On Contact: Sacrificing American writers
On the show, Chris Hedges discusses the literary scene today and its parallels to the Great Depression, with author Jason Boog.
This is not a good time in America to be a writer. The printing and traditional publishing sector has shed over 134,000 jobs during the Great Recession. Between 1998 and 2013, the book publishing industry lost 21,000 jobs, periodical publishing cut 56,000 jobs, and the newspaper industry shed 217,000 jobs. Digital technology has replaced the vital connection between sellers and buyers that once made news magazines and newspapers profitable. Writers struggle to make a living as freelancers, part-time employees, contractors, or in temporary fellowships. They often lack job stability, and health and retirement benefits. The economic distress for writers, including novelists and poets, increasingly replicates the distress writers endured during the Great Depression, many of whom were only able to eat and pay the rent because of the New Deal’s Works Progress Administration’s Federal Writers’ Project, created in 1935 to give work to unemployed writers, editors, and research workers. The Federal Writer’s Project employed 6,600 men and women, and rescued the careers of some of the country’s most gifted writers, including Richard Wright, Claude McKay, Saul Bellow, John Cheever, Conrad Aiken, and James Agee. But there is no such support today. An entire generation of writers is being sacrificed under the hammer blows of a digital revolution and the collapse of print.
Jason Boog is the author of ‘The Deep End: The Literary Scene in the Great Depression and Today’.
YouTube channel: On Contact
Follow us on Facebook: Facebook.com/OnContactRT
Chris Hedges: Welcome to On Contact. Today, we discuss the literary scene today and the Great Depression with the author, Jason Boog.
Jason Boog: During the Great Depression, she was just coming out of college, I think as many young people probably feel right now into this disaster zone of an economy, there was no place for her to go to work. She kind of just cobbled together experiences. She traveled to the Spanish Civil War and wrote an amazing documentary poem about what her experience during the Spanish Civil War was like. She returned and became an activist. She went and wrote about a mining disaster down south and about protests in Alabama against the unfair imprisonment of Black men. She was just an activist and she wrote poems that were--she called it documentary poetry, it was using the--almost the camera’s eye to express, capture the different stories of the suffering and the struggles that she saw. And she just put so much work out right during that period and it was really breathtaking to discover that. And I think some of the best record we have of the Great Depression comes from her work.
CH: This is not a good time in America to be a writer. The printing and traditional publishing sector has shed over a hundred and thirty-four thousand jobs during the Great Recession. Between 1998 and 2013, the book publishing industry lost 21,000 jobs, periodical publishing lost 56,000 jobs, and the newspaper industry shed 217,000 jobs. Digital technology has replaced the vital connection between sellers and buyers that once made news magazines and newspapers profitable. Writers struggle to make a living as freelancers, part-time employees, contractors, or in temporary fellowships, they often lack job stability and health and retirement benefits. The economic distress for writers including novelists and poets increasingly replicates the distress writers endured during the Great Depression, many of whom were often only able to eat and pay the rent because of the new deals, Federal Writers’ Project. Created in 1935 to give work to unemployed writers, editors, and research workers. The Federal Writers’ Project employed over 6,000 men and women, and rescued the careers of some of the country’s most gifted writers including Richard Wright, Claude McKay, Saul Bellow, John Cheever, Conrad Aiken, and James Agee. But there is no such support today, an entire generation of writers is being sacrificed under the hammer blows of a digital revolution and the collapse of print. Joining me to discuss the onslaught and its parallels to the Great Depression is Jason Boog, author of The Deep End: The Literary Scene in the Great Depression and today. So I like the book a lot and you write at length about one of my favorite, I think, one of the Great American poets, Muriel Rukeyser. But I want to just ask you how you got the idea to kind of go back, I mean, why--and I think it’s important, but to go back and look, and I guess a lot of these writers that you cite have--I mean, and reading the excerpts that you put in the book, obviously incredibly talented but have been forgotten or erased.
