Vintage novels can provide insights into contemporary events that are too big for us to understand as they happen.
In his 1936-bestselling novel White Banners, Lloyd C. Douglas ends his story as the Depression is starting.
Douglas has Lydia Edmunds ask her banker on Nov. 12, 1929 if the country’s financial condition is as bad as the papers had been reporting or if it is “just a Wall Street mishap.”
Douglas has the banker reply,
‘A Wall Street mishap, Mrs. Edmunds . . . is always an inconvenience to large numbers of people. . . . You see . . . the whole country has been spending money that had no existence in fact. Wages have been good, credit has been easy. It has become a settled habit, with all sorts of people, to be pleased and contented with possessions on which they had paid a mere pitance. Almost nobody owned anything outright. Most of the nation’s business was done on paper. Everybody had his safety-deposit locker stuffed with pretty pictures of large sums of money. Now that the bottom has dropped out of this picture business, they’re all scared. Credit has suddenly closed up like a steel trap.’
Too bad President Bush and Treasury Secretary Paulson couldn’t explain our present financial situation with such clarity.
Douglas’s explanation of the cause of the Depression might just be the highpoint of White Banners.
Great reads with economic insights
Fortunately, other bestselling novels of the ’30s and ’40s do a vastly better job of providing entertainment while showing how economic conditions of the 1920s affected ordinary people. My recommendations are:
The Road Back by Erich Maria Remarque (1931, #6)
Back Street by Fannie Hurst (1931, #8)
Little Man, What Now? by Hans Fallada (1933 #10)
Vein of Iron by Ellen Glasgow (1935 #2)
The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck (1939 #1)
A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith (1943 # 4)
Each of these very different novels shows people struggling against economic conditions that they cannot control. Any one of them will tell you more about how national policy affects ordinary citizens than two weeks of televised Congressional hearings.