Making Meaning From Madness, It’s A Writer’s Duty

by | Feb 21, 2009

Sean McCann, a professor of English at Wesleyan University, writes in The Wall Street Journal that we may see a new batch of American writers emerge from the chaos of our times.

He recalls how Sherwood Anderson, James Agee, Edmund Wilson, John Dos Passos and Louis Adamic travelled the back roads of America in the fall of 1933 hoping to discover how economic disaster had affected the common people.

Like many of his peers, Anderson had anticipated anger and radicalism among the poor and unemployed. Instead, he discovered a people stunned by the collapse of their most cherished beliefs. Puzzled America, the title of the book he composed out of his journeys, said it all.

McCann also notes that “never in American history had the vision of social mobility been more forcefully asserted than in the 1920s,” when interestingly enough, The Republican Party ruled and Herbert Hoover remarked, that ours is “a fluid classless society…unique in the world.”

That rhetoric was redoubled by a booming new advertising industry which promised that consumers might vault up the ladder of social status through carefully chosen purchases (often with consumer credit, a recent invention).

McCann says the term “social mobility” was coined in 1925 by the sociologist Pitirim Sorokin, who used the phrase to identify a phenomenon in apparent decline.

The conflict between the American myth of a classless society and the reality of the nation’s deepening caste divisions was the irony at the core of some of the greatest literary works of the 1920s, including Theodore Dreiser’s An American Tragedy and F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby. But it was not until the Great Depression that the traditional vision of social mobility imploded.

It did implode. And plenty of writers since have described a hardscrabble America, where dreams vanish. Yet, just as many have worked to keep the vision of upward mobility alive. I can tell you from my own experience, having done both, it pays much better to cleverly say Coors or Camel will make you a desirable person, than it does to critique the very premise of a commercial society.