JB: Uh-hmm. Yeah, I think it’s purposeful. I think in America, we don’t like to look back at the hard moments we faced, we don’t like to look back at writers who failed or careers that failed, and I do feel after the Great Depression that there was a very conscious effort both inside and outside the academy to kind of push away all of the stories that were told during the Great Depression and focus--look more ahead towards the middle class writing that we saw the post-war era. And they were very deliberately forgotten, both for the failure and then also, I think, for the political views, there were a lot of leftist writers who were--who suffered during the Red Purges here in America and so we saw them get buried as well. But it’s an entire--I--when I discovered for the first time, it was an entire literary bookshelf that I felt like I was one of the only people who cracked it in a few years. So it was tremendously…
CH: Well, you opened the book by--you opened the book on Newhouse. And I knew Newhouse from The New Yorker, but there was another iteration of a radical Newhouse before he kind of cleaned himself up. And it’s interesting. You talk about, is it I can’t--You Can’t Sleep Here, but talk about that.
JB: Yeah. So he was actually the first of these writers that I discovered, so I--in 2000--around 2008, I lost my job at this judicial investigative reporting organization I was working for. I didn’t quite know what to do. I was a young writer, there weren’t a lot of prospects, the Great Recession was upon us. So I spent a lot of time in the New York City--or the New York University Library, kind of going through the stacks, and one of the books was I found was You Can’t Sleep Here. It’s a book I now own a copy. It--but there’s very few copies that exist anymore and it was just the story of a young newspaper reporter, kind of, I could relate to him, you know, I was a young unemployed newspaper reporter in the teeth of the Great Recession and he was in the Great Depression, and he just told the stories of what it was like to sleep in a Hooverville or a--an encampment as we see today. He talked about what it was like to sleep there, he talked about what it was like to open up a newspaper and try to get the one ad before the hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of other people that were trying to do it. Just every page really spoke to me and expressed something that I was feeling. And it was a real revelation and this is many years before his career as a New Yorker writer. And it wasn’t until many months later that I found out that he had this other career as a very, for lack of a better word, bourgeois writer. He--his career made a quite abrupt shift after World War II as he began working for The New Yorker.
CH: I think you talked about--I can’t remember the figure, but a very few copies even available in public libraries.
JB: Yeah. And actually, one of the interesting things, I got to meet his daughter, Alison who was very generous with her time and sharing photos and excerpts from her father’s works. But she said that he would pay her, as a child, to go to the library and take his book out so he could destroy it. Like, he wanted to get rid of that period of his life. I think it was because he had very radical politics and then it was a--it was a different time after World War II, and I don’t think he believed the same things that he did. But also, I mean, it was a time of failure and very emotional heart on--wear your heart on your sleeve writing, and I think that did not fit very well with the kind of the more nuanced, quiet writing that he did for The New Yorker.
CH: I want to--you had quote Joseph Freeman, the editor of The New Masses, one of these great radical publications that doesn’t exist anymore, praising Newhouse’s novel, because it describes all of--I think what is so moving about all the writers you cite is that they’re really writing about the voiceless, writing about the forgotten, wiring about the demonized. And so Freeman writes, like newspaper reports and other “wage slaves of capitalist arts and letters.” In his review, he described the dilemma familiar and you’re writing a--you always are bringing in the situation today, the bloggers, citizen journalists, and other internet artists. And this is quoting Freeman, “In the best of times, such members of the intelligentsia are migratory workers, they drift from jobs, they have neither the training nor the stability of engineers, physicians, lawyers, or scientists. They are the first to be declassed by the crisis and pushed into the ranks of the proletariat. In times like these, it means into the ranks of the unemployed proletariat.” And you do--you write about the deep financial distress that these writers undergo, I mean, people--great writers like Claude McKay really are not surviving. They’re not able to survive. And that of course is an--what I fear is we’re losing an entire generation of writers because they are falling into that same kind of economic misery.
