Sad Men

What Writers Can Learn from the Great Depression

Posts tagged occupywallstreet

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People’s Libraries

A peek at my upcoming book at The Los Angeles Review of Books:


on the return of the thirties.

In the spring of 1935, the famous novelist Maxwell Bodenheim crashed the New York City welfare office and begged for relief after five years of the Great Depression. His career had stalled, and Bodenheim hadn’t earned a dime since his final novels had flopped. He was working on a manuscript called Clear Deep Fusion, but he would never finish it. His visit to the relief office was his last stand before he was edited out of literary history.

The New York Herald Tribune mocked Bodenheim’s ragged demonstration: “he wore high shoes without laces, his shirt was dirty and the rest of his clothes needed cleaning and pressing. He was unshaven, very pale and his hair was mussed.” He brought along five Writers Union activists and a squad of reporters in an effort to inspire other writers to go public with their struggles to survive. One activist waved a sign that read “starvation standards of Home Relief make real ghost writers.” During the thirties, the rate of newspaper closings rose to 48 percent and magazine advertising plunged 30 percent. Publishers Weekly noted book production had been slashed from nearly 211 million to 154 million books during that period: 57 million books evaporated into thin air.

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(Source: lareviewofbooks)

Filed under Occupy Wall Street library occupywallstreet Maxwell Bodenheim

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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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Filed under occupywallstreet occupy Wall Street Trinity Church Great Depression free ebooks

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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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Filed under occupywallstreet occupy Wall Street Orrick Johns free ebooks

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The Emotional Sense of Music & Protest

Over at OccupyWriters, journalist Will Hermes wrote an essay about the bandleader of Neutral Milk Hotel’s brief performance at Occupy Wall Street in October.

I created a Spotify playlist collecting the revolutionary music mentioned in his essay. It perfectly described the indescribable quality of the protest and Mangum’s music: “whatever literal sense is missing from their words, the emotional sense is crystal-clear.”

Those words can describe the novels, dispatches and poetry from the Great Depression as well—there is an indescribable feeling that connects us all.

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Filed under Spotify occupywallstreet occupywriters

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Occupy Wall Street Raided

Occupy Wall Street is currently being raided by the NYPD. You can watch the events live on the livestream station embedded above—20,000 people are watching in the middle of the night.

History reminds us that this is not the end.

The demonstrations of the 1930s were restless and unending, evolving as different groups found overlapping purposes. Authors marched alongside department store workers and poets helped farmers organize. The Occupy movement doesn’t need to focus on a single purpose. It only needs to keep growing.

To do so, the movement will have to be able to draw on the past — and this means literary as well as political history. These radical writers of the thirties — brave, crazy, and turbulent souls — have been mostly exiled from our literary canon. We need their stories now more than ever.

Filed under occupywallstreet ows

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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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Filed under free ebooks Occupy Wall Street library occupywallstreet

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Occupy Wall Street & Self-Publishing

In New York City, the Occupy Wall Street library workers are building the first Occupy Wall Street Poetry Anthology. They published with a simple motto: “Poetry illuminates the soul of Occupy Wall Street.”

Last year, I wrote an essay for The Believer about the Raven Poetry Circle, a scrappy group of poets that sold poems in Washington Square Park during the Great Depression. Just like the OWS library, they self-published The Raven Anthology every month. In times of economic downturn, more writers should self publish community writing projects like these—they produce vital work during these tough times.

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Filed under Occupy Wall Street The Raven Anthology raven poetry circle occupywallstreet

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That’s a 23-second trip through the Occupy Wall Street library in New York City, a bustling collection of writers, readers and activists.

The OWS librarians just reported that a number of extra copies of their homemade Occupy Wall Street Poetry Anthology have gone missing. Yesterday, I talked about the OWS library and the Great Depression on New Hampshire Public Radio. Follow this link to listen.

Filed under Occupy Wall Street Library occupywallstreet raven poetry circle videos

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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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Filed under Edward Newhouse hooverville occupywallstreet free ebooks

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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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Filed under Maxwell Bodenheim free ebooks occupywallstreet

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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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Filed under free ebooks Horace Gregory occupywallstreet

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Who Will Write About the 99%?

I can’t stop reading the steady stream of heartbreaking stories on We Are the 99%, a Tumblr blog celebrating the stories of regular people suffering during our Great Recession.

During the 1930s, the poet Kenneth Fearing (pictured, painted by Alice Neel) channeled the voices of angry, frustrated and sad Americans in electric poems, crossing Walt Whitman and hardboiled pulp fiction. He became one of the bestselling poets during the Great Depression, but we hardly remember his work today.

It makes me wonder—who are the authors writing the stories of the 99% in our time?

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Filed under Poems occupywallstreet

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Why Haven’t We Seen More Protests Like the Great Depression?

The Transport Workers Union have reportedly voted to support the Occupy Wall Street protests. If unions join these demonstrations, this may be the beginning of a much larger mobilization.

Everybody keeps criticizing the Wall Street protestors for their lack of clear goals. I think we should be asking the opposite question: Why haven’t we seen more protests like the Great Depression?

I keep going back to strike stories from New York City during the Great Depression—they serve as a powerful reminder of the epic fight workers staged around America during those dark days.

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Filed under occupywallstreet strike great depression union