Radio 4’s Today Programme aired a segment last week, with Claire Armitstead and John Bowen, on the subject of Dickens and debt, which (not inevitably) segued into the question of whether we are now seeing Depression literature. The idea that we are now in a second Great Depression has hung over the Great Recession since 2008 – most evident, obviously, in its titling – and was picked up again Sunday by Paul Krugman in the NYT, in a column in which he alleged the return of the Depression not just economically but also politically (in the rise of the far right in Europe). But is this really going to be The Grapes of Wrath, Redux? It might be worth examining the Radio 4 discussion in further detail, both on this issue and because it threw up a host of interesting assumptions, as well as looking back to some key texts of the Depression era.
Firstly, Armitstead ventured that there is a 20-year delay on ‘good’ literature being produced from an event — a sweeping statement that Armistead then interestingly downgraded to perhaps ‘five years’ because of the internet. Secondly, she continued, during the time of crisis one looks to escapist literature, which is today dystopian.
This was all, all too much for our 9am brains to handle, and one got the sense that Ms. Armitstead too wanted to say more. Ms. Armitstead, if you are a faithful DLR reader, please feel free to elaborate in the comments box provided at the bottom of this post! In the unlikely event of this not happening we shall try to unpack your comments below.
1. There is a 20-year delay on good literature produced after an event. What’s your vector, Victor? Can you verify this veracity? The DLR is doubtful: True, “Bliss was it in that dawn…” from the “Prelude”, Wordsworth’s response to the French Revolution, was written in 1805, 16 years after the event that inspired it. But The Grapes of Wrath, which the Radio 4 commentator referred to, was written in 1939, at the tail end of, but still in, the Depression. And War and Peace, which concerns the Napoleonic wars, was written 54 years after they ended. There. I think we have proved nothing.
2. The gap has been shortened to five years. Well, Don DeLillo’s book on September 11th, The Falling Man, appeared in 2007, six years after the event. So, nearly spot on, Armitstead, nearly spot on.
3. This shortening has been caused by the internet. Why, because everything is sped up/one has no attention span/you are bored of this question already? Because information travels faster? Because publishing is in peril and writers are pushed to get their books out at a higher rate (of time, that is, not money)? Like many things said on Radio 4, this rings true, but once one thinks about it, one cannot figure why it would be the case. Answers on a postcard please. C/o Cafe Oto.
4. Escapism is the popular literature of economic crisis. Fine.
5. Our escapism is dystopia. Chanelling for a sweet second Jeremy Paxman, the Radio 4 interviewer here pressed Ms. Armistead to name exactly whom she was referring to. Gotcha! She only came up with Cormac McCarthy. And could cite no others! We too think have our doubts about this claim. The Road seems a bit Gothic for these times — surely the escapist literature of our time tends to be bland reactionary-retrospective? Alan Hollinghurst’s The Line of Beauty, Ian McEwan’s Atonement (here we are thinking of the filmic adaptations), Downton Abbey, etc. Back to a time of great homes and fixed gender roles — not exactly as dystopian as this country’s mid-naughties Cath Kidston obsession (oh thank CHRIST that’s over), but still, not exactly as utopian as, say, the common social democratic future we were all once working together towards.
Indeed, we are not sure if that has brought us anywhere. Returning to the top then, does the comparison between now and the Great Depression hold? It just so happens that the DLR, finger to the pulse as always, has been reading Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, the image-text experiment by James Agee and Walker Evans, funded by the Works Progress Administration, the US’s high point of state funding for the arts. (We bought our copy at the lovely Donlon Books, by the way, on Broadway Market.)
Agee and Evans travelled in 1936 through the deep South of the US, which was one of the areas hardest hit by the Depression, to document, in both photographs and words, the lives of tenant farmers living there. Evans’s photographs are now more famous than Agee’s text, and in the 1980s they were the subject of Sherrie Levine‘s re-photographing, in a critique of authorship and the male authority implicit in the power of the gaze. Evans and Agee’s collaboration was originally intended for a New York magazine but was rejected (for reasons, Evans writes, that ‘will not be a part of this volume’), and not published until 1941 in Boston (with ‘certain words deleted which are illegal in Massachusetts’).
The book in many ways is highly contemporary, in its side-by-side pairing of two media’s attempts to do the same thing: Evans’s photographs juxtaposed with Agee’s textual documentation — his listing of the contents of a typical house, the layout of a typical house, the contents of a typical wardrobe, the typical pay scheme of a tenant farmer, the typical washing habits, eating habits, etc. In this adherence to a documentary rule it could easily be considered proto-Conceptualist. It is hard to read it now and not be struck by the dislocation between the artists and their subjects, particularly Agee’s naivety in regards to his privilege — that is, his belief that being aware of his privilege cancels out its adverse effects, like his habit of patronising his subjects or falling prey to the racism of the time. The book’s worth is now documentary, but in a different way than its authors intended — documentary of a class divide in which Evans and Agee both participated; they are the subjects as much as the Ricketts, Gudgers and Woods, the noms de plume that they made up for the real families with whom they lived. Levine’s critique, though Evans was the subject of her gaze, seems a very necessary rejoinder.
Another of the Works Progress Association projects was recording the testimonies of former slaves — an amazing historical resource that none other than Karenna Gore Schiff, daughter of the great what-if of the twenty-first century, Al Gore, wrote about for the New York Times the day before the Dickens programme aired. Here again, white wealthy interviewers, poor subjects, but what a document this is for US history and slavery, its most abidingly painful episode. Well done W.P.A.
So, how does the Great Recession stack up against the Great Depression? Looking back over these primary sources the level of poverty and sheer viciousness of the debt cycle seem to far surpass what we are confronting today. The worst is not over, but let’s not look to The Road as documentary material yet.