Reading 1930s Literature as Past or Prediction
The 1930s saw protectionist policies, isolationist doctrines, and a rise of authoritarian regimes worldwide. There were natural disasters that contributed to mass migrations. The Great Depression cut deep into the American economy and changed the way people lived day-to-day.
Many of the books published during this period still occupy a prominent place in our American culture. Some of the following titles are still on bestseller lists; others have recently been made into films. Many of them remain standards on American high school curricula.
Take a look at this list of nine fiction titles from British and American authors that offer a glimpse into our past or that may help to give us a prediction, or warning, for our future.
“The Good Earth” (1931)
Pearl S. Buck’s novel “The Good Earth” was published in 1931, several years into the Great Depression when many Americans were keenly aware of financial hardship. Even though the setting of this novel is a small farming village in 19th-century China, the story of Wang Lung, the hardworking Chinese farmer, seemed familiar to many readers. Moreover, Buck’s choice of Lung as a protagonist, an ordinary Everyman, appealed to everyday Americans. These readers saw many of the novel’s themes — the struggle out of poverty or the testing of family loyalties — reflected in their own lives. And for those fleeing the Dust Bowl of the Midwest, the storyline offered comparable natural disasters: famine, floods, and a plague of locusts that decimated crops.
Born in America, Buck was the daughter of missionaries and spent her childhood years in rural China. She recalled that as she grew up, she was always the outsider and referred to as a “foreign devil.” Her fiction was informed by her memories of childhood in a peasant culture and by the cultural upheaval brought about by major incidents in 20th century China, including the Boxer Rebellion of 1900. Her fiction reflects her respect for the hardworking peasants and her ability to explain Chinese customs, such as foot-binding, for American readers. The novel went a long way to humanizing the Chinese people for Americans, who later accepted China as a World War II ally after the bombing of Pearl Harbor in 1941.
The novel won the Pulitzer Prize and was a contributing factor for Buck to become the first woman to receive the Nobel Prize for Literature. “The Good Earth” is notable for Buck’s ability to express universal themes such as love of one’s homeland. This is one reason that today’s middle or high school students may encounter the novel or her novella “The Big Wave” in anthologies or in a world literature class.
“Brave New World” (1932)
Aldous Huxley is notable for this contribution to dystopian literature, a genre that has grown even more popular in recent years. Huxley set “Brave New World” in the 26th century when he imagines there is no war, no conflict, and no poverty. The price for peace, however, is individuality. In Huxley’s dystopia, humans have no personal emotions or individual ideas. Expressions of art and attempts to achieve beauty are condemned as disruptive to the State. To achieve compliance, the drug “soma” is dispensed in order to remove any drive or creativity and leave humans in a perpetual state of pleasure.
Even human reproduction is systemized, and embryos are grown in a hatchery in controlled batches since their status in life is predetermined. After the fetuses are “decanted” from the flasks in which they are grown, they are trained for their (mostly) menial roles.
Midway through this story, Huxley introduces the character of John the Savage, an individual who grew up outside the controls of 26th-century society. John’s life experiences reflect life as one more familiar to the readers; he knows love, loss, and loneliness. He is a thinking man who has read Shakespeare’s plays (from which the title receives its name.) None of these things are valued in Huxley’s dystopia. Although John is initially drawn to this controlled world, his feelings soon turn to disappointment and disgust. He cannot live in what he considers to be an immoral world but, tragically, he cannot return to the savage lands he once called home.
Huxley’s novel was meant to satirize a British society whose institutions of religion, business, and government had failed to prevent the catastrophic losses from WWI. In his lifetime, a generation of young men had died on the battlefields while an influenza epidemic (1918) killed an equal number of civilians. In this fictionalization of the future, Huxley predicts that handing control to governments or other institutions may provide peace, but at what cost?
The novel remains popular and is taught in nearly every dystopian literature class today. Any one of the bestselling dystopian young adult novels today, including ”The Hunger Games,” ”The Divergent Series,” and the ”Maze Runner Series,” owes much to Aldous Huxley.
“Murder in the Cathedral” (1935)
“Murder in the Cathedral” by the American poet T.S. Eliot is a drama in verse that was first published in 1935. Set in Canterbury Cathedral in December 1170, “Murder in the Cathedral” is a miracle play based on the martyrdom of St. Thomas Becket, archbishop of Canterbury.
In this stylized retelling, Eliot uses a Classical Greek chorus made up of the poor women of Medieval Canterbury to provide commentary and move the plot forward. The chorus narrates the arrival of Becket from a seven-year exile after his rift with King Henry II. They explain that Becket’s return frustrates Henry II who is concerned about the influence from the Catholic Church in Rome. They then present the four conflicts or temptations that Becket must resist: pleasures, power, recognition, and martyrdom.
After Becket gives a Christmas morning sermon, four knights decide to act on the king’s frustration. They overhear the King say (or mutter), “Will no one rid me of this meddlesome priest?” The knights then return to slay Becket in the cathedral. The sermon that concludes the play is delivered by each of the knights, who each give their reasons for killing the Archbishop of Canterbury in the cathedral.
