“If it’s true that adversity and hardship can bring out creativity,” writes Miles Orvell, professor of English and American studies at Temple University in a Temple newsletter, “then the Great Depression was one of the great creative periods of our time.”
Many people today are looking back to the Depression of the 1930s in trying to understand today's faltering economy. Orvell suggests that re-reading the literature of the era could also be instructive. He argues that although the literature of the Great Depression is largely overlooked today, it was a rich field.
“The period also birthed several new genres, such as the melodrama, which laid the foundation for today’s soap opera, and it brought the detective novel to fulfillment, with the heroic detective stoically dealing with corruption and the underside of life in cities like New York, Los Angles and San Francisco,” Orvell writes.
However, post-World War II discomfort with anything that seemed politically too far left caused the literature of the Depression to be largely dismissed from the country's cultural record, says Orvell.
For great Depression literature that goes beyond 1939 classic "The Grapes of Wrath," Orvell recommends the following:
Let Us Now Praise Famous Men (1941), James Agee and Walker Evans
“Produced by a writer and photographer as part of an assignment from Fortune magazine, this book is extraordinary not only for the way it meticulously describes the day-to-day life of southern tenant farmers in Alabama, but also for its honest portrayal of how one social class views another during the heart of the ‘30s.”
Miss Lonelyhearts (1933) and The Day of the Locust (1939), Nathaniel West
“West invents black humor to portray, in Lonelyhearts, the dilemma of a ‘Dear Abby’ columnist dealing with the troubles of all of his letter-writers and, in Locust, to contrast the lives of those at the fringes of Hollywood with those at its center.”
Come Back to Sorrento (1932), Dawn Powell
“Powell, one of the great unrecognized writers of the 30’s, beautifully describes the quiet despair of people living in a small town, with their dreams thwarted.”
Call It Sleep (1934), Henry Roth:
“Roth offers us the interior perspective of a young immigrant boy growing up in the slums of New York.”
And for the truly ambitious, he adds, there's the John Dos Passos trilogy U.S.A., which covers the three decades leading to the Crash.