TERRY GROSS, host:
We've heard a lot about how our current economic condition parallels that of the Great Depression. Book critic Maureen Corrigan began wondering if the books people were reading in the Great Depression had any correspondence to our reading tastes today. She focused her investigation on one of the darkest years of the Great Depression: 1933. And here's what she found.
MAUREEN CORRIGAN: Publishers Weekly is the trade journal of the publishing industry. Various incarnations of the magazine have been around since 1852, and old issues are a marvel to skim through because they preserve the reading worlds of yesterday in amber. Not only do they starkly demonstrate how fleeting fame can be, but the old issues also provide plenty of opportunities for contemporary readers to condescend to the past. It's unsettling, for instance, to see in the Publishers Weekly issue of July 1933 an ad hawking Adolph Hitler's "Mein Kampf," translated as "My Battle," as a stirring autobiography in which you will find Hitler's own story of his meteoric rise from obscurity to world-wide fame.
That same issue of the Publishers Weekly declares that the reading of books has increased throughout the Depression, as shown by library circulation records. At a quick glance, the popular books Americans were reading in the early 1930s look a lot like the mass market offerings of 2009.
There's a furry precursor to the vampire mania of today lurking in an April 1933 bestseller called "The Werewolf of Paris," and even a couple of canine ancestors of "Marley and Me." The dog starring as Elizabeth Barrett Browning's spaniel Flush in the 1933 Broadway play, "The Barretts of Wimpole Street" is depicted in a September 2nd photo spread putting his paw to a contract for a fictional memoir. That same month, Virginia Woolf cashed in on the Flush craze by bringing out a biography of the pooch.
The ad promised that the forthcoming shaggy dog story was certain to be Mrs. Woolf's most popular book. Clearly, the copywriter was not a fan of Woolf's experiments in literary modernism. If you want to get a deeper sense, however, of the literary fantasies our fellow Americans were reaching for to help them cope with the economic melt-down of the 1930s, you've got to read between the lines of these yellowed Publishers Weekly magazines.
Women, then as now, were turning to chick lit, with the crucial difference being that many of the 1930s plots featured plucky young women whose family fortunes had taken a nosedive. Faith Baldwin's novel "White Collar Girl" was deemed a circulation ace in May of 1933. It told the story of charming Linda, who was forced by her father's failure, to leave college for a selling job in her upstate New York home town. No doubt, male readers were the target audience for the many economic primers of the time, such as "Counter-Attack," written by Maryland Senator Millard E. Tydings and touted as a bold, sound, feasible plan to end the Depression.
But there were also a plethora of hard-luck male extreme adventure tales published in the early 1930s, like "Mutiny on the Bounty," Revolutionary War potboiler, "Rabble in Arms," and one of the biggest bestsellers of 1933, "Anthony Adverse," which weighed in at over 1,000 pages.
The allure of these novels seems pretty clear. Men who were struggling during the Great Depression could take comfort in reading about the exploits of stranded sailors, ragtag colonial soldiers and a dispossessed nobleman who has to fight his way from Cuba to Africa to Europe and America to claim his rightful inheritance. Some of the most desperate tales in the Depression-era Publishers Weeklies are the ones only hinted at by ads and brief news items. Brentanos and the publisher Horace Liveright filed for bankruptcy. The "Everyman's Library" reduced its prices from $.90 to $.70 a volume.
And three workers at Schulte's, a rare bookstore on New York's Fourth Avenue, went out on strike wearing sandwich boards accusing the store of unfair practice because the owner tried to cut wages. Then there's this ad in the Positions Wanted section of the July 22nd, 1933 issue: Man 25, three years experience, old, new books, library. Do anything. Any salary.
I wonder how he made out.
GROSS: Maureen Corrigan teaches literature at Georgetown University.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio.