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And a Time for Hope: Americans in the Great Depression

Author(s):McGovern, James R.
Reviewer(s):Dighe, Ranjit S.

Published by EH.NET (February 2002)

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James R. McGovern, And a Time for Hope: Americans in the Great Depression. Westport, CT: Praeger Publishers, 2001. xii + 354 pp. $69.95 (hardcover), ISBN: 0-275-96786-7; $24.95 (paperback), ISBN: 0-275-97544-4.

Reviewed for EH.NET by Ranjit S. Dighe, Department of Economics, State University of New York at Oswego.

James R. McGovern’s engaging new book is a social history of America in the 1930s whose main thesis is that the American people weathered the Depression Decade remarkably well, never losing their characteristic confidence and hopefulness. Although economics is not the book’s focus, the book will still be of interest to economic historians seeking a fuller picture of the response to depression and of American life in general during the 1930s.

The resilience and hopefulness of the American people in the Great Depression have been noted before. Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr.’s Franklin D. Roosevelt trilogy described a nation that reflected its president’s sangfroid and confidence, taking to heart FDR’s famous line, “We have nothing to fear but fear itself.” An early review of Studs Terkel’s landmark oral history Hard Times called it “a huge anthem in praise of the American spirit” (Terkel, p. i). McGovern’s contribution is to give us a social history of the 1930s that places that spirit of hopefulness at its center and that emphasizes the progress that did occur during that decade. Far from being a decade of drift, McGovern argues, the 1930s continued America’s forward march, even if the country’s economic indicators did not.

The book is smartly organized by topic rather than chronologically, with twelve central chapters that are sufficiently self-contained that they can be read in any order. That flexibility is a particular virtue because the quality of the individual chapters is somewhat uneven. Because the book’s stronger chapters stand so well on their own, they are ideal as outside-reading assignments for American economic history classes and as quick refreshers for researchers trying to get a feel for 1930s America.

Although the author has clearly gotten his hands appropriately dirty with primary sources, the book’s key findings seem to come as syntheses of other research works, as is evident from the extensive endnotes and the inclusion of seventy-five books in the select bibliography of “books especially helpful to me.” This is not really a problem, since the author’s thesis is unique. Indeed, some of the book’s strongest chapters are those that rely most heavily on secondary sources. The key primary sources used are the official papers of Franklin D. Roosevelt and his Civil Works Administration chief Harry Hopkins, numerous reports from the Federal Writers Project and photographs from the Farm Security Administration (FSA), and microfilms from a dozen-plus newspapers

Title notwithstanding, the book is really about the New Deal years of the 1930s, not the entire Depression. The Great Contraction of late 1929 to early 1933 does not fit so well with the book’s thesis about the “relative poise and ease” with which Americans confronted the worst economic catastrophe in their country’s history. McGovern himself admits in the book’s conclusion that a “more severe and longer-lasting Depression” would have severely tested the people’s resilience. Thus the Great Contraction is handled separately in the first chapter, “A Troubled Nation, 1929-1934,” which describes a nation under severe strain and desperate for a way out. While the chapter does a fine job of telling its story with primary-source quotes from people feeling the pinch of the Depression, the story is nevertheless a familiar one. Since one cannot tell this story without some discussion of the contraction’s economic causes, McGovern briefly discusses them, and manages to do so in terms that most economic historians would find reasonable. He describes the contraction as a collapse of aggregate demand brought on by a massive decline in consumer confidence, likely precipitated by the stock-market crash (a la Romer 1990) and amplified by the thousands of bank failures.

Again, while the book is a social rather than economic history of the depression years, economic historians and their students will still likely want to know how Americans coped with the country’s greatest economic catastrophe. Here McGovern does a good job of sketching the various institutions, from families and churches and communities to New Deal programs to movies and radio and magazines to urban entertainments and immigrant networks, that gave Americans strength and nourishment. McGovern properly focuses on those institutions in the 1930s not merely as coping mechanisms but as central features of American life whose evolution and various changes are essential developments in the country’s history. The book is at its best in detailing those institutions, as in the chapters on rural and small-town communities, African Americans in the South’s cotton belt, and the sporting and nightlife attractions of New York City and Chicago.

