NOVEMBER 12, 2011
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 of publishing employees who picketed for better work conditions, literary workers who mounted hunger strikes, writers who kidnapped a government administrator to make a point, and occupation-style sit-ins that lasted for days until writing jobs were restored. The demonstrations of the thirties were restless and unending, evolving as different groups found overlapping purposes. Authors marched alongside department store workers and poets helped farmers organize. The Occupy movement doesn’t need to focus on a single purpose. It only needs to keep growing.
To do so, the movement will have to be able to draw on the past—and this means literary as well as political history. These radical writers of the thirties — brave, crazy, and turbulent souls — have been mostly exiled from our literary canon. We need their stories now more than ever. Granted, there are some important books to guide readers through the literature of economic protest, such as Cary Nelson’s Repression and Recovery: Modern American Poetry and the Politics of Cultural Memory (1989), Daniel Aaron’s Writers on the Left: Episodes in American Literary Communism(1992), Morris Dickstein’s Dancing in the Dark: A Cultural History of the Great Depression (2009), or David A. Taylor’s Soul of a People: The WPA Writers’ Project Uncovers Depression America (2009). In addition, digitization projects have revived some of these authors.
But many of the writers referred to in these works have been out of print for years, and their work is frustratingly difficult to access. Bodenheim’s Slow Vision explored a miserable relationship during the Great Depression, showing the effects of unemployment on a young couple. I paid more than $50 for a copy at a rare books site; not because Bodenheim’s work is highly valued, but because it is nearly extinct. I’ve checked out every single Bodenheim book I could find at my local libraries. At the Los Angeles Public Library, the checkout sleeve for his poetry collection still held an obsolete computer punch card, the brittle cardboard only stamped once since 1930: May 15, 1981. I found more of his poetry in a rare archive of theNew Masses magazine, whose 75-year-old pages crumble when you touch them.
The loss of these radical works is part of a larger loss for print culture, of course. In his book Double Fold, Nicholson Baker investigated the destruction of thousands of newspapers by libraries in a bid to create microfilm archives. In 1997, the San Francisco Library pulped 250,000 forgotten books to make room for computers and reading spaces, consigning works by authors like Bodenheim to oblivion. A group of rogue librarians bucked these orders, stashing books in safe nooks and stamping them with imaginary checkouts to keep them in circulation. They called it “guerrilla librarianship.” In 1997, The Atlantic Monthly defined the term as “the use of surreptitious measures by librarians determined to resist the large-scale ‘deaccessioning’ of rarely used books … [It] can also involve such tactics as transferring endangered books from one department to another and hiding books in lockers, to be reintroduced to the collection.” More recently, Occupy Wall Street activists have revived this practice, building a makeshift library in Zuccotti Park and publishing a brief manifesto: “Occupy Libraries: Guerrilla Librarianship for the People.” In early October, the group published a virtual card catalog online, counting 390 books in the collection. It now holds more than 4,400 titles. When the police threatened to reclaim the park, the activists sealed up the books in duct tape and tarp. Signs were taped up reading: “PEOPLE’S LIBRARY WILL NOT BE SHUT DOWN, WE’LL SHUT YOU DOWN” and “BOOKS AREN’T HERE TO BE DESTROYED.” “By bringing books to gatherings and other settings where people already are,” the librarians’ manifesto read,
guerrilla libraries facilitate a faster and more convenient experience for the reader. They offer materials directly to users at the point of need … Libraries do grow, but more than just growth, this law is about change. Guerrilla libraries are constantly shifting, growing, being remade, and transforming. Each day that a guerrilla library is opened it takes on a new form as new materials arrive, new labels are created for new subjects, and different librarians cycle in and out.
Such libraries have sprouted up everywhere — the site links to occupation libraries in Spain and Boston — but not all are as well-stocked as New York’s. I visited the Occupy Los Angeles library and found a row of ragged paperbacks. In Occupy San Francisco, they had a cardboard box with a couple books inside. If the movement continues to grow, the surviving Occupy camps will need books to pass the time and plan for the future. Writers can, and should, help them stock their shelves.
In 1935, just months after Bodenheim and his followers marched on the welfare office, the New York Public Library set up an open-air library in Bryant Park: a stack of 200 books under a blue and yellow umbrella, creating a literary community in the middle of Depression-era Manhattan. They channeled books straight to a needy population, setting an early precedent for today’s movement. Homeless people mingled with broke scholars, and job hunters debated books with businessmen, all of them sitting on park benches, looking for a purpose. The New York Times captured the scene:
A man with rumpled gray hair, horn-rimmed glasses far down on his nose and a worn belt holding up shiny blue trousers around his ample stomach exchanged literary comments with an immaculately dressed neighbor.
The most popular books of the summer of 1935 were the psychology book What the Hell Are You Living For by Joseph L. Greenbaum and the still popular Succeeding With What You Have by steel baron Charles M. Schwab. The paper noted: “[W]ith scores of unemployed persons sunning themselves in the park between rounds of job seeking, it soon became evident that the supply of economic writings was inadequate.”
By 1936, there were 600 books and 39,825 check-outs. Only 34 books were stolen over the course of the summer. By 1937, the outdoor library tracked 72,000 check-outs. While writing about guerilla libraries, journalist Scott McLemee noted that union organizers during the Great Depression would also build makeshift libraries to keep strikers entertained and educated long-lasting union strikes. People turn to books during economic downturns, and authors should be there to help guide them. No matter what you think about the politics of the Occupy Wall Street protestors, writers should explore these makeshift libraries and fill them with books. The activists have taken several brave and difficult steps, but they will need lots of support over the long winter.
Contemporary writers are a scattered bunch. We huddle over computer screens and smartphones too many hours every day; we tweet, post on Facebook, and blog without a pay scale for these new kinds of writing; newspaper unions have been gutted; and, most disconcerting of all, our culture assigns less and less monetary value to our work while thousands happily write for free. The only experience of radical politics that many of us had is learning about the protests of the sixties in school and unsuccessfully marching against the Iraq War in the early aughts. On the face of it, this is not a group poised for organization.
Nonetheless, writers began to join and support the Occupy movement in force last month. The Writers Guild of America East led the charge, joining an early solidarity march with the Occupy Wall Street protestors and a group of unions. Soon after, the essayist Jeff Sharlet launched the OccupyWriters website, collecting nearly 2,000 signatures around a simple goal: “We, the undersigned writers and all who will join us, support Occupy Wall Street and the Occupy Movement around the world.” They are now building an online repository of Occupy-related writings from Lemony Snicket, Jonathan Lethem, Alice Walker, Ursula K. Le Guin, and many others.
So what should happen next? One month after Bodenheim’s protest, Franklin D. Roosevelt unveiled the Works Progress Administration to find work for millions of Americans scraping by on government relief. In 1936, the federal government added a special Writers Project arm to the WPA, putting thousands of writers back to work. Could something similar result from the heartening response of contemporary writers to the Occupy movement?
It is too soon to tell. At the very least, we should take the opportunity to recover our radical literary past. Unearthing these stories from the Great Depression, I discovered an entire bookshelf of forgotten authors. They include the Bohemian immigrant Anca Vrbovska, the Communist writer Orrick Johns, the garbageman poet John Cabbage, and the unemployed newspaper reporter-turned-novelist Edward Newhouse. All were inspired by the economic crisis to stand up and demand change. Even though they never settled on a particular set of demands — few were doctrinaire Marxists or anarchists; it’s a rare creative writer who can keep her ideological commitments straight — their collective action rocked the literary world and led to real reforms. They forced newspapers to pay a living wage, pushed publishers to establish more humane working conditions, changed the way books were sold in department stores, and convinced the government to create a federal program to put writers back to work. Their books should fill our guerrilla libraries instead of languishing on our literary trash heap.