In the fall of 1933, Sherwood Anderson left his home in New York City and set out on a series of journeys that would take him across large sections of the American South and Midwest. He was engaged in a project shared by many of his fellow writers -- including James Agee, Edmund Wilson, John Dos Passos, and Louis Adamic -- all of whom responded to the Great Depression by traveling the nation's back roads and hinterlands hoping to discover how economic disaster had affected the common people. Like many of his peers, Anderson had anticipated anger and radicalism among the poor and unemployed. Instead, he discovered a people stunned by the collapse of their most cherished beliefs. "Puzzled America," the title of the book he composed out of his journeys, said it all.
In particular, Anderson found the people he met to be imprisoned by what he called the "American theory of life" -- a celebration of personal ambition that now seemed cruelly inappropriate. "We Americans have all been taught from childhood," Anderson wrote, "that it is a sort of moral obligation for each of us to rise, to get up in the world." In the crisis of the Depression, however, that belief appeared absurd. The United States now confronted what Anderson called "a crisis of belief."
As Anderson knew, the notion that the United States is a uniquely open society, where the talented and industrious always have the chance to better their lot, is a central element of American self-understanding. The notion has been a prominent feature of American culture since the days of Ben Franklin, and it remains a core feature of the national ethos to this day. Indeed, in recent months the election of Barack Obama has reminded Americans of the promise that in the United States opportunity can be open to all.
The Great Depression, however, subjected even the strongest convictions to stark challenge, revealing cracks in the vision of social mobility that the recent prosperity of the nineteen-twenties had managed to obscure. In truth, the notion that the U.S. was an open and fluid society had always been nearly as much myth as reality -- even when, as was necessarily the case, it was assumed to apply to white men alone. But the myth had come to an especially paradoxical stage in its development in the years leading up to the crash.
Never in American history had the vision of social mobility been more forcefully asserted than in the 1920s. And rarely had the image been so far out of keeping with reality. The Republican Party, which dominated national politics throughout the decade, extolled the twin virtues of economic competition and personal ambition, reminding Americans often that they lived, as Herbert Hoover remarked, in "a fluid classless society...unique in the world." That rhetoric was redoubled by a booming new advertising industry which promised that consumers might vault up the ladder of social status through carefully chosen purchases (often with consumer credit, a recent invention).
And yet, the United States actually became less equal and less fluid in the 1920s, as the era's prosperity increasingly benefited the wealthiest. By the end of the decade, the top 1% of the population received nearly a quarter of the national income, an historic peak that would not be approached again until this past decade. Indeed, the term "social mobility" was coined in 1925 by the sociologist Pitrim Sorokin, who used the phrase to identify a phenomenon in apparent decline. "The wealthy class of the United States is becoming less and less open," Sorokin wrote, "and is tending to be transformed into a caste-like group."
The conflict between the American myth of a classless society and the reality of the nation's deepening caste divisions was the irony at the core of some of the greatest literary works of the 1920s, including Theodore Dreiser's "An American Tragedy" and F. Scott Fitzgerald's "The Great Gatsby." But it was not until the Great Depression that the traditional vision of social mobility imploded.
Traveling the country, Anderson and his fellow observers found a populace confused by a collapse they could not understand. Everywhere he turned, Anderson noted, he heard the same refrain, "I failed. I failed. It's my own fault." The documentary books that he and his contemporaries created provided a kind of counter-narrative to the conventional American story of personal freedom and individual ambition. These works featured a journey not upward toward wealth and progress, but back into the hinterlands of a confused and immobilized nation.
That journey was echoed by a whole genre of "road" novels, written by angry young writers like Nelson Algren, who depicted an itinerant population of bottom dogs lurching from one disaster to the next. These novels answered the classic American vision of opportunity by imagining a nation of wanderers rapidly going nowhere.
So, too, did the cycle of gangster films -- "Little Caesar," "Scarface," "Public Enemy" -- which reached the peak of their popularity in the early '30s. Depicting boldly ruthless young men whose quests for wealth and power were doomed to end in self-destruction, the gangster film cast personal ambition as a cruel delusion. Even the era's light-hearted "screwball comedies," such as "It Happened One Night" and "My Man Godfrey," were sometimes fables of downward mobility, where arrogant socialites were brought down a notch by their encounters with ordinary people.
The road novels, documentary books and gangster films of the 1930s depicted the myth of social mobility as a bitter cheat. The era's screwball comedies viewed it merely as delightfully laughable. But all suggested that the Depression had left a core feature of American ideology in disarray, and thus emphasized the extent to which the traditional American language of personal ambition was open to redefinition. That opportunity would be seized on by a cohort of artists and intellectuals who took the crisis of the Depression as a chance to cast the idea of social mobility less as a framework for individual striving and more as an occasion for collective action.
John Steinbeck's novel "The Grapes of Wrath" made the Joad family's flight from the dust bowl into an emblem of people coming together to remake their world. A similar image was implicit in the very title of Dorothea Lange and Paul Taylor's documentary book "An American Exodus." Even works of light entertainment like the massively popular "Gone With the Wind" or John Ford's landmark Western "Stagecoach" were in keeping with the prevailing message of the times. All these works told of epic journeys in which a group of people overcame destructive competition in their discovery of a common destiny. Each called for Americans to act collectively to remake a democratic society where opportunity would be open to all.
In effect, such declarations helped lay the cultural groundwork for the New Deal, providing the ideological infrastructure for the new governmental institutions created during the '30s. It is not yet clear whether the current economic disaster will produce anything like the profound transformation that shook the U.S. during the Great Depression. Our own crises of belief are likely just beginning. If we are fortunate, however, we will have a generation of artists and intellectuals like those of the 1930s to help us imagine our way past confusion.
Sean McCann, a professor of English at Wesleyan University, is the author of "A Pinnacle of Feeling: American Literature and Presidential Government."