A Blue Plate Special is a low-priced daily diner special: a main course with all the fixins, a daily combo, a square for two bits.
It seems a fitting title for this collection of Thirties' prose: it’s got some crime fiction, some real event reportage, strikes and riots and some humorous Guys and Dolls. Like a good square meal, it has a little bit from every group. Put them all together and you have a wholesome, and hopefully fulfilling, taste of the Decade.
The original blue plates, from which the Blue Plate Special gets it name, were manufactured during the Depression and had separate sections for each part of the meal. Similarly, this Blue Plate Special is divided into categories or topics, each with a different flavor. Ultimately the decision to select topics is arbitrary, and yet each seemed to spring rather naturally from the works. The categories say something about the decade, speaking generally to its main concerns and even methods of writing. For now, the categories are Proletarian Writing, The Camera Eye, City Scapes, Rural Scenes, Hoboes and Tramps, and The Media Mirror.
If the decision to select topics is arbitrary, then placing each selection under a topic is even more so. The categories are by no means rigid and, in fact, many selections could be placed under more than one of them. One thing you can’t help but notice is the way that many of these writings, like peas and gravy on a slippery plate, slosh around together, run into each other, inform and lend flavor to one another. Indeed, the indefinite quality of the Blue Plate Special (you never know what the Special might be...) suggests the slippery quality of much of what is presented here. It also happens to be the title of a Damon Runyon book published in 1934, a collection of short stories in his singular style, stories of Broadway and New York, dames, players, and underworld characters. This Blue Plate Special is The Thirties - its humor, horror, memory and hope, its depressions, obsessions, its crime and speed, its pacifiers and politics - as written and published during the tumultuous decade bracketed on either side by the Great Depression and World War II.
Proletarian Writing was a huge component of 1930s literature, important for its subject matter, its style, and its lasting effect on modern literature. Anthologies like Proletarian Writing of The United States, published in 1935, reveal the contemporary awareness of a new politick in writing, writing with a call, a duty, and a purpose based on a belief that literature can and will affect social change. Young men and women sought out scenes of struggle and strife and spelled out the scenes of class warfare in the pages of literary and leftist magazines. Philip Rahv's 1939 essay, Proletarian Literature: A Political Autopsy, provides a sense of the political underpinnings of the literature; other excerpts reveal the sense of urgency in the class struggles of the Thirties, the strikes and riots, the falling out with parents and parties over politics.
The Camera Eye is a kind of kid sister to Proletarian Writing; much of the writing is exposé and deals with political and social concerns. The Camera Eye however has more breathing room in terms of subject matter and tone and, of course, does not contain fiction (although it does contain focus, perspective, shadow and shading...). The essays are reportage: issues covered and written about in the first person, in columns and magazines and books. The Camera Eye also recalls John Dos Passos, whose Camera Eye sections in U.S.A. provide a subjective version of the period leading up to the Thirties, presented in stream of consciousness writing. I use the term to cover some major events or themes of the Thirties as well as to reflect the eye and consciousness of the writers covering them.
City Scapes reveals the new pace in Thirties literature: the speed of trains and automobiles and a mass of masses, bumming around streets and cafes, standing on corners reading papers and signs and marquees. There are new languages and new faces, strangers looking for the new, for the old and familiar. Dos Passos's Charley Anderson arrives in New York, home from the War in Europe. John Fante's writer sweats it out in L.A., waiting for a break, waiting for a check. Damon Runyon's cast of characters drift in and out of diners, in and out of speak-easies onto city streets, onto Broadway.
The City's counterpart, perhaps appropriately, still speaks more slowly. Rural Scenes, simply put, could be called regional literature: small towns in the South or North or West or anywhere. But it means more than place, more than the provincial, town squares and county courthouses. It also expresses a politic, a last stand against the Modern, against Industrialization and wage slavery. It also embodies the early century's growing quest for the authentic, the American. The hunt for the Real in American Arts and Crafts has its literary parallel in Constance Rourke's study of American Humor. Faulkner and Thomas Wolfe both seem to revel in an idea that the past itself is a place that is very much alive, even as it is fast disappearing, even when it appears to be gone.
Between the cities and the towns run the tracks. Hoboes and Tramps reveals a shift over time, from the romance of the road to desperation and rootlessness. No one ever said `boeing was easy, but the wanderers' life certainly held an element of romance. Selections from The Milk and Honey Route (1931) reveal the tail end of much humorous and romantic writing of hobo life even as it acknowledges it as a most intriguing social problem. "How to become a good hobo - which means to go where you please, when you please and live at leisure on the fat of the land - is described in detail in this amusing book" reads the book jacket. Later selections reveal a growing realism, exposing the reality of the poor and dispossessed, chased and hunted by railroad bulls, police, and townspeople. The Depression landed thousands upon thousands of men, women, and children on the road and rails; stories by Tom Kromer and Nelson Algren reveal the desperation of men with nowhere to go, nowhere to get but gone.
