History

Seeing the Great Depression up close

 

An account of a reporter’s 14-month journey around the country to the observe the effects of poverty is masterful.

You think the economy is bad now? Eighty years ago, you would have had trouble distinguishing this nation from Haiti. The Great Depression almost destroyed the middle class, the achievable dream that keeps the poor from storming luxurious estates. Revolution was a strong possibility in an age when fascism and communism were attractive alternatives to democracy. What held the mob back was the almost religious belief that Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal would bring order to chaos. In Michael Golay’s superb history of the Depression’s nadir, past may be prologue. There are signs the severe and pervasive income inequality America 1933 vividly depicts is again becoming a fact of life.

But this is not really Golay’s book. It belongs to Lorena Hickok, the ex-journalist hired by Harry Hopkins, FDR’s welfare czar, who directed her to travel around the country and “look this thing over.” Her mission lasted 14 months, from July 1933 to September 1934, and took her thousands of miles. Golay draws extensively from her reports. He writes, “Rich in detail, breezy and colloquial in tone, [they] would allow Hopkins [and FDR, who read them as well] to see beyond the statistics for a better understanding of the human dimension of the crisis.”

Hickok owed her job to Eleanor Roosevelt. They had grown close during the 1932 campaign, which Hickock covered for the AP. The news agency fired her after she could no longer be objective about the new first lady. As for the exact nature of their relationship, Golay is tactfully neutral. But something was clearly going on. Hickok was a lesbian whose letters to Eleanor were unambiguously amorous. The first lady not only reciprocated but also invited Hickok to move into the White House where she remained until FDR’s death in 1945.

Hickok shared her famous friend’s compassion for the underdog but not minorities. During a tour of the South, she was careful not to express her low opinion of blacks to Eleanor, an early civil rights champion. She saved this “drivel,” as Golay calls it, for Hopkins: “They’re almost as inarticulate as animals. . . . Some of them I talked with yesterday seemed hardly more intelligent than my police dog.” Nonetheless, she dutifully conveyed the region’s oppressive living conditions, including a Georgia labor camp that would have pleased the Nazis. Landed gentry denounced the New Deal’s relief efforts. Why, they told Hickok, should “we take all that trouble for ‘jest pore white trash an’ n-----s.’” But these rugged individualists had no problem accepting government farm subsidies.

Thousands of banks had shut their doors, but FDR’s emergency measures allowed many to reopen. Credit, which had come to a halt, again flowed. Too many people were still out of work, however; the unemployment rate had reached a peak of 25 percent.

As she surveyed the wreckage wrought by unregulated capitalism, Hickok grew increasingly anxious. The worst places she saw were the scarred landscape of West Virginia and the dusty plains of South Dakota, two states where squalor, poverty and hopelessness reigned unchallenged. Things were so awful in West Virginia that Hickok urged Eleanor Roosevelt to visit. The first lady drove to a shantytown alone, sans bodyguards, inconceivable today.

Behold an America without a safety net, where sexually harassed factory girls in Pennsylvania mills earned $2.73 for a 60-hour week, formerly stable families in New York City were evicted in untold numbers, and striking Kentucky miners and California longshoremen faced brutal reprisals from exploitative companies. Such scenes radicalized Hickok, who had begun with a healthy suspicion of reform. By the end, however, she was prodding FDR to act like a dictator, anything to staunch the bleeding.

Fortunately, he didn’t follow her advice. By 1935, Golay notes, the president’s Keynesian pump-priming had turned the tide. Millions were hired to repair and upgrade the nation’s infrastructure. The economy would continue to struggle until World War II, largely because FDR, a deficit hawk at heart, unwisely decided to practice austerity in his second term.

Golay deserves praise. He has produced a masterful re-creation of a difficult period, a welcome answer to recent revisionist criticism of the New Deal, such as Amity Shlaes’ The Forgotten Man, which argues that government interference prolonged the Depression. One wonders if Shlaes and her right-wing colleagues ever resoled a child’s shoes with pieces of automobile tire, as a despondent father in 1933 had to. FDR’s phenomenal electoral success proved that, as William Randolph Hearst said, “the forgotten man does not forget.”

Ariel Gonzalez teaches English at Miami Dade College.

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