JB: Yeah, I--it’s one of my greatest fears as well. I think Richard Wright might be the best example of this when in 1937, he was in--he was moving from Chicago to New York City, he was a newspaper reporter, he wrote to Ralph Ellison just saying, “I can’t handle the schedule anymore, I have no time to write. I feel like I’m burning the candle at both ends. I’m tired.” I--he was away--he was suffering under these pennies, wages that he was getting paid as a reporter. And when he got to New York, he was able to get in to the Federal Writers’ Project which you mentioned at the beginning of the program. And that program, out of everything, gave him the space that he needed to write and finish Native Son. And I really do feel, if he had not been pulled out of this really terrible overworked situation, that migratory existence that you just talked about with Freeman, without that, I don’t think we would have this just masterpiece of American literature. And I really have deep fears about--there must be hundreds of other writers like him today and I--and I feel for every one of them and I hope…
JB: …we can find a way to help them.
CH: Let’s talk--let’s talk about Max Bodenheim who I had not heard of. Remarkable poet, but--and then you can talk about this wonderful Raven’s Circle, bring that into.
JB: Yeah. So Maxwell Bodenheim was someone that also has been completely forgotten. He was, in the 1920s, kind of like a literary pop star. There’s a picture of him in New York Times with just all of these women crowded around him, holding him, and he’s sitting there grinning with his book. And he was just a real literary celebrity. He was in the gossip pages for his various improprieties with different people. And--but he had a huge--tremendous drinking problem and then also hit kind of the financial straits in his own career as the Great Depression landed. So he was either living in a homeless or at least transitory existence for most of the Great Depression. And during this period, this person who once was the toast of literary Manhattan who we had now forgotten, but at the time in the ‘20s, he was the toast of literary Manhattan. He was sitting with this group called the Raven Poetry Society, and every spring, they would go and watch in Square Park and sell their poems for a quarter. And he would just sit there and sell poems. He’d go from poetry reading, poetry reading, trying to get money for food and for booze. But he was--he was really suffering deeply, and went into a deep, dark hole during the Great Depression. But then also was able to join the Federal Writers’ Project briefly and had a moment there. And he became kind of a--kind--he stood up for the rights of all these writers who had tumbled into--tumbled into the deep end, if you will. He actually marched, I believe it was in 1934, wore a sign on his front--on his chest that said, “Writers’ wages are starvation wages,” something to that effect, and marched to the welfare office to go on relief because he could not make a living as a writer. And that inspired kind of a whole movement of different writers, people who were in the streets after that. Writers were marching alongside lots of other people. Everyone from newspaper printers to shop--to shop workers, to department store workers, all of these groups are unionizing, writers were right there with them marching together. Maxwell Bodenheim really helped spark that.
CH: Great. When we come back, we will continue our conversation about the struggle for writers, novelists, and editors with the author, Jason Boog.
CH: Welcome back to On Contact. We continue our conversation about the struggle for writers, novelists, and editors with the author, Jason Boog. What--Bodenheim, we were talking about him before the break, I mean, it ends up--he was killed and murdered in a flophouse. He ends up in dives in New York City and is kind of reciting poetry for a drink. I mean, it’s really heartbreaking. But he, in his low vision, which we quote, he asked a question, you write, that still resonates today, “Why don’t we read and write books about ourselves during economic collapse?” And this is Bodenheim. “Why didn’t they write about what was going on everywhere? What was the idea? It was really true, she could walk into bookstore and pick up 10 books at random without finding a single story that dealt with people like herself and Ray, real, flesh and blood people pouring out of the factories and offices, and the big stores and the booze dives, and what they went through, how they lived, how they dragged their feet back to depressing rooms like the ones she was in and tried to make a dollar stretched like a six-inch rubber band and soak their legs in hot water to take some of the ache out of them.” That, you know, with the commercial culture that we live in today, there are few Russell Banks comes to mind. But there aren’t many well-known writers that actually deal--there are certainly writers out there, but I’m talking about commercially successful, well-known writers within the mass culture that express these realities.
