Literary Echoes of the Last Great Depression

More than 6.6 million Americans filed for unemployment this week. Like everything else we’ve experienced recently, it is impossible to express all the sadness and pain wrapped inside that unprecedented statistic. In 1933, at the lowest moment of the Great Depression, unemployment in the United States peaked at 24.9 percent, but economist Miguel Faria-e-Castro thinks we could see an unimaginable 32 percent unemployment rate as the singular disaster of 2020 unfolds.

Unprecedented. Unimaginable. I reach for those words so often these days that the meaning dissolves. No literary map exists for this territory we now inhabit, but I keep returning to the work of writers who survived the economic upheaval of the 1930s. This week, I reread The House on Jefferson Street, a memoir by Horace Gregory, an American poet and author who struggled to support a family during the Great Depression. “We made our way, and by strenuous efforts, paid the rent. ‘Free-lance’ writing, so it seemed, left little time free for anything else,” he wrote, describing a life we can all recognize in our gig-driven 21st century. I could especially relate to his “touch-and-go, up-and-down” lifestyle as a writer with two kids, both of us writing marketing copy alongside book review assignments.

When the stock market crashed in 1929, Gregory counted his dwindling funds—just like millions of families today. “We were never sure of what would happen tomorrow much less the day after next,” Gregory recalled in his memoir. “My own savings were non-existent. Our small balances in the bank were scarcely enough to sustain a checking account.” Like Gregory, I grew up in a middle-class white family in the Midwest—a privilege that provides some protection from the worst effects of economic collapse. Even though I’m very fortunate to have work right now, I feel the tightening pressure described in his book.

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