Another thing to remember about the twenties is that, after a brief postwar depression, it was a decade of unusual prosperity. Big business and we thought of as its government seemed absolutely impregnable. And most of us were in one way or another beneficiaries of national prosperity. How was H. L. Mencken able to publish a glossy journal such as the American Mercury? Because the publishing business of Alfred A. Knopf, Inc., was flourishing. How were the expatriates able to live abroad? Because they were taking advantage of a favorable rate of exchange. Why did I get a raise in salary at Smith College? Because papas were able to pay increased tuition fees.
Then the depression came. It began, of course, with the stock market crash of October, 1929, but our awareness of it did not begin then. I had started teaching that fall at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, and one or two of my colleagues got squeezed, but I thought it served them right for playing the market. After all, they still had their jobs, and their families would not starve. Some of the big operators had been badly hurt, and a few committed suicide, but we had no great sympathy for the men of Wall Street. This, we said to ourselves, was what a business civilization was like.
But as 1930 went by, we began to wonder what was happening, and in 1932 it seemed clear to some of us that this business civilization that we had been belaboring on cultural and moral grounds had collapsed. The machines - those wonderful machines that had given so many of us a high standard of living - had stopped running. And more and more people were out of jobs. By 1932 some economists said that as many as 17 million people were unemployed, and that meant that every fourth person we met was jobless . . . [From ' Writers in the Thirties' by Granville Hicks.]