The book reaches its zenith in Chapters 8 through 10, “Seeing Tomorrow,” “Americans Go to the Movies,” and “Americans Listen at Home,” all of which would be excellent supplementary readings for an undergraduate economic history class. “Seeing Tomorrow” surveys the numerous economic advancements and innovations that did occur in the 1930s: the spread of radio, the wider use of electricity (aided by such New Deal projects as the Tennessee Valley Authority) and appliances such as refrigerators, the great dams, the great skyscrapers and bridges, the spread of commercial air travel, and, of course, the two major world’s fairs, in Chicago (1933-34) and New York (1939-40). One easily overlooks how many of America’s great landmarks were built in the 1930s, including the Empire State Building, Rockefeller Center, the Hoover Dam (then called the Boulder), and the Golden Gate Bridge. These landmarks were instant sensations with tourists (the still-unfinished Boulder Dam drew more visitors in 1934-35 than the Grand Canyon!) and with the rest of the public, who eagerly read about them in picture magazines such as Life (which also made its debut in the 1930s).

Chapters 9 and 10, on the movies and radio, are delightful and grounded in subtle yet convincing economic explanations of the trends in both media. Motion pictures and radio were two of the country’s rare economic success stories in the 1930s. The growing popularity of Hollywood movies and national radio broadcasts gave Americans a common (pop) culture and a greater sense of connectedness. The 1930s are almost universally acknowledged as a golden age of Hollywood, but its films in 1930-34 and 1935-39 were of distinctly different types. The earlier period was the heyday of the “kiss kiss” and “bang bang” movies (think Mae West and Jimmy Cagney), whereas the later period saw a decided turn toward more wholesome and uplifting fare, as exemplified in the films of Frank Capra. McGovern makes a convincing case that the shift occurred because the public voted with its dollars against the sensational and for the inspirational. Chapter 10 makes much the same argument for consumer sovereignty on the part of the American radio public, who demanded, and got, similarly affirming family fare that would help them maintain a positive attitude in the face of economic adversity. In both cases we see an interesting endogenous relationship, in which the public demands positive messages in its entertainment media, gets them, and finds comfort and inspiration in them.

Another chapter that I suspect will be of interest to economic historians is Chapter 6, “Rural Worlds Confirmed,” which is devoted mostly to debunking John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath. Although Steinbeck’s classic is one of my favorite books, and one I have even used as a supplementary reading in my economic history class, McGovern argues effectively that the typical experience of the 315,000-plus “Okies” who migrated to California in the 1930s was not nearly so dire as that of Steinbeck’s fictitious yet archetypal Joad family. Many Oklahomans had already moved to California, under better conditions, in the 1920s, and many of the 1930s migrants were able to draw on the resources of already-established Okie communities in California (Merle Haggard’s Bakersfield comes immediately to mind). Moreover, far from finding nothing but dismal migrant farm work, the majority of Okies seem to have eventually experienced upward mobility in California, and chose to settle down in a single place, even if it meant a temporary stint on relief. To be sure, the misery and exploitation that Steinbeck described was the reality of many of the new arrivals in California, especially the Mexican immigrants, but California was hardly the dead end that his book implied.

McGovern is less sure-footed, and sometimes tendentious, when he ventures out of the realm of social history and into the areas of political and labor history. Chapters 2 and 3, “The President” and “The New Deal,” seem almost to have been written by two different people. Chapter 2 is a glowing tribute to the inspirational character and personality of Franklin D. Roosevelt, whereas Chapter 3 is a near-indictment of the New Deal for failing to provide adequate relief or sufficiently vigorous anti-poverty programs. (And yet the concluding chapter strongly praises the New Deal’s relief and reform programs, as well as the “responsive and innovative government under Roosevelt.”) Taken together, the two chapters underscore McGovern’s theme of a confident and hopeful people who prevail over extreme hardship, but they could have been organized better. Moreover, McGovern seems to overstate the New Deal’s failings so as to strengthen his story of American perseverance.

