Depression-Era Books & The New Literary Tough Guy


Admittedly, I have a major fascination with both history, particularly the Great Depression, and zeitgeist phenomena, especially as it relates to  consumer behavior surrounding books and films. Couple that with my general enthusiasm for and devotion to literature, and one can only imagine my excitement when I flipped on the radio to hear an NPR essay entitled "What People Were Reading During The Depression" by Maureen Corrigan. The essay doesn't merely cover historical data, it compares reader inclinations then with reader inclinations now, and does so to exactly the result we might have guessed.

Corrigan begins with a bit of history about Publishers Weekly, a publication around in one form or another since the mid-1800s, and soon enough gets to the heart of the matter:

That same issue of 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 -- either by
taking them out of public libraries, borrowing them from the
now-extinct bookstore rental libraries, or buying them -- look a lot
like the mass market offerings of 2009.

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 meltdown 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 nose dive.

But it is this next section which leads to something that has been on my mind quite a bit lately, which I'll get to in a moment:

No doubt male readers were the target audience for the many economic primers of the time, such as Counter-Attack,
written by Maryland Sen. 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; Kenneth Roberts' Revolutionary War potboiler, Rabble in Arms; and one of the biggest best-sellers 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 disposed
nobleman who has to fight his way from Cuba to Africa and to Europe and
America to claim his rightful inheritance.

This segues into what I've been thinking about in literature right now: I've heard it said that the Charlie Brown and Little Red-Headed Girl formula has been done to death in recent years, and I don't disagree. What I'm seeing, ever so subtly from where we stand right now, though, is a shift into a new pantheon of literary Steve McQueens. The literary man's man, it seems, is coming back, and I can't help but consider all of the social factors which might contribute to the group-mind of writers resurrecting him. 

The difference in this new masculine literary genre, among other things, is that if it is indeed influenced by socio-economic change and instability, we must consider that the gender roles have changed considerably since the Great Depression, and so while I'm placing my bets on the rise of a new kind of male protagonist in contemporary literature, it will be interesting to see how he differs from this earlier counterparts. 

Read or listen to Corrigan's essay on


Leave a comment
  • I agree and I loved the way you stated it:

    "What I'm seeing, ever so subtly from where we stand right now, though, is a shift into a new pantheon of literary Steve McQueens. The literary man's man, it seems, is coming back..."

    I was wondering if you found that there are "literary bloggers" who fall under this category. If I'm on the right track I think of someone like Cory Doctorow who's kind of a maverick in his genre and has a nice following who can be influential with his work and with recommending other authors.

  • I'm working on a story right now with an all-male cast of characters and confronting some of this. It's even easier when writing juvenile young men and boys to default to the shy postfeminist, non-aggressive personality typecasting, and to demonize the bold, the aggressive, and the stoic as characteristics of sociopathy.

    I think that I've managed to overcome at least some of it, but the reason I bring it up at all is that one major component of so called "tough guy" man's-men in new literature is going to have to be the always dynamic and often dismal nature of modern fatherhood. For every kid without a father there's also a father without a child. Broken families leave not only the child but also the oft-forgotten father broken, aimless, and alone.

    Depression-era stories had tough-assed authoritarian male characters because their characters usually had tough-assed authoritarian male role models who existed in a rational continuum of, for lack of a better term, "bad-assery". Captain Ahab certainly didn't just fall effortlessly into helming the Pequod. Today's super-cool dude in a Charlie Brown/Frat boy context seems to materialize out of thin air, lottery style due to some freak non-merit "talent" like being tall enough to dunk a basketball or lucky enough to land a rap music record deal. He is self-made, in the right place at the right time. He's an ordinary Joe, sometimes self-aware or even mildly amused by his success in the face of his own mediocrity because it's unfashionable to simply work harder. He is nothing of himself, but is instead the ultimate opportunist that made the most of extraordinary external forces. He follows no tradition and looks up to no one. This is most definately NOT the classic literary tough guy. The classic tough guy had mentors, trainers, symbolic (if not actual) fathers. The Mickey to their Rocky Balboa.

    In the absence of fathers, or perhaps in the presence of father-deriding cultural role models, the legitimate "tough guys" of this Great Depression's stories are going to have to learn how to be men on their own.

  • (slow clap)

    Thank you for the excellent comment, Mark. Truly.

Leave a comment