Foreword | December 01, 2008

As I write this, the U.S. stock market is bouncing around from its low of the year, having lost 40 or 50 percent of its value, depending on which minute you look at it. at problem wouldn’t be so remarkable if it were not occurring at a point in our history when more than half of the American population is connected to the stock and bond markets through savings plans or direct investments and when financial institutions are being held together by governmental baling wire and carmakers are teetering on bankruptcy and homes are declining in value and the current generation of retiring Americans has proved to be among the most profligate borrowers and worst savers in history. Like the USSR in the 1980s, we appear to be taking an unexpected turn toward a different sort of government and economy.

Despite this congeries of problems, what is happening now is hardly unique. In the history of the United States, there has been no single period above fifteen years that has been free of severe recession, panic, depression or major war, all of which have been connected to some larger array of persistent problems and many of which seemed unsolvable at the time. People often comment without much sense of the past: for example, for months we’ve been hearing that today’s downturn is much worse than previous ones due to the fact that the world’s economies are for the “first time so connected.”

In 1797, the Western nations were already connected enough that a severe deflation in England, caused in part by England’s war with France, crossed the Atlantic, triggering a similar defl ation in the newly independent United States. Philadelphia merchant Robert Morris had been the minister of fi nance for the United States during the Revolutionary War. He had both lent money from his own fortune and scared up millions of dollars from Europe for Washington’s army. After the war, this financial genius invested $333,000 of borrowed money to purchase for himself a vast chunk of western New York State. He was unable to pay it back due to the English-influenced deflationary spiral, which flattened the value of U.S. real estate. Morris was arrested and condemned to the Prune Street prison in Philadelphia, where he would have died if Congress hadn’t passed the bankruptcy bill three years into his sentence, partly to get him out of jail.

So remember — the guy who paid for the American Revolution went broke in real estate speculation, inspiring the bill that will keep you out of jail when you go broke. Be happy.

That was just the beginning of America’s economic ups and downs. Our first depression occurred in 1807, a seven-year doozy partly caused by the Embargo Act. President omas Jefferson pushed the passage of this act to punish the British for harassing our shipping and impressing our sailors for England’s war against France. Unfortunately, the United States then suffered much more, with our exports decreasing by 75 percent. We entered into a second war against Britain and remained an economic basket case for two years beyond the time that its soldiers burned the Capitol and White House.

The strain on banks and decline of gold and silver reserves came back to haunt our young country only five years later, causing the Panic of 1819-1824. Banks were forced to trade in paper obligations of declining value, leading to bank runs and failures, a drop in prices, again including real estate, bankruptcies and widespread unemployment. That one lasted five years.

Following that was a series of panics, each of which happened about thirteen years after the conclusion of the previous one, beginning in 1837, 1857 and 1873. All of them were set off by a combination of similar events: the failure of banks or major insurance companies, lack of confi dence in currencies, speculative bubbles in certain areas of the economy, such as railroads, and recessions in Europe. The so-called Long Depression — called the Great Depression until a greater one occurred-overlapped the last of those three panics, lasting from 1873 through 1896. It started with the collapse of the Vienna Stock Exchange and a recession in France, sparked by excessive reparations paid to Germany after the Franco-Prussian War (a mistake that was repeated in reverse after World War I, causing extraordinary stagflation in Germany). Our Long Depression was exacerbated by many of the usual things, including the continuing decline of the railroad bubble and weakening currencies, along with protectionism among nations. During its twenty-three-year duration, the gross national products of the United States and Western Europe increased, but so slowly as to make it an extended and painful malaise.

Shall I go on? I won’t, except to say that there were nine or ten more, including the Biggie, which was stopped not by Roosevelt’s programs, brave though they were, but by World War II. The Great Depression and most of the other periods of severe recession and inflation of the last century-plus were connected either to excessive credit, bank and insurance problems, wars — five for us, including Iraq — or to bubbles: railroads, dot-com, oil and real estate. Panics and depressions in the United States have occurred at an average of every twelve years.

