Even though our Great Recession officially ended in 2009, many American workers will suffer the lingering effects of the economic disaster for decades to come. We need to accept that bitter fact, rather than bury it underneath cartoonish campaign slogans.
This is the perfect time to remember the work of Delmore Schwartz, a poet who graduated from college into the black heart of the Great Depression. For the rest of his life, his writing expressed a generation’s feelings of inadequacy, shame, resentment, and powerlessness. Once and For All: The Best of Delmore Schwartz is a new collection of his work, assembled as we wrestle with economic uncertainty.
“Delmore seems to me to be very much a Depression-era writer,” Craig Morgan Teicher, the editor of this new collection, told me. “All of his characters, all of the speakers of his poems, sense a kind of unfair debt, something taken from them before they had a chance to see what it was. There’s a kind of self-pity that’s tempered by another kind of pride.”
Schwartz explicitly pondered the legacy of the Great Depression in The World is a Wedding, a meditation on failure and the lingering effects of economic catastrophes. Schwartz published this short novel in 1948, following a group of aspiring writers, journalists, and playwrights as they stumbled from the safety of the university into the grim reality of Depression-era New York City.
Even though a decade had passed since that economic catastrophe, Schwartz spent the entire book measuring his characters’ personal failures against the collapse of the American economy. “[W]e are both failures,” one character declares, graduating college at a dire moment. “[W]e have to be young men in a time of failure and defeat, during the black years of the great depression.”
Even after the Depression had ended, Schwartz’s characters still struggled under the invisible pressure of diminished job expectations and compounded failures. More recently, economists confirmed how workers graduating from college during a recession feel the aftershocks of the economic disaster for many years.
“Unlucky graduates suffer persistent earnings declines lasting ten years,” wrote a team of economists in “The Short- and Long-Term Career Effects of Graduating in a Recession,” a 2011 economics paper exploring how national economic forces reshaped an entire generation of Canadian workers. “[M]ore advantaged graduates suffer less from graduating in recessions because they switch to better firms quickly, while earnings of less advantaged graduates can be permanently affected by cyclical downgrading,” they wrote.
In “The long-term labor market consequences of graduating from college in a bad economy,” economist Lisa B. Kahn found a steeper effect. Analyzing long-term earnings of college graduates from 1979 and 1989, she found that “the labor market consequences of graduating from college in a bad economy are large, negative and persistent” — lasting up to two decades for some workers.
Schwartz confronted these cold realities with a lyrical sense of fatalism. During the Great Depression, he published a poem called “Tired and Unhappy, You Think of Houses.” In the poem, a struggling young writer imagined what it would be like to be rich and secure, fantasizing about an alternative life with a fireplace, servants, and a cozy mansion. “Tired and unhappy, you think of houses / Soft-carpeted and warm in the December evening,” he wrote.
The soft vowel sounds and delicate fantasy is shattered by the roar of the subway train: “break this / Banal dream, and turn your head,” Schwartz wrote, snapping us out of his own poetic daydream.
In another poem, “A Young Child and His Pregnant Mother,” Schwartz captured the exact moment in a kid’s life when the invisible injustice of the world first appears. As the title alludes, the four-year-old hero will soon lose his favored only child status. He has a vague sense of the world’s awesome and dangerous power, but it is as unfathomable as the subway machinery roaring beneath his feet:
At four years Nature is mountainous,
Mysterious, and submarine. Even
A city child knows this, hearing the subway’s
Rumor underground. Between the grate,
Dropping his penny, he learned out all loss,
The irretrievable cent of fate
The boy lost his treasure to the spooky underworld beneath the subway grate, suddenly tuned into the inherent unfairness of life. With that empathetic image, one can catalog the minor failures, disappointments, and injustices that destroyed one's own faith in a friendly universe.
In a sense, we are all perched over the void looking for a lost penny — an undefined promise that was never fulfilled. Long before Donald Trump’s campaign and reality TV competitions, the United States offered us all the vague promise of “winning.”
In The World is a Wedding, one character described success and failure as uniquely American disorders:
[T]he motive of competition is made the chief motive of life, encouraged everywhere. Think of how competition is celebrated in games, in schools, in the professions, in every kind of activity. Consequently, the ideas of success and of failure are the two most important ideas in America. Yet it’s obvious that most human beings are going to be failures, for such is the nature of competition.
Even as he expressed the envy, frustration, and resentment provoked by failure, Schwartz’s work can remind us of our destructive urge to hide failure. It’s a dangerous trait. Trump’s blustery campaign promises work because we have already repressed the trauma of our economic disaster — years before many of our citizens could recover.
A few years ago, Melanie Stefan, a lecturer at the School of Biomedical Sciences at the University of Edinburgh, diagnosed how this obsessive focus on success hurts science in a column for Nature. She wrote:
As scientists, we construct a narrative of success that renders our setbacks invisible both to ourselves and to others. Often, other scientists' careers seem to be a constant, streamlined series of triumphs. Therefore, whenever we experience an individual failure, we feel alone and dejected.
To counterbalance this false “narrative of success,” she proposed that scientists create an alternative “CV of Failures” to rest alongside our normal CVs filled with all the times we have succeeded.
This new collection of Delmore Schwartz’s work reads like a literary “CV of Failures,” a powerful testament to a life shaken by the Great Depression. As we navigate the long road to national recovery, we can use his writing both as a mirror and as a compass.
“I've never lost in my life,” Donald Trump recently bragged to The Wall Street Journal, the kind of poisonous lie that makes it seem like celebrities have somehow mastered reality. We need to stop pretending that failure is un-American. We need to ignore the promises of politicians preaching the myth of a speedy economic recovery — because the Great Recession will continue to influence our lives, our families, and our stories for decades to come.
We will all fail, over and over, during the course of our working lives. Anybody who tells you differently is lying.