Stephen Fender

Stephen Fender teaches at the University of Sussex. He is writing a book on the New Deal and the rural poor.

In the middle of the Depression, Roosevelt’s Works Progress Administration (WPA) set out to increase American purchasing power by getting the unemployed back to work. For the most part they planted forests, graded roads and developed outdoorsy holiday resorts, but the WPA also recruited 40,000 writers, theatrical workers, musicians and artists, most of them on relief, to work on four...

When people remember the Great American Depression they think of the Oklahoma farmsteads, of topsoil loosened by drought and blown off the land in massive storms that darkened the skies for days at a time. The ‘Okies’ headed west in their overloaded jalopies along the 1400 miles of Route 66 to Central Valley, California, but only a minority found work, and even that was temporary, poorly paid and back-breaking. Many migrants were forced to live along roadsides and on waste ground, washing and going to the toilet in ditches. Some found a tent or rough shack on a farm, where they were bullied and paid in scrip negotiable only at the company store. The lucky few found places in government-run camps, but the Government could not manufacture paying work out of thin air, and they had to move on, following the harvests of various crops through a cycle of place and season.

When Dad Came Out Here

Stephen Fender, 12 December 1996

‘I am not a travel writer,’ Jonathan Raban said in a recent interview. ‘For me, “travel writer” means someone who samples other people’s holidays – you talk about the food, the hotel, throw in a bit of local colour. If I thought that was the business I was in, I’d slit my throat.’ Bad Land, Raban’s new book about Montana, examines the present remains and historical origins of the last great wave of American western settlement, the migration of homesteaders to eastern Montana in the first decade of this century. Once flourishing, their farms are now in ruins: ‘fenceposts, trailing a few whiskers of wire – the body of a Studebaker … stripped of its wheels and engine … a harrow deep in the grass … houses, cars, machinery … fading rapidly off the land’. In one collapsing house Raban found a sheaf of manuscript pages showing debts mounting from a few dollars payable to the Bureau of Land Management, Sears Roebuck and Kyle’s Radiator Shop, to horrific arrears on bank loans – the debts totalled well over $5000. When they pulled out, the failed homesteaders simply left their household goods behind – the Frigidaire, the parlour furniture, the ironing-board – but they took great pains to make a bonfire of their family photographs.’

Not Making it

Stephen Fender, 24 October 1991

From 1940 the poor black sharecroppers of the Southern United States began to go north in large numbers. The movement seemed to resemble the great emigrations that had created America in the first place. Anxious to escape deteriorating conditions at home, the migrants were also attracted by opportunities far away. They wanted to better themselves, to extend their possibilities, and they were willing to uproot themselves in order to do so.

Marginal Man

Stephen Fender, 7 December 1989

There are two stories to tell about Paul Robeson – one sad and the other tragic. Both could be constructed from the ample data in this heavy, ill-focused, yet informative concatenation of computerised database, research grant and exclusive access to the subject’s papers. In the first a young Negro of high intelligence, great physical strength and grace, musically talented and gifted with a resonant bass voice, is induced by a dominant white culture to fill various roles – social, professional and indeed dramatic – formulated for blacks to perform. As long as he kept his place, he was rewarded with riches and fame, even public adoration. When he began to break out of his racial stereotype – and further, to challenge the political assumptions on which that culture was founded – he was abused, spied on, hauled before accusatory tribunals, virtually denied a livelihood, for a while even confined to his native country.’


Stephen Fender, 19 January 1989

What constitutes an American writer’s landscape? In Great Britain it’s common to refer to ‘Brontë country’ or ‘Hardy country’. The Lake District belongs to Wordsworth more than to any landowner. But ‘Hemingway country’? He lived in at least thirty parts of the United States, not to mention Cuba, Paris and the Riviera. Stephen Crane’s birthplace is now a children’s playground in New Jersey, William Faulkner’s a Presbyterian parsonage. The Oxford Illustrated Literary Guide to the United States, from which these titbits come, provides further unwitting refutations of its own project, which is to fix American writers in their proper locales: ‘It was while walking home with a student one evening that [Wallace] Stevens … spoke of his recent poem, “Notes toward a Supreme Fiction”. “I said that I thought we’d reached a point at which we could no longer really believe in anything unless we recognised it was a fiction.” Exactly. The ‘place’ was Hartford, Connecticut, but it could have been anywhere.


Stephen Fender, 23 June 1988

Even before he shot the top of his own head off, Americans had begun to wonder whether they had come to love Hemingway not wisely but too well. This suspicion had little to do with his stories and novels: it was the fiction that Hemingway and others had made of his life that held the attention – the text of the man, not of his art. As the writer and war correspondent William Walton said to Denis Brian, ‘a man who has spent all his life inventing fiction keeps on inventing it in his private life.’’

Big Ben

Stephen Fender, 18 September 1986

Professor Wright’s third book on Benjamin Franklin is advertised as the ‘first comprehensive biography’ of the American printer, scientist and statesman ‘in fifty years’. What makes it possible is not only the life’s work of a British scholar but also, says the blurb, ‘Yale’s massive edition-in-progress of Franklin’s papers … and the many specialised studies inspired by the correspondence’. Yet in one sense this claim is misleading. Although we do, of course, learn more about Franklin as the papers emerge, in another sense we are for ever rediscovering and re-inventing him according to our predilections. Franklin is a phenomenon very like what T.S. Eliot called a classic – entailing, to use Frank Kermode’s words in his book of that name, ‘the paradox that there is an identity but that it changes.’’


Stephen Fender, 2 July 1981

The longest-lived and most persistent generalisation about American literature is that it could never produce a realistic novel set in contemporary society. De Tocqueville predicted that the theme of American fiction would be ‘man himself, taken aloof from his country and age, and standing in the presence of Nature and of God’. Even before that was written – indeed, before much American literature had been produced – Fenimore Cooper’s Notions of the Americans (1828) had posed a long list of institutions, prerogatives, titles and signs of rank missing from the American scene, without which the novel of manners could never emerge: ‘There is no costume for the peasant … no wig for the judge, no baton for the general, no diadem for the chief magistrate … ’


Stephen Fender, 3 April 1980

The London Yankees has been warmly and widely noticed in this country, and (up to now, anyway) literary editors have set their heavies to the task of reviewing it. Why the fuss over what is, after all, no more than a lively compilation of literary biographies, a descriptive rather than analytical account that adds little to published materials already familiar to the reader interested in the subject? Because literary biography always fascinates; because lively books do not appear all that regularly; and also because of a certain pessimism about the cultural horsepower of Europe, as compared to America, which has been fashionable ever since Stephen Spender’s Love-Hate Relations. Philip Toynbee, in the Observer, came right out with it: ‘by now it is hard to see any reason why an American writer or artist should wish to settle either in Paris or London.’


Cutting the universities

19 November 1981

SIR: I am worried about Sir Peter Swinnerton-Dyer’s argument (LRB, 19 November) that the shrinkage of universities can’t or ought not to be resisted. In the mid-Sixties this was what everyone said about the British coal industry. The issue dividing the parties was not whether or not coal had had its day (obviously it had – everyone from the editor of the Times to the panelists on...

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