Literature in the great depression

This article will discuss literature during the time of the great depression. For that, it will explain what happened during the great depression, and how it may have impacted people’s creativity to create great books.

How great depression impacted literature?  

The great depression was a moment that was a creative turmoil, even though it was a difficult time.  During this period, many great writers were energized by what was happening. In their work, they not only depicted the times but also offered the possibility to escape their realities and relax in such troubling moments.

While others wrote about how the American society required revolutionary change and focused on the working class, the lives of poor people, how there were still some rich people basking on their wealth and had a strong political engagement. This period saw great writers such as Aldo Huxley, Franz Kafka, and even George Orwell.

Let’s understand a little more about what was The Great Depression before discussing some great books that were written during this period.

What was the great depression?

The great depression was a period in which there was an economic downturn all over the world. It began with the crash of 1929, in the United States, and went on until 1939. This was the most intense economic depression the Western world has ever gone through.

The great depression had a huge impact on the economy, and as a consequence of that, in people’s life. It brought a high unemployment rate, a decline of the product’s production across the planet. During this period, the deflation was also acute.

With all of that, it is possible to understand how it was a time of great changes, which often generates huge cultural waves. Let’s discuss some of the main books that were written during this period.

What are the greatest books written during the great depression? 

The Great Depression was such an intense period that it brought, not only economical changes but also changes in society and culture. The literature was extremely impacted by it. Let’s discuss some of the most famous books of this period.

The Maltese Falcon Dashiell Hammet (1930)

This book, which is a crime novel, pretty much inspired the whole film noir genre. It became a best-seller as soon as it was released. It discusses a mystery and the disappearance of astute. And a cínical detective that loses his partner, falls for a seductive woman and needs to deal with many bad guys.

Come back to Sorrento Dawn Powell (1932)

This book showed the desperation of people that were living in a small town and had to deal with what The Great Depression brought to their lives, especially how it ruined their dreams.

The Big Money John dos Passos (1936)

This is the last installment of his trilogy that described American society during the beginning of the 20th century. In this book, he shows many famous people of that time, such as Henry Ford, and portrays a specific life for each of them.

But the book is also made up of 3 fictional characters that say a lot about this period. There is Charley Anderson, who was a veteran of World War I. He comes back home with some ideas to improve airplanes. He creates a company with his colleagues and turns rich overnight.

It speaks about meritocracy, and how capitalism works. He starts investing money on Wall Street. He feels his life becoming empty, and turns to alcohol and sex to handle the void. 

Showing how people in that time thought about rich people. There was also a character called Margo Dowling, an actress that portrays the view people have of celebrity. How they became the idols of that time, without any merit or achievement, and how they are usually people that overcome difficult beginnings in life.

And then, there is Mary French, a woman that was connected to the struggles of people and focused on self-sacrifice. She found that to give meaning to her life. Something that the other characters. The book shows how greed and speculation turned society into what it was during The Great Depression.

The grapes of wrath John Steinbeck (1939)

It is a proletarian tale that tells the story of the Joad, a family that lived in Oklahoma and lost its farm due to a drought. It showed how men were asked to work hard during World War I, but were left forgotten by the government, which asked them to work even harder. The author wanted to show how greed put them in the situation they were in at the time.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ): How great depression impacts literature? 

What were the literary themes of the Great Depression? 

During the Great Depression, many authors began to write about political and economic conditions. Many authors wrote socially conscious books. During this period, books and films discussed the despair people felt, poverty, and corruption.

Along with that, it discussed the conflicts between workers and management, how people needed to work together back in those days, and how people felt a desire to escape from their reality, which is not a surprise. 

The Great Depression had so many negative effects on people’s lives, that it divided the literary and movie industry in wanting to know and understand more about what was going on, and trying to escape the reality they were living in. 

What are the major themes in American literature? 

American literature has the 10 most famous themes its authors write about. The first one seems to be The American Dream. This type of book is usually about how every American has the same chance to succeed and reach prosperity with their hard work.

Another famous theme of American literature is the Loss of Innocence. Those are usually books about a period in a child’s life when they become aware of how the world works, and that it is not all positive. 

A similar theme is the Coming of Age, which usually tells the story of the character transitioning from being a child to adulthood. Some books discuss the relationship with nature. In those, nature can play one of two roles: either a positive, giving force, or that is completely indifferent to what happens to people.

Another theme that has different ways of manifesting is the relationship with society. There can be books about crimes and punishment that talk about how people pay for their actions. There are books about oppression that can discuss how people break the rules of society, or how society denies an individual of their rights.

Some books discuss the relationship with science, showing how through scientific development, there can be a change in the world. There are alienation and isolation books that discuss the consequences of one being cast away from a group in which they should be involved. 

Some books talk about the survival of the fittest, which shows how some people, even if their actions are questionable, strength determines their victory. Literature of disillusionment is another famous theme of American literature, in which people feel disappointed to discover that something is not as good as one believed.

And finally, there is the literature of rebellion and protest. These books usually talk about people resisting authority, control, and social rules or conventions. 

What is alienation literature? 

Alienation literature is understood as pieces of writing that talk about people that were isolated or dissociated from others. It can discuss people who experience isolation from society, or their loved ones. 

It can be that they are cast away due to unforeseen events, or sometimes they might be set apart due to social norms. An example of this is booked in which the loved ones can’t be together, such as The Scarlet Letter, in which a woman is cast away from society, marked, and humiliated due to her actions. 

What were the forms of entertainment during The Great Depression? 

During The Great Depression, American society went through a lot of change. But even though it was a difficult period, they still looked for things to amuse themselves. A way to entertain themselves was through watching dance marathons, in which people danced until they couldn’t stand. 

These were the reality shows of that time, and what was just fun before The Great Depression, turned into a chance to get a meal and shelter. They also ventured into haunted houses, many of the Halloween traditions began during The Great Depression, and this one was created as a way to keep young people out of trouble.

Another form of entertainment and yet another form of endurance contest was seeing people sitting in a pole for as long as possible after Alvin “Shipwreck” Kelly stayed in one during the summer of 1930. 

A strange form of bet also took place during The Great Depression, it was the contest for swallowing goldfish, in which people, usually students, would bet others to eat a goldfish. It got to a point that someone set a record of eating 42 goldfish. 

Going to the movies was also fun back then. Since culture was in evolution during that time, Hollywood had many great movies to show, and they were also cheap. Great movies such as The Wizard of Oz (1939), and Snow White and The Seven Dwarfs (1937) were released back then.

Another fun thing to do was to build racing cars from soapboxes. It was something that entertained the kids, and at some point, people started to race those cars, and it became something a lot of people were interested in. With all this, it is seen how, even though it was a difficult time, people still looked for joyous moments. 

What is disillusionment literature?

Disillusionment literature revolves around the loss of naivete. Those are usually books in which people are learning something that is not as good as they imagined. It can be that they are going through a career process, and they always had an ambition about reaching a position.

They may have fought for it fearlessly. They based their life on getting a promotion, and when they finally do, they might realize that it wasn’t all they expected from it. They can start to see the cracks in the company, how their bosses are not as happy as they thought they were.

It is a tale of losing the imagination and expectation you had around something, and how you will be able to move from that.


This article discussed what were the greatest books written during the great depression, and how that economic climate may have impacted people’s creativity. Aside from that, to give context to what is being said, the article explained what was the great depression.