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Working Hard

Jewish writers and writing of the (last) Depression

Joshua Cohen
January 22, 2009

Just as the octogenarian survivors of the Great Depression are about to go extinct, we are beginning to suffer, in the winter of 2008-2009, another catastrophe—with the collapse of our most prominent investment banks, the failure of giant insurers, and the nationalization of so many related businesses. We meet these challenges today with an undifferentiated liberalism, so much less complex than the political oppositions that gave energy to even the bleakest years of the “last” 1930s—a decade of unremitting poverty, yet superrich imagination, especially in the literature of Jewish America.

As we embark on this decline, with newspapers folding, and the book industry itself threatening collapse, it is revealing to read the writers of this generation—Henry Roth, Daniel Fuchs, Michael Gold, Albert Halper, Tess Slesinger, and others—in order to understand how they survived, not only financially, but also spiritually. Because they came of age in Depression, much of their work was published poorly, then quickly forgotten by an accelerated wartime economy just a decade down the breadline. But if Jewish American literature has any true founding fathers (and mothers), these are they—writers who first established its concerns with justice and ethnic censure in public language.

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The Great Depression coincided with the settling of the final great wave of Jewish immigration in the 20th century. Boats all but stopped steaming into Ellis Island with the passage of the 1924 Immigration Act, which imposed a quota on foreign arrivals. When the stock market crashed five years later, the island was being used as a prison and mustering station for the deportation of immigrant thieves, murderers, and Anarchists. By the time the law had taken effect, however, most Jews in America were already citizens, paying taxes, building cities. As the Depression encroached, these European and Russian speakers of Yiddish were raising the first generation of American Jews to speak English natively, and the first generation of American Jewish writers to write naturally in English, too. The Depression marked the profoundest attempt by Americans of any origin to address the claims of the Old World, as Jewish writers of criticism and fiction shaped accounts of their pre-histories, defining the margins of inheritance, while codifying the essential success of immigrant acculturation.

Depression’s newest Americans also discovered democracy, though the zeal of enfranchisement, abetted by financial distress, often led them to extremes—to the foremost forms of Marxism, Socialism, and Communism; Stalinism; Trotskyism; the politics of Norman M. Thomas; and the Labor politics of unions, representing the social welfare interests of workers in various trades. To get a clearer snapshot of the milieu, imagine these movements surrounded by loose, citybound circles of young intellectuals, who espoused a cafeteria Marxism more concerned with the artisanal quality of talk than with any quantity of action. However, the very fact that there was never any real prospect for Marxist revolution in America might have given Depression’s thinkers and writers the freedom to apply the Left’s radicalism directly to themselves—their personalities.

In his autobiography, A Margin of Hope, Irving Howe, born in the East Bronx in 1920, evoked the intense, immersive political atmosphere of the 1930s, particularly in New York—which had the most jobs in a country of no jobs, yet which also suffered the worst housing shortages, and hunger—and particularly centered around Manhattan’s City College, where ferocious arguments were waged between students who were exhaustively reading, and exhaustedly (if they were lucky) working their way through school: “We took positions on almost everything, for positions testified to the fruitfulness of theory. Theory marked our superiority in ‘vulgar empiricist’ politics, compensated for our helplessness, told us that some day this helplessness would be dialectically transformed into power. We took positions on the New Deal, the class nature of Stalinist society, strategies for Indian liberation, the ‘four-class’ bloc proposed by the Chinese Communists, tactics for the French Left, the need for a labor party for the United States.”

Alfred Kazin, born in Brownsville, Brooklyn, in 1915, and Howe’s fellow City College alum, was another critic who made his name writing for “the little magazines” that proliferated in the aftermath of Depression, including Commentary, Dissent, and Partisan Review, which themselves grew out of miniscule, shoestrung Jewish journals of the 1930s like Jewish Frontier, and Menorah Journal. Starting Out in the Thirties, Kazin’s least-read memoir (others are New York Jew, and his classicA Walker in the City), intimates that Depression aspirations to political change began personally, as a poetics of the soul. Injustice, to be recognized as such, required empathy, or compassion, while utopian dreams required both imagination, and the youthful—or the youthful culture’s—ability to self-re-invent: “What young writers of the 1930s wanted was to prove the literary value of our experience, to recognize the possibility of art in our own lives, to feel that we had moved the streets, the stockyards, the hiring halls into literature—to show that our radical strength could carry on the experimental impulse of modern literature.”

As the Spanish Civil War smoldered (1936-1939), and the Stalinist purges and show trials of often-Jewish Trotskyites continued unabated, Kazin remembered: “Not even the hack jobs I did for a living now seemed unworthy, for the issue raised in a book review, a street scene studied for an article, always fitted into my sense of the destiny and inclusiveness of history. So my parent’s poverty had a mystique for me, and our loneliness a definite heroism—we were usually unhappy and always on each other’s necks, but I saw us all moving forward on the sweep of great events. I believed that everyone was engulfed in politics, absorbed in issues that were the noble part of themselves.”

