Inner Lives in Hard Times

Against the Current No. 214, September/October 2021

Lukas Moe

The Emotional Life of the Great Depression
By John Marsh
Oxford University Press, 2019, 320 pages, $45 hardcover.

THE SLOWEST POPULATION growth in the United States since the 1930s. Average life expectancy in Black and brown communities nearly three years lower than pre-pandemic levels. As the economic and ecological crises of this century generate headlines, the long-term story comes into view.

Morbidity among poor Americans was chronic, of course, before COVID-19. But one effect of the COVID epoch has been to inject reality back into facts and statistics, even for the well off.

It makes sense that we feel panicked. Unlike the alternatives of blind rage and blank despair, panic permits us the fantasy at least of laying hold of reality. To feel “bad” feels better, somehow, than the numbness of numbers.

In The Emotional Life of the Great Depression, John Marsh chronicles the complex inner lives of Americans when the future looked as grim as it does now. The author, a professor of English at Pennsylvania State University who’s written for this magazine (“Where Did Our Red Love Go?” in ATC 184), brings a critic’s rather than a historian’s expertise to the archives and texts he reads.

Marsh begins with the strange causality of the Wall Street Crash in 1929. He shows how the stock market did not collapse all at once but deflated over time, the fiction of infinite growth punctured by one bad decision after another. Panic and confusion caused a cataclysm, which led to greater and more confused panic, before nerve-wracked normality set in.

It would be similar to how the United States and Britain are easing lockdowns while knowing full well the cost, if not for the fact that the New Deal saw the passage of a new framework for civic life. Today, there is budget reconciliation.

The Emotional Life traces the aftershocks of the Crash into economic theory, pulp fiction, dating habits and retirement schemes. There is the story of physician Francis Townsend, who came up with idea for the universal old-age pension financed by taxpayers. This was a popular enough notion, at least in San Diego, to move one in five residents to join “Townsend Clubs.”

It makes sense that such a scheme appears in the Universal Basic Income debate today. Townsend’s idea may have been quixotic — it would have cost roughly 40% of the nation’s tax base — but no less grounded in practical necessity: witness Social Security, established a few years later. Americans “borrowed back from the future to pay for the present,” Marsh writes.

Yet as the Townsend example shows, policy was not always planned, arising instead on tides of collective feeling, through crests of hope and fear, and troughs of defeat.

Through the feedback loop of moralizing talk and market fluctuations, the market crash exemplifies Marsh’s sense that the psychic drives of a society do as much to distribute its well-being and wealth as do differences in power between classes.

The Depression was neither the end of capitalism nor a divine judgment on modernity run amok, the sins of one generation visited on the next. Instead, it was a combination of self-interest and austerity, of brute reality, dumb luck and rigged fortune.

Then and Now

During the 1930s Americans experienced the hunger of food insecurity, the spiritual thirst for redemption, and patriotic feelings of solidarity, sometimes in a week’s time. Sound familiar?

Look around and you’ll soon find the assorted legacy of the Depression’s emotional lives: the failed attempt to privatize Social Security a generation ago; the ongoing demolition of the welfare state ever since; cities in trusteeship, pensions in escrow; stock-market feeding frenzies.

Politics became popular in the 1930s — better described as a passion play of spectacle than a populist turn in sympathy for the downtrodden. “The red decade” is not Marsh’s focus, but in theme and temperament his study is a product of recent insurgency: the rank-and-file struggles of teachers and nurses from West Virginia to Los Angeles; voter turnout in the South; the Movement for Black Lives and the George Floyd uprising.

Significantly responsible for reviving class and antiracist consciousness, booting a thug out of power, and pushing the new administration to pass the biggest spending bills since FDR, the allied left of today is redolent of the thirties — a welcome return to militancy, but also, the disturbing affinity in how little the left has to lose.

Marsh’s book is a guide to a truism that bears repeating: we’ve been here before. When Herbert Hoover initially responded to the Crash by appealing to the divine punishment of profligate financiers, it may have naively cast the economy as a “morality tale,” as Marsh notes, but no less sanctimonious was the Obama administration, after the too-small and inequitable relief bills of 2009, in tightening the budgetary belt. Instead of a green new deal, however, we got Trump.

For readers uninterested in the latest trends in affect theory and psychoanalysis, Marsh makes plain the moebius strip that is affective life. “Fear itself” — the special dread that FDR made into the country’s rallying cry — has always been a curious alloy, part anxiety and panic, part Hollywood romance and undimmable hopes.

Fear “makes children of us all,” Marsh writes, inspiring the “helplessness” of bodily exposure that COVID-19 has visited on even the most powerful and protected. By seeing the Depression as an age of wonders — the Empire State Building; the sublime dignity of Southern sharecroppers; Jesse Owens’ great leap at the 1936 Berlin Olympics — Marsh has written a fresh history of a period well worked over.

Unsurprisingly, given his background as a literary scholar, Marsh tells a story of stories — treating canonical authors such as Richard Wright and F. Scott Fitzgerald as well as countless mostly forgotten authors whose stars rose and fell in the years between the Crash and the New Deal.

Beyond his own discipline Marsh dredges insights from economic history, sociology and psychology that he makes accessible to lay readers. There is a lucid explanation of margin trading that should help anyone confused by the recent GameStop imbroglio.

The Emotional Life contains case studies of “fear” as well as “joy,” “hope” and “anxiety,” that are more compelling taken together.

