Literature of the Great Depression: A Survey The Great Depression, beginning in 1929 and continuing throughout the next decade, was a time of extreme economic decline, devastating people of nearly every social class, race, age, and geographic region. Millions of unemployed Americans everywhere suffered the burdens of poverty, homelessness, and crime.
While vast numbers of citizens lined up in long bread lines, waiting for hours for the small amount of free food offered by government relief agencies; many others, outraged by their living conditions, took to the streets to protest, sometimes violently, demanding that the government take immediate action to alleviate their suffering. It is these images of such widespread trouble, distress, and social and political upheaval, that sparked the attention of literary writers everywhere. As literary writers assessed these new situations brought on by the Great Depression, one group in particular, the South, piqued the interests of many writers.
Economic as well as environmental factors, such as drought and the Dust Bowl, adversely affected the South’s economic dependence on agriculture; forcing many farmers into poverty, and driving thousands from their homes elsewhere in search of better opportunities. It is these immense economic adversities as well as vast human suffering experienced by the South that drew interest from many literary writers, making the South the subject of many famous and important works of literature, and thereby securing for the Southern regions an important historic niche in the history of the Great Depression in America.
By examining the literary depictions of Southern life during the Great Depression, of works such as The Grapes of Wrath, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, and Tobacco Road, we gain essential insights into the cultures, lifestyles, and sentiments of those Americans hardest hit by the Great Depression; farmers and sharecroppers in the American south. Among those works of literature depicting the Great Depression is Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, written by James Agee with photography by Walker Evans.
Written at the height of the Great Depression in 1936 as an assignment for Fortune magazine, and later published in 1941 as a novel, this lengthy four hundred page text is a work of non-fiction that sets out to document the often harsh conditions of white Southern sharecroppers in rural Alabama by spending time with and even lodging with three actual sharecropping families known in the novel as: the Gudgers, the Ricketts, and the Woods for a period of several weeks. In Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, passages of extraordinary description and poetic beauty describe the various settings in which the novel takes place.
Agee describes in great detail the homes of the farmers, the work they do, how the people looked, what they ate, how they spoke, their possessions and the surrounding land in order to paint an accurate picture of the living conditions as well as the plight of the sharecroppers. As Humphries points out, although Agee urges his reader not to view the novel as “high art” Agee’s ability to convey beauty even in those things not typically viewed as beautiful makes the artistic value of Let Us Now Praise Famous Men quite clear.
Equally as powerful as the elaborate visual images Agee so skillfully conjures within the reader and the poetic beauty of these images, is the appeal to sensation Agee conveys in his description. Agee in seeking to fully and accurately convey the experiences of Southern sharecroppers, utilizes sensation to attempt to make the reader feel what it is like to be a sharecropper, the physical pain caused by bending of the back, the sensations of cramping in the hand, and the feel of sweat dripping down the body all combine to allow the reader to feel what it is like to be a sharecropper (Quinn).
It is through these depictions of sensations that Agee hoped to make the sharecroppers “so real to you who read of it, that it will stand and stay in you as the deepest and most iron anguish and guilt of your existence that you are what you are, and that she is what she is, and that you cannot for one moment exchange places with her” (Praise 321).
In addition to the artful skill with which Agee so vividly depicts his novel, another notable aspect of Let Us Now Praise Famous Men is the unconventionality and experimentation through which Agee, with the help of his partner Evans, crafts the novel. The reader is confronted with this unconventionality upon opening the book, in which the presentation of the scores of photographs taken by Evans appear before any other words in the text, even before the table of contents and copyright information.
Additionally, none of the pictures provide any sort of captions, a fact that could be best attributed to Evans’ preference for presenting his images without the accompaniment of words (Jackson). In keeping with the lack of traditionalism of Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, Agee casts himself as a character in the novel in which, at parts, he interacts with and reacts to the other characters in the novel. The significance of this is that it provides the reader with insight into the author’s thoughts and feelings about the events in the novel.
However, this fact along with Agee’s Southern ancestry has caused Let Us Now Praise Famous Men to be criticized as being too preoccupied with Agee’s personal introspection than with creating a more meaningful depiction of the lives of his subjects (Humphries). Furthermore, in his literary criticism of Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, Coogle contrasts Agee’s and Evans’ work with that of Jacob Riis’ work, How the Other Half Lives in order to demonstrate both Agee’s and Evans’ intentional preservation of human dignity as well as the rejection of more traditional worldviews, namely Victorianism (Coogle).
