Trapped inside Amazon’s low price prison, publishers channeled MacGyver and cobbled together a temporary fix out of duct tape, a Swiss Army knife and Apple’s brand new iPad.
To everyone’s surprise this ramshackle solution survived two years and changed the eBook landscape forever.
This wasn’t the first time the industry needed a quick and dirty price fix. During the Great Depression, publishers faced off against another seemingly invincible retail juggernaut: Macy’s Department Stores.
New York Newspaper Guild members recently held that quiet protest outside of the Page One meeting at the New York Times. The Great Recession and digital shift have rocked employees, and the Guild members are still fighting for a new contract.
Newspaper protests weren’t always so quiet.
While researching my book, I discovered Edward Newhouse’s bombastic coverage The Newark Ledger newspaper strike. The action began in November 1934 when 45 reporters and editors walked out of the office. The union hired a professional sound truck, a van cruising up and down the streets of Newark, blasting the reporters’ demands.
To the wider intellectual and literary world, he was the voice of the despair and pessimism they were all feeling in 1938, as the Depression dragged on and they saw the rising tide of Nazism and Fascism on one hand, while the Soviet Union fell into its own brand of genocidal barbarism on the other, and a cataclysmic war loomed. No one was more of a pessimist than Delmore Schwartz. Even the high praise he was receiving from all quarters — from T. S. Eliot, William Carlos Williams, Ezra Pound, Vladimir Nabokov — depressed him; he worried that it was premature and he’d flame out early. Even his marriage to Gertrude Buckman, whom he’d pursued and with whom he’d argued for a few years, into which they both entered with reluctant foreboding, was instantly disappointing to them both. Only when surrounded by fellow writers whom he liked and respected, drinking too much, did he momentarily brighten up.
Check it out: “Many of the most popular novels offered an escape from the worries of the time such as the 1934 bestseller Anthony Adverse, which depicts a globetrotting adventurer, or the feel good story of Goodbye, Mr. Chips in which boarding school teacher Mr. Chipping overcomes shyness and his initial inability to connect with his students to become an inspiring educator … many of these novels are out-of-print and largely forgotten.”
In the early 20th Century, Napoleon Hill interviewed thousands of successful people. In 1937, he distilled their stories into Think and Grow Rich—a handbook for getting wealthy as the country struggled to emerge from the Great Depression. 70 million copies of the book have been sold since the 1930s.
Blogger Mike Cane has beenwriting about Hill, and uncovered that vintage book ad at the Library of Congress through the Duke University Rare Book, Manuscript, and Special Collections Library.
The poet and novelist Vincent McHugh joined the New York City Federal Writers Project as a technical editor in November 1936. The 32-year-old novelist only drank milkshakes, trying to settle some mysterious stomach aliment.
McHugh wrote the magnificent introduction to New York Panorama, “The Metropolis and Her Children.” I’ve reprinted the whole essay below—an ambitious trip through the history, culture, technology and statistics of 1930s New York City. That Depression-era photograph of a pretzel vendor was included in the book as well.
In his most sweeping passage, McHugh mentioned the works of Walt Whitman, Herman Melville and many other epochal writers, but he ended with a perfect note, putting the city’s workers straight into the fabric of our literary history, treating workers not as subjects or metaphors, but as writers, the men and women writing the city, writing a way out of the Great Depression.
“[Martin Amis] is almost as enthusiastic about PacMan [as he is about Space Invaders], although you get the sense that he sees it (in contrast to Space Invaders) as a fundamentally unserious endeavor. “Those cute little PacMen with their special nicknames, that dinky signature tune, the dot-munching Lemon that goes whackawhackawhackawhacka: the machine has an air of childish whimsicality.” His advice is to concentrate stolidly on the central business of dot-munching, and not to get distracted by the shallow glamor of the fruits: “Do I take risks in order to gobble up the fruit symbol in the middle of the screen? I do not, and neither should you. Like the fat and harmless saucer in Missile Command (q.v.), the fruit symbol is there simply to tempt you into hubristic sorties. Bag it.””
The Plow That Broke the Plains hit theaters around the country in 1936. The Resettlement Administration commissioned the director Pare Lorentz to shoot a film about the Dust Bowl storms that destroyed miles of farmland in the Great Plains.
