Depression Voices

LEKACHMAN, ROBERT

Depression Voices Hard Times By Studs Terkel Pantheon. 462 pp. $8.95. Reviewed by Robert Lekachman Studs Terkel's Hard Times is every bit as good as its generally enthusiastic reviewers have...

...For many who suffered through it, the seemingly endless economic nightmare was mitigated by two circumstances...
...In light of all this, it remains somewhat of a mystery that so traumatic a blow as the Depression should have evoked so little reaction and so little alteration of American attitudes and institutions...
...By the end of the 1930s, as the Keynesian gospel won its converts in the Roosevelt official family, it became clear that human wit, even in the absