In the midst of the Great Depression, Nathanael West took real letters from desperate people and mined them for America’s blackest novel. Nathaniel Rich on why Miss Lonelyhearts feels more essential than ever.
Herbert Hoover used the word “Depression” to describe the nation’s financial miseries advisedly. He felt it would cause less alarm than “crisis” or “panic,” terms that were more commonly used at the time to describe financial collapse. But Hoover’s nomenclature was a self-fulfilling prophecy. Panics and crises, painful as they might be, tend to resolve themselves quickly. The Great Depression caused great depression, the incineration of the stock market cauterizing the national mood, yielding a period of cynicism, inanition, and despair. No novel captured the spirit of this time more indelibly than Nathanael West’s Miss Lonelyhearts, which was published in the year that the national unemployment rate reached its highest level. Twenty-five percent of American workers were unemployed in the winter of 1933, but one job remained in high demand: newspaper advice columnist. The misery industry was booming.
The idea for the novel arose from a dinner that West had with the writer S.J. Perelman, who was his brother-in-law, and Quentin Reynolds, a former college roommate of Perelman’s. Reynolds wrote an agony column, “Susan Chester Heart-to-Heart Letters,” for the Brooklyn Eagle. He thought that the pathetic letters he received might be of use to Perelman for one of his humor pieces, but Perelman found the letters too depressing to be mined for comedy. West, on the other hand, immediately understood their potential. He stuck them in his pocket, and would later copy them, almost verbatim, into his novel.
It’s ironic then that the most comical moments in Miss Lonelyhearts come from these letters, whose authors sign their names “Desperate,” “Disillusion-with-tubercular husband,” “Broken-hearted,” and “Sick-of-It-All.” But the humor is black, disturbed, curdled:
As the Jazz Age entered full swing in 1923, the bestselling novel in America was by 65-year-old Gertrude Atherton who was dismissive of the flappers. Nathaniel Rich on a novel that warned of what was to come.
1923 was the year of the first “Marathon Dance,” the endurance contest in which couples dance until they fall over from exhaustion. Miss Alma Cummings won the inaugural competition, held in New York City, after staying on her feet for twenty-seven hours. The contest quickly caught on nationally and Cummings was bested the next month by a dancer in Cleveland who lasted ninety hours and ten minutes. Not long after that, a man in North Tonawanda, NY, after shuffling his feet for eighty-seven hours, earned a different distinction—he was the first Marathon dancer to drop dead on the dance floor.
R: Author Gertrude Atherton. (AP)
But everyone kept dancing. After the recession of 1921-1922, the country had entered an era of unrestrained economic growth. The jazz age was in full swing and the so-called “younger generation,” whose poets and artists called themselves the “lost generation,” was ascendant. A novel published in 1920 by a twenty-four-year old F. Scott Fitzgerald, This Side of Paradise, brought to national attention the impetuousness and licentiousness of this new generation. “The decade,” as Mark Sullivan wrote in Our Times, “was the decade of the young.” Yet the best-selling novel of 1923 was written by the 65-year-old Gertrude Atherton, an author best known for her historical novels and short stories about California, some of them published more than three decades earlier. Atherton had drawn her novel’s title, Black Oxen, from a line in W.B. Yeats’ verse drama, The Countess Cathleen:
“The years like Great Black Oxen tread the world
And God the herdsman goads them on behind.”
In the early 1900s people in the prairie states started going insane, literally. Enter Willa Cather with her 1913 novel ‘O Pioneers!’ to capture the loneliness and darkness of life on the plains. Nathaniel Rich on her brutal vision.
It became obvious, around the turn of last century, that something was very wrong with America’s farmers. Many of them—much too many—had lost their minds. “An alarming amount of insanity occurs in the new prairie States among farmers and their wives,” observed E.V. Smalley, the editor of Northwest Illustrated Monthly Magazine, in 1893. The cause, Smalley believed, was loneliness. The Northern European immigrants who came to settle Nebraska and the Dakotas were accustomed to living in small farming villages, among people their family had known for generations. Now, marooned on the Great Plains, separated from their neighbors by vast distances, language barriers, and extreme weather, they lived in almost total isolation. “Is it any wonder,” asked Smalley, that so many settlers “lose their mental balance?”