This sort of hyperbolic mimesis is typical of the period: Just as things get externally worse, we celebrate the internal best, “the noble part.” Such romantic reinventions of poverty into heroism, of individual misfortune transformed to philosophical iniquity and so, for political cause, are marks of a new people—or of a saved race thinking through a new language of the self. It was this language, that of Howe, Kazin, and Lionel Trilling, Philip Rahv, Clement Greenberg, Harold Rosenberg, Paul Goodman, and others whose Jewishness was strictly associative (such as Dwight MacDonald, and Mary McCarthy), that became the lingua franca of America’s first truly democratic decade—a decade that matched ambition with possibility, and responded to privation with an amalgam of innocent gusto, and wiseass “sensibility.”

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To be sure, Saul Bellow, writing in 1953, could not have had his Augie March stand at Liberty’s golden door, declaring himself “an American, Chicago-born”—“first to knock, first admitted”—without Depression’s actual Augies having thanklessly laid the groundwork. American Jewish writers of the 1930s engineered a literature that, while unread today, defined concerns for the next generation, setting out the radical agenda decades before Bellow and Philip Roth would reap the spoils of a postwar economy of readers with more money, and more leisure-time: Michael Gold (1893-1967), editor of The New Masses and a columnist for The Daily Worker, turned the Lower East Side into a political hothouse, a raucous forum for Downtown grievances against an Uptown ruling class (his novel Jews Without Moneyis an overwritten, overheated, slummy masterpiece); Albert Halper (1904-1984) was less ideological than his frequent antagonist Gold, and more concerned with the characters of workers than with their aspirations toward political power (his novels include Union Square, and it is telling that his Depression memoir is wistfully entitled Goodbye Union Square); Tess Slesinger (1905-1945) was an incisive stylist, though perhaps too cynical for affiliation of any kind (her novel, The Unpossessed, is a scathing treatment of the nativity of the non-group Irving Howe later called “The New York Intellectuals”).

It was an immigrant, though, who wrote the consummate work of growing up on the East Side—Henry Roth, born to Yiddish in Galicia. Called Call it Sleep, Roth’s book virtually disappeared upon publication in 1934, though its 1964 rerelease as a “mass-market paperback”—a Depression innovation, ever since an institution in American publishing—revitalized interest among readers for whom the ghetto was only an ancestral rumor. The 1964 review that brought attention to the book came from Howe—not in the pages of a leftist journal or undercirculated literary quarterly, but on the front page of The New York Times Book Review.

The writers of little magazines become the writers of big magazines; while the political radicals, if they live to compromise with prosperity, become the political conservatives; the failed books of yesterday are sure to be the classics of tomorrow: these are stories tinged with sadness, with an autochthonous American sadness; stories that, in their prescribed conventionalities, function as jokes, and, as jokes, might be the closest this country comes to a native, Jewish-like dark humor. Here, in large liberal America, intellectuals, to say nothing of writers, have improved on Protestantism’s libertarian streak, and are now more grossly atomized than ever, which condition they think beneficial, if not to themselves then to their governance—capitalism requiring competition, and competition requiring separation, their heads left apart and alone to find out “the fittest.”

But to survive in any way during Depression, American writers had to join something—whether the WPA, the Communist Party, or even the parties of eastern scribblers who went west in the 1930s to work for a Hollywood that had recently discovered sound, and needed writers to write dialogue for it (just a handful of years later, everyone, literary or not, joined the war effort, joining up for a just war being the ultimate belonging). Among those ambivalent fortunates who went to California to write for film was Daniel Fuchs. Author of three brilliant neglected books of Jewish Brooklyn, Fuchs left the east for Lala Land, and its guaranteed salary, in 1937. His subsequent writing serves as a window into how necessity inspires life. From Fuchs’ diary: “For ten days I have been sitting around in my two-room office waiting for some producer on the lot to call me up and put me to work on a script. Every morning I walk the distance from my apartment on Orchid Avenue and appear at the studio promptly at nine. The other writers pass my window an hour or so later, see me ready for work in my shirtsleeves and suspenders, and yell jovially ‘Scab!’ But I don’t want to miss that phone call.”

That is the Depression mentality in a sentence, qualified with Judaic neuroses. Let it be that generation’s epitaph, and a millenarian motto: “But I don’t want to miss that phone call.”

Joshua Cohen was born in 1980 in Atlantic City. He has written novels (Book of Numbers), short fiction (Four New Messages), and nonfiction for The New York Times, Harper’s Magazine, London Review of Books, The Forward, n+1, and others. He is the recipient of the 2022 Pulitzer Prize in fiction, for The Netanyahus: An Account of a Minor and Ultimately Even Negligible Episode in the History of a Very Famous Family. He lives in New York City.