In honor of John Steinbeck’s 110th birthday — it is also Peter De Vries’s 102nd, Lawrence Durrell’s 100th, N. Scott Momaday’s 78th, and my 60th — the used-book site AbeBooks has compiled a list of the bestsellers from the Great Depression. There you can enjoy the original jackets of such novels as Anne Douglas Sedgwick’s Dark Hester, Gladys Hasty Carroll’s As the World Turns, Kenneth Roberts’s Northwest Passage, and Warwick Deeping’s Old Wine and New. The whole list is a welcome reminder that not even ripe avocados are more perishable than literary fame.
A definitive list of Depression Era literature would have to include Steinbeck, although at this distance in time it is clearer than ever that he was really a master of midcult. The Grapes of Wrath is a potboiler of overwrought lyricism. A more representative novel of the era is In Dubious Battle (1936), his radical strike novel.
The decade 1929–1939 was the heyday of proletarian literature, the great bulk of it unreadable now. Edward Dahlberg’s Bottom Dogs and Mike Gold’s Jews Without Money, both published in 1930, are exceptions. The Studs Lonigan trilogy of James T. Farrell (also born on February 27, coincidentally enough) has not stood up, but Nelson Algren’s Somebody in Boots (1935) was the first novel of a writer who does not merit his current neglect.
Henry Roth’s Call It Sleep (1934) has been wrongly described as a proletarian novel. It is, instead, a deeply Jewish novel — and only one of several that belong to the decade, creating an American Jewish literature before the boom of the Fifties and Sixties.
The others include Myron Brinig’s Singermann (1929), the first American novel about a Jewish department-store family, Vera Caspary’s Thicker Than Water (1932), the first novel about American Sephardim, Nathanel West’s pitiless Miss Lonelyhearts (1933), Daniel Fuchs’s Summer in Williamsburg (1934), an unsentimental tour of immigrant Brooklyn, Tess Slesinger’s The Unpossessed (1934), about over-energetic New York Jewish intellectuals who start a magazine, Meyer Levin’s The Old Bunch (1937), which follows a legion of Chicago adolescents from the Twenties to the World’s Fair and beyond, and Milton Steinberg’s historical novel about the Talmudic Era, As a Driven Leaf (1939).
The decade started with A Farewell to Arms, although Hemingway’s novel looks back on the First World War. It was also the decade of Faulkner’s greatest productivity: The Sound and the Fury (1929), As I Lay Dying (1930), Sanctuary (1931), Light in August (1932), Absalom, Absalom! (1936). Faulkner’s Thirties are not Steinbeck’s. Nor Anne Douglas Sedgwick’s nor Gladys Hasty Carroll’s either, for that matter. And yet they may be the
second third best decade in American literary history.*
* After the 1850s and 1920s.