Blogger: Michelle Ule
Location: Santa Rosa’s main office
Conventional wisdom tells us that during the Great Depression (1929-1939), Americans flocked to the movie theaters to escape their drab lives through the music and dancing magic of Shirley Temple, Fred Astaire, and Ginger Rogers.
True, but those films weren’t exactly happy tales void of difficulties. When my family and I watched all the Shirley Temple films one summer, we joked at the start of each one, “How do you think her parents will die this time?” She may have had a happy ending, but Shirley usually had tragedy in her past. And Ginger? Always a broke store clerk or a woman down on her luck. Things turned around when Ginger found Fred and twirled away on her very high heels. And they all lived happily ever after.
But while moviegoers sought escape in song and dance, what types of books did the readers buy? The best-selling novel of 1931 and 1932 was Pearl Buck’s The Good Earth, the story of a poor Chinese farmer during turbulent times. The 1931 nonfiction list included books about games, biographies and several political and/or current event books. (These best-selling book lists come from a 2006 class taught by Professor John Unsworth at the University of Illinois’s Graduate School of Library and Information Services, “20th Century American Best-Sellers.”)
One of the best selling writers during the Depression and World War II era was the Lutheran pastor, Lloyd C. Douglas. Among his novels written during this time period were Magnificent Obsession, Green Light, White Banners and The Robe. The Robe, which examines events connected to the cloth Jesus wore at his crucifixion, was on the best-seller list for three straight years during World War II.
On the nonfiction list, one of the big sellers in 1933 and 1934 was 100,000,000 Guinea Pigs: Dangers in Everyday Foods, Drugs and Cosmetics by Arthur Kallet and F. J. Schlink. See? There’s nothing new under the sun. Biographies and narrative nonfiction-type stories fill the ranks, with books about war clouds growing in Europe appearing with greater regularity toward the end of the decade.
Another big fiction seller during the Depression was Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind–an historical novel set during the Civil War, which emphasizes Scarlett O’Hara’s pluck and opportunity-grabbing ability. Plenty of escapist literature appeared on the list: Anthony Adverse, a swashbuckling story that topped the list in 1933 and 1934; Anne Morrow Lindbergh’s true tale of adventure: North to the Orient; and Clarence Day’s domestic comedy: Life with Father. A.J. Cronin medical dramas appear almost yearly.
The fiction lists generally hold at least one mystery (often by Mary Roberts Rinehart), romantic suspense novels, tearjerkers, American historical fiction and usually one humorous book.
What sort of conclusions, if any, can we take from lists like these? Is it possible to take historical information and apply it to today?
During times in my life when things aren’t going well, when death or fear drags me down, I don’t want to read heavy stories. I read to escape from my turbulent life into a place that may also be unruly, but at least is guaranteeing me a happy ending. That may be why I always read the last chapter of the murder mystery . . . before I should.
Which brings us to today.
In a time of pressing financial need, chaos around the world, frustration with government and sagging moral institutions, what type of book do you want to read? What would be the felt need for a large enough component of the reading public to make book sales soar?
Or, what type of book do you NOT want to read during trying times?
Michelle, in tough times I want to read motivational books with uplifting truths. It’s during these times that I ditch the tales of negativity and discouragement.
And I never realized that Magnificent Obsession was a book! I wonder if I could still check that out at the library or if it’s even in print anymore? I LOVE that movie and the message!
What great topics you’ve presented this week!
The film adaptation of The Robe is quite excellent. Like Cynthia, didn’t know one of my favorite movies was also a book 🙂
I’m not too sure if there can be too many lessons applied from the Great Depression towards todays’ cultural climate. For example, it isn’t upbeat swashbuckling adventures but dystopian fiction has become quite popular, both in film and in print. Furthermore contemporary fiction has taken on a nihilist edge where we are literally celebrating and glamorizing monsters, be it the vampire, zombie, etc.
Another startling indication of the state of society is how popular print polemics have become: it seems every other month there is a new best seller detailing how one or another of the political parties is destroying the nation. These books are often heavy on the gloom, and light on the solutions (and frankly logic and reason half the time).
The counter-balance comes through the success of books dealing with the Amish lifestyle and the premise of a simpler, better period in history. Yet even this is a bit worrisome: it can be argued that by looking backwards society shirks the responsibility of looking forward and dealing with the crisis of the modern world, which is perhaps why the current political solutions offered by the two parties are founded in the polar opposites of each other, as the silent majority has thus far stayed as such.
Another aspect of culture and society which has not been explored enough in the national dialogue is the effect of the two wars has shaped the nations’ youth. World War One gave rise to Hemmingway and others; Vietnam to its own generation of writers, philosophers, and policy makers, Matterhorn being perhaps the most recent and important exploration of that war and that generation which fought it. The Great Depression once was unique because it came on the heels of one generation going to war and the birth of the one who fought the next; yet with the current recession coming on the heels of the two previous wars, and recent events making it unsure if we will yet shortly enter into another, where are the current voices who can help civilians understand what we ask of those who serve? Culture, society, and words…..where are those to give us the words from their experiences so as to help us understand the rest of it all?