While the New Deal obviously fell well short of producing a full economic recovery, it did provide substantial relief to millions of Americans, a fact that McGovern seems to soft-pedal. McGovern presents the high official unemployment figures for the late 1930s as evidence of the inadequacy of New Deal relief, yet he does not mention the “Darby-corrected” unemployment rates (the Darby correction is to follow current practice and count government relief workers as employed), which lower the late-1930s unemployment rates drastically and suggest that the New Deal provided a lot of employment relief. The Darby-corrected unemployment rates in 1937 and 1940, for example, are in the single digits, more than five percentage points lower than the official unemployment rates of 14.3 percent and 14.6 percent. Although the American social safety net of the late 1930s was not without some gaping holes, the New Deal did mark a sweeping regime change, moving the United States once and for all into the world of welfare-state capitalism. Even though Roosevelt never embraced socialism, aspects of the New Deal were clearly socialistic, as Peter Temin (1989) has noted. In fact, by 1938 federal spending on employment programs was a larger share of GDP in the United States (6.3%) than in Britain, France, Germany, or Sweden (Lipset and Marks 2000, p. 286).

If Chapter 3 seems to take a left-wing approach to the New Deal and its shortcomings, several of the subsequent chapters seem to approach matters from the opposite end of the political spectrum, telling a rosy story of American exceptionalism based on individualism and contentment. The chapter on “American Workers,” for example, seems to go out of its way to minimize the gains in union membership and strength in the 1930s. McGovern cites the sixteen percent unionization rate as evidence that very few workers “regarded the situation to be so threatening to warrant union membership” (p. 275), without noting that the unionization rate of nonfarm workers was much higher (about twenty-nine percent). He attributes the union setbacks in the severe “Roosevelt recession” of 1937-38 not so much to the recession but to a general disenchantment with unions, and gives the misleading impression that the unions’ late-1930s setbacks were the beginning of the end for them, when in fact their gains would continue through the mid-to-late 1940s (when some two-thirds of factory workers belonged to unions). Most egregious of all is the following slam at FSA photographer Dorothea Lange, whose harrowing photographs (including the classic “Destitute Pea Picker in California, Migrant Mother of 6″) are among the most enduring representations of the Depression: “Although middle-class intellectuals like Lange showed a great capacity to empathize with poor folks living on the edge, they seem less well endowed to depict an abiding personal and cultural strength in their subjects. To do so, of course, would imply that they could begin to help themselves” (pp. 105-06). Thankfully, such snideness is relatively rare, and McGovern seems to contradict that statement in the book’s conclusion, when he says Lange underscored her subjects’ “real courage” as outstanding. (That assessment seems closer to the mark: Lange told an interviewer that the most important things about her subjects were “their pride, their strength, their spirit” [Davis, p. 49]).

Ultimately, such flaws are vastly outweighed by the book’s contributions. Beyond fulfilling his goal of portraying an America that maintained a sense of hopefulness and progress during hard times, McGovern has written a fascinating account of a vibrant American cultural and social life that (as William Faulkner might have said) not only endured but prevailed in the Depression Decade. Together with the books cited below, plus Irving Bernstein’s great trilogy on the labor and political history of the period and William J. Barber’s slender volumes on Hoover’s and Roosevelt’s economic policy-making, McGovern’s book belongs on a list of essential reading about the American economy and society in the Great Depression.

(James R. McGovern is Emeritus Professor of History at the University of West Florida.)

References:

Bernstein, Michael A. (1987) The Great Depression: Delayed Recovery and Economic Change in America, 1929-1939. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Darby, Michael (1976). “Three-and-a-Half Million U.S. Employees Have Been Mislaid: Or, an Explanation of Unemployment, 1934-1941,” Journal of Political Economy 84: 1-16.

Davis, Keith F. (1995) The Photographs of Dorothea Lange. Kansas City: Hallmark Cards, Inc.

Lipset, Seymour Martin, and Gary Marks (2000). It Didn’t Happen Here: Why Socialism Failed in the United States. New York: W.W. Norton.

Romer, Christina D. (1990). “The Great Crash and the Onset of the Great Depression,” Quarterly Journal of Economics 105: 597-623.

Temin, Peter (1989). Lessons from the Great Depression. Cambridge: MIT Press.

Terkel, Studs (1970). Hard Times. New York: Avon Books.

Ranjit S. Dighe is Assistant Professor of Economics at the State University of New York at Oswego. He is the author of several papers on American labor markets in the Great Depression, as well as The Historian’s Wizard of Oz: Reading L. Frank Baum’s Classic as a Political and Monetary Allegory (2002, forthcoming).

Subject(s):Social and Cultural History, including Race, Ethnicity and Gender
Geographic Area(s):North America
Time Period(s):20th Century: Pre WWII