Getting back into the swing of things on this series, we’re moving on into the 1930s. The Great Depression, the Dust Bowl, the looming specter of war in Europe…an incredible decade in American history. There are a lot of heavy-hitters in this series — Steinbeck’s Grape’s of Wrath and Of Mice and Men, Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying, and Margaret Mitchell’s Gone With the Wind (more notable, in my opinion, for its impact on American culture via the eventual film adaptation). The grand tradition of noire detective fiction also has strong roots in the decade: Chandler’s The Big Sleep and Hammett’s Maltese Falcon were published during the 1930s.
Note: if you’re new to the series, you can catch up by viewing the original post. The task is to choose one novel (or two, if your guilt at choosing a standard “dead white male” writer is overwhelming, and you want to amend your pick to include a writer of non-white ethnicity, or a queer / differently-abled white male) and note briefly why you chose that particular novel — what themes / stylistic properties does it portray that you consider instrumental to teaching literature AND history during the given decade?
One of the most intriguing results of my haphazard research into publication dates is the discovery that so many books and novels appear in decades that I never would have associated them with. For example, Laura Ingalls Wilder’s “Little House on the Prairie” series began to be published during the 1930s. This series had an enormous impact on my childhood (and not via the television show, which I rarely watched — I grew up in a home without a television); I read and re-read that series countless times, and always placed the books themselves as being roughly concurrent with the era they portray (1870s/1880s), even though I knew better. This impression continued even after reading a piece on Laura’s daughter Rose, who typed up her mother’s memoirs and prepped them for publication. I find it fascinating to think that these novels, which heavily romanticized frontier life, should have appeared more or less concurrent with works like Steinbeck’s novels, which shatter that mythos. Of course, a similar relationship might be seen between Steinbeck and Cather’s frontier novels, although I would argue that the latent capitalist themes in something like O, Pioneers much more effectively anticipate the critique of Steinbeck et al.
But even so, I have to make a pick (or two, as per the rules) — and this time around, it’s a fairly easy one for me. Zora Neal Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God pinned my ears back the first time I read it as an undergrad, and every encounter with it since then still does the same. The opening lines continue to haunt me:
“Ships at a distance have every man’s wish on board. For some they come in with the tide. For other they sail forever on the horizon, never out of sight, never landing until the Watcher turns his eyes away in resignation, his dreams mocked to death by Time. That is the life of men. Now, women forget all those things they don’t want to remember, and remember everything they don’t want to forget. The dream is the truth. Then they act and do things accordingly.”
Although the novel takes place in the southeast — far away from the land of the Dustbowl, Okies, and the renascent “westward, ho” push into California — it nevertheless scrutinizes the economic hardships of the era, shedding light on environmental catastrophes of a different kind (hurricanes) and lays bare the lives of rural black Americans in uncompromising fashion. To build off of my last post in this series, a survey course emphasizing race and class in the early 20th century could do worse than to pair Toomer’s Cane with Hurston’s novel.