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The Day of the Locust, Version 2009
"In December of 2008, the National Bureau of Economic Research - the department responsible for categorizing our economic condition - finally acknowledged what most of Americans had known for some time: that the U.S. is officially in a deep and painful recession. It should be noted that no matter how bad things get NEBR refuses to use the term 'depression.'" (Economy in Crisis) This essay aims to present some similarities between our modern day world and the world that was depicted in the bestselling novel, "The Day of the Locust" by Nathanael West. As more of America begins to feel the pinch of a modern day Great Depression, we can see many similarities about the today's struggle with money, power, love, faith, race, violence, and life in general. One might say that history has again repeated itself and that there may simply be a mirror image of the novel at play. The essay will try to present relevant examples of how today's society could be compared to descriptions from the novel. Consider this work to be: The Day of the Locust, Version 2009.
What was the Great Depression?
According to the Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, the United States suffered through the Great Depression which was a 'severe economic crisis supposedly precipitated by the United States stock-market crash of 1929.' The United States had of course gone though this type of thing before, "the Great Depression was unprecedented in its length and in the wholesale poverty and tragedy it inflicted on society. Economists have disagreed over its causes, but certain causative factors are generally accepted." (Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia) Capitalism has throughout its history thrown society for roller coaster type loops because of the boom and bust outcomes of the system or ideal. In the 1920's just like today, there was an economic and social prosperity that was fueling the potential for collapse. Based on the Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 'the 1920s was unevenly distributed among the various parts of the American economy -- farmers and unskilled workers were notably excluded -- with the result that the nation's productive capacity was greater than its capacity to consume. In addition, the tariff and war-debt policies of the Republican administrations of the 1920s had cut down the foreign market for American goods.'
The United States at the time made many political decisions that could be considered to 'easy-money policies' which overly extended its credit so speculative investors went on a buying spree. When the market corrected itself, there were far too many losers and the nation took the brunt of the financial hit. "The American depression produced severe effects abroad, especially in Europe, where many countries had not fully recovered from the aftermath of World War I; in Germany, the economic disaster and resulting social dislocation contributed to the rise of Adolf Hitler. In the United States, at the depth (1932 -- 33) of the depression, there were 16 million unemployed -- about one third of the available labor force. The gross national product declined from the 1929 figure of $103,828,000,000 to $55,760,000,000 in 1933." (Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia)
One novel of the many that were written about the time may have truly caught an insightful glimpse of the devastating effects of the Great Depression on the United States and more importantly, the average man. Nathanael West wrote "The Day Of the Locust" just after the Great Depression and it was published in 1939. The great American novelist was born in 1903 and died in 1940 so he had firsthand knowledge of the events of which he wrote. According to the Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, West's real name was Nathan Weinstein and he was born in New York and attended and graduated from Brown University in 1924. "An innovative, highly original author, West revealed the sterility and grotesqueness underlying the American dream; his vision has profoundly influenced subsequent writers. After spending two years in Paris, he worked as a hotel manager in New York." (Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia) The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia showed that 'His first novel, The Dream Life of Balso Snell (1931), is a garish satire that foreshadowed the work to follow, Miss Lonelyhearts (1933) his most successful novel, relates the painful life of a columnist for the lovelorn whose misguided priestliness leads him to a tragic and ironic involvement with his suffering correspondents.'
Weinstein was an ambitious writer who kept busy by editing and writing for multiple magazines. He relocated to Hollywood in 1935 and became a scriptwriter. "A Cool Million (1934) was West's bitter indictment of a materialistic world. His last novel, The Day of the Locust (1939), presents a gallery of horrifying misfits living in a vacuous, surreal Hollywood atmosphere. West was never a commercial success in his own time, but his popularity rose after his premature death at 37 in an automobile accident. The Complete Works of Nathanael West was published in 1957." (Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia)
How is the Great Depression illustrated in the novel "The Day of the Locust"?
"In 'The Day of the Locust,' West is on more solid ground. He is at his best here (and of course, in Miss Lonelyhearts) because he refrains from silly propaganda and limits his attention to the closely knit group." (Malin, p84) The Day of the Locust is a story about a young man, Tod Hackett. Hackett saw himself as the artsy kind of type who enjoys painting but is actually a Hollywood costume designer that also has to do background painting. The young man fell in love with an aspiring actress named Faye Greener. Through his work and connections, he becomes acquainted with those on the fringe of stardom and other Hollywood hangers-on like a cowboy who does extra work, a Mexican friend involved in cock fighting and a hapless businessman that Faye manipulates name Homer.
West accurately described despair that people feel when things are really bad. The Great Depression and in modern times, home being taken away from people who have no alternative but to give up and live on the streets or in tent cities are those who suffer from 'anguish is basic and permanent.' "His sadness turned to anguish before he knew it and became sour. He was miserable again. He began to cry. Only those who still have hope can benefit from tears. When they finish, they fell better. But to those without hope, like Homer, whose anguish is basic and permanent, no good comes of crying." (West, p. 8)
West's title has the word locust in it and seems like a strange use of the word until one thinks of the destruction locusts can do. It is easy to suddenly picture the Dust Bowl atmosphere of the depression era and its devastating effects on the nation's agricultural industry. The book paints a picture of destruction like an Old Testament story where the locusts destroyed the Pharos's fields in Egypt. The many unemployed and homeless today would certainly relate to that 'dust bowl' feeling of despair. "Ben Bernanke, the world's foremost expert on the Great Depression, should have seen this coming. He, like the rest of those in government, was blinded by the money available to people in his position and balked at the notion of regulating trade." (Economy In Crisis)
The New Great Depression
Life during The Great Depression was very difficult to say the least. But ask the many Americans who are now unemployed with no potential work in sight and we can then understand what occurred in 1929. The Depression for example caused a large number of farmers to lose their farms and therefore their livelihood. The years of erosion and the serous drought created a horrible "Dust Bowl" in the American Midwest and overtime no crops could grow. "Thousands of these farmers and other unemployed workers traveled to California to find work. Many ended up living as homeless "hobos" or in shantytowns called "Hoovervilles," named after then-President Herbert Hoover." (Amadeo)
There are many similarities between the events of today and the Great Depression of 1929. The stock market was instrumental in both events. The Great Depression lasted for 10 years and hopefully our current economic crisis will not last that long. Today's issues started in a very similar manner as those of 1929. "Its kickoff in the U.S. economy was 'Black Thursday,' October 24, 1929, when 12.9 million shares of stock were sold in one day, triple the normal amount. Share prices fell 15-20%, causing a stock market crash." (Amadeo)
Another area of similarities is the high levels of unemployment. According to Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, unemployment reached a high of 25% during the Great Depression. "By 1933, the height of the Depression, unemployment had risen from 3% to 25% of the nation's workforce. Wages for those who still had jobs fell 42%. GDP was cut in half, from $103 to $55 billion. This was partly because of deflation, where prices fell 10% per year. By 1933, world trade plummeted 65% as measured in…[continue]
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