IN THE SPRING OF 1935, the famous novelist Maxwell Bodenheim crashed the New York City welfare office and begged for relief after five years of the Great Depression. His career had stalled, and Bodenheim hadn't earned a dime since his final novels had flopped. He was working on a manuscript called Clear Deep Fusion, but he would never finish it. His visit to the relief office was his last stand before he was edited out of literary history.
The New York Herald Tribune mocked Bodenheim's ragged demonstration: "he wore high shoes without laces, his shirt was dirty and the rest of his clothes needed cleaning and pressing. He was unshaven, very pale and his hair was mussed." He brought along five Writers Union activists and a squad of reporters in an effort to inspire other writers to go public with their struggles to survive. One activist waved a sign that read "starvation standards of Home Relief make real ghost writers." During the thirties, the rate of newspaper closings rose to 48 percent and magazine advertising plunged 30 percent. Publishers Weekly noted book production had been slashed from nearly 211 million to 154 million books during that period: 57 million books evaporated into thin air.
As the reporters scribbled notes, Bodenheim applied for relief. The government unemployment stipend would give him $14 a month for rent and $20 a month for food, about $530 a month by today's standards. His story ran in a number of newspapers the next day, and over night Bodenheim transformed himself into a symbol for thousands of writers who had no way to support themselves. Over the next few years, thousands would join his cause, fighting for more jobs, better working conditions, and a fair wage for writers.
A photograph of the scrawny Bodenheim standing outside the welfare office haunted me as I finished my upcoming book about writers and the Great Depression. Our historical situations seemed remarkably similar. According to the Department of Labor, the printing and traditional publishing sector has lost more than 260,000 jobs since 2007. Borders closed for good this year, erasing nearly 10,700 bookselling jobs and hundreds of thousands of feet of shelf space for books. We had supposedly emerged from the Great Recession, but many of these jobs haven't been replaced. Writing my book, I kept asking myself: Why haven't we fought back? Why don't 21st century writers organize?
An answer to my questions came on September 17th, when the first Occupy Wall Street protestors set up camp in Zuccotti Park in lower Manhattan. Over the next month, they would be pepper sprayed, clubbed, and herded through orange netting as they marched around the city. Over and over, critics mocked these activists for their lack of clearly stated goals. On CNN, Erin Burnett smirked through a segment called "What does Occupy Wall Street stand for?", while the Wall Street Journal looked on at "half-naked demonstrators, the ranting anti-Semites, Kanye West or anyone else who has helped make Occupy Wall Street a target for easy ridicule." Even Todd Gitlin, in a more even-handed and sympathetic op-ed column about the movement for the New York Times, wrote that "[t]he Zuccotti Park core doesn't seem to have a plan, or even to take kindly to the idea of consolidating a list of demands."
While researching my forthcoming book about writers during the Great Depression, I found stories ...