Illustration by Michael Willis
Illustration by Michael Willis

The Great Depression was one of the most desperate periods in U.S. history, and one of the most important in American literature.

When the stock market crashed in October 1929 and the hectic prosperity of the 1920s gave way to mass unemployment, the crisis energized American writers. After a decade in which the literary experiments of the Modernists -- Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, T.S. Eliot -- dominated the scene, a new wave of writers began to look to politics and economics for inspiration.

At a time when the Communist Party was presenting itself as the strongest force for progress, these writers saw capitalist America as a dying society in need of revolutionary changes. Never before or since have so many of America’s best writers focused on the lives of the poor and the working class or written with such a furious sense of political engagement.

In 2008, the U.S. suffered the most severe economic crisis since 1929. This was followed by a deep recession characterized by high unemployment, financial instability and government deadlock -- an echo of the problems that plagued the country during the Depression, though in much less virulent form.

Story-Telling Techniques

Yet as journalist George Packer noted in an essay for The New Yorker, the most recent bad times haven’t provoked the same kind of literary response. Packer’s own book “The Unwinding,” which borrows techniques from 1930s literature to tell the story of our times, is the closest we’ve come to the Depression-era masterworks.

What did the storytellers of the Depression know that our own writers don’t? And what can we learn from the writers of the 1930s about poverty and politics, literature and society? In this series, I will look at four Depression classics -- John Dos Passos’s “The Big Money,” Edmund Wilson’s “The American Jitters,” James Agee’s “Let Us Now Praise Famous Men” and John Steinbeck’s “The Grapes of Wrath” -- reading them to see whether and how these books still speak to us today.

It is always easier to spot a financial bubble after it bursts than while it is inflating. Once the mortgage crisis hit in 2008, it became common for experts to point out all the warning signs that had proliferated over the previous decade: The house prices that rose and rose, the reckless mortgages, the “flipping” of properties for a quick profit -- all of these become easy targets for a post-crash moralist.

So, too, with the Wall Street crash of 1929. It was no secret during the 1920s that the stock market had assumed an unprecedented importance and reach in American life. The rising tide of prosperity turned millions of Americans into investors and helped the ’20s to become Roaring. The glittering parties thrown by Jay Gatsby in Fitzgerald’s 1925 masterpiece were funded by the easy money that seemed to be everywhere for the taking. But once the Depression hit, the 1920s began to seem less like an era of prosperity and more like a long, drunken spree that was bound to produce a bad hangover. And no novel does more to crystallize that dark view of pre-crash America than John Dos Passos’s “The Big Money,” published in 1936, the seventh year of the Depression.

“The Big Money” was the last installment in Dos Passos’s formally innovative “U.S.A. trilogy,” which attempted nothing less than a complete portrait of U.S. society in the early 20th century. But while it includes characters from earlier volumes, “The Big Money” reads very well on its own. The title conveys the book’s ice-cold irony. The big money is what everyone in the 1920s was looking for and many seemed to find, yet it appears in this novel as a golden calf to which everything decent in American society was sacrificed.

Blunt Juxtapositions

Dos Passos makes clear that he wants to be read as more than just a storyteller. “The Big Money” alternates between straight fictional narrative and several kinds of documentary prose, with techniques borrowed from the then-new medium of film. The sections titled “Newsreel” are collages of newspaper headlines, popular song lyrics, and “found” prose such as press releases. Through blunt juxtapositions, Dos Passos uses the newsreels to create a sense of a world spinning out of control: Murder and gossip, labor unrest and want ads come at the reader in a rushing stream.

In other recurring sections titled “The Camera Eye,” Dos Passos uses a kind of unpunctuated prose poetry to evoke representative scenes from the period. The most famous of these is devoted to the trial of the anarchists Sacco and Vanzetti, whose politically motivated execution in 1927 was a cause celebre: “They have built the electricchair and hired the executioner to throw the switch all right we are two nations America our nation has been beaten by strangers who have bought the laws...”

