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Literature and Songs of the Great Depression

Literature and Songs of the Great Depression


john steinbeck …229

songs of the great depression …239

woody guthrie …249

Every period of U.S. history has produced unique varieties of American literature. The Great Depression (1929–41), the most severe economic crisis the nation had ever experienced, was no exception. Talented writers produced an array of books. Some, following their own interests and passions, wrote without much regard to the conditions surrounding them in the 1930s. Others crafted books that revealed much about Americans caught in the economic devastation of the Depression; these socially aware books are known as proletarian (working-class) literature. Authors of such literature looked with disgust on the wealth that a few Americans had amassed at the expense of the majority of the people. The books they wrote had themes that supported working-class individuals and promoted the idea of economic cooperation rather than competition. Proletarian themes became a hallmark of Depression-era literature.


Several proletarian writers of the 1930s went on to fame, including John Dos Passos (1896–1970), James T. Farrell (1904–1979), Erskine Caldwell (1903–1987), Richard Wright (1908–1960), and John Steinbeck (1902–1968). Dos Passos created U.S.A., a trilogy (three novels) that tells of America's materialistic growth from the 1890s to the early Depression years. Farrell also wrote a trilogy, focusing on an imaginary young working-class Irish American named Studs Lonigan, who lives under harsh conditions in Chicago. Caldwell's Tobacco Road (1932) describes the poverty of a Southern tenant farming family whose lives become desperate as the Depression closes in. The story was made into a play that ran on Broadway in New York City for years. In 1933 Caldwell published God's Little Acre, which also tells the story of a poor family. Together with photographer Margaret Bourke-White (1906–1971), Caldwell published You Have Seen Their Faces (1937), a true story of rural poverty in the South. Richard Wright was a black author who wrote about the problems of black Americans in a white society. He published a collection of four short stories, Uncle Tom's Children, in 1938; his first novel, Native Son, appeared in 1940. He also published nonfiction, including Twelve Million Black Voices in 1941. John Steinbeck wrote a number of decidedly proletarian novels in the 1930s. This chapter includes an excerpt from one of Steinbeck's most famous novels, The Grapes of Wrath, published in 1939. An example of excellent proletarian literature, The Grapes of Wrath tells the story of the Joads, an Oklahoma family whose farm is destroyed by a severe drought. (Beginning in late 1931, a real drought had turned much of the Great Plains into a dust-covered wasteland that was impossible to farm.)

Next in the chapter are examples of 1930s songs that relate to the Great Depression. While big bands playing "swing," a form of jazz, were all the rage, songs of the Depression also caught the public's attention. No matter how miserable a situation seemed, some American songwriter always came up with lyrics and a melody to lighten the national mood. Uplifting tunes included "Happy Days Are Here Again," a 1932 presidential campaign song; "We're in the Money," from the musical Gold Diggers of 1933; and "Over the Rainbow," from the 1939 movie The Wizard of Oz. Songs of protest also emerged, including "Beans, Bacon, and Gravy" and "Soup Song." "Brother, Can You Spare A Dime?" is another Depression-era protest song; it describes how a man could work hard, even serve his country in World War I (1914-18), but be forgotten and living in poverty by the early 1930s. The lyrics of all these songs are included in this chapter under the heading "Songs of the Depression."

Woody Guthrie (1912–1967) was a folksinger and songwriter who wrote simple but powerful songs about conditions in the Dust Bowl during the Great Depression. He wrote about the people's migration westward, the same subject Steinbeck wrote about in The Grapes of Wrath. Guthrie also wrote a set of twenty-six songs about the Pacific Northwest in mid-1941. Several excerpts of Guthrie's lyrics are reprinted near the end of this chapter.

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