Author Willa Cather wrote O Pioneers! in 1913. (AP (L))
In The Americans, the historian Daniel Boorstin traced the madness of the farmers to the Homestead Act of 1862. The legislation, signed by Abraham Lincoln, decreed that a settler had to live on his acreage for five years in order to perfect his title. That meant towns, or even villages, were almost inconceivable. As the size of a settler’s plot increased, so did the distance he would have to travel to visit his neighbor. Since greed tended to prevail over comity, the Great Plains bred depressives and sociopaths. By 1908 the problem had become so dire that Theodore Roosevelt created a Commission on Country Life to improve social conditions for farmers and eliminate “the disadvantages which are due to the isolation of the family farm.” Roosevelt’s commission ended in failure. It was too late to reconfigure the organization of the land, and the spirit of isolation—or self-reliance, to give it a grander name—had become ingrained in the local character. American farmers were doomed to insanity.
It is in this context that one should read Willa Cather’s O Pioneers!, which follows the lives of several mentally unstable Nebraskan homesteaders between 1883 and 1900. In the novel’s opening section, this “dark country” feels like “the end of the earth”; the expanse is so immense that it seems “to overwhelm the little beginnings of human society that struggled in its somber wastes.” To some extent, Cather is speaking literally: the settlers’ houses are built out of the sod itself, and so tiny, that they are invisible to the eye sweeping across the plain—“you did not see them until you came directly upon them.” But the landscape’s vast dreariness also wreaks psychological damage. The settlers felt themselves “too weak to make any mark here, that the land wanted to be let alone, to preserve its own fierce strength, its peculiar, savage kind of beauty, its uninterrupted mournfulness.” Even wild flowers, a symbol for youthful spirit if ever there was one, are snuffed out by the brutality of the plains. They’ve all disappeared, except “a few of the very toughest and hardiest,” which settle “only in the bottom of the draws and gullies.”
Is Jack London’s 'The Call of the Wild' a stirring defense of Social Darwinism or a critique of American individualism? In the latest in Nathaniel Rich’s 'American Dreams' series, he reviews Jack London’s 1903 bestseller and sees the shadow of Theodore Roosevelt, Herbert Spencer, and Darwin.
“Buck did not read the newspapers, or he would have known that trouble was brewing…”
Trouble is brewing all right, and the trouble begins in the first sentence of The Call of the Wild—a sentence that concludes by revealing the fact that Buck, Jack London’s hero, is a dog. Few American novels are as tenaciously (doggedly) allegorical as London’s “beast fable.” Although we know that dogs are imbeciles on the order of a pre-verbal toddler, Buck often behaves, and thinks, exactly like a man—a man, incidentally, much like Jack London himself. Buck may not read newspapers, but he understands words, laughs, and expresses himself so eloquently that his master “reverently” exclaims, “God! you can all but speak!” And Buck can think too: he “imagines,” “wonders,” “divines” and “reasons it out”; he hates with “a bitter and deathless hatred” and he “accepts…with quiet dignity.” He can even “flee from the defence of a moral consideration.” Try to teach your dog that trick!
Author Jack London, at right. (AP)
The other person Buck sounds like is Theodore Roosevelt, who then was serving his first presidential term. In the title speech of The Strenuous Life (1901), an essay collection published the year he succeeded the assassinated William McKinley, Roosevelt urged America to embrace its “manly and adventurous qualities.” The country, he argued, needed to build a larger army, compete for sovereignty of the seas, and engage in foreign nation-building, beginning with the Philippines, over which it had gained control during the Spanish-American War. But it was not just the federal government that needed to man up: every American citizen should refuse to “shrink from danger, from hardship, or from bitter toil,” and strive for a life of “toil and effort, of labor and strife.” America, and Americans, should reject “the doctrine of ignoble ease” that had emasculated the nation.
What is the one book published this year essential to understanding America today? Nathaniel Rich picks Ben Fountain’s novel.