JB: Yeah. And I feel like it’s more important now than ever. I mean, we’re just coming out of a--of a disastrous year. Millions of people have been unemployed for so long. I mean, there are so many people suffering and I don’t feel like we’re telling those stories yet, and I don’t--I feel like we need to surface those at this moment to show these people that are hurting. And I don’t--I feel like all I see even in the non-fiction media is series of trend pieces saying, “Ah, workers are changing positions and focusing on kind of the reshuffling that’s happening.” But below that, there are all of these people who are suffering profoundly. And I think we need to have that--we need those novels now. And…
CH: Well, they’ve rendered…
JB: …the stories have only been multiplied.
CH: They’ve been rendered invisible. They--it’s all commercialized. I mean, you can’t sell newspapers or television shows when you’re constantly doing stories about the poor. I have a wonderful line here, “I hope we are remembered as a generation that made noise as we drowned.” I want to talk about--I don’t want to let the time run, and I want to talk about an amazing poet. The only poet in the book I was familiar with and I certainly would rank her as one of the great poets of the 20th Century, and I want to talk a little bit about her masterpiece, The Book of the Dead. And this Muriel Rukeyser. Can you talk about her?
JB: Yeah. She also is possibly my favorite poet of all-time. And I learned about her as I was writing this book I’ve now read. Every word she’s ever written multiple times, a beautiful body of work. But during the Great Depression, she was just coming out of college. I think as many young people probably feel right now into this disaster zone of an economy, there was no place for her to go to work. She kind of just cobbled together experiences. She traveled to the Spanish Civil War and wrote an amazing documentary poem about what her experience during the Spanish Civil War was like. She returned and became an activist. She went and wrote about a mining disaster down south and about protests in Alabama against unfair imprisonment of Black men. It--she was just an activist and she wrote poems that were--she call it documentary poetry. It was using the--almost the camera’s eye to express, capture the different stories of the suffering and the struggles that she saw. And she just put so much work out, right, during that period and it was really breathtaking to discover that. And I think some of the best record we have of the Great Depression comes from her work.
CH: Well, she went down for the Scottsboro Boys. The nine…
JB: Yeah, the Scottsboro Boys. Yeah.
CH: …young men who are unfairly charged Black men. And then I want to talk a little bit about The Book of the Dead.
JB: Uh-hmm. Yeah. So The Book of the Dead was her poem about this mining--there was a mining company that was letting its workers continue to work even though they had hit the silica deposits that were poisoning their lungs. Just hundreds of workers were poisoned for doing their jobs and were fighting for--were fighting for remuneration for this. And she went there and she takes you--gives you the perspective of the miner digging into the hole or the miner coming to the bathtub and his wife just seeing the mark of the silica on the bathtub and just these image and she pulled and told that story and in this really dramatic and haunting way. And it really carried what could have been just a small regional trial and brought it to a much larger audience. And I would love to see more poetry like that. It’s…
CH: Well, at one point, is it…
JB: …one of the most inspiring poetry.
CH: Is it Union Carbide who owns the mine? I mean an estimated 2,000 people--many of them Black who were killed, died and many of them were very young. And she had--one point in the poem, she runs the stock notations for--because it’s all about profit. You know, it’s the old biblical story of Moloch. I just want to read a couple lines of it. This is from a heading called, “Praise of the Committee.” “These are the lines on which a committee is formed almost as soon as work was begun in a tunnel men began to die among the dry drills, no masks. Most of them were not from this valley. The freights brought many every day from states all up and down the Atlantic seaboard and as far inland as Kentucky, Ohio. After the work, the camps were closed or burned. The ambulance was going day and night. Whites undertaking business thriving and his mother’s cornfield put to a new use. Many of the shareholders at this meeting were nervous about the division of the profits, how much has the company spent on lawsuits. The man said $150,000 special counsel. I am not familiar with the case, not one cent terms of the contract masked or liable, no reply, great corporation disowning men who made after the lawsuits had been instituted.” I mean, it’s really a stunning piece of poetry, but also an indictment of the callousness of corporations. And again, I think that resonates very much with where we are today.