Good and interesting points, Larry.
I think I wanted to highlight that while Shirley, Fred and Ginger were an opportunity to escape the drudgery, they did not ignore the current situation–but they also didn’t wallow in it, which is what I think is happening with dystopia.
And you’re correct, the cultural norms were more positive, shall we say, than they are today.
I’ve not read any of Lloyd C. Douglas’ work, just checking on Amazon, I see The Robe gets rave reviews . . . hmm, I probably should read it. But it was an affirming work, as really, were all the others noted above (except, perhaps, for the Guinea Pig book). As Christian writers, I think we can strive to give HOPE to the many who are flailing.
I know I don’t want to read about miserable lives without something to encourage me by the end. Even Scarlett’s “tomorrow is another day,” and her plans to try to regain Rhett’s love, is hopeful and you cheer her on. And at the end of The Good Earth, the peasant family has found a measure of contentment with each other despite the horrors they weathered–together.
Janet Ann Collins
I really became a Christian as a result of reading The Robe when I was a teenager and I still re-read it once in a while when my life gets tough. I don’t want to read about politics or stories, fictional or not, telling me how rich and famous people live.
Great post and engaging discussion. Along with all those best selling ones you listed is Little House in the Big Woods by Laura Ingalls Wilder. I believe all her books came out between 1932 and 1945, except those published after her death.
Like the books you’ve listed, hardships were not avoided in Wilder’s books. The Long Winter where the town of De Smet is cut off until spring due to the numerous blizzards, is perhaps the best example of that. Wilder’s keen eye for detail depicts a town on the brink of starvation. If it were not for the heroic Almanzo Wilder and Cap Garland, the town certainly would not have survived.
What Wilder did well, however, is show how the family, and sometimes the town, triumphed over the hardships that fell upon them. When Harper’s released Little House in the Big Woods in 1932, it became an instant success. It would seem that even children during tough times need the reassurance that things will one day be well again.
I can’t say I always go for lighthearted when times are tough. Much of what I read is dictated by my review schedule. I can say I’ve avoided dystopian fiction because it doesn’t appeal to me. While current event books aren’t top on my list, I don’t mind novels that include current social issues.
Thanks for a week of thought-provoking posts.
Okay, Janet, you’ve convinced me. I’ll get a copy of The Robe! And I think The Long Winter is one of my favorites of the Little House books. 🙂
Thanks for sharing.
I’m always drawn to read romance. Outside of that, I love magazines and non-fiction. I like to be inspired, so no downer books for me! Have a great weekend, Michelle!
D. Ann Graham
Michelle… what a pleasure the entire week has been, looking into this subject through your eyes. Such substance and fresh perspectives you have brought to the table! Today, you hit on some of my absolute favorite writers and entertainers of all time, each with the most amazing stories behind them, I couldn’t decide which to comment on. How could I leave one of them out? In the end, I opted to save that long devotion for the more appropriate venue of my own blog, so that I could leave a little space for others to comment, here, as well. Although I have to admit I find it most enjoyable when the discussion reaches into the true depths of heated reason, where commenters start sparking each other’s thoughts. Such as Larry’s long comment during which…
I agreed with him, disagreed with him, conceded his next point, but wanted to argue the one that ruffled my feathers, until finally he ended with that statement (Larry, did you even know it was coming?) “… where are those to give us the words from their experiences so as to help us understand the rest of it all?” which touched the universal place in my own heart that made me know we were kin. Because that’s what it all comes down to, I think. We are most prone to trust in the experiences of others. What they testify truly happened to them.
So, I decided I should rather take my “comment moment” to say how much I appreciate the wonderful platform of excellence the Books & Such crew continues to hold out week after week, in order to bring knowledge, help, and encouragement to writers. Thanks so much, ladies. May you all be richly blessed for this “labor of love!”
I like strange, dark and end of the world stories no matter what’s going on in the world. I have no idea why I like these stories, but I think if the writing is excellent it doesn’t matter what’s going on in society.
Great blog Michelle and great posts and comments. I liked today how you told the story of how “To Kill A Mockingbird” became published. Fascinating and intriguing. I think more then a few of our favorite books have similar great stories about how they came to be published. Thanks for coming to speak with us at Writers Of Kern and look forward to reading your work.
I posted this on facebook.
Michell Ule spoke to us durring our monthly WOK meeting at the Clarion Hotel. Michelle works in a literary agent but also wrote in a New York Best Selling Novel which “A Log Cabin Christmas” which she graciously signed for me. It was a thrill to meet her and get an insiders view of the publishers industry. She told us what we should do in choosing a topic to write about. She gave us advice about networking and using Amazon and Smashwords to e-publish. There were many present who peppered her with questions about what sells and how to properly write a query letter. All in all it was a great meeting and a great speaker. Met a lot of interesting Kern County writers and am looking forward to the next meeting.