The villain in Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, Ben Fountain’s novel about the Iraq War, is not Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, or George W. Bush (whom one character likens to “the nicest banker you’d ever hope to meet”). Nor is it Saddam Hussein, or Osama Bin Laden. The arch villain instead is Jerry Jones, the billionaire Texas oilfield titan and owner of the Dallas Cowboys. Fountain, perhaps on the advice of his lawyers, doesn’t use Jones’s name in the novel—he’s “Norm Oglesby”—but the resemblance is precise, down to the “ghostly cold-fission blue” eyes, the “famously nipped, tucked, tweaked, jacked, exfoliated mug,” and the “peach-tinted hair.” Every one of his features projects money; the same effect, notes Fountain, would be achieved by “plastering your face with thousand-dollar bills.” Norm is a symbol of implacable corporate power—preening, surgically perfected, casually domineering. He is, in other words, a symbol of America itself.
It’s difficult to think of a novel in the last decade more preoccupied with symbols of American power than Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, the entirety of which takes place on Thanksgiving Day during a game between the Cowboys and the Bears (Bears win, 31-7). Norm is hosting the eight surviving members of Bravo, an army squad back from Iraq on a brief “Victory Tour.” Two weeks earlier, Bravo’s exploits in something called the Battle of al-Ansakar Canal were broadcast on Fox News. For his heroics, one of the soldiers, Billy Lynn, has achieved a national celebrity on the magnitude of Jessica Lynch. But what exactly happened at al-Ansakar Canal is never fully explained; the details are as blurry to the reader as they are to the soldiers involved.
During their tour Bravo has been feted at the White House, appeared on local news shows in Phoenix and Omaha, and sat for interviews with countless local newspapers in Kansas City, Denver, St. Paul, and Pittsburgh—their itinerary, one soldier notes, is heavily weighted to electoral swing states. The final stop is Texas Stadium, where they have been asked to participate in a halftime celebration alongside Destiny’s Child.
In the latest in his ‘American Dreams’ series, Nathaniel Rich reads Jeffrey Eugenides’s 2002 novel ‘Middlesex’—and discovers a novel that takes seriously the notion that what we do reverberates through history.
By 2002, in the world’s major cities, it was no longer possible to determine a stranger’s ethnicity by sight:
You used to be able to tell a person’s nationality by the face. Immigration ended that. Next you discerned nationality via the footwear. Globalization ended that. Those Finnish seal puppies, those German flounders—you don’t see them much anymore. Only Nikes, on Basque, on Dutch, on Siberian feet.
Nike, the Greek goddess of victory, reigned victorious. But what had been lost?
Jeffrey Eugenides’ Middlesex disguises itself as the memoir of Calliope (later Cal) Stephanides: b. 1960, Greek-descended, Detroit-born, U.S. diplomat, dark-haired, big-nosed, closet hermaphrodite. But of Calliope’s life story we witness relatively little: birth and childhood, and adolescent sexual consternation. Then, after a gap of a quarter century, we get the early glimmerings of a love affair set in the present day, when Cal is forty-one and living in Berlin. Eugenides’ focus instead is on the travails of Cal’s grandparents and parents. (Cal is not even born until page 216.) Even the sections about Cal’s youth are frequently interrupted by divergences into the stories of his ancestors. As a result Middlesex presents a view of history that is as determinative and linear as you will find in any Greek myth. The son not only inherits the sins of the father, but also the sins of the mother, grandfather, grandmother, a few other cousins, and aunts and uncles.
In the latest American Dreams essay, Nathaniel Rich revisits Richard Price’s ‘Clockers,’ a devastating 1992 novel about inner-city decay, drug crime, and the spread of AIDS.
Clockers is a 600-page novel about the investigation of a single, unspectacular crime: a drug-related killing in a New Jersey slum. Price’s fifth novel is not a conventional murder mystery, as there is almost nothing mysterious about the murder: a 21-year-old drug dealer is dead, and his killer, also 21, has turned in the murder weapon and confessed. There’s even an eyewitness who saw everything. It’s an open-and-shut case, what homicide detectives call “closed by arrest,” and a 30-year sentence seems inevitable. But one detail doesn’t sit right with the homicide detective, Rocco Klein: the motive. The killer, Victor Dunham, works two jobs and is the devoted father of two children. Unlike his younger brother, Strike, who oversees a crew of cocaine dealers, Victor has never committed a crime. When asked why he committed the murder, Victor claims “self-defense.” Long after his version of the events has been debunked, Victor continues to repeat his story, until it becomes a deranged mantra: self-defense.
But what is Victor defending himself against? Not his victim—Victor barely knew the man. The answer doesn’t come at once, but accrues over hundreds of pages, through Price’s evocation of Dempsy, a fictional city that bears some resemblance to Jersey City and Newark. Dempsy, also the setting of Price’s later novels Freedomland and Samaritan, looks, as one character remarks, “like Central America”: a wasteland of storefront churches, deserted lots, hair salons, candy stores, and “forlorn and battered doll houses under artificial light,” which surround the 13 high rises of the Roosevelt Houses—twelve hundred families over two square blocks, under constant police surveillance. Dempsy is a war zone, and nobody gets out alive. For those who start dealing drugs, or clocking, the life expectancy shrinks even further: “A good run on the street was six months, and you had to have a clear head and a lot of self-confidence to make it even that long.”
The exception to this rule is Rodney Little, a 37-year-old drug lieutenant who makes almost a million dollars a year on the street. In a scene that serves as a parable for the whole novel, Rodney recalls the first murder he committed in the early seventies. Rodney and his partner, a dead-eyed assassin named Erroll Barnes, set out for revenge on the three clockers who beat them on a dope deal. When they corner their victims in a tenement shooting gallery, Erroll waving a sawed-off shotgun, the three men start blubbering: “Yo please, please, it ain’t personal man, it’s the sickness, it’s the sickness.” Erroll shoots two of them, then commands Rodney to kill the third. “Shoot him,” says Erroll, “or I’m gonna shoot you.”
Paul Theroux’s 1982 novel, ‘The Mosquito Coast,’ reveals the promise—and madness—of the American dream, writes Nathaniel Rich.
The recent public debate over who “built it”—“it” meaning American businesses, or infrastructure, or American society, or Mitt Romney’s grin—has a lineage that dates back to the dawn of the republic. The debate even has its own literature, novels that ask whether this is a nation of Ahabs or Babbitts, Thomas Sutpens or Stepford Wives. What, in other words, are the limits of rugged individualism? At what point is Manifest Destiny fulfilled—and what are we supposed to do with ourselves then?
American travel writer and novelist Paul Theroux. (Ira Wyman, Sygma / Corbis)
Few American novels have addressed these questions more directly than The Mosquito Coast. Paul Theroux wrote it in the gloomy period defined by Jimmy Carter’s “malaise” speech, still the most haunted, existential speech in American presidential history (“We can see this crisis in the growing doubt about the meaning of our own lives ...”). The novel was published in 1982, in the midst of the severe recession that began shortly after Ronald Reagan took office and lasted until the middle of his first term. Theroux’s Ahab, Allie Fox, is a man of this time: a Harvard dropout, father of four, and an amateur inventor with an intense disgust for the state of the nation. The book begins with a rant by Allie about “the awfulness of America—how it got turned into a dope-taking, door-locking, ulcerated danger-zone of rabid scavengers and criminal millionaires and moral sneaks.”
But Allie is just getting started. He deplores the stultification of the political process (“America’s in gridlock”); its disposable culture (“Selling junk, buying junk, eating junk”); and its corporate greed (“Dentists in the States had an interest in candy factories…Doctors owned hospitals. Detroit kept bankrolling oil-wells. America had terminal cancer!”). The only option left for a patriot, he decides, is to flee. Without warning he quits his job as an overseer of a Massachusetts farm and moves his family to a place that doesn’t exist on any maps, a patch of jungle in the interior of Honduras. There the Foxes will start again, Adam and Eve, creating a new civilization from scratch. “That’s stone age,” warns one character, when he learns of Allie’s plans. “Like America before the pilgrims landed. Just Indians and woods. There’s no roads. It’s all virgin jungle.” This is an early suggestion that Allie is not leaving the United States so much as traveling back in time.
After 40 years, Ira Levin’s iconic novel ‘The Stepford Wives’ still holds up as a satire on the dark side of the American male. Nathaniel Rich on the Stepford husbands still among us.
