As the unemployment numbers rise in the current economic troubles, it’s hard not to think of the flotsam of the Great Depression years, the men and boys and whole families who went on the road or lost their homes. We have yet to experience anything on this scale, yet depression novels and films, focused on people who have lost their moorings, their confidence, their position on the social ladder, allow us precious insight into a world coming apart, a whole society in free fall. Such works give us glimpses of the human reality behind the facts and figures, behind the government programs meant to relieve this widespread suffering. The reforms set in motion by the New Deal were meant to keep this from happening again. Only time will tell where the present recession will lead or how it might be reflected in books and films in the next few years. A. O. Scott has already detected a shift toward downbeat, small-scale realism in recent independent films like Kelly Reichardt’s moving Wendy and Lucy, shot before the recession began, which centers on a woman whose life has bottomed out, who has taken to the road with her dog, someone with nothing to fall back on but her own will to go on.
Throughout the early years of the depression, many men and boys took to the road, including perhaps a quarter of a million kids whose families could not feed them. This became the subject of an impressive 1933 film by William Wellman, Wild Boys of the Road. According to a 1935 book by Kingsley Davis called Youth in the Depression, instead of forming communities of their own, as in the movie, they usually traveled in twos and threes and attached themselves to the hobo jungles of older men. The adult equivalent of Wild Boys of the Road was a crisply written novel by Edward Anderson, Hungry Men, which won a prize from its publisher, Doubleday, Doran, in 1935. (Promptly forgotten, it was reprinted by Penguin fifty years later, after the success of William Kennedy’s Ironweed, a modern tale of a depression bum.) Born in Texas in 1906, Anderson cut his teeth as a small-town reporter, a boxer, an itinerant hobo, and a pulp writer channeling stories directly from the police blotter. His work, like Tom Kromer’s Waiting for Nothing, published by Knopf the same year, conveys the unique flavor of being down and out during the depression. Anderson was one of the promising young writers of the late 1930s, but he faded soon after the 1937 publication of his second and final novel, Thieves like Us, a Bonnie and Clyde story that has survived in numerous film versions, such as Nicholas Ray’s They Live by Night (1949) and Robert Altman’s Thieves like Us (1974). Anderson himself failed as a screenwriter in Hollywood and went back to journalism. He died in obscurity in Brownsville, Texas, in 1969, where he edited a local newspaper.
Until recently, Hungry Men was not mentioned in any standar...
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