As the Depression hit after the crash of October 1929, Edmund Wilson felt the ground under his feet give way. During the 1920s, he had made his name as a leading literary critic, a cheerleader for ambitious new writing who had helped bring the difficult Modernists of Europe to an American audience.
With the collapse of the Roaring Twenties, however, Wilson, like many literary writers, began to feel that perhaps he had been missing the real story all along. How could writers in good conscience devote themselves to literary experiments when millions of people were destitute and the U.S. seemed on the verge of collapse?
In October 1930, Wilson set out on a tour of the suffering country as a reporter for the New Republic. The articles he produced over the next year were gathered in a book called “The American Jitters,” which remains one of the best snapshots of America at its most desperate moment. (Its contents were reprinted later in Wilson’s expanded collection “The American Earthquake.”)
More than a work of reportage, “The American Jitters” is, as its title suggests, a document of a mood -- the combination of terror and excitement that occurs when a nation hits bottom and revolutionary change seems inevitable.
Wilson shows us unforgettably just what the Depression meant in the lives of Americans. It meant suicide -- one chapter of the book, “A Bad Day in Brooklyn,” describes three people who attempted suicide on the same day, all because they were desperate and out of work. And it meant mass violence -- Wilson describes a fight between Communist demonstrators and police in New York City, and police shooting down striking miners in West Virginia.
Reading Wilson today, it is remarkable both how much and how little has changed. When he was writing -- two years before the election of President Franklin Roosevelt and the beginning of the New Deal -- the welfare state did not yet exist. President Herbert Hoover had none of the tools that enabled Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama to avert a depression after the financial crisis of 2008: There was not only no Troubled Asset Relief Program, but also no Federal Deposit Insurance Corp., no unemployment insurance, no Social Security, no Medicare and no deficit spending.
Yet despite all the differences between the economy of 2013 and the economy of 1930, it is remarkable how similar the language of American capitalism remains. Wilson starts the book, for example, with a sketch of Dwight Morrow, the Republican candidate for the U.S. Senate in New Jersey’s 1930 election. Wilson has a certain amount of respect for Morrow -- he is “a sound old-fashioned American” who has “made his way to millions by the traditional American virtues of industry, shrewdness and thrift.”
Which makes it all the more frightening that Morrow seems utterly unequipped to cope with the issues raised by the Depression. In the face of 25 percent unemployment, bread lines and Hoovervilles, he can only offer cliches about hard work and how adversity toughens the character: “There is something about too much prosperity that ruins the fiber of the people,” the candidate says. Morrow’s praise of job-creating businessmen precisely echoes the language used by some conservatives today; he would have appreciated a slogan from the 2012 campaign -- “We did build that.” Yet such phrases ring hollow when jobs have vanished. To Wilson, Morrow seems like a puppet ventriloquizing “the voice of American capitalism,” and he reveals that capitalism has nothing to say.
Wilson dramatizes this helplessness in a series of well-reported vignettes from around the U.S. In New York, a group of depositors wiped out by a bank failure comes to City Hall to try to get help -- at least, to keep from being evicted from their homes. But the mayor refuses to see them, and his second-in-command passes the buck to Albany: “The whole thing is up to the state.”
In West Virginia coal country, Wilson writes, miners never see the mine executives who “merely send out orders from Pittsburgh or Chicago or Cleveland that wages have got to be cut, and they leave the rest to the superintendent.” Again in Lawrence, Massachusetts, destitute textile workers “forget that the people who run the mills have authentic faces, too -- from here you cannot see their faces any more than they can see the faces here.”
This sense that no one is responsible, that all power has disappeared into a faceless system made up of banks and corporations and shareholders, is a running theme of “The American Jitters” -- and another point at which Wilson’s Depression echoes our own time. Globalization, for all the benefits it brings to the world economy, tends to disperse decision-making power. The Occupy Wall Street protests were so popular in part because they seemed to give the inchoate feeling of popular anger a specific location and a nameable target.
When government is helpless and business unaccountable -- and even the American Federation of Labor, in Wilson’s telling, is a corrupt and useless organization -- people will listen to anyone who seems to know how power works and how it can be used. In 1930, this meant, above all, the Communist Party. Throughout “The American Jitters,” Wilson contrasts the hollow impotence of the Establishment with the dynamism and certainty of the Communists. When William Z. Foster, head of the American Communist Party, is called before a congressional committee, Wilson portrays the congressmen as ignorant and smug, the Communist as tough and relentless.
Wilson is by no means uncritical of the Communist Party. In his chapter on the infamous Scottsboro Boys case, in which nine black teenagers were unfairly convicted of rape, he notes that the accused’s Communist lawyer was more interested in making propaganda than freeing the defendants. But in his frustration with the inertia that seems to be suffocating America, Wilson, like so many intellectuals of his time, convinced himself that Communism was the key to a better future.
During a visit to the American Southwest, Wilson compares the Americans of 1930 to ancient cave-dwelling Indians, urging them “to come up out of the separate holes in which they had been living and to combine in an organized society: better ventilated, more sociable, safer.”
Soon after Wilson wrote, American society would become more collectivist -- not under the Communists but under Roosevelt’s New Deal. Today, it is easy to call for rolling back the welfare state, when it is so well established. But “The American Jitters” suggests that it was precisely the lack of a welfare state that made the Depression so savage. The appearance of government helplessness gave rise to revolutionary sentiment. A system of government that doesn’t bend under great pressure, Wilson’s book tells us, will end up breaking instead.
(Adam Kirsch is a senior editor at the New Republic and a columnist for Tablet magazine. He is the author of “Why Trilling Matters.” This is the second in a four-part series. Read Part 1.)
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