The original hardcover jacket calls The Stepford Wives “one of those rare novels whose very title may well become part of our vocabulary”—which is one of those rare examples of a jacket copy prophecy come true. Forty years after the novel’s publication, the adjective “Stepford” has not only entered the lexicon (“blandly conformist and submissive” according to the Collins English Dictionary), but is trending upward this political season. The word is invoked almost daily by pundits to describe not only Mitt Romney, but his wife Ann and their entire loving brood.
Ira Levin, the author of "The Stepford Wives" and "Rosemary's Baby," died in 2007 at age 78. (AP Photo)
Yet those who call Mitt a “Stepford Husband” do so confusedly. They mean to say that he is bland and conformist, but in the context of Ira Levin’s novel, a Stepford husband is an entirely different creature from a Stepford wife: he is conniving, angry, murderous. And no Stepford husband would ever tolerate a wife with as consuming a personal passion as dressage.
The Stepford Wives has one of the most enduring premises of 20th-century American fiction. Joanna and Walter Eberhart move with their two children to the suburbs in the hope of a more comfortable life. They abandon New York—“the filthy, crowded, crime-ridden, but so-alive city”—for two-point-two acres in Stepford, a “postcard pretty” town with white frame colonial shopfronts and indistinguishable streets with names like Harvest Lane and Short Ridge Road. If you squint you might confuse Stepford with John Updike’s Eastwick, Richard Yates’s Revolutionary Hill Estates, or John Cheever’s Shady Hill. The main difference is that the homes of Stepford are kept unusually clean by unusually beautiful, and unusually buxom, wives. These women, Joanna observes, resemble “actresses in commercials, pleased with detergents and floor wax, with cleansers, shampoos, and deodorants. Pretty actresses, big in the bosom but small in the talent, playing suburban housewives unconvincingly, too nicey-nice to be real.”
Ever since it was published 50 years ago critics have described Ken Kesey’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest as the great nonconformist novel, but Nathaniel Rich writes that the novel’s true message is about the militarization of American society—and the trauma of war.
When a novel becomes a “classic”—when it is digested by critics and English teachers and study guide authors into bite-size morsels that can be slurped with a spoon—it undergoes a peculiar type of transformation. For one, it ceases to resemble a novel. Even the messiest, most obstreperous books are reduced to a litany of bullet points, or a single bullet point. Moby-Dick: Obsession devours. Crime and Punishment: Guilt corrupts. White Noise: Technology numbs. It can be disorienting to actually read the damn thing, and find out the epitaph is no more descriptive than a chapter title, and a misleading one at that.
Ken Kesey in 1966. (Ted Streshinsky / Corbis)
It’s even worse when the novel is adapted into a film, especially a good film, as is the case with Ken Kesey’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. Since Milos Forman’s adaptation, the line about the novel has been that is an “antiauthoritarian fable” (Larry McMurtry), a “nonconformists’ bible” (Pauline Kael), “a metaphor of repressive America” (Christopher Lehmann-Haupt). This view is accurate—Kesey is certainly interested in conformity and its discontents—but incomplete. What Kesey has to say is larger, and far more subversive.
Kesey is not the first author to write about lunatics who appear saner than those who seek to lock them up. The trope dates back as far as Don Quixote, continues through Mary Wollstonecraft’s Maria, or The Wrongs of Woman, Gogol’s “Diary of a Madman,” Vladimir Nabokov’s Invitation to a Beheading, and Joseph Heller’s Catch-22, published a year before Kesey’s novel. The nature of the oppression is different in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, however: the inmates in Kesey’s mental ward, with one or two exceptions, have asked to be locked away. “Guilt,” says Harding, one of the patients, when asked to explain his decision:
Sixty years after Ralph Ellison’s 'Invisible Man' was published, we still haven’t woken up from his nightmare. By Nathaniel Rich.
“I recognize no dichotomy between art and protest,” said Ralph Ellison in his 1955 Paris Review interview, but it is impossible not to recognize this dichotomy in Invisible Man. In Ellison’s novel, art pauses for protest, which usually takes the form of sermons, speeches, and lectures about race and American history. Saul Bellow, an early and vocal champion of Ellison’s, made the point in a private letter: “I myself distinguish between the parts of the novel that were written and those that were constructed as part of the argument; they are not alike in quality.” The sections to which Bellow refers—the speech of the blind preacher, the narrator’s work for the political group known as the Brotherhood, his seduction of Sybil—have aged the least gracefully. But Invisible Man remains a terror. Ellison dramatized, as forcefully as any novelist of the last century, Stephen Dedalus’s vision of history. In Invisible Man we experience American history as a nightmare. Sixty years after the novel’s publication we still haven’t woken up.
