In preparing research on the artistic response to the Great Depression (it's for a conference I'm presenting at), I've run across intersting ideas that I think have some currency for today's world. Let me flesh this out.
It seems to me that many of the staple American authors taught at both the high school and college level wrote much in the twenties. Names like Faulkner, Fitzgerald, Hemingway, Stein, Pound, cummings, Eliot, and even Cather, Sinclair Lewis, Dreiser, Dos Passos....the list goes on. Conversely, the list from the thirties is shorter: John Steinbeck, a few playwrights such as Kazan, Wilder...that's all I can come up with for now. Why exactly is this? Less serious writing in the thirties? Bountiful masterpieces in the twenties by the truckload?
Perhaps. Presumably, literature is taught for its presumed relevance to the present. For me the relevance of literature emanating from these two decades has been illuminated by a fascinating book: Malcolm Cowley's Exile's Return.
Exile's Return traces the "Lost Generation" of writers as they grew up just after the turn of the century through childhood, the Great War, college, and into their early careers as exiles in separate Bohemian communities in the US and Europe. As a member of this generation himself, Cowley relates his own life story to trace this generation's intellectual development. Most of the writers that became expatriates during the twenties were raised in rural communities. According to Cowley, their college educations taught them to disparage their own national and local culture, instead preferring artistic work that transcended "localities, nations, or classes." As a result, they essentially became rootless characters, more spectators of wordly events.
The literature that resulted in the next decade thus turned inward, reflecting upon psychological issues. If the writer wrote about the larger world, it usually described the protagonist's ultimate isolation from its impersonality. Authors became preoccupied with precision of language. Today, authors such as Stein, Eliot, Hemingway, and Faulkner, not to mention international authors such as Joyce, Valery, or Proust have well earned reputations on the difficulty of their works. (Having read the Sound and the Fury in college, I do not recommened it for a light Saturday read. That said, it is a wonderful novel).
What these "rootless" expatriates were searching for all along was a home. They were exiled not just literally, but figuratively: from traditions and cultures of their birthplace, "from society itself, from any society to which they could honestly contribute and from which they could draw the strength that lies in shared convictions."
Written in the early thirties, Cowley's autobiographical sketch of a generation sought to reintegrate those writers with America. The Great Depression became the catalyst for such a reintegration. Faced with such calamitous events that challenged core American values, the previously exiled authors could help America transcend it's problems by actively transforming society itself. This sentiment lay at the heart of the American intellectual classes's flirtation with Socialism, though in many different forms, many of them as far from doctrinaire as could be.
Yet if we go by novels that are considered American classics today, by any standards, relatively few emerge from the collectivist 1930's in comparison to the introspective twenties. Why is this? My theory is that on one level, the writing of the twenties is more universal, directed towards and written about behaviors, emotions, and feelings that transcend a particular time period. The writing is mostly apolitical. Literature, or for that matter just about anything from the arts during the 1930's, is anything but apolitical. As such, it can be seen as anachronistic, even irrelevant, in today's world. .
Yet there is another interpretation as well. In as much as literature from the twenties was introspective, psychological, and drawing on themes of alienation, it dealt little with problems facing ordinary Americans, as intellectuals from the thirties would have seen it. It was largely disconnected from the "herd." As a result, much of it is still hard to master, understand, or approach today. I would say that it is worth the effort, but it is clearly not for everyone. Much of it is "art for art's sake."
I am clearly overgeneralizing here. Yet I raise another question. When combined with other works such as "Catcher in the Rye," "The Stranger," or "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest," also to be found on many high school and college syllabi, the alienation theme - the inherent dichotomy between amorphous, vulgar society versus the enlightened, becomes more apparent. I believe this appeals to avant-garde sensibilities.
So I was reminded of the brouhaha over the various designs for the World Trade Center in NYC. Like many, I found not one suitable as a replacement. In this respect I agree with Steven Malanga in his City Journal article that each of them represent arrogant impositions of individual artistic expressions on an unwilling metropolis. Their clear lack of regard betrays the offensive nature of peeping toms and sexual miscreants, for that is essentially what these architects are imposing upon that city. Like some literature from the twenties, it is this sentiment that makes art inaccessible, unnecessarily in my opinion.