The Novel That Explains the Moment We're In
BUtterfield 8 and the fear of a new Depression.
And then the Smoot-Hawley tariff put the nail in the coffin of the U.S. economy and sent the rest of the world into a death spiral. The short-sighted, selfish, protectionist economics of the Smoot-Hawley Act irrevocably plunged us into the worst Depression in modern history.
Smoot-Hawley was the wrongheaded equivalent of the current Tea Party hysteria over deficits at a time when it makes more sense to put some steam into the economy rather than shrink and mummify it.
People forget that the '29 crash itself didn't ensure the worldwide Depression, didn't consolidate its death grip until 1932. It took the intervention of the brilliant minds in the U.S. Congress to ensure that. For those few years we lived in a limbo of anxiety and incipient panic, when recovery was possible.
For those readers to whom the specific economic infrastructure of O'Hara's fearful world in BUtterfield 8 might be unfamiliar, here's how the U.S. State department website puts it (who says literary criticism leaves out the economic and class considerations underlying great novels?):
The Smoot-Hawley Tariff was more a consequence of the onset of the Great Depression than an initial cause. But while the tariff might not have caused the Depression, it certainly did not make it any better. It provoked a storm of foreign retaliatory measures and came to stand as a symbol of the "beggar-thy-neighbor" policies (policies designed to improve one's own lot at the expense of that of others) of the 1930s. Such policies contributed to a drastic decline in international trade. For example, U.S. imports from Europe declined from a 1929 high of $1,334 million to just $390 million in 1932, while U.S. exports to Europe fell from $2,341 million in 1929 to $784 million in 1932. Overall, world trade declined by some 66% between 1929 and 1934.
Heckuva job, Hawley. You, too, Smoot. I suspect the debt ceiling "solution" will one day be remembered with similar contempt as Smoot-Hawley redux.
Someday, they will stand together in history's dock. Two groups of willful men who sold out their fellow citizens with their blind avarice and arrogant stupidity: the greedheads on Wall Street and the empty heads (and hearts) of the Tea Party know-nothings.
O'Hara's novel captures a world like ours, a world paralyzed and electrified by anxiety over the approach of the final plunge and ruled over by sleazy losers like those.
It was really an accident that I decided to reread BUtterfield 8. I got a Facebook message from a group I didn't belong to, the John O'Hara Society, inviting me to a walking tour of O'Hara's New York, starting out in the revered old saloon, Connolly's.
I resolved that before I took the tour I ought to reread one of O'Hara's New York books and got the Modern Library edition of BUtterfield 8, which has an introduction by Fran Lebowitz * (who displays her customary incisiveness).
Ron Rosenbaum is the author of The Shakespeare Wars and Explaining Hitler. His latest book is How the End Begins: The Road to a Nuclear World War III.
Still from BUtterfield 8 courtesy © Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Inc. All rights reserved.