Coogle’s summation of Let Us Now Praise Famous Men is that, “with its concern for respecting human dignity and its view of the world as complex and confusing, serves as a striking contrast to earlier notions. Agee and Evans reject any vision of the world as clearly understandable and ordered,” While Riis’ Victorian sentiments simplify the human experience and presents his impoverished subjects as inferior, Agee and Evans actively avoid such degradation of their subjects and acknowledge the complexity of life.
This new approach to journalism and depicting of social issues coupled with the intentional preservation of human dignity further demonstrates the unconventionality of Let Us Now Praise Famous Men and reflects the surge of new and innovative ideas that the Great Depression spurred. No better example of the Great Depression’s call for innovative and experimental ideas is one that has been frequently cited by scholars, and that is the parallel between the innovative economic policies of Roosevelt’s New Deal with that of the unconventional approach to the making of Let Us Now Praise Famous Men.
Austgen makes the assertion that, “As Roosevelt recognized that traditional plans for economic recovery could not end the Depression, so Agee and Evans knew that traditional methods of photography and journalism would not work to convey accurately the hard and simple lives of the tenant farmers. ” Furthermore, as Evans and Agee seek to preserve the dignity of its subject, so too does Roosevelt’s economics (Austgen).
In conclusion, while Agee’s poetic, and often excruciatingly descriptive journalistic reportage coupled with Evans’ contribution of a slew of candid photographs work together to create an accurate depiction of the impoverished Southern farmer’s experience during the Great Depression on the surface, it is the the radical experimentation of Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, as well as Agee’s and Evans’ attention to human dignity, that illuminates the new and innovative ideas that times of social upheaval and economic hardship such as the Great Depression call for.
Like Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, another work of literature depicting farm life during the Great Depression is John Steinbeck’s American classic The Grapes of Wrath. Published in 1939, The Grapes of Wrath tells the story of the fictional Joad family, who after losing their Oklahoma farm due to economic hardship and the Dust Bowl, embark on a trek westward to California, hoping to find work and economic stability, but only find continued hardship and despair.
After losing two family members to death, characters Granma and Granpa Joad, and two more family members, Noah the oldest Joad son and Connie the pregnant Rose of Sharon’s husband, decide to leave the family; the rest of the family, however discouraged, continue on their journey to California. After their arrival in California, the Joads endure exploitation by the powerful upper-class employers, horrible living conditions, as well as police brutality.
In response to the migrant laborers lack of power and rights, as well as their absurdly low wages, the laborers, including the preacher Jim Casey, unionize in order to fight back against the exploitation of their corrupt employers. Through his depiction of the unionization of exploited workers, Steinbeck advocates for worker’s unions and the need for collective action among the masses. Furthermore, by emphasizing the exploitation of the lower classes, as well as the human suffering caused by the powerful and corrupt upper-class employers, Steinbeck’s firm stance against the power of big-business is lucid (Hendrick).
Steinbeck’s further asserts his political ideas by depicting the Joads as having an extended concept of family. Throughout the novel, various instances arise in which the concept of family extends beyond the traditional conjugal unit, “to include members related by plight as well as by blood” (Hinton). This is first evidenced in the opening chapters of the novel, as the Joads prepare to embark on their journey westward, they allow the preacher Jim Casey to join them on their journey to California, accepting them as one of their own.
Ma Joad’s attempt to help starving children in the migrant camp, even as her own children do not have enough to eat further depicts the Joads extended concept of family as well as the altruism displayed by the Joad family. It is this extension of the traditional familial structure that conveys Steinbeck’s Socialist viewpoints and his emphasis on the altruism and goodness of the Joads that seem to convey the message that during times of immense suffering and social upheaval people must come together to help one another.
Perhaps however, the most notable depiction of the altruism and goodwill of the Joad family occurs at the end of the novel by none other than Rose of Sharon, the Joad family’s eldest daughter, a character up until this point plays a relatively secondary role in the novel. After the Joad family suffers yet another tragedy, when Rose of Sharon gives birth to a stillborn baby, the family, devastated by their loss come across a dying elderly stranger.
