To what extent were the grim realities of the Depression reflected in popular culture (art, film and literature)?
I agree that Steinbeck is the most well known author who wrote pieces directly reflective of the Great Depression's effect on society. The Grapes of Wrath were brutally honest in their depiction of the hardships people endured coming out of the Dust Bowl.
But there were scores of lesser known works by authors commissioned by the Works Progress Administration to produce literature. It was one of the ingenious ways the New Deal preserved the arts and music through direct subsidies, and despite the difficult times, it was also one of the most creative and productive in the history of the arts in this country.
John Steinbeck has to be one of the major authors who harnessed the bleakness and poverty of this historical period and used it to create unforgettable characters and images. Another more recent example is Bud, not Buddy, which is a novel aimed at teenagers set during the period focussing on Jazz and some of the realities of the time.
Depression Era art was in large part funded by Roosevelt's WPA and Federal Art Project. Works were commissioned in all sizes and mediums across the country. Many depicted the American worker or the suffering rural countryside. While there were some abstract works, most of the art during this time, reflected the somber mood of the nation. Unlike the escapist role of the movies, art depicted real life, though often in a more hopeful way than the realistic literature of the time. In this way the art of the era falls somewhere between realist and escapist.
It should also be addressed that photography of the time gives us a beautiful if grim look at a society in pain. So many images from this period are burned into our brains. They show the harsh reality of depression era life, and the grim resignation of the people who lived it.
As the previous post noted, no work better exemplifies the Great Depression than Steinbeck's novel The Grapes of Wrath. The book is fantastic, and viewing the film (released in 1940 and directed by John Ford and starring Henry Fonda) is unforgettable.
For the most part, they were not. Historians like to talk about the ways in which popular culture during the Great Depression was more escapist than realistic. They emphasize that people's real lives were grim enough and that the people, therefore, were more interested in escaping when they watched movies or read books for fun (though this is more true of the movies than it is of literature).
In movies, there were lots of comedies, musicals, and gangster films. For example, both Charlie Chaplin and the Marx Brothers were major stars during the Depression making comedies. There were fun movies starring Shirley Temple and musicals like "Top Hat" with Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers.
To be fair, literature (at least "good" literature) was much more gritty and realistic. John Steinbeck was writing during this time as were Erskine Caldwell and Richard Wright. These men's works were much more realistic than the movies were.
Overall, then, it is fair to say that the movies were very escapist while at least some literature was more realistic.
Considering the grim realities of the Great Depression reflected in Pop culture limits review to the harshest depictions while excluding escapist frivolities. In this context, the literary work "Grapes of Wrath" by John Steinbeck is an extraordinary example of a film about a deplorable era.
This story of a family losing their home, traveling across country to find work in the promised land of California as migrant workers is legendary. The author won a Pulitzer Prize. The film was one of the first 25 movies selected for preservation into the National Film Registry of the Library of Congress as being culturally, historically and aesthetically significant.