Saturday, May 2, 2020

Quote of the Day (Edmund Wilson, on Chicago in the Depth of the Great Depression)

“Unemployed. In schools, factories, warehouses, old jails—whitewashed furniture—factory walls, yellow school walls soiled, blackboards punched through, thin blankets and a sheet, men in holey socks and slit union suits, tattooed with fancy designs and with the emblems of services they no longer served, with fallen arches taken out of their flattened shoes and done up with bandages of adhesive tape, or lying wrapped up in their blankets on their backs, their skin stretched tight over their cheekbones and jawbones almost like the faces of the dead—the smell, peppery-sweetish stink: sulphur fumigations, cooking food, sweat, creosote disinfecting, urinals, one element or the other figuring more prominently from time to time but in the same inescapable fumes of humanity not living and functioning naturally but dying on its feet and being preserved as best one could, venereal disease, Negroes with t.b., lonely as a pet coon, men poisoned with wood alcohol—fifteen cents a pint—two sick and one to the psych hospital—benzine, kerosene, and milk—I say, which will you have, your bottle or a bed?—and they won’t give up the bottle—I wouldn’t be surprised if a hearse drove up and a dead man got up and walked out and asked for a flop—a cripple drunk again—one man so lousy no one would go nearum and they puttum in the stable with the horse and the horse tried to get away and then the next morning they gaveum a shower and scrubbedum with a long-handled brush.—They fumigate the clothes and if they’re moist it ruins them. Chicago is probably doing as good a job as anybody.”—American writer, critic and social commentator Edmund Wilson (1895-1972), The Thirties: From Notebooks and Diaries of the Period, edited by Leon Edel (1980)

This entry from the diaries of Wilson dates from the fourth quarter of 1932, the long, dispiriting interregnum between the November 1932 election and FDR’s inauguration the following March, when Herbert Hoover flailed about miserably trying to contain the growing damage of the Depression. 

Wilson offers an unforgettable contemporary picture of the era. How will future historians remember our time? Indeed, have we seen the worst of it yet?

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