Depression fear: How BUtterfield 8 explains the moment we're in.

Scrutinizing culture.
Sept. 1 2011 7:23 PM

The Novel That Explains the Moment We're In

BUtterfield 8 and the fear of a new Depression.

BUtterfield 8, the movie based on John O'Hara's Depression novel, starred Elizabeth Taylor.
BUtterfield 8, the movie based on John O'Hara's Depression novel, starred Elizabeth Taylor

It can't be ignored any more. The fear. You've heard it in whispered asides, hesitant, nervous questions and observations like, "I've lived through bad recessions, sure, but things always started coming back" and "Do you get the feeling things are getting out of hand?" I keep wondering when they'll stop saying "double-dip recession," making it sound like a Baskin-Robbins promotion. I keep wondering when they'll start saying the dread D-word: Depression.

Oh, the word has been uttered (most saliently last week by Judge Richard Posner). And this week the White House has edged closer, calling it, "this great recession"—a step from the brink. But a fearfulness, almost a taboo, surrounds it. If we have nothing to fear but fear itself, as FDR said of the first Great Depression, we're beginning to fear the fear of a second. One can't help but notice people tip-toeing around the fear.

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The best way I can explain the feeling is to compare it to those moments when a plane hits heavy weather. Even if you're a pretty good flier on smooth flights, there's that moment when your Airbus suddenly drops like a stone. No matter how many times it's happened before, and however much you tell yourself that stability will be recovered, it's hard not to avoid the sickening flash panic that this time the drop won't stop.

The intimations of the irrecoverable have grown more frequent this past month, with the post-downgrade market hitting heavy turbulence, flash crashes on Wall Street, burning and looting on the London streets. Man-made conflagrations hitting like the one-two earthquake/tsunami combination of natural disasters last March, when the world held its breath as the reactors seemed to accelerate toward meltdown. There's that same sense now of the precarious stability of civilization suddenly sliding out of control.

Are we about to plunge into a second Great Depression? Suddenly, it's not just a nightmarish fantasy. We may pull out like the Airbus. Or we might find ourselves on a more primitive means of transportation. Cue image of the Joad family on the road in The Grapes of Wrath over a soundtrack of "London Calling." Or maybe you think the "super committee" will save us.

There's a book that captures just this preliminary, premonitory, pre-monetary-collapse moment when we just don't know how bad things can or will get. The strange liminal time when everything's on edge, up in the air and falling fast.

The book I'm referring to, the one that captures that ominous strange interlude is BUtterfield 8. Many remember this John O'Hara novel as being mainly about sex. But it's really more about money. Or sex and money—or sex and money and liquor. (It's set during the last days of Prohibition, when Christian moralists—the Tea Party of their day—had imposed an anti-urban idiocy on us through the 18th Amendment and the Volstead act.)

But more importantly, it's a book about timing.

Many people who have seen the 1960 film that won Liz Taylor an Oscar but haven't read the novel don't realize how radically different the book, published in 1935 and set in 1931, is from the film, set in what looks to be the postwar '50s.

The novel captures something that the film, which stars Ms. Taylor's sexy white slips, utterly discards: the menacing undertone of that end-of-Weimar period worldwide, those two crucial years poised between the Black Monday crash of October 1929 and the middle of 1931, when the novel is set. The months before flickering hopes of recovery were dashed as the worldwide Depression doubled back and sunk us deeper into the black hole of fear itself. We were teetering precariously over the edge of the abyss in 1931, but didn't know for sure. It's often forgotten that during that tense period, there were mixed signals, some signs that a recovery was possible.