George Packer’s new book unconsciously exposes the failings of American liberalismby Adam Kirsch / July 18, 2013 / Leave a comment
Union men picketing Macy’s department store, New York in 1936 © Dorothea Lange
The Unwinding: An Inner History of the New America by George Packer (Faber, £20)
In 2008, America and the world came closer to a Great Depression than at any moment since 1929. But where the 1930s produced some of the most cherished works of 20th century Americana—Steinbeck’s novel The Grapes of Wrath and the photographs of Walker Percy and Dorothea Lange, for instance—our Great Recession, as it’s come to be called, has not produced any comparable outpouring of progressive culture. George Packer, a leading American journalist, noted this fact in a recent essay in the New Yorker, on the subject of depression literature. The 1930s, Packer observed, gave us monuments of socially-committed reportage, including Edmund Wilson’s The American Jitters and James Agee’s Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, as well as John Dos Passos’s panoramic novel USA. But as Packer wrote, rather regretfully, “It isn’t easy to dramatise this depression. Wilson and Dos Passos went to the hollows of West Virginia and found miners and cops at war. Go there today and you would find people watching TV, sending out résumés over the internet and waiting for their unemployment cheques.” The Great Depression was a time of anger and movement; our depression is merely depressing.
Packer’s essay was both a herald and a preemptive critique of his new book, The Unwinding: An Inner History of the New America. In this moving, impressive, and sometimes frustrating study, Packer self-consciously sets out to give us a history of our own times to match those classic works of the 30s. The resemblance is partly formal. Like Dos Passos’s novel, The Unwinding is punctuated by collages of newspaper headlines and popular songs, which seek to capture the mood of a particular cultural moment. Like Agee, Packer is fond of Biblicising cadences, long strings of conjunctions that give his sentences an epic sweep.
Most importantly, Packer does for us what the committed writers of the 1930s did for their time: he forces us to pay attention to the poor. No country, perhaps, likes to look poverty full in the face, but in America there is a special reluctance to do so. Since the Puritans, Americans have associated wealth with blessing and poverty with curse. According to capitalist ideology, poverty is less a social…