I’ve been thinking lately about a literature class I took in high school that focused on the work of some of the most well-known writers of the early twentieth century. While the old-school denizens of the English Department marched us through Herman Melville and Stephen Crane, an inspired, just-out-of-grad-school teacher introduced us to William Faulkner, Langston Hughes and Virginia Woolf.
The course featured both novels and short fiction. Many of the stories reflected the enormous cultural shift that occurred between WWI and WWII, driven in large part by the industrialization of America.
The young protagonists in Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio, Thomas Wolfe’s Look Homeward, Angel and Sinclair Lewis’s Babbit examined life in suddenly stifling small towns. Their characters felt change pulsing beneath the surface of their day to day lives and often yearned for the fast pace and promised anonymity of the big city.
The class left me with an enduring interest in literature of that era, and happily my town’s library had a great collection I explored over the next couple of years. Like so many young people I was fascinated by the writers who came to be known as the Lost Generation lived as expats in Paris in the 1920s, drinking together, critiquing each other’s work and engaging in frequent ego-driven spats.
Gertrude Stein played with style and wrote of forbidden love affairs. Ernest Hemingway created a series of disillusioned men trying in vain to achieve an unattainable masculine ideal. F. Scott Fitzgerald’s novels featured money-obsessed characters chasing their alienation at decadent parties. All of these writers survived two major traumatic events that took place at the same time—World War I and the 1918 flu pandemic.
With a few exceptions (particularly Katherine Anne Porter’s Pale Horse, Pale Rider, and Willa Cather’s One of Ours), fiction writers of that era contemplated the effects of the war and the pandemic, not the horrifying events themselves.
A full century down the road, I’ll be fascinated to see how writers in general, and crime writers in particular, respond not only to the current pandemic that has killed 2.8 million people around the world and 555,000 in the US, but of the many other challenges we currently face as a nation and a world. Structural racism. Climate change. Economic inequality. The alarming number of elected officials willing to toss democracy aside if it threatens their power.
Page for page, word for word, dollar for dollar, I believe contemporary crime writers already shine when it comes to weaving the issues of the day into novels that both entertain and enlighten. If history is any guide, watch for that trend to accelerate as we move out of the darkness of the recent past to whatever comes next. As with those who wrote a century ago, most of our stories won’t be on the nose about the coronavirus. But they’ll reflect how a worldwide pandemic has changed us, and forced to the surface issues long in need of examination.
Brenda Buchanan is a lawyer and the author of the Joe Gale Mystery Series, featuring a diehard Maine newspaper reporter who covers the crime and courts beat. Three books—QUICK PIVOT, COVER STORY and TRUTH BEAT—are available everywhere e-books are sold. These days Brenda’s hard at work on new projects.