The most succinct synopsis of Invisible Man comes from Ellison himself, in a letter sent to his literary agent in 1946, just as he was beginning work on the novel:
The invisible man will move upward through Negro life, coming into contact with its various forms and personality types; will operate in the Negro middle class, in the leftwing movement and descend again into the disorganized atmosphere of the Harlem underworld. He will move upward in society through opportunism and submissiveness. Psychologically he is a traitor, to himself, to his people, and to democracy … He is also to be a depiction of a certain type of Negro humanity that operates in the vacuum created by white America in its failure to see Negroes as human.
Ellison held true to this mission, though Bellow could have gone a step farther in his criticism: Ellison’s argument is strongest when he abandons the essayistic mode entirely and plunges into the realm of imagination. We enter this hallucinatory sphere in the opening paragraph of the prologue. The voice of an invisible man emanates from a dark basement that “is damp and cold like a grave.” The imagery is ghoulish and carnivalesque:
'A Time To Be Born' doesn’t have a single gun, yet Dawn Powell’s novel captures the madness of World War II. By Nathaniel Rich.
Dawn Powell’s A Time to Be Born is one of the most enjoyable novels written about World War II despite the fact—or is it thanks to the fact?—that not a single battlefield appears anywhere in it, nor any weapon more deadly than an ice pick. This is because Powell takes as her subject the war as experienced not over there, but over here. More specifically, A Time to Be Born is populated by the type of people who plotted the war from the safety of oak-paneled conference rooms, wrote searching essays about military strategy in the nation’s popular magazines and newspapers, and debated its finer points in the most exclusive Manhattan restaurants and hotel bars, over the best martinis. In Powell’s novel, the war serves as a brilliant excuse to throw a party.
The life of this party is the pretty Amanda Keller, the young second wife of a great newspaper magnate named Julian Evans. The Evanses are loosely based on the Luces—Clare Booth and Henry, publisher and founder of Time, Life, and Fortune. They knew “every one,” writes Powell, in a rare address to the reader, “and by ‘every one’ I certainly do not mean you or me or any one we knew.” Amanda, with the assistance of the best writers Julian can buy, publishes a diverting “sword-and-lace romance” designed to “comfort a public about to be bombed.” This novel, praised wildly by all of Julian’s newspapers, becomes a massive bestseller, and Amanda is transfigured by her success into a sober intellectual authority on all matters geopolitical and economic. “She made a heyday of the world’s confusion,” writes Powell. “She rode the world’s debacle as if it was her own yacht.”
Amanda delivers lectures at ladies’ clubs and publishes essays in Evans’s publications, with titles like “What’s Wrong With England,” “What’s Wrong with Russia,” and “What is the Future of America”—her copy again provided by assiduous staffers. She hosts lavish dinner parties and poses for photographs in dripping emeralds and barebacked gowns of silver brocade. And at night, after all the diplomats and movie stars have left the Evans’s graystone mansion off of Fifth Avenue, she tries, with great ingenuity, to avoid having sex with her short, ugly old husband.
But Amanda has a secret. Though her biography in Who’s Who suggests she has royal blood, and lists France and Switzerland as the scenes of her early education, the truth is that her father was a haberdasher with a gambling problem, and she grew up in an apartment above a store in the inconsequential burg of Lakeville, Ohio. Amanda is presented with a reminder of her humble past at the very beginning of the novel, in the form of Vicky Haven, a floppy, downtrodden childhood friend who has moved to Manhattan with hopes of finding love. Vicky soon does find love, in the form of Ken Saunders, Amanda’s own secret lover. This creates an awkward love triangle, which later turns into a quadrilateral, then pentagon, before settling into a love hexagon—the multiplication of sexual partners a byproduct of the countless parties, and the countless cocktails.
