Depression Narratives Intertwined
During the 1930’s, the United States suffered through a severe economic depression. Ubiquitously people lost their savings, homes, and means of earning a living. Poor Farming practices had depleted the soil, and it became less capable of supporting the individual families who farmed their small sections of it. The small farmers, now tenants and sharecroppers, were uprooted from the homes and farms which had belonged to their families for many years. Work was scarce, wages were low, and they were resented, resisted, and repressed by the upper class. Their attempts to better their lives were branded as Communism, a system much disliked and feared by many Americans of the time. This essay will discuss elements that distinguish and exist in a “Depression Narrative” such as conflicts and social formations that appear in the following works: The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck, Uncle Tom’s Children by Richard Wright, and Waiting for Lefty by Clifford Odetts.
One major conflict that appears in all three works is the conflict of loss. In The Grapes of Wrath, the majority of the loss went to the farmers. The resulting pressure on banks to collect on loans due to the falling of the stock market during the Great Depression caused them to evict many farmers. This forced the Joad’s to abandoned their farm land that had been in their family for years and set out for California for a better life. The Joad’s have seen handbills announcing work in California and are preparing for departure by selling their possessions, slaughtering their pigs, and loading a secondhand car. The departure from their Oklahoma farm left the Joad’s in a depression of their own, dehumanizing them and their land, leaving them as migrants. The separation was extremely difficult for Grandpa Joad, who died shortly after departing from his beloved land.
In Uncle Tom’s Children, loss is shown in four of the five stories. “Bing Boy Leaves Home” describes Big Boy’s initiation to the harsh social reality of the rural South. Big Boy is forced to change from an overgrown child into an emotionally hardened young man who calmly kills a rattlesnake and a dog before escaping the South. This leads to the loss of his childhood in a truck bound for Chicago. In “Down by the Riverside” Brother Mann steals and murders to save others, but he cannot kill merely to protect himself from incrimination. Mann’s heroic effort to preserve life is, in the end, as futile as any single man’s effort to hold back the flood. After being caught in the devastating flood he is destroyed by a racist system of justice that values property more then human life thus resulting in the loss of his own. The two central characters in “ Long Black Song” both experience a loss. Silas, embittered by the infidelity of his wife and the frustrations of chasing the bourgeois dream of ownership in a social system that does not teat him equitably, realizes that, “The white folks ain never gimme a chance! They ain never give no black man a chance! ( Wright 152 ). The story concludes with a gunfight between Silas and several white men, resulting in the death of Silas, leaving his wife Sarah grieving the loss of her husband. Reverend Taylor, the central figure in “Fire and Cloud”, is a leader of the black community, a man who has won influence through accommodations with the white establishment. A revelatory beating administered at night by white thugs finally convinces Taylor that whites will never willingly give up their oppressive ways. Thus, causing him to realize that he must abandon his individualism and join in collective action, leaving him with the loss of self.
In Waiting for Lefty, the strikers experience the loss of their leader, Lefty Costello. The strikers are waiting to vote on the strike in the union hall, the building tension and emotion reaches a climax when the news arrives that Lefty has been murdered. The meeting erupts...
Cited: Odets, Clifford. Waiting for Lefty. New York: Grove Press, 1993.
Wright, Richard. Uncle Tom’s Children. New York: First Harper Perennial, 1993.
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