Wednesday, March 11, 2009

For donviti and other Americans in hard times: because good writing is good writing wherever you find it....

I don't think we're going into the Second Great Depression, but I know that times are tough for a lot of my fellow citizens, and a lot of them are really scared we'll end up in the crapper.

But even if this is the prelude to a Second Great Crash, it's sort of a three-D technicolor crash, with the same happy plastic people on the TV advertisements offering much the same crap that nobody wants or can afford any more. And the story the other night on NBC News about tent cities springing up across the nation was somehow viscerally less convincing because it was in digitally enhanced color rather than the sepia tones of the faded old photos of the Hoovervilles. I don't say that to be insensitive, but I have come to realize the most people think that history before, say, the 1960s, occurred in black-and-white.

And we've also cheapened the written word, primarily because any yo-yo like me can access the internet and achieve an audience. So it is important, from time to time, to remember what really first-rate writers can do to evoke the feeling of quiet desperation of tough economic times.

Here's Arthur Schlesinger Jr. from The Crisis of the Old Order:

Across the country the dismal process was beginning, ushering in a new life for millions of Americans. In the twenties wage earners in general had found ample employment, satifaction in life, hope for the future. Now came the slowdown--only three days of work a week, then perhaps two, then the layoff. and then the search for a new job--at first vigorous and hopeful; then sober; then desperate; the long lines before the employment offices, the eyes straining for words of hope on the chalked boards, the unending walk from one plant to the next, the all-night wait to be first for possible work in the morning. And the inexorable news, brusque impersonality concealing fear: "No help wanted here" ... "We don't need nobody" ... "Move along, Mac, move along."

And so the search continued, as clothes began to wear out and shoes to fall to pieces. Newspapers under the shirt would temper the winter cold, pasteboard would provide new inner soles, cotton in the heels of the shoe would absorb the pounding on the pavement, gunny sacks wrapped around the feet would mitigate the long hours in the frozen fields outside the factory gates. And in the meantime savings were trickling away. By now the terror began to infect the family. Father, no longer cheery, now at home for long hours, irritable, guilty, a little frightened. Sometimes the mother looked for work as domestic, chambermaid or charwoman; or the children worked for pennies after school, not understanding the fear that was touching them, knowing that they must do what they could to help buy bread and coffee.

As savings end, borrowing begins. If there is life insurance, borrowing on that, until it lapses; then loans from relatives and from friends; then the life of credit, from the landlord, from the corner grocer, until the lines of friendship and compassion are snapped. Meat vanishes from the table; lard replaces butter; father goes out less often, is terribly quiet; the children begin to lack shoes, their clothes are ragged, their mothers are ashamed to send them to school. Wedding rings are pawned, the furniture is sold, the family moves into ever cheaper, damper, dirtier rooms. In a Philadelphia settlement house a little boy of three cried constantly in the spring of 1930; the doctor examined him and found that he was slowly starving. One woman complained that when she had food her two small children could barely eat; they had become accustomed to so little, she said, that their stomachs had shrunk. In November the apple peddlers began to appear on cold street corners, their threadbare clothes brushed and neat, their forlorn pluckiness emphasizing the anguish of being out of work. And every night that fall hundreds of men gathered on the lower level of Wacker Drive in Chicago, feeding fires with stray pieces of wood, their coat collars turned up against the cold, their caps pulled down over their ears, staring without expression at the black river, while above the automobiles sped comfortably along, bearing well-fed men to warm and well-lit homes. In the mining areas families lived on beans, without salt or fat. And every week, every day, more workers joined the procession of despair, The shadows deepened in the cark cold rooms, with father angry and helpless and ashamed, the distraught children too often hungry or sick, and the mother, so resolute by day, so often, when the room was finally still, lying awake in bed at night, softly crying.

That is what a master does with words, and why some sets of words are worth far more than a thousand pictures.

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