One of the longer episodes without severe economic trouble was from 1958 through 1972. In my own life, that covered junior high through college, and while I feel lucky to have grown up in an economically “safe” period, I admit to not having enjoyed hiding under school desks to prepare for the atomic bomb or later running through the streets with policemen chasing me for demonstrating against a war that we were losing.

Like other kinds of trouble, acute economic difficulty often feels shocking and unprecedented while it’s happening, but in fact it is neither unique nor permanent. Realizing that takes only a look at history and a trace of humor. During the recorded history of humankind, one of the most consistently profitable businesses has been the selling of predictions of doom — not just economic doom but godly destruction, atomic bombs, population bombs and many other utterly convincing scenarios. However, none has quite worked out yet. I would bet — perhaps I should just say hope — that we go through a few more before we actually get our apocalypse.

This issue’s contents don’t concern economic crises, but much of it relates in one way or another to the inevitability of trouble and change and the mysterious blessings that they sometimes bring. It’s not always easy, as Bruce Ducker’s story “The New Room” suggests. A husband and wife are adding a room to their house, employing a contractor who’s driving them crazy — a trying joint endeavor that ultimately promises to heal the crisis between them. Dave Kim’s first published story, “Final Round,” concerns a young Korean American kid who is a Bible quiz champ, now in the next-to-final round of a national competition. He begins to blank out and lose, and without his intending it, near loss gives him power to handle a much larger problem in his and his family’s life.

Jennifer Bryan’s “What Happened When the Young Woman Turned Thirty-five” describes a woman who has long dreaded her thirty-fifth birthday, fearing that it is the beginning of the end. Ironically, what gives her comfort is that the day itself is perfectly ordinary, and on it she receives a gift that is the most direct possible confirmation of mortality: a frightening specter becomes a simple and endurable fact. Kyoko Mori’s nonfiction piece “Shawls” is equally paradoxical. Mori’s mother died when the author was a child, and Mori writes of her loss and the loss of other significant people in her life, showing that “loss can expand as well as constrict us.”

Seth Fried’s weirdly believable and funny “Loeka Discovered” is about a prehistoric man found frozen on an alpine mountain and the excitement and roller coaster of manic behavior and speculation that he causes in the lab. He’s so old and so profoundly instructive! Watch out, though; another old dead man might turn up, one who’s bigger, meaner and even more instructive.

Margaret Malone’s essay “The First Week of After” describes her discovery, with her husband, that he has a brain tumor, and the alternating waves of hope and fear that the couple experience. It also deals with her awareness of something that is difficult to admit or realize-something that is both a seeming contradiction and at the same time a simple and necessary truth.

The poems here are eloquent testaments to the enigmatic linkage of trouble and gain. Charlie Clark’s poems look gently on human foibles. His subject is the failure of our earnest endeavors, the failures of art in particular, but more importantly the ability to step back and laugh and transcend shortcomings. His narrators are more likable for their foibles. Alex Grant’s poems balance the mundane with the astonishing in the three-ring looping of circus performers, showing the grind of circus work but also how the mastery of art can transport both the audience and the performer. Alexandra Teague’s poems frame bleak “midpoints of mortal geography”: a burned house, lost luck, divorce, dangerous weather and death. Here what redeems is her willingness to write of these things, to record absurdities that occur in the midst of tragedy and to seek out understanding within expression.

Nathan Oates’s omnibus review covers recent novels about the intellectual life in America, a subject too seldom treated, and we’re delighted also by Andrew McFadyen-Ketchum’s interview of one of our favorite poets, Rodney Jones.

So what the heck, enjoy the read, and let’s have a Depression party. We’ll serve Spam, spiked Kool-Aid, macaroni and cheese and, if somebody has a couple of extra bucks, black-eyed peas. Come and get it.


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