The Great Depression
Much of the action of the novel takes place during the Great Depression, widely considered the most serious economic downturn in United States history. The Great Depression began in the autumn of 1929, when the largely unregulated stock market plunged and American industry came almost to a standstill. By the early 1930s, between a quarter and a third of Americans were unemployed. During the Depression, which affected people throughout the world, radical political movements enjoyed rising success. In Germany, for example, millions sought relief in the programs and nationalistic rhetoric of the National Socialist, or Nazi, Party. Significantly, Germany’s second most popular party in the early 1930s was the Communist Party, as many lost faith in capitalism’s ability to deliver prosperity. In the same way, in the United States socialist and Communist beliefs enjoyed new popularity, although they were never embraced as widely as in Europe and parts of Asia. Nevertheless, the Socialist Party candidate for president in 1932, Norman Thomas, earned almost a million votes, over two percent of the overall tally. Most Americans turned to liberal politicians during the Great Depression. The most important of these was President Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Elected four times beginning with the 1932 election, Roosevelt changed the relationship between the United States government and its citizens. His ‘‘New Deal’’ programs, such as the Works Progress Administration (1935–1943), responded to the economic crisis by employing millions of Americans to build roads, schools, and bridges. In order to stabilize the economy after the crash of the stock market, Roosevelt created numerous government programs and offices, including such regulatory institutions as the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC). The economy rebounded in the mid-1930s but fell back into recession in 1937. The onset of World War II returned American industry to full capacity and brought the Depression to an end by about 1940.
The Cold War
The Adventures of Augie March was written and published in the early 1950s, in an era known to historians as the Early Cold War. The name ‘‘Cold War’’ signifies that although the United States and the Soviet Union (and the People’s Republic of China) were not engaged in a conventional war, they battled for global supremacy in the years after the end of World War II in 1945. American political and social life was dominated by the adversarial relationship between the United States and the Soviet Union. In the early 1950s, the United States fought a war in Korea in order to repel an invasion of South Korea by Communist North Korean forces supported by both the Soviet Union and the People’s Republic of China. Domestic politics were also dominated by the Cold War, as Republicans and Democrats vied to lead the fight against communism abroad and communist ‘‘infiltration‘‘ at home. The Congress held hearings on communism in the film industry and in the Department of State. President Harry S. Truman instituted loyalty oaths for federal employees, and the Supreme Court ruled that the Communist Party was essentially a criminal organization. American culture was also marked by a fear of communism. Because of so-called ‘‘blacklists’’ in Hollywood and elsewhere, writers and artists feared standing out as ‘‘different’’ for fear of being labeled as communists. This was especially true for those who, like Saul Bellow, had a background in left-wing or radical organizations. Because of the Cold War, a sense of conformity descended over society, from the architecture of the new suburban housing developments to the conservative clothing styles of the day. The Cold War does not really play any role in the action of the novel; the scenes that take place after World War II are primarily in Europe, and Augie is not concerned about either communism or fervent anti-communism. However, the book is full of radical characters, from Frazer to Leon Trotsky.
Source Credits: Sara Constantakis, Novels for Students: Presenting Analysis, Context & Criticism on Commonly Studied Novels, Volume 33, Gale-Cengage Learning, 2010