience or their economic fears,” including his own father, who held on to “an undying concern about security.”
My father, too. He lived his life as if the Great Depression never ended, had only paused, and was waiting just around the next corner. But his family, on the South Side of Chicago, buried some of its own, infants who did not survive. That and hunger will make you wary for a lifetime.
Things just didn’t get bad enough, in our own almost-great recession, for anything like another Federal Writers Project. But that is not to say that some of the many who lost their jobs haven’t been turning to art while living on standard unemployment insurance. Those blossoms should begin to bear fruit, if they ever will, next year. Keep an eye on Publishers Weekly.
Meanwhile I’ll be keeping an eye out for another variety of tragic fruit: literary responses to global warming, which, when done well, evoke the tragedy without the polemics.
I’ve scoured each new issue of Terrain, journal of the built and natural environments, including the new one just out, but haven’t spotted any fruit there yet. Terrain features an exposition in defense of solar and a lament for disappearing trees, but trees threatened by logging, as opposed to warming.
Elsewhere, I did find a Robinson Jeffers poem that predicted global warming in 1960, which will make a nice first entry in the anthology. In the warm future, with survivors clustered around candles just above the hungry seas, perhaps book reading will make a comeback. If so, expect a literature of warming. In the journal I edit, Contrary, we just published a lovely but chilling essay on vanishing “Winter” by the nature writer Michelle Cacho-Negrete:
I marveled at how nature had perfected a continuum carefully balanced to sustain life, each season’s process one of death and rebirth: spring laboriously conquering winter, summer’s abundance running rampant over spring, autumn’s blazing take-down of summer, winter’s shortened days forcing life underground, then the expanding light of spring renewing the cycle. Kevin and I have watched the growing disruptions with dismay. Autumnal breaks in summer with forty-degree weather that incites premature senescence in trees; spring-like fissures in winter, rising temperatures waking buds that will freeze in the plunge back to frigidity; seasonal havoc occurring more frequently and more intensely each passing year….
I recently read a report stating spring now arrives fifteen to twenty-four days earlier, disrupting the patterns of migrant birds, growing plants, insects. I fear it swallowing more and more of the life-sustaining days of winter, of snow melting for the last time, leaving behind a different world: the sharp winter stars of Pegasus soaring over a sorrowful, scorched landscape. It seems to me that what I want is small, yet immense; that generations of children should hear the wind hum through winter trees, should compose songs of snow and moon, should witness the geometric sketching of animal and bird tracks over white frigid fields.
We may not be able to top the Great Depression’s economic collapse, but those poor folks couldn’t even dream of a horror like our melting ice caps. Theirs happened one decade. Ours, one century.

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