Welcome to hard times From a high school history class in the late 1950s, I remember a teacher, attempting to shake us children of relative privilege out of our apathy, telling a personal story to illustrate the awfulness of the Great Depression. Out of work himself in those years, he was walking along a city street one day when he saw a small crowd at a doorway, encircling what proved to be the dead body of a man. Only later, he said, did he learn that the man had died of starvation.
I don't know about my fellow sloths, but obviously I was affected enough by the story to remember it. Not that I or they needed his anecdote. We could have had anecdotes aplenty if we'd wanted them, which we mostly didn't from our mothers and fathers, our aunts and uncles people now part of what T.
H. Watkins calls in The Hungry Years: America in an Age of Crisis, 1929-1939 a generation of witnesses who are passing from the scene and to whom he intends his book to be a tribute.
If any subject comes close to rivaling the Civil War and World War II for being written about, it is the Depression. Indeed, Watkins himself has written an earlier book about the period and an award-winning biography of one of its leading figures, Harold Ickes. So why another tome on the pile? The author explains in his foreword that he wanted to write not so much about the New Deal and politics as about the people whose lives were changed by what the Great Depression brought, to take the story as far beyond Washington, D.
C., as I can get it, and wherever possible present the story from the ground up. In this he largely succeeds. He divides his book into three sections, the first a chronological overview, the other two examinations of the Depression's grip on urban and rural America. These last two are, as he intends, considerably more descriptive and anecdotal than the first, but even here there is still plenty of detail about what might be called the story from the top down the lives and motivations of Franklin D. Roosevelt, other politicians, union leaders, businessmen, and so forth.
Except in incidental ways Watkins is not interested in what movies people watched, books they read, or songs they sang and danced to. The Hungry Years is almost exclusively a political, social, and economic as distinct from cultural history. He devotes his book to Americans' struggle with hard times and to an examination of Roosevelt's attempts to get the nation out of the economic morass that he believes FDR's predecessor, Herbert Hoover, did little to keep it from sinking into.
In this interpretation he is hardly alone, of course. Hoover's fiddling while America burned has pretty much become the revealed truth of 20th-century American history. Watkins admires the New Deal's nobility of purpose that few governments have ever entertained, but calls it, when all is said and done, a magnificent failure whose reach far exceeded its grasp. Watkins deftly rounds up all the usual suspects and grills them hard. One of his best examinations is of the nation's exclusive dependence on volunteerism, local aid, self-reliance, and private charity that, to give Hoover his due, made a good and capable man a prisoner of ideology and kept him from doing more than he did.
FDR was not about to be any such prisoner. Immediately upon achieving office he began serving up the famous alphabet soup of public works and relief: the soil soldiers of the Civilian Conservation Corps, for example; and the Public Works Administration, which eventually would put at least one construction project in all but three of the country's 3,073 counties; and the most ubiquitous program of all, the oddly named Works Progress Administration, which included the federal writers, music, and theater projects. One of the New Dealers' signal failures, he writes, is in the decade's labor unrest and rising unionism, because of their lack of understanding of and sympathy for the working class. He maintains that they were more comfortable giving workers government jobs than helping them fight for their own.
All too soon our own children will no longer have a generation of witnesses to these hard times. Luckily, they or at least the few who show more interest than my generation did will have The Hungry Years to tell them what they were fortunate to have missed. ¦Roger K. Miller is a freelance writer. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.