Last but not least, The Media Mirror speaks to the new media of the early 20th century - radio and particularly film - which increasingly shaped and filtered life in the eyes, ears, and minds of millions. From Topeka to Tucson, from Florida to Washington State, Life as portrayed on the Screen or in the Movie magazines became, not only an object of desire, but the bedrock for a national and homogenizing media culture. Was Life worth living if you weren’t Jean Harlow or Norma Shearer? Sadly, for Gloria in They Shoot Horses, Don't They?, the answer was "No". And what was Reality anymore anyway: the footage in the newsreels that flashed before the feature film - or the feature film itself, portraying Life as it should be, if not as it was already? The selection from Studs Lonigan is a wonderful example of fiction imitating Life imitating Reality as portrayed on the Silver Screen.
Every Blue Plate Special comes with some typical sides, some bread and butter or some butter beans that make it what it is, that make it worth 2 bits. The sides of this Blue Plate Special are some of my own considerations and observations that serve to round out and inform the compilation, that make it what it is.
What I notice most in this anthology is the degree to which movies and media play into almost every selection, literally and figuratively. If the world seemed to be going to hell in the Thirties, it was certainly going to the movies. Authors depicted the movies and their impact in their writing, but more importantly, even the style of writing seems to have been affected. Perhaps a combination of the influences of radio and film on the psyche made for a certain brevity in narration, less description, more dialogue. In some cases, it's almost as if you are reading the lines to a movie script where the visualization of the events described depend on your having already "seen" that which you are reading about. Much of the Detective Fiction and Crime Novels of the Thirties sing this way; it is no coincidence that many of those writers were working in and for Hollywood. Although Crime or Detective Fiction could certainly be it's own category, for these reasons I have put selections from this genre in The Media Mirror.
A less simple decision in terms of compiling selections was what to do with Race: is "Race" or "Racial Strife" it's own category? Should it be? With so many people battling for racial equality, and given the depths of those struggles and the extremes of the racial violence in the Thirties, it could very well stand alone. I could have put every short story, editorial, personal narrative, and political treatise that deals with Racism or Issues of Race in one spot. But what about the Gray areas? Would a short story about a poor old Black woman walking miles to get medicine go under "Racial Strife"? Clearly there is a message, clearly something is revealed about Race and poverty, also about human perserverance. Or is it? Is that how I read it but not what the author intended? What if the old woman were white? Does it matter that the author is white? When is a story a story, when is Art Art, when is abject poverty just abject poverty, and when is it just wrong? The lines are not clear and precise although we so often attempt to make them so.
Ultimately I wanted to avoid putting people, their ideas, and their struggles into boxes, making assumptions about intent and allegiance. I also hesitate to remove the struggle for racial equality from a larger struggle for political and economic equality for all the dispossessed. Race, then as now, often separates (is used to separate) people who would gain much from coming together. With these thoughts in mind, I have chosen not to segregate writings that deal with racial issues into a separate category.
This creates problems of course. Placing Erskine Caldwell’s Kneel To The Rising Sun in Rural Scenes could be taken to suggest that racism lurks only in the South or in rural areas, clearly not true. Nevertheless, I placed that story in Rural Scenes because that’s where it is and that's what it speaks to. Sharecropping and tenant farming, poverty and hunger, all in a rural land with its own horrific band of law and order. It also shows the hypocrisy of a misappropriated Southern code of honor, of the "Gentlemen" and poor men at either end of the pole, and it shows two poor men powerless because color divides and keeps them under the yoke of the Landlord. So then, could this story also be considered Proletarian? As I noted earlier, this is a slippery plate of food. This story goes everywhere, it is fiction, it is true, it is transcendent.
To literally “read” the Thirties is the goal then, to take the pulse of the decade by reading the obsessions of its writers - and its readers. I think that each piece is entertaining, interesting, and/or telling in some way. Hopefully the reader will rediscover some forgotten writers, hopefully some unfamiliar or forgotten books will be picked up and dusted off. Not every piece is great and not every writer here is remembered now (and some for good reason), but everyone is trying to say something.
Needless to say, some people say things or say things in such a way that cause discomfort and sometimes disgust. The stories contain countless slurs and insults that will seem repugnant to most in the contemporary audience. But again, the purpose is to read what people then were reading and writing, to try to get at what it really was like, not as we might now wish it had been.
constructed for the 1930s project
american studies at the university of virginia