American Literature and the Great Depression When Essay

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American Literature and the Great Depression

When one considers how the Great Depression affected American Literature, John Steinbeck tends to stick out, if only because his fiction generally discusses the same themes and anxieties that has come to define the Great Depression in the public consciousness. Indeed, Steinbeck's Grapes Of Wrath, a realist novel which follows the Joad family as they travel west after they losing their farm to the Dust Bowl, is frequently considered the quintessential encapsulation of the thematic and stylistic effects the Great Depression had on American Literature. Somewhat less considered, though no less crucial to understanding the effects of the Great Depression on American Literature, is the influence the Great Depression had on the careers of black writers, and particularly those who were a part of the Federal Writer's Project, the New Deal program support writers during the Depression. By considering Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath alongside Zora Neale Hurston's Mules and Men and Richard Wright's Native Son, one is able to better appreciate how the legacy of the Great Depression in American Literature is not solely one of darkness, despair, and the death of the American Dream, as seen in Steinbeck's work, but also, through the work of authors like Hurston and Wright, looks forward toward the potential for a world better that the world of the Depression or even what came before.

Like Zora Neale Hurston and Richard Wright, John Steinbeck participated in the Federal Writer's Project, and this is part of what gave him the freedom and support necessary to complete The Grapes of Wrath, a novel which follows Tom Joad and his family as they make their way West following the Dust Bowl, gradually realizing that opportunity promised them by optimistic handbills is nothing more than an illusion (Steinbeck 147). The choice to set the novel here, and the subsequent success it found in publication and adaptation into film, demonstrates the obvious and substantial thematic and popular effect the Great Depression had on American Literature, but Steinbeck's work also represents a particular stylistic movement, that, while not necessarily caused by the Great Depression, nevertheless played an important role in the literary response to it. In short, The Grapes of Wrath is a realist novel, and as such with a tradition spanning back to at least the end of the nineteenth century that sought to render the world in practically objective, holistic terms. In some ways, the Great Depression almost demands a realist literary response, because the sheer scale of the trauma demands that one consider it in realist terms lest it become overwhelming. As a result, one may view Steinbeck's particular stylistic choices, such as long, detailed descriptions of scenery coupled with the realistic psychology of hi characters, as being informed by the Great Depression, because Steinbeck is essentially using the preexisting literary tools that seems most appropriate when reacting and processing the national trauma of the Great Depression.

As the previous paragraph suggests, John Steinbeck is frequently considered one of the most important authors of the Great Depression for good reason. His work is explicitly informed by the Depression through its subject matter, and it is implicitly informed by the Depression through its particular stylistic approach. However, John Steinbeck's work does not fully account for the literary response to the Great Depression, because even as he was documenting some of the social causes and effects of the Depression, other writers were taking advantage of the state of flux the country found itself in order to explore themes and subject matter previously unheard of in American literature (Ahern & Sandmann 277-278). Considering two of these authors will help to demonstrate how the effects of the Great Depression on American Literature are far more diverse…

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