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Author: William A. Stein
Originally published in the June 1960 Esquire, the following essay in condensed form became the prologue to The Thirties: A Time to Remember, a collection of essays by various authors recounting the turbulent decade (N.Y.: Simon and Schuster 1962, Don Congdon, ed., 23-26). Largely autobiographical, John Steinbeck's essay describes the inventiveness and comaraderie that saw many people through the Depression. Its open-ended final paragraph breaks the plucky mood of the preceding essay with a chilling ominousness that seems to anticipate the United States' even greater obssession with material wealth.
Sure I remember the Nineteen Thirties, the terrible, troubled, triumphant, surging Thirties. I can't think of any decade in history where so much happened in so many directions. Violent changes took place. Our country was modeled, our lives remolded, our government rebuilt, forced to functions, duties and responsibilities it never had before and can never relinquish. The most rabid, hysterical Roosevelt-hater would not dare to suggest removing the reforms, the safeguards and the new concept that the government is responsible for all its citizens.
Looking back, the decade seems to have been as carefully designed as a play. It had beginning, middle and end, even a prologue--1929 gave contrast and tragic stature to the ensuing ten years.
I remember '29 very well. We had it made (I didn't, but most people did). I remember the drugged and happy faces of people who built paper fortunes on stocks they couldn't possibly have paid for. "I made ten grand in ten minutes today. Let's see--that's eighty thousand for the week."
In our little town, bank presidents and trackworkers rushed to pay phones to call brokers. Everyone was a broker, more or less. At lunch hour, store clerks and stenographers munched sandwiches while they watched the stock boards and calculated their pyramiding fortunes. Their eyes had the look you see around the roulette table.
I saw it sharply because I was on the outside, writing books no one would buy. I didn't have even the margin to start my fortune. I saw the wild spending, the champagne and caviar through windows, smelled the heady perfumes on fur-draped ladies when they came warm and shining out of the theaters.
Then the bottom dropped out, and I could see that clearly too, because I had been practicing for the Depression a long time. I wasn't involved with loss. I didn't have money to lose, but in common with millions I did dislike hunger and cold. I had two assets. My father owned a tiny three-room cottage in Pacific Grove in California, and he let me live in it without rent. That was the first safety. Pacific Grove is on the sea. That was the second. People in inland cities or in the closed and shuttered industrial cemeteries had greater problems than I. Given the sea, a man must be very stupid to starve. That great reservoir of food is always available. I took a large part of my protein food from the ocean. Firewood to keep warm floated on the beach daily, needing only handsaw and ax. A small garden of black soil came with the cottage. In Northern California you can raise vegetables of some kind all year long. I never peeled a potato without planting the skins. Kale, lettuce, chard, turnips, carrots and onions rotated in the little garden. In the tide pools of the bay, mussels were available and crabs and abalones and that shiny kelp called sea lettuce. With a line and pole, blue cod, perch, sea trout, sculpin could be caught.
I must drop the "I" for "we" now, for there was a fairly large group of us poor kids, all living alike. We pooled our troubles, our money when we had some, our inventiveness and our pleasures. I remember it as a warm and friendly time. Only illness frightened us. You have to have money to be sick--or did then. And dentistry was also out of the question, with the result that my teeth went badly to pieces. Without dough you couldn't have a tooth filled.
It seems odd now to say that we rarely had a job. There just weren't any jobs. One girl of our group had a job in the Woman's Exchange. She wasn't paid, but the cakes that had passed their saleable prime she got to take home, and of course she shared so that we were rarely without dry but delicious cakes. Being without a job, I went on writing--books, essays, short stories. Regularly they went out and just as regularly came back. Even if they had been good, they would have come back because publishers were hardest hit of all. When people are broke, the first things they give up are books. I couldn't even afford postage on the manuscripts. My agents, McIntosh & Otis, paid it, although they couldn't sell my work. Needless to say, they are still my agents, and most of the work written at that time has since been published.
Given the sea and the gardens, we did pretty well with a minimum of theft. We didn't have to steal much. Farmers and orchardists in the nearby countryside couldn't sell their crops. They gave us all the fruit and truck we could carry home. We used to go on walking trips carrying our gunny sacks. If we had a dollar, we could buy a live sheep, for two dollars a pig, but we had to slaughter them and carry them home on our backs, or camp beside them and eat them there. We even did that.
Keeping clean was a problem because soap cost money. For a time we washed our laundry with a soap made of pork fat, wood ashes and salt. It worked, but it took a lot of sunning to get the smell out of the sheets.
For entertainment we had the public library, endless talk, long walks, any number of games. We played music, sang and made love. Enormous invention went into our pleasures. Anything at all was an excuse for a party: all holidays, birthdays called for celebration. When we felt the need to celebrate and the calendar was blank, we simply proclaimed a Jacks-Are-Wild Day.
It's not easy to go on writing constantly with little hope that anything will come of it. But I do remember it as a time of warmth and mutual caring. If one of us got hurt or ill or in trouble, the others rallied with what they had. Everyone shared bad fortune as well as good.
In Pacific Grove we heard that business was improving but that hadn't much emphasis for us. One of the indices of improvement was that the men who had begged the Administration to take over and tell them what to do were now howling against government control and calling Mr. Roosevelt highly colored names. This proved that they were on their feet again and was perfectly natural. You only tolerate help when you need it.
By 1936 the country must have been on the upgrade. When a writer does well, the rest of the country is doing fine. A book of mine which had been trudging wearily from publisher to publisher was finally bought and brought out by Pat Covici. It sold well enough so that it was bought for motion pictures for $3,000. I had no conception of this kind of dough. It was like thinking in terms of light years. You can't.
The subsequent history of that book is a kind of index of the change that was going on. The studio spent a quarter of a million dollars having my book rewritten before they abandoned it. Then they fired the man who had bought it in the first place. He bought it back for three thousand and later sold it for $90,000. It shows how values change. But I still think of the original $3,000 as about as much money as there is in the world. I gave a lot of it away because it seemed like too much to be in private hands. I guess I wasn't cut out for a capitalist. I even remained a Democrat.
My books were beginning to sell better than I had ever hoped or expected and while this was pleasing it also frightened me. I knew it couldn't last and I was afraid my standard of living would go up and leave me stranded when the next collapse came. We were much more accustomed to collapse than to prosperity. Also I had an archaic angry-gods feeling that made me give a great lot of my earnings away. I was a pushover for anyone or any organization asking for money. I guess it was a kind of propitiation. It didn't make sense that a book, a humble, hat-in-hand, rejected book, was now eagerly bought--even begged for. I didn't trust it. But I did begin to get around more.
I met Mr. Roosevelt and for some reason made him laugh. To the end of his life, when occasionally he felt sad and burdened, he used to ask me to come in. We would talk for half an hour and I remember how he would rock back in his chair behind his littered desk and I can still hear his roars of laughter.
A few weeks ago I called on a friend in a great office building in midtown New York. On our way out to lunch he said, "I want to show you something."
And he led me into a broker's office. One whole wall was a stock-exchange trading board. Two young men moved back and forth swiftly filling in changes, rises, falls, buying, selling. Behind an oaken rail was a tight-packed, standing audience--clerks, stenographers, small businessmen. Most of them munched sandwiches as they spent their lunch hour watching the trading. Now and then they made notations on envelopes. And their eyes had the rapt, glazed look one sees around a roulette table.