Erskine Caldwell’s “Tobacco Road” dramatizes a Georgian sharecropper family made cruel and vile by debilitating poverty. Nathaniel Rich writes that it shows just how much the intellectual preoccupations of the ’20s were swept aside by the Great Depression.
As a comedy, Tobacco Road is a modest failure; as a tragedy, it’s an abject failure. And yet Erskine Caldwell’s novel, 80 years after its publication, remains a giddy, obscene joy. It as indelible as a freak show or car crash. Nobody knew what to make of Caldwell in 1932, and nobody much talks about him now, but his legacy persists. He is a progenitor of what could be called the degenerate school of American fiction. Descendents include writers like William S. Burroughs, Harry Crews, Katherine Dunn, and Barry Gifford. Tobacco Road is crass and deranged and irreducibly American.
Erskine Caldwell, the author of “Tobacco Road,” in 1958 (Bettmann / Corbis)
The novel received censorious reviews upon publication, but after it was adapted into a play in 1935 and became the longest-running show in the history of Broadway, it went on to sell 10 million copies. It is not surprising that critics were made uneasy by the story of the Lesters (rhymes with festers, molesters, and incesters), a family of cruel, illiterate savages in west-central Georgia. In the early years of the Great Depression, the intellectual preoccupations of the ’20s were swiftly discarded. No longer did artists and critics gripe that America was a mechanized, standardized, puritanical country, governed by Babbitts, prudes, and dimwitted businessmen. As Frederick Lewis Allen writes in Since Yesterday, his history of America in the ’30s, the conversation had turned, with a thud, to economic reform. It was held that “the masses of the citizenry were the people who really mattered, the most fitting subjects for writer and artist, the people on whose behalf reform must be undertaken.” Writers needed to depict conditions as they were for the most unfortunate members of society—that was the only way to bring about social change. It was an innocent time in America, and writers still believed that fiction could bring about change.
The Lesters, at first glance, seem the ideal heroes of a Depression-era novel. They are poor; “dirt poor” is no exaggeration, for their land has been depleted by cotton farming and untilled for seven years. Seventy-five years earlier, grandfather Lester had owned a great tobacco plantation, but the property has long since been sold off to creditors. The Lesters only remain on their small parcel thanks to the pity of its new owner. Their house, which has never been painted, is sagging and rotted and porous. Sections of ceiling fall away every time it rains.
What do 'Gone with the Wind' and 'The Hunger Games' have in common? A new installment in the 'American Dreams' series, by James Hall.
Some 75 years before 16-year-old Katniss Everdeen (The Hunger Games) fought to the death against teenage rivals, another teenage young lady captured the hearts of millions by doing pretty much the same thing. Scarlett O’Hara is every bit as jaded and calculating as Katniss, and her battle for survival takes place against a similarly grim panorama that was as close to a real apocalyptic nightmare as our nation has ever known, the Civil War. Though Scarlett’s survival skills are the coquettish ones of eye-batting flirtation, not archery or hand-to-hand combat, the stakes are every bit as grave.
Death and violence and the dissolution of the old order stalk Scarlett throughout this 1,000-page epic, and she must flout every rule of decorum and the ladylike restraints of her age to achieve a modicum of physical and economic security. She even kills a Yankee soldier who is invading her war-ravaged home of Tara, an act that barely ruffles her petticoats.
Whether people will still be reading The Hunger Games 75 years from now is debatable, but the future of Gone With the Wind seems assured. The novel held the No. 1 spot on the bestseller list for two years starting in 1936 and sold a million copies in its first year.
If only we had a man like George F. Babbitt today. Sinclair Lewis's satirical 1922 novel Babbitt became a national phenomenon. Nathaniel Rich says its comedy is still profound when read today.
If only there were a Republican on the ticket who could combine the pro-business boosterism of Mitt Romney:
Chicago History Museum / Getty Images
“What we need first, last, and all the time is a good, sound business administration!”
with the prideful anti-elitism of Rick Santorum:
What American novels best tell the story of the 20th-century? In a monthly series, Nathaniel Rich sets out to chart the history of the American Century through its novelists and their work.
Can baseball still define an America that’s in decline rather than rocketing to the top? Yes, says Nicholas Mancusi—look to the minor leagues.