Commentary Magazine


Literary Blog

In Honor of Steinbeck’s Birthday

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.



Join the discussion…

Are you a subscriber? Log in to comment »

Not a subscriber? Join the discussion today, subscribe to Commentary »





Welcome to Commentary Magazine.
We hope you enjoy your visit.
As a visitor to our site, you are allowed 8 free articles this month.
This is your first of 8 free articles.

If you are already a digital subscriber, log in here »

Print subscriber? For free access to the website and iPad, register here »

To subscribe, click here to see our subscription offers »

Please note this is an advertisement skip this ad
Clearly, you have a passion for ideas.
Subscribe today for unlimited digital access to the publication that shapes the minds of the people who shape our world.
Get for just
YOU HAVE READ OF 8 FREE ARTICLES THIS MONTH.
FOR JUST
YOU HAVE READ OF 8 FREE ARTICLES THIS MONTH.
FOR JUST
Welcome to Commentary Magazine.
We hope you enjoy your visit.
As a visitor, you are allowed 8 free articles.
This is your first article.
You have read of 8 free articles this month.
YOU HAVE READ 8 OF 8
FREE ARTICLES THIS MONTH.
for full access to
CommentaryMagazine.com
INCLUDES FULL ACCESS TO:
Digital subscriber?
Print subscriber? Get free access »
Call to subscribe: 1-800-829-6270
You can also subscribe
on your computer at
CommentaryMagazine.com.
LOG IN WITH YOUR
COMMENTARY MAGAZINE ID
Don't have a CommentaryMagazine.com log in?
CREATE A COMMENTARY
LOG IN ID
Enter you email address and password below. A confirmation email will be sent to the email address that you provide.