Depression-era Madison, meet Madison’s depressing housing market

Wallace Stegner’s “Crossing To Safety” tells an eerily familiar story about money and ambition in our city.
A photo illustration shows a paperback copy of Wallace Stegner’s “Crossing To Safety” held up in the foreground, with a residential Madison street and the shore of Lake Mendota visible in the background.
Photo illustration by Jesse Raub.

Wallace Stegner’s “Crossing To Safety” tells an eerily familiar story about money and ambition in our city.

This is our newsletter-first column, Microtones. It runs on the site on Fridays, but you can get it in your inbox on Thursdays by signing up for our email newsletter.

“Let’s make Madison a place of pilgrimage,” says Charity Lang, one of the four main characters in Wallace Stegner’s 1987 novel Crossing To Safety. She’s excited: her husband Sid is an assistant professor at UW-Madison with the novel’s narrator, Larry Morgan. Her close friendship with Larry’s wife, Sally, has inspired Charity to wax poetic about their new hometown. “Sid and I think a little city like this, with a good university in it, is the real flowering of the American dream,” she opines. 

The book is centered around the friendship between these four, and how it evolves through the years (and locations) until Charity’s eventual death from cancer decades later. And while Charity’s family compound on a lake in Vermont is a recurring setting where the two couples come together over the years, their friendship is really solidified in 1937, when they meet in Madison. 

Ah yes—Depression-era Madison, where one can drive their car down State Street when first arriving in the city, and a hotel room with a bathtub costs $2.75 a night ($58 today, adjusted for inflation). And yet, the city doesn’t seem so different from 2023. The Morgans, scraping by on $120 ($2,500 today) in traveler’s checks, find a dingy basement apartment on Morrison Street that butts up against Lake Monona. The Langs, who have Lang family money to pull from, have settled on Van Hise Avenue on the West Side, surrounded by big, beautiful houses (many of which are still there today, if you’ve got a hankering for a mansion sight-seeing afternoon drive). “To my rank-conscious eyes it looked like a house with tenure—big front lawn with maples, unraked leaves thick on the grass and in the gutter, windows that stretched like a nighttime train,” Larry narrates when he sees it for the first time. 

When the Morgans find a place to live, it’s $60 a month, twice what they were hoping to pay. “Take $720 a year out for rent and we would have left, out of my $2,000 salary, exactly $1,280 for food, drink, clothing, entertainment, books, transportation, doctor bills, and incidentals,” Larry says. Adjusted for inflation, his yearly salary works out to $41,783.33 while their apartment would be $1253.50 a month in rent. 

If those numbers feel familiar for current residents, they’re remarkably similar to the City of Madison’s Housing Snapshot Report for 2022, which states: “The median renter household with a household income of approximately $44,151, can ‘afford’ a gross rent of $1,104 per month.” If we try to apply that “affordability” scale to the numbers from Crossing To Safety, it would seem that Larry Morgan is correct to be worried about his rent-to-income ratio. That doesn’t mean that $1,104 is the median rent for Madison, however. The Cap Times published an article in February of 2022 that lists the median income for a Dane County resident at $40,000 a year while median rent is $1,410 a month. And housing costs in Madison proper aren’t going down anytime soon. Rent in Madison has increased 30.4% since March 2020, and with a vacancy rate of only 2.5%, renters are forced to pay higher prices that landlords are demanding. 

As a public institution, the University of Wisconsin Madison has publicly available salary data. Larry’s title is never fully specified, but it’s likely he was an Assistant Professor, which in 2023 pays a minimum of $54,137 while the lowest paid Assistant Professor made $73,518 in 2022. Potentially, if you’re hired as an Assistant Professor at UW-Madison, you’re in much better shape financially than the average Dane County resident, which is helpful when a one bedroom apartment in a new building could cost between $1700-2400.

Charity Lang’s rose-colored vision of Madison is one that isn’t hampered by financial worries. Her husband, Sid, inherited millions from his parents. Charity (as her name would suggest) is generous with their money in little ways, like bringing champagne to hilltop picnics and hosting lavish dinner parties. But her true plan for Madison is on a grander scale. For Charity, her husband’s money will never hold the prestige of a tenured professorship, so the Langs buy two acres of open land in what is now Middleton to build an enormous mansion. Charity’s plan is to keep the guest rooms available as “a weekend rest home for broken-down instructors,” and to use this house to ingratiate Sid with the department. “I’ll look as if we thought we could buy our way to a promotion,” Sid protests, but Charity won’t hear it. And in the end, she’s right. Sid is promoted to full professor on a tenure track, and Larry Morgan is out of a job after a year.  

Even though the book was written 36 years ago about Madison as it was 86 years ago, the experiences of the Langs and Morgans feel oddly familiar. When Lake Monona freezes over, the two couples use the Morgans’ backyard as a launchpad to go ice skating. When it’s time to celebrate Larry selling a short story to The Atlantic (which he’s paid the mind-boggling equivalent of $4,000 for, in 2023 dollars), the Langs pack a picnic and drive out to a nearby hillside somewhere northeast of the city. And because the Langs are wealthy, they’re able to take advantage of the nearby suburban open land to build a gigantic house in spite of the poor wages Sid makes as an assistant professor. The Morgans, of course, have to move on to find a city that’s more affordable for a young couple entering the professional class, like, say, Boston, where the Langs have arranged for Larry to get a job in publishing. 

Though the time that both couples spend together in Madison is brief, the city clearly made a massive impact on all four characters, as it likely did for author Wallace Stegner, himself. It’s hard to ignore that our narrator, Larry Morgan, shares a similar story with Stegner: both taught briefly at UW-Madison at the start of their careers, both dedicated their professional lives to writing fiction and teaching creative writing, and both eventually settled in New Mexico, enamored with the beauty and function of the West. It’s easy to see why an author so in love with nature and open spaces could be drawn in by Madison. Stegner was also enamored by the way this city can foster deep, personal connections with the people that you meet here. 

“Lake Monona is tepeed with white sails… the wind moves the silver maple over our heads, and some leaves rustle down,” Stegner writes in Larry’s voice. 

But just as Larry Morgan keeps a small chip on his shoulder about constantly having to rely on the generosity of the Langs, Stegner’s version of Madison is a welcoming, beautiful, peaceful, and lovely place to live—as long as you’ve got generational wealth.

An earlier version of this article cited salary information for the UW System. It has been updated to reflect salaries at UW-Madison.

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