The Encyclopedia of the Great Plains explained: “[It] was shown in independent theaters, school auditoriums, and other public meeting places throughout the country. It was seen by 10 million people in 1937 alone and would become one of the most widely viewed films in American history.”
The film inspired a number of Great Depression-era works, including Muriel Rukeyser’s documentary poem, “Book of the Dead.” You can read more about her life and work in my upcoming book.
This staggering collection of historical images is the sort of thing that, if it appeared on a website, you’d (well, I’d) get all excited about and bookmark and never really go back to digest properly. It has a different feeling when you hold it in your hands… Some of the most remarkable images are actually from Bibles other than the King James. For instance, the Geneva Bible, “the Elizabethans’ favourite for private reading,” and “the Bible that Shakespeare would have known,” purports to show “the geographical location of the Garden of Eden (near Baghdad).” You can see that map above. And here, from the 1611 King James Bible, is an engraving of Adam and (my hero) Eve, and their early “family tree.” God, of course, is right at the top.
The young novelist Richard Wright joined the Federal Writers Project in 1937, working on New York Panorama, a book of essays about the city. Wright assumed control of the project’s work about Harlem. He took over for the scholar and poet, Claude McKay—another writer who found salvation in the Writers Project. Their work still stands in the “Portrait of Harlem” essay.
My favorite passage outlined long-forgotten dance-steps from 1930s Harlem:
Harlem’s boast that it is an area where new dance steps are created is indisputable. Just who initiated the “truck” is not known. Cora La Redd of the Cotton Club, “Rubber Legs” Williams, Chuck Robinson, and Bilo and Ashes have all put forward their individual claims. It is interesting to note that there are many kinds of “trucking,” the “picket’s truck,” the “politician’s truck,” the “Park Avenue truck,” the “Mae West truck,” and the “Hitler truck.” Among other contemporary Harlem dances is the “shim-sham,” a time-step featuring the “break” with a momentary pause; and the “razzle-dazzle,” which involves a rhythmic clapping of hands and a rolling of hips. The riotous “Lindy Hop” is a flying dance done by couples in which a girl is thrown away in the midst of a lightning two-step, then rudely snatched back to be subjected to a series of twists, jerks, dips and scrambles. All of these and many more can be seen in Harlem’s dance halls, at house parties, on beaches, and in the streets in summer to the tune of WPA Music Project bands.
lareviewofbooks: Art Spiegelman’s MetaMaus includes “an astonishing panoply of rejection letters — some curt, others thoughtful, others embarrassingly wrongheaded — from what seems like every major publishing house in New York City”
on Art Spiegelman’s ghosts.
Anja and Vladek for Art’s bar mitzvah album, 1961
Art Spiegelman MetaMaus: A Look Inside a Modern Classic, Maus Pantheon, October 2011. 300 pp.
In the 1991 second volume of his classic graphic novel Maus, published five years after the first, Art Spiegelman briefly — and dramatically — drops the conceit for which his book is so famous. For seven pages, instead of depicting himself as a humanoid mouse, he draws himself as a human being wearing a mouse mask. When we first meet this new version of Art, he is sitting at his drafting table, balanced atop a pile of dead, emaciated humanoid-mouse bodies, reflecting on the success of the first volume of Maus. In the panels that follow, journalists ask an exasperated Art what Maus means. Merchandisers approach him offering lucrative opportunities to turn his comic book about his father Vladek’s experience surviving a Nazi concentration camp into what Spiegelman has elsewhere called “Holokitsch”: grossly sentimental and commercial appropriations of survivor stories. In response to the trauma of success, Art shrinks down to a child-sized form. “I want … ABSOLUTION,” he whines. “No … No … I want … I want … my MOMMY!” Art visits his therapist, Pavel — another Holocaust survivor, whose own mouse mask bears an eerie resemblance to Vladek’s mouse face (talk about transference!) — and slowly returns to adult size. But not for long.
In 1939, the Federal Writers Project published New York City Guide: A Comprehensive Guide to the Five Boroughs of the Metropolis: Manhattan, Brooklyn, the Bronx, Queens, and Richmond. It was part of a national government-funded bailout for writers that lasted from 1935 until early 1943.
The NYC edition includes amazing imagery from the Great Depression, like that gloomy picture of Union Square. I’ll share my favorite passages in coming months, but here’s a section from the introduction. According to David A. Taylor, the great novelist John Cheever wrote this passage.
Download a free copy of the FWP New York City Guideat this link.