N E W   D E A L   N E T W O R K

The Magpie Sings the Great Depression:
Selections from DeWitt Clinton High School's Literary Magazine, 1929-1942

Home  |   Lesson Plan  |   Project Information  |   Resources
Archive:  Year   |   Author/Artist  |   Subject  |   Images

Augustus Hodges illustrated Robert Warshow's It Isn't the Fall
Augustus Hodges illustrated Robert Warshow's It Isn't the Fall (June 1932)

Student Voices from the 1930s

You want me to tell
about those good old days?
But how can I, with mere words and verse
write in a stanza the thoughts,
the lives, the destinies of a race?

—Leonard Harris, Composite Picture

With a student body numbering over ten thousand boys, the Bronx's DeWitt Clinton High School produced more than its share of writers and artists, many of whom were published in The Magpie, the school's literary magazine. This website presents 195 poems, articles, and short stories and 295 graphics and photographs from The Magpie, encompassing the years 1929 to 1942. Taken together, they comprise a portrait of student life in New York City during the years of the Great Depression.

Refugees, a lithograph by Robert Blackburn, appeared in the June 1938 issue of The Magpie
"Refugees," a lithograph by Robert Blackburn, appeared in the June 1938 issue

The Magpie premiered many young writers and artists. James Baldwin's earliest published work can be found between its covers, as can the poetry and prose of photographer Richard Avedon, film critic Stanley Kauffmann, cultural critic Robert Warshow, and cartoonists Teddy Shearer and Mel Casson. (See Author/Artist Index.) Many of these youthful artists and writers produced sophisticated work that anticipated the directions their professional careers would take. The early work of master printmaker Robert Blackburn, a Magpie Art Editor, demonstrates an eye for composition and a technical expertise that belies the artist's age. Flood, a one-act play by Lester Bernstein, who later became an editor for Newsweek, dramatizes a struggle for journalistic independence in the editorial office of a small city newspaper. In Eight Weeks in America, future education journalist Fred M. Hechinger, writing a short while after his family had fled Nazi Germany, gives his first impressions of New York City and contrasts German and American educational styles. Sidney (Paddy) Chayefsky, the acclaimed television screenwriter, demonstrates his ear for the poetry of everyday speech in This Younger Generation (January 1938).

Harold Altman drew this Clinton student, with senior cap and jacket, for the Spring 1940 issue of The Magpie
Harold Altman drew this Clinton student, with senior cap and jacket, for the Spring 1940 issue

However, it is not who they became but who they were that makes the work of these writers and artists so compelling. Articulate and observant, they bring a youthful voice to a history usually told by adults. Their depictions of teenage life—classrooms, love and friendship, and family—document the way in which they carried on their everyday lives in the face of economic uncertainty at home and growing militarism abroad. (See Family Life and Student Life.) In poetry and short stories, DeWitt Clinton students comment on the current scene while experimenting with the popular literary conventions of the day. Quite a few crime and sporting stories of the hard-boiled variety graced the pages of The Magpie during the 1930s, and the influence of the Harlem Renaissance can be seen in the short stories of Robert Blackburn and Theodore Browne (who later became a writer, actor and director for the Negro Theatre of the WPA's Federal Theatre Project). Stories and poems that engaged with the great social and economic issues of the 1930s were also common. (See Fiction and Poetry.)

New York was fertile ground for artistic inspiration. The coal yards lining the Hudson River were ready models for high school sketch artists, who caught the bustling markets and cafeterias, and the crowded street life of the city, as well. Magpie contributors covered the waterfront—and Harlem, Union Square, the Hayden Planetarium, Little Italy, and the streets of the Lower East Side. The subway system, especially the Lexington Avenue line that brought students from Manhattan to the Mosholu Parkway exit near DeWitt Clinton High School, was a prominent feature in the creative work of Clinton students, the setting for humor, drama, tragedy and reflections on the human condition. (See New York Scenes.)
A stroll down Broadway, by John Baldwin
A stroll down Broadway, by John Baldwin for the January 1940 issue

Magpie writers roamed far from the Boroughs of New York. In Southern Journey, Emanuel Demby reports on a trip to Alabama with a keen eye to the daily injustices of the Jim Crow South. Max Rosenbloom's In Poland, an evocative portrayal of a family visit to Rohatyn, a small village in Poland, captures both his wonder at this foreign, ancestral home and the devastation that the World War had brought there. In With Rumbling of the Drums, William Nachbar tells of his August 1939 trip to London as that city calmly prepared for war. Others report of their experiences in Shanghai, Nicaragua, Italy, and India. (See International Scenes.)

As the decade came to a close, Magpie submissions increasingly took up the subjects of War and Peace, first in response to the Spanish Civil War, then to the rise of Nazism and fascism in Germany and Italy. In trying to imagine a stage upon which to play out dramas of aggression and pacifism, artists and writers often retold stories of the pograms and enforced military conscriptions that had driven many of their parents and grandparents from Europe to New York City, or looked back to the senseless waste of human life of the last Great War. (See War and Peace.) Poems like Irving Genn's Flanders Fields 1939, for example, underscored the madness and futility of war:

Harold Altman illustrated Lewis Harris's Let There Be Light
Harold Altman illustrated Lewis Harris's "Let There Be Light" (January 1941)

But now man struggles as of yore.
Poppies again are stained with gore.
Again the hosts of death shall sweep
As men will fight and kill and weep
While we the dead make room for more
In Flanders fields.

By the Fall of 1939, which saw the German invasion of Poland followed by France and Britain's Declaration of War on Germany, many Magpie contributors were rethinking their pacifist stances, arguing for a response to aggression based on the need to protect democratic principles and institutions. The turning point for Abba Bayer, a DeWitt Clinton senior, came on a bright September day in 1939 while driving over the Triborough Bridge to visit Jones Beach, having just heard that war had been declared in Europe. Bayer shapes his reflections into the form of a letter to the future, a letter to his unborn son. He writes:

I felt then what I still feel—a great urge to insure the fact that the inevitable changes time brings will be in line with the principles of democracy so adequately prescribed by our forefathers. For in our hearts this ideal of freedom of the spirit will never die. But if we get muddled up and do not convey this to you, then seek it out yourself.... And if these things are as ancient history, take up the work where we failed and struggle till right shall rule over might. (A Letter, January 1940)

After Pearl Harbor, Abba Bayer, like so many of his classmates, joined the armed forces. He served in a bomber squadron in the Pacific theater.

* * * *

Through the art and literature we create, we make sense of ourselves and the world around us. To study and appreciate the early creative work of the generation that came of age during the Great Depression and World War II is to better understand who they were and who they would become.

The Magpie ceased publication in the late 1970s. After a twenty-year hiatus, it has recently been revived.

Project Director
New Deal Network

Home  |   Lesson Plan  |   Project Information  |   Resources
Archive:  Year   |   Author/Artist  |   Subject  |   Images