In an act of extreme kindness, Rose of Sharon offers her breast milk to the man in order to save his life. Moreover, Steinbeck emphasis the humanity and compassion of the Joads in order to provide a stark contrast to the cold and unfeeling upper-class employers that exploit the migrant workers in order to both invoke sympathy in the reader for the plight of the workers as well as to further argue against big-business (Hinton). Finally, The Grapes of Wrath, as a renowned work of literature, fosters a prevalent image of the Southern farmer.
For those with even the vaguest knowledge of this important historical era, the Great Depression conjures up images of impoverished farmers, driven from their homes, stoic-faced and desperate, in search of better opportunities and a future for themselves and their families. Although The Grapes of Wrath provides a fictional account of one sharecropping family, and while it can be argued that Steinbeck creates a rather dramatized depiction of the sharecroppers, the story Steinbeck tells was one that was true for many.
The Great Depression did indeed drive thousands of sharecroppers from their lands, many of which may have been subjected to some of the same horrors the Joads endured. In conclusion, The Grapes of Wrath is valuable for its image of Southern farmers that has become the poster image for the Great Depression, and still remains as such even today. In stark contrast to both Agee’s Let Us Now Praise Famous Men and Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath, is Elskine Caldwell’s Tobacco Road.
While both Let Us Now Praise Famous Men and The Grapes of Wrath work actively to maintain the dignity of its subjects, Tobacco Road instead provides a much more negative image of the novel’s characters. Caldwell’s fictional Lester family like the focus of both Let Us Now Praise Famous Men and The Grapes of Wrath are a family of Southern farmers enduring the intense suffering wrought by hunger and extreme poverty in the midst of the Great Depression.
Whereas Agee presents a dignified image of his subjects, and Steinbeck emphasis the altruism and goodness of the Joad family despite their conditions, Caldwell seems to reduce his characters to less than human. Driven by base instincts the Lester family seem to epitomize vulgarity, violence, obscenity and general indecency. It is in this way that Caldwell depicts the darker side of poverty. In conclusion, by examining the authors intent of renowned works of literature depicting life during the Great Depression we gain essential insights into the social realities of Southern sharecroppers during the Great Depression.
Works Cited Agee, James, and Walker Evans. Let Us Now Praise Famous Men. 1941. Boston: Houghton-Mifflin, 1988. Austgen, Susan A. “Let Us Now Praise Famous Men: Agee and Evans’ Great Experiment. ” Agee and Evans’ Great Experiment. Web. 04 May 2012. . Coogle, Matt. “The Historical Significance of Let Us Now Praise Famous Men. ” The Historical Significance of Let Us Now Praise Famous Men. Web. 05 May 2012. . Hendrick, Veronica C. “John Steinbeck: The Grapes of Wrath (1939). ” Pop Culture Universe: Icons, Idols, Ideas. ABC-CLIO, 2012.
Web. 8 May 2012. Hinton, Rebecca. “Steinbeck’s ‘The Grapes of Wrath. ‘ (John Steinbeck’s book). ” The Explicator 56. 2 (1998): 101+. Literature Resource Center. Web. 8 May 2012. Humphries, David T. “Returning South: Reading Culture in James Agee’s Let Us Now Praise Famous Men and Zora Neale Hurston’s Mules and Men. ” The Southern Literary Journal 41. 2 (2009): 69+. Literature Resource Center. Web. 10 April 2012. Jackson, Bruce. “The Deceptive Anarchy of Let Us Now Praise Famous Men. ” The Antioch Review 1999: 38-49.
ProQuest Research Library. Web. 5 May 2012 . Quinn, Jeanne Follansbee. “The Work Of Art: Irony And Identification In Let Us Now Praise Famous Men. ” Novel: A Forum On Fiction 34. 3 (2001): 338. Academic Search Premier. Web. 8 May 2012. Rothstein Arthur. Fleeing A Dust Storm. Cimarron City, Oklahoma. 1936. Web. 10 May 2012. Silver, Andrew. “Laughing over lost causes: Erskine Caldwell’s quarrel with Southern humor. ” The Mississippi Quarterly 50. 1 (1996): 51+. Literature Resource Center. Web. 5 May 2012.
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