A short text, the play is sometimes taught in Advanced Placement Literature or in drama courses in high school.
Recently, the play has received attention when the killing of Becket was referenced by Former FBI director James Comey, during his June 8, 2017, testimony to the Senate Intelligence Committee. After Senator Angus King asked, “When the president of the United States…says something like ‘I hope,’ or ‘I suggest,’ or ‘would you,’ do you take that as a directive for the investigation of former National Security Advisor Michael Flynn?” Comey replied, “Yes. It rings in my ears as kind of ‘Will no one rid me of this meddlesome priest?’”
“The Hobbit” (1937)
One of the most recognized writers today is J.R.R Tolkien, who created a fantasy world that held realms of hobbits, orc, elves, humans, and wizards who all answer to a magic ring. The prequel to “The Lord of the Rings -Middle Earth trilogy,” titled “The Hobbit” or “There and Back Again” was first published as a children’s book in 1937. The story recounts the episodic quest of Bilbo Baggins, a quiet character living in comfort in Bag End who is recruited by the Wizard Gandalf to go on an adventure with 13 dwarves to save their treasure from the marauding dragon named Smaug. Bilbo is a hobbit; he is small, plump, about half the size of humans, with furry toes and a love of good food and drink.
He joins the quest where he encounters Gollum, a hissing, whining creature who changes Bilbo’s destiny as a bearer of a magic ring of great power. Later, in a riddle contest, Bilbo tricks Smaug into revealing that the armor plates around his heart can be pierced. There are battles, betrayals, and alliances formed to get to the dragon’s mountain of gold. After the adventure, Bilbo returns home and prefers the company of dwarves and elves to the more respectable hobbit society in sharing the story of his adventures.
In writing about the fantasy world of Middle Earth, Tolkien drew on many sources including Norse mythology, the polymath William Morris, and the first English language epic, ”Beowulf.” Tolkien’s story follows the archetype of a hero’s quest, a 12-step journey that is the backbone of stories from “The Odyssey” to “Star Wars.” In such an archetype, a reluctant hero travels outside of his comfort zone and, with the help of a mentor and a magic elixir, meets a series of challenges before returning back home a wiser character. The recent film versions of “The Hobbit” and “The Lord of the Rings” have only increased the novel’s fan base. Middle and high school students may be assigned this book in class, but a true test of its popularity lies with the individual student who chooses to read ”The Hobbit” as Tolkien meant… for pleasure.
“Their Eyes Were Watching God” (1937)
Zora Neale Hurston’s novel ”Their Eyes Were Watching God” is a story of love and relationships that begins as a frame, a conversation between two friends that covers the events of 40 years. In the retelling, Janie Crawford’s recounts her search for love, and dwells on the four different kinds of love that she experienced while away. One form of love was the protection she received from her grandmother, while another was the security she received from her first husband. Her second husband taught her about the dangers of possessive love, while the final love of Janie’s life was the migrant worker known as Tea Cake. She believes he gave her the happiness she never had before, but tragically he was bitten by a rabid dog during a hurricane. After she was forced to shoot him in self-defense later, Janie is acquitted of his murder and returns back to her home in Florida. In recounting her quest for unconditional love, she concludes her journey that saw her “ripening from a vibrant, but voiceless, teenage girl into a woman with her finger on the trigger of her own destiny.”
Since its publication in 1937, the novel has grown in prominence as an example of both African American literature and feminist literature. However, the initial response of its publication, especially from the writers of the Harlem Renaissance, was far less positive. They argued that in order to counter the Jim Crow laws, African-American writers should be encouraged to write through an Uplift program in order to improve the image of African Americans in society. They felt that Hurston did not deal directly with the topic of race. Hurston’s response was,
“Because I was writing a novel and not a treatise on sociology. […] I have ceased to think in terms of race; I think only in terms of individuals…I am not interested in the race problem, but I am interested in the problems of individuals, white ones and black ones.”
Helping others to see the problems of individuals beyond race may be a critical step towards countering racism and maybe a reason this book is often taught in the upper high school grades.
“Of Mice and Men” (1937)
If the 1930s offered nothing but John Steinbeck contributions, then the literary canon would still be satisfied for this decade. The 1937 novella “Of Mice and Men” follows Lenny and George, a pair of ranch hands who hope to stay long enough in one place and earn enough cash to purchase their own farm in California. Lennie is intellectually slow and unaware of his physical strength. George is Lennie’s friend who is aware of both Lennie’s strengths and limitations. Their stay in the bunkhouse looks promising at first, but after the foreman’s wife is accidentally killed, they are forced to flee, and George is forced to make a tragic decision.
The two themes that dominate Steinbeck’s work are dreams and loneliness. The dream of owning a rabbit farm together keeps hope alive for Lennie and George even though work is scarce. All the other ranch hands experience loneliness, including Candy and Crooks who eventually grow to hope in the rabbit farm as well.
