Thesis: Chicago 1930s and R. Wright's the Man

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Chicago 1930s and R. Wright's the Man Who Went to Chicago

Chicago in the 1930s and Richard Wright's the Man Who Went to Chicago

The Great Depression and Chicago in the 1930s

The Man Who Went to Chicago

Chicago in the 1930s and Richard Wright's the Man Who Went to Chicago

Some decades are named after the type of zeitgeist that existed during the period, and the "Gay Nineties" of the late 19th century and the "Roaring Twenties" of the early 20th century, for example, need little explanation to understand what was taking place during this period in American history. The decade of the 1930s, though, has not been so characterized, and this may be because most people just wanted to forget that it ever happened at all. Indeed, many Americans were out of work and the economy just seemed to keep getting worse every day. Taken together, it is little wonder that some people grew desperate, anxious and resentful during this period in American history, and this appears to be just what happened to Richard Wright when he penned his short story, "The Man Who Went to Chicago." This paper provides an overview of the 1930s in American history, followed by a discussion of the Great Depression and Chicago in the 1930s. An analysis of Richard Wright's short story, "The Man Who Went to Chicago" is followed by a summary of the research and reflections in the conclusion.

Review and Discussion

Background and Overview. In his biography of Wright, Duffus (1999) reports that the author had ample opportunity to experience the harsh realities of the Chicago of the 1930s. According to Duffus, "In 1927 he moved to Chicago, where he became a Post Office clerk until the Great Depression forced him to take on various temporary positions. During this time he became involved with the Communist Party, writing articles and stories for both the Daily Worker and New Masses. In April 1931 he published his first major story, 'Superstition,' in Abbot's Monthly" (p. 2). Wright's struggles to pay the bills while honing his craft clearly had a significant influence on him, and it is not surprising that when he did find his literary voice, he had a lot to write about. Although Americans are worried today about $4.00-a-gallon gas and an increasingly costly war on terrorism abroad, Wright was trying to earn a living during the darkest economic period in American history. When one out of every four or five Americans is out of work, any type of job is a plum of course, but some people in the 1930s probably found themselves doing things they never dreamed themselves capable of otherwise, and these issues are discussed further below.

The Great Depression and the Social Climate Chicago in the 1930s. According to Elder (1999), although not all Americans experienced heavy economic losses or unemployment in the 1930s, the overall impact was profound. In this regard, Elder notes that, "From various quarters we are reminded of the 'greatness' of the Great Depression, as seen in its costs to human lives and social institutions. Economic stagnation and hardship visited all sections of the country as unemployment approached one-third of the workforce in 1933 and a much larger percentage of Americans were placed on shortened hours and reduced paychecks" (3). The situation in Chicago was even worse. In spite of its heavy industrial base and vast stockyards, Chicago - like the rest of the world - was not insulated from the impact of the Great Depression. Indeed, the unemployment rate in Chicago during the 1930s was a staggering 23% (Chicago 2008:3). This was due in part to the fact that urban centers such as Chicago became magnets for the unemployed, which simply made matters worse. A firsthand account from the period is reflective of this trend: "My father led a rough life: he drank. During the Depression, he drank more. There was conflict in the home. A lot of fathers -- mine, among them --had a habit of taking off. They'd go to Chicago to look for work. To Topeka. This left the family at home, waiting and hoping that the old man would find something" (quoted in Elder at 41).

The social climate in Chicago during the 1930s was therefore reflective of these troubled times, but the people of Chicago had managed to weather the horrors related in Sinclair's the Jungle (1906) and the organized crime that went hand-in-hand with Prohibition and were therefore a hearty lot of people. According to Best (1993), a study of 100 families in Chicago during the 1930s found that the general attitude of the majority of them was one of "docile acceptance" toward the depression, with some potential light at the end of the economic tunnel (10).

The authors of this study, Cavin and Ranck (1938) also emphasized that most people in Chicago viewed the Great Depression in a personal fashion rather than an entire class of people. In this regard, Best points out that, "Few of them had any consciousness of the depression as a class phenomenon affecting in particular certain social classes. It was an individual experience, attributable to unluckiness, to God, or in some vague way to machinery or the rich" (10). Although some Chicagoans were resentful of the need for assistance, most were grateful that any assistance at all was available. According to Best, "The attitude of most of the Chicago families toward FDR and the New Deal was a positive one, but for very limited reasons" (10). Quoting the study's authors, Best also notes that: "Their approval did not grow out of any hope that the New Deal would reorganize the economic system and perhaps prevent future depressions. They took a much more personal view: the federal government had not let them starve, and it had provided work for the men and C.C.C. camps for the boys" (Cavin and Ranke 152-53).

The Man Who Went to Chicago. While Wright is best known for his works, Native Son and Black Boy, some of his short stories were published posthumously in an anthology entitled, Eight Men. In his text, the Critical Response to Richard Wright, Butler (1995) reports that "The Man Who Went to Chicago" is one of eight short stories in Wright's book, Eight Men, published after the author's death in Paris in 1960. According to Butler, each of the stories in Eight Men "centers on a Negro, involved cruelly with his surroundings, beaten down by them; each central figure is in one way or another misunderstood by the world he knows; a few misunderstand and misinterpret that world" (133). Certainly, few modern Americans could likely appreciate the United States of the 1930s, simply because so much has changed since that period. Nevertheless, it is reasonable to suggest that a virtual apartheid existed in many parts of the country, and even in Chicago things were tough for blacks just because they were black. What makes Wright's short stories, including "The Man Who Went to Chicago" so compelling is that they were based on real world experiences that were so aptly communicated in all their horrible glory by Wright. As Butler emphasizes, "Altogether the eight men of these stories have in common a desperate if qualified heroism. They are, at their best and their worst, real men. And the stories are real stories" (133).

While all of the stories are deemed by this biographer to be noteworthy, Butler maintains that "The Man Who Went to Chicago" (together with "The Man Who Lived Underground, the story of a fugitive from justice hiding in a city sewer), are particularly poignant and masterful works. According to Butler, "The Man Who Went to Chicago' (which describes the hardships of a migrant worker who comes North), is really a report, half narrative, half essay, the two halves joining impressively" (133). It is clear that the unnamed protagonist's problems are not just related to his race, but extend to the larger society in which he exists as well. America was really hurting during the 1930s, and no one could foresee the boom times that would follow hard on the heals of World War II. In this regard, some Americans might be able to readily relate to unemployment problems in a shaky economy today, and Butler suggests that the real American heroes were those people that did not give up but continued to struggle and persevere. For instance, Butler quotes Wright and links the experiences in the story to the author's on personal life events: "The protagonist in this story says, 'I had elected, in my fevered search for honorable adjustment to the American scene, not to submit and in doing so I had embraced the daily horror of anxiety, of tension, of eternal disquiet.' Though it is quietly stated, this philosophy of living might be taken from Richard Wright's own experience" (Butler 133).

On a final note, Butler points out that, "Wright's description of Communism in 'The Man Who Went to Chicago' as a 'new faith' (191) reveals… [END OF PREVIEW]

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