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The Forgotten Man: A New History of the Great Depression

Author(s):Shlaes, Amity
Reviewer(s):Namorato, Michael V.

Published by EH.NET (August 2008)

Amity Shlaes, The Forgotten Man: A New History of the Great Depression. New York: HarperCollins, 2007. x + 464 pp. $27 (cloth), ISBN: 978-0-06-621170-1.

Reviewed for EH.NET by Michael V. Namorato, Department of History, University of Mississippi.

Amity Shlaes? The Forgotten Man: A New History of the Great Depression is, in many respects, a unique book. The author has written a rather lengthy account of what she believes the Great Depression was all about. She offers her own views on what caused this economic crisis, how badly it was handled by those in government, and why the economic downturn lasted so long. And, she does this by her so-called approach of looking at ?the forgotten man.? Who was this forgotten man? He or she is the one who paid the bills for the New Deal programs, who was out of work throughout the economic catastrophe, and who put faith in what those in power said. Or, at least that is what the reader is led to believe about the identity of ?the forgotten man.?

Shlaes begins by identifying a group of individuals that are followed throughout the study. All of them went to the Soviet Union on ?The Junket? and all were associated with liberal causes and ideas. These individuals included people like Stuart Chase, Rexford Tugwell, John Brophy, Paul Douglas, and Roger Baldwin. For whatever reason they had, the visit to Russia and actually talking to Joseph Stalin would have a definite impact on them. There are others, however, whom Shlaes also examines very closely ? individuals such as Andrew Mellon, Herbert Hoover, Wendell Wilkie, Father Divine, and Samuel Insull. Through these specific individuals and a few others, Shlaes examines the American economy, the Hoover presidency, and the Rooseveltian New Deal.

Shlaes goes into much detail on the programs that Calvin Coolidge and Herbert Hoover supported during their presidencies. The same is done for Franklin D. Roosevelt and the New Deal. The study begins in January 1927 and ends in January 1940. Each chapter of fifteen chapters begins with a specific date and an indication of the Dow Jones Industrial Average, the unemployment rate, or other indexes showing how the economy was doing. Of course, since this was the period of the Depression, the statistics typically showed that the American economy was not doing well nor recovering very quickly. Shlaes is particularly ?microscopic? when it comes to examining the New Deal. Whether it was the National Recovery Administration (NRA), the relief programs, the Wagner Act, court packing, the recession of 1937-38, the 1936 election, or Roosevelt?s anti-trust attack on business, she explains what happened and/or why things did not work out as the president had expected. She is very impressed, moreover, with individuals like Tugwell whom she thinks was ?too radical? for the New Deal. By the same token, she spends an inordinate amount of time on the attacks on Andrew Mellon for tax issues, Mellon?s commitment to opening the National Gallery of Art (showing that private enterprise could match government actions), or Wendell Wilkie and David Lilienthal?s fight to the finish over the TVA and the private utility industry. In short, the author gives a very detailed account of the Depression and how the government dealt with it.

Throughout all of this, she also traces those who had gone on the Soviet junket to see what happened to them over time and as the Depression deepened. In the end, Shlaes concludes that the 1920s was really a good time, a prosperous one. In her view, the stock market crash was inevitable and the subsequent depression was a breakdown of capitalism. Both Hoover and Roosevelt misjudged the crash and the depression, both mistrusted the stock market, and both overestimated what the government could accomplish. Shlaes argues that Roosevelt was more inspired by ?socialist and fascist? models, but that he lacked faith in the marketplace. The depression lasted so long and was considered the Great Depression because government intervention in the economy made it so. The struggle between private and public was continuous throughout the 1930s. And, the main reason why Roosevelt kept winning his elections was the possibility of war which loomed continuously on the horizon. In the end, the forgotten man was remembered by Wendell Willkie who understood and believed in the individual and liberalism as it should have been. If there is a hero for Shlaes, it is indeed Willkie.

In assessing this book, one point should be made clear from the very beginning. There is no doubt that the author is anti-Roosevelt and anti-New Deal. At first, the fact is subtle, but, as the book progresses, it becomes clearer that she dislikes FDR and what he did. Once the reader understands this, everything falls into place. Just as important are some specific weaknesses in the book itself. The author gets lost in ?details,? especially with the individuals that she is supposedly examining. A good case in point is Father Divine. While he is mentioned in the book from the beginning, it is not until almost the end of the study that the author even talks about him and then it is in terms of his purchasing property near the Roosevelt estate in Hyde Park. Another problem is the author?s insistence on identifying the motivation of people. Offering little or no evidence, she consistently tells the reader what and why something was being done by a particular person. Her discussion of Mellon makes one wonder whether he is a saint or a devil in disguise. Shlaes has a tendency to pick out what she wants from the evidence she has examined. This is true in the case of Tugwell. Whenever she quotes or discusses him, it is always in the context of Tugwell the radical reformer. The truth of the matter is that Tugwell can only be understood in terms of his ever-evolving and developing economic philosophy. Tugwell often ?thought out loud.? You simply cannot take what he said in 1934 and argue that this was his thinking all along. Finally, the author seems to have her own definition of what is liberal in the twentieth century. It would have helped immeasurably if she had shared her thinking with the reader from the very start.

In the end, Amity Shlaes? book is a formidable work. Whether scholars of this period agree with her or not, this study should and needs to be confronted. Perhaps, by approaching the Depression through the eyes of the so-called forgotten man, scholars may see the period in a different and more interesting way. Shlaes should be commended for her effort, whether or not one thinks that she has succeeded or failed in her work.

Michael V. Namorato is a Professor of History at the University of Mississippi. His publications include Rexford Tugwell: A Biography (Praeger, 1988) and (as editor) The Diary of Rexford G. Tugwell: The New Deal, 1932-1935 (Greenwood, 1992).

Subject(s):Macroeconomics and Fluctuations
Geographic Area(s):North America
Time Period(s):20th Century: Pre WWII