At times, this feels like a survey of the materials that a talented researcher decided to study and then compile into a book. I wanted more discussion of the logic of selection (why labor economics, but not Marx?) The trees were often interesting enough to make me forget the forest — a dubious distinction, perhaps, for a cultural history — but then Marsh is a reader of complexity, happy to leave readers to tie threads together or leave them hanging.

New Metaphors

Like novels, history is shaped by human passions, everyday whims as well as obsessions that belie our tendency to think about epochs in terms of single events and turning points, beyond our comprehension. We don’t stop the flow of events to step back and say, here we are, history is forever changed, despite this kind of navel-gazing dominating Trump-era journalism.

COVID and climate, however, perhaps demand new metaphors — not just new stories — for the history of our emotions. The Emotional Life is aware of its constraining anachronisms. The parallel between the Depression decade and the post-2008 Great Recession has acquired a currency verging on cliché, one thrown into still greater relief by the COVID-19 era.

Stock market booms and contraction in the real economy; debt and unemployment crises; extreme weather; police brutality; breadlines; even the pandemic itself has a precursor in Depression-era polio outbreaks. From Puerto Rico to Flint, Americans have come to see how the nation-state abandons its most vulnerable populations in the name of austerity, filling the coffers of disaster capitalists while slashing pensions and public services at the whim of private equity.

The declining birthrate is a case in point. It suggests that Americans have come to regard the future dimly, doubting if not condemning the imperative to grow, to reproduce, to pass down one’s genes and heritage — however ideologically.

Whether from student debt or climate change, the cost of having a family for many now seems unaffordable. This sort of calculation, we learn from Marsh, became “a way of life” for ordinary people around the time that economists and policy makers could no longer predict the future.

Uncertainty; chaos; volatility: insofar as these words described “the irresistible force of business cycles,” for Marsh they are more than metaphors. Ups and downs are a measure of felt experience, not simply fluctuations in price and production.

Average Americans took an interest in the security of their savings and assets once they became charged with emotional meanings. Or as often was the case, only when jobs, houses and money disappeared did their function as ballast for the social order, shaping “the trajectory of American life,” become unmistakable.

To his credit Marsh avoids the haphazard analogies and allegories that “emotional life” invites as a lens onto social reality. Recent scholars of the politics of affect, such as Sara Ahmed and Sianne Ngai, might have bolstered Marsh’s account of the Depression-era structure of feeling, but his interest is less in theorizing how emotions work than in showing how pervasively they did.

By turns packed with detail and tethered to a briskly moving if sometimes thinly argued narrative voice, Emotional Life models a way of talking about “culture” not as an attaché to “politics” but as its most durable ground. For how often are we aware of our actions as political per se? How conscious are we of rational reasons for feeling the way we do — especially when it comes to “politics”?

The poet Allen Ginsberg implied such questions when he reminisced in his mock address to the nation. “Are you going to let your emotional life be run by Time Magazine?”

That was in 1956. The emergencies of the thirties had begun to fade by the time the fifties announced a crisis of another kind — more inward and quiet, more paranoid and despairing. The Depression was boisterous and exuberant by comparison. Attending to the “ugly feelings” in Ngai’s term (Ugly Feelings, Harvard University Press, 2005) allows Marsh to give a full picture of emotional life in times of emergency.

Struggle for Dignity and Resilience

Crisis made Depression-era Americans take a lead in the struggle for dignity. Reading their stories is a shot in the COVID-weary arm, a momentary summons of resilience against the torpid nerviness of cable news and social media.

Shifting the focus off questions of labor and politics that guide most cultural histories of the Depression, Marsh’s case studies paint outside the lines of grim scholarly tableaux of poverty and unemployment.

He doesn’t entirely evade the horsemen of the apocalypse — “Panic”; “Fear”; “Anxiety” are chapter titles — but Marsh is primarily concerned with the uneasy ironies, unexpected pleasures, unreasoning fantasies that drove individuals to great imagination and foolishness: the “righteousness” of refusing relief to hungry masses; the “hope” that was less exploited than simply “oversold” by Dale Carnegie’s How to Win Friends and Succeed; the speculative hunches, whether betting on a stock or selling it short, that cathected faith in the future and denial about the past.

Instead of simply “overwhelming human beings,” the unprecedented scale of social ruin and public works during the 1930s paradoxically ushered the individual back to the center stage of history.

According to Marsh’s “labor theory of the sublime,” the debunking of market wizards such as Yale economist Irving Fisher did less to demystify capitalist ideology than to relocate questions of value in the old-fashioned ideas of human dignity and spirit whose sympathetic power “worked from the bottom up.”

This makes for an old-fashioned book, as well as one invested in the democratizing potential of lived experiences and struggles. Tracing the Americans famous and forgotten who called upon their innermost selves, Marsh ranges across literary history, economics and pop culture to make sense of how we’ve made the best of it in the worst of times.

According to analytic philosophy and cognitive psychology, the word for this is adaption. Emotions take shape in response to environmental stimuli. The climate crisis will test our adaptive capacity beyond imagination.

But there is cause for skepticism here, too. The Dust Bowl made for plenty of despair, but did agricultural industry become a better planetary steward as a result? Do emotions — psychic phenomena, if nothing else — hold a candle to the id-like ferocity of the profit motive?

Adaptation to change is also a key tenet of neoliberalism. The lack of a systemic alternative to capitalism since the Great Depression has led global humanity to the ecological precipice where we stand now — socially distanced, unprecedentedly anxious, and poorer than our parents. How we feel, as a matter of collective life, might matter less than we’d like to think.

September-October 2021, ATC 214