Sad Men

What Writers Can Learn from the Great Depression

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Zora Neale Hurston Sings the Blues

During the Great Depression, the novelist Zora Neale Hurston traveled from Harlem to Florida to record folk songs for the Federal Writers Project’s Florida Folklife archive.

She left behind 18 amazing recordings, telling the story of individual folk songs and singing many of the tunes herself. I’ve linked to all the recordings below…

Follow this MP3 link to listen to her sing “Halimuhfack.” Here’s more about the recording: “A ‘jook’ song, learned on the East coast of Florida. After the song, Zora Neale Hurston describes how she collects and learns songs (including those she has published).”

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Vincent McHugh & the Metropolis

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.

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Richard Wright & Forgotten Harlem

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.

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John Cheever Introduces the New York City Guide

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 Guide at this link.

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Maxwell Bodenheim Writes Greenwich Village

In the mid-1930s, Maxwell Bodenheim served a brief stint on the Federal Writers Project, composing a magnificent essay about Greenwich Village before tumbling into obscurity.

I’ve reprinted the whole essay below, but here’s the opening: “A nation, coming into its own artistically after an era of ruthless industrial expansion, of materialism and strait-laced conventionality, seized upon Greenwich Village as a symbol of revolt in the ferment of postwar years. The ‘Village’ was the center of the American Renaissance or of artiness, of political progress or of long-haired radical men and short-haired radical women, of sex freedom or of sex license dependent upon the point of view.”

You can download a free copy of the New York City Guide to read more and see more etchings from the 1930s.

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Trinity Church & Occupy Wall Street

Over the weekend, Occupy Wall Street activists temporarily occupied Juan Pablo Duarte Square in New York City. They chanted “We are unstoppable, another world is possible” and  “All day, all week, Occupy Wall Street!” as they climbed homemade ladders to scale the chain link fence around Trinity Church’s property.

During the Great Depression, the Federal Writers Project team used the church’s historic reputation to make a point about tenant’s rights.

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Lords of Joy

In his 1917 book, Asphalt: And Other Poems, the poet Orrick Johns wrote a long ode to the immigrant workers on Second Avenue. I’ve reprinted the whole poem below…

His poem wondered if his generation could “rouse the sleeping lords of joy,” rejecting years of war, class division and inequality. In the spirit of Occupy Wall Street, he imagined the 99% working together: “You, having brothers in all lands, / Shall teach to all lands brotherhood ; / And Labour, welding brain to hands. / Shall win the mighty to the good.” 

Many years later, Johns would become a supervisor on the Federal Writers Project, helping his generation of writers survive the Great Depression. You can download a free digital copy of Asphalt: And Other Poems at the Internet Archive.

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Digital People’s Libraries

This week the Occupy Wall Street library encouraged readers to set up People’s Libraries around the country: “if you’d like to open a branch of the People’s Library in your New York neighborhood, find a [Privately Owned Public Space], bring down some books and meet your neighbors. It all starts with a few books in a box.”

Since I spend so much time online, I decided to create a list of books I would share with my digital neighborhood. Follow these links to download free eBook copies. I’m making a list of People’s Libraries online—what digital books will you share? 

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'Mankind Cannot Live Without that Feeling of Cooperation for Self-Defense'

Last night, Ohio voters repealed a law that would have restricted workers’ collective bargaining rights and stopped them from striking.

During an epic trip in 1934, the poet Orrick Johns visited strikes across the country. He described how this new sense of solidarity was changing lives in the Great Depression—a good quote to remember today.

Johns wrote: “[I]n the solidarity which unites even a small band of loyal and serious people, threatened by violence, there is great strength. Unlearned then that the more helpless half of mankind is, after all, of a collective habit, and cannot live without that feeling of cooperation for self-defense.”

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Occupy Oakland Raided by Police

Police raided Occupy Oakland yesterday and dispersed another protest with teargas. During the Great Depression, other peaceful movements received similarly harsh treatment from the police—can we learn anything from those protests?

Here’s more from Occupy Oakland: “This morning at 5am over 500 police in riot gear from cities all over central California brutally attacked the Occupy Oakland encampment at 14th & Broadway. The police attacked the peaceful protest with flash grenades, tear gas, and rubber bullets after moving in with armored vehicles. Apparently the media was not allowed in to document this repression, and the police established barricades as far apart as 11th and 17th. Over 70 people were arrested and the camp gear was destroyed and/or stolen by the riot police.”

During the Great Depression, New York City officials closed scores of “Hoovervilles" around the city, clearing collections of tents and shacks built by the homeless. Novelist Edward Newhouse described the eviction of a Central Park Hooverville (pictured, via) in his novel, You Can’t Sleep Here.

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How Maxwell Bodenheim Forced America to Pay Attention to Struggling Writers in 1935

The Writers Guild of America East joined a solidarity march with the Occupy New York protestors this month, reminding me of one struggling author who turned his poverty into a very public symbol of the plight of writers during the Great Depression.

In March 1935, Maxwell Bodenheim crashed the New York City welfare office to beg for relief, making national headlines for writers in the process.

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Writers, Parenthood & the Great Depression

This week Parents for Occupy Wall Street announced a Family Sleepover event on October 14-15th, bringing children of all ages to the protest site in New York City.

Here’s more from the site: “With our children’s best interests in mind we join together peacefully to support the Occupy Wall Street movement across the US on our children’s behalf. We’re speaking for the 99% that can’t speak up for themselves.”

The movement made me think about Horace Gregory, a New York City poet and biographer who struggled to support his children throughout the Great Depression. In his memoir, he wrote about feeding his family during the darkest days of the economic collapse.

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How to Talk Like a Depression-Era Jazz Musician

In 1938, the Federal Writers Project published New York Panorama, a sweeping and surreal glimpse at New York City during the Great Depression (including “Broadway Playground,” the photograph embedded above).

The book featured a long section about language in New York—exploring slang from jazz musicians around the city and defining words like “Dracula,” “long underwear boys,” “gutbucket” and “G-flat” for all us squares.

I’ve reprinted the section below, putting all the amazing slang in bold. You can also download a free eBook copy of the book.

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