Steinbeck’s novella was originally set up as a script for three acts of two chapters each. He developed the plot from his experiences working alongside migrant workers in the Sonoma Valley. He also took the title from the Scottish poet Robert Burn’s poem “To a Mouse” using the translated line:
“The best laid schemes of mice and men / Often go awry.”
The book is often banned for any one of a number of reasons including the use of vulgarity, racial language or for its promotion of euthanasia. Despite these restrictions, the text is a popular choice in most high schools. A film and an audio recording starring Gary Sinise as George and John Malkovich as Lennie is a great companion piece for this novella.
“The Grapes of Wrath” (1939)
The second of his major works during the 1930s, ”The Grapes of Wrath” is John Steinbeck’s attempt to create a new form of storytelling. He interchanged chapters dedicated to the non-fiction story of the Dust Bowl with the fictional story of the Joad family as they leave their farm in Oklahoma to seek work in California.
On the trip, the Joads encounter injustice from authorities and compassion from other displaced migrants. They are exploited by corporate farmers but given some assistance from New Deal agencies. When their friend Casey tries to unionize the migrants for higher wages, he is killed. In return, Tom kills Casey’s attacker.
By the end of the novel, the toll on the family during the journey from Oklahoma has been costly; the loss of their family patriarchs (Grandpa and Grandma), Rose’s stillborn child, and Tom’s exile have all taken a toll on the Joads.
Similar themes of dreams in “Of Mice and Men”, specifically the American Dream, dominate this novel. Exploitation—of workers and land—is another major theme.
Before writing the novel, Steinbeck is quoted as saying,
“I want to put a tag of shame on the greedy bastards who are responsible for this (the Great Depression).”
His sympathy for the working man is evident on every page.
Steinbeck developed the narrative of the story from a series of articles he had written for The San Francisco News titled “The Harvest Gypsies” that ran three years earlier. The Grapes of Wrath won multiple awards including the National Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize for fiction. It is often cited as the reason Steinbeck was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1962.
The novel is usually taught in American Literature or Advanced Placement Literature classes. Despite its length (464 pages), the reading level is low average for all high school grade levels.
“And Then There Were None” (1939)
In this best-selling Agatha Christie mystery, ten strangers, who seem to have nothing in common, are invited to an island mansion off the coast of Devon, England, by a mysterious host, U.N. Owen. During dinner, a recording announces that each person is hiding a guilty secret. Shortly afterward, one of the guests is found murdered by a deadly dose of cyanide. As the foul weather prevents anyone from leaving, a search reveals there are no other people on the island and that communication with the mainland has been cut off.
The plot thickens as one by one the guests meet an untimely end. The novel was originally published under the title “Ten Little Indians” because a nursery rhyme describes the way each guest is… or will be… murdered. Meanwhile, the few survivors begin to suspect that the killer is among them, and they cannot trust each other. Just who is killing off the guests… and why?
The mystery genre (crime) in literature is one of the top selling genres, and Agatha Christie is recognized as one of the world’s foremost mystery writers. The British author is known for her 66 detective novels and short story collections. “And Then There Were None” is one of her most popular titles, and it is estimated a number exceeding 100 million copies sold to date is not an unreasonable figure.
This selection is offered in middle and high schools in a genre-specific unit dedicated to mysteries. The reading level is low average (a Lexile level 510-grade 5) and the continuous action keeps the reader engaged and guessing.
“Johnny Got his Gun” (1939)
“Johnny Got His Gun” is a novel by the screenwriter Dalton Trumbo. It joins other classic anti-war stories that find their origin in the horrors of WWI. The war was infamous for industrialized killing on the battlefield from machine guns and mustard gas that left trenches filled with rotting bodies.
First published in 1939, “Johnny Got His Gun” regained popularity 20 years later as an anti-war novel for the Vietnam War. The plot is starkly simple, an American soldier, Joe Bonham, sustains multiple damaging wounds that require him to remain helpless in his hospital bed. He slowly becomes aware that his arms and legs have been amputated. He also cannot speak, see, hear, or smell because his face has been removed. With nothing to do, Bonham lives inside his head and reflects on his life and the decisions that have left him in this state.
Trumbo based the story on a real-life encounter with a horribly maimed Canadian soldier. His novel expressed his belief about the true cost of war to an individual, as an event that is not grand and heroic and that individuals are sacrificed to an idea.
It may seem paradoxical, then, that Trumbo held off printing copies of the book during WWII and the Korean War. He later stated that this decision was a mistake, but that he feared its message could be used improperly. His political beliefs were isolationist, but after he joined the Communist Party in 1943, he attracted the attention of the FBI. His career as a screenwriter came to a halt in 1947 when he was one of the Hollywood Ten who refused to testify before the House on Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC). They were investigating Communist influences in the motion picture industry, and Trumbo was blacklisted by that industry until 1960, when he received credit for the screenplay for the award-winning film Spartacus, an epic also about a soldier.
Today’s students may read the novel or may come across a few chapters in an anthology. ”Johnny Got His Gun” is back in print and has recently been used in protests against American involvement in Iraq and in Afghanistan.