Perhaps the most telling of Dos Passos’s vignettes, however, are those that give potted biographies of celebrities. These fall into two pointedly contrasting categories. Artists and intellectuals, such as the dancer Isadora Duncan and the sociologist Thorstein Veblen, are portrayed as exiles in America, unappreciated by their countrymen, contending with poverty and isolation.

Then there are the tycoons, especially Henry Ford and William Randolph Hearst. While Dos Passos admires their energy and achievements, he also portrays them as deeply imperfect men, whose personal fears and neuroses exert a baleful influence on society. Ford, as described in “The Big Money,” is almost a tragic figure. He starts out as an inventor and tinkerer in the good, old-fashioned American tradition; he ends up as a paranoid billionaire, surrounded by guards and private detectives who defend him against the hatred of his own workers.

Through these examples, Dos Passos plants the suggestion that the big money is, in fact, a curse: No one who gets it can enjoy it.

American Addiction

That is certainly true of the three fictional characters whose stories make up the bulk of “The Big Money.” The first is Charley Anderson, a World War I flying ace, who we first see on a ship coming home from France. Charley, too, is an inventor; he has an idea for an improved airplane-engine starter. To exploit it, he forms a company with some friends, and after a period of initial poverty, he is transformed overnight into a rich man. This, it seems, is just how capitalism is supposed to function.

But a good idea and hard work, Dos Passos shows, aren’t enough to succeed in modern America. You need capital, which means you need Wall Street; that is the beginning of Charley’s downfall. Through a series of machinations he barely understands, he ends up selling out his partners, merging with a bigger company, then getting pushed out of the board of directors. As he leaves behind the manual work that is his real passion, his inner life is revealed as a vacuum that can only be filled with sex and Prohibition booze.

Stock trading, too, becomes an addiction -- not just for Charley, Dos Passos implies, but for the whole country, glued to the tickers that can now be found in hotel lobbies.

One of the many women who cross paths with Charley is Margo Dowling, a beautiful young actress who specializes in attaching herself to rich men. If Charley’s story reveals the grip of money on the imagination of 1920s America, Margo’s demonstrates the other great modern idol: celebrity. Starting out in exceptionally sordid circumstances -- her father is a drunk; her stepfather tries to rape her -- she finishes the book as a Hollywood star. But inside, she remains as mercenary and soulless as ever. Not only is she not a good person, she isn’t even a particularly good actress. Celebrity, Dos Passos makes clear, is entirely divorced from merit and achievement. It is a lottery in which the winners are no better than the losers, and are usually worse.

The only character in “The Big Money” who keeps the reader’s respect, from beginning to end, is Mary French. The daughter of a Colorado doctor who specialized in caring for the poor, Mary quits Vassar to become a social worker, then evolves into a professional organizer and radical. Her own life, Dos Passos shows, is full of unhappiness: She falls in love with and loses a series of men, works too hard and drinks too much. But because she is a firm believer in the class struggle, her life has a meaning that every other character’s lacks. Her suffering, unlike Charley’s and Margo’s, is the result not of selfishness, but of ascetic self-sacrifice.

Dos Passos reads the experience of the 1930s back into the history of the 1920s. Even during those giddy years, he reminds us, savage labor struggles were being waged, and Sacco and Vanzetti were being martyred. The whole system of American capitalism and government seems in “The Big Money” to rest on a shaky foundation of greed, speculation, celebrity worship and political oppression. And that is when the system appears to be working well. Once the crash comes, the writers of the Great Depression would emerge to guide readers through the wreckage -- and to demand a radical change.

(Adam Kirsch is a senior editor at the New Republic and a columnist for Tablet magazine. He is the author of “Why Trilling Matters.” This is the first in a four-part series. Read Part 2.)

To contact the writer of this article: Adam Kirsch at adam.kirsch@hotmail.com

To contact the editor responsible for this article: Max Berley at mberley@bloomberg.net