JB: Hmm, absolutely. And she brought in those lines that you were reading. Those--that’s a mixture of her own poetry and lines from the courtroom, actual filings, or--so she brought facts in and it’s really interesting way that I--I hope that--I’m sure that this moment that we’re in right now, there are poets who could engage with the many injustices that we see especially in the workforce right now. I think there’s a huge opportunity. And one personal note for Muriel, she was the same age as my son. I have a six-year-old son and she was the exact same age as him when the Spanish Flu epidemic hit and just rocked the world killing millions. And she was just a child as that happened and to think about what the world look like over the course of her life, what--all the changes and--that you can trace back to that moment when the world fell apart in this pandemic, it really makes me wonder like what my son’s experience will be like and how this time that we’re in will reshape his life and, both for the good and for the bad, and I just can’t stop thinking about that.
CH: I want to talk about--is it Mark Pinsky?
JB: Yeah, Mark Pinsky and the New Republic.
CH: Who--right. Who writes this passage and I think it’s very prescient that you quote on the book, “In the 1930s, journalists consider themselves a part of the working class largely identified with the political left and understood the power of collective action. In the post-Watergate era, journalists became white collar, college-educated, and middle class often upper middle class. They distained collective action and saw themselves as above politics and ideology. And so, they were unable to slow and thus cushion the inevitable decline of newspapers.” I had come out of The New York Times culture and that’s exactly--I think he makes an extremely important point that there was a kind of--and you even talked about with Raven Circle how they--when they would gather on Thompson Street to sell their poetry. It wasn’t just to sell poetry, but the fact that they were unified as a group. And we’ve been kind of shorn because we don’t have that kind of collective, that sense of the collective.
JB: Yeah. And I do think with the advent of journalist programs, I mean, I do have to--I am very privileged person. I was able to go to New York University for journalism school. And the kind of professionalization that that brings to the journalism itself, it necessary--it excludes people. It makes it--it raises that barrier to entry for people to participate. And I do think we suffer as readers and as journalists because of that. We are weaker because would did not have that--because it wasn’t as open as it used to be. I do feel that there is--I do feel more hope, I mean, we’ve seen a lot of union organization and media organizations around the country in the last two years--two or three years and I am cheered by that. And I hope that can continue and I hope it can survive this very difficult economy moment because that’s--I mean, these organizations formed right as the Great Depression hit, at the moment, that journalists needed it the most and they survived many, many decades afterwards as people needed it. So I hope that that continues in our own time as well because these economy problems are not going to go away.
CH: Well, although we have seen attempts that union organizing, advise, and other places, I was central to an attempt to unionize Truthdig and we were all fired, even on progressive sites--”progressive sites”, there’s tremendous hostility to creating the power of that collective. One of the things that you write about on a book is very distressing and that is what you call forgotten books, forgotten books that make room for computers and reading spaces, consigning works by authors like Max Bodenheim to oblivion. And you talk about how 1997, the San Francisco Library pulped 250,000 “forgotten books.”
JB: Uh-hmm. Yeah. It’s--and it’s--that problem is only--it’s exponentially worse now with digital books. I mean, there’s just a sea of things that you can read and that you can choose to read and I really worry about the books that are getting lost in that transition. The books like Bodenheim’s, they never even were able to make--you can’t get a digital book version of a Maxwell Bodenheim book. He has missed that transition, and sure, thousands--and hundreds of thousands of other writers had not been able to make that transition. And even if they had, they would be sitting in an enormous see of millions and millions of other books. And so, it’s very overwhelming. And I think we’re going to see many more books forgotten. And it was very interesting to think about that over these difficult times for our country, but then also just about how--what--whose going to be remembered from our own time and what struggles are we going to remember 10 years from now? And it’s hard to predict.
CH: Great. That was Jason Boog, author of the new book, The Deep End: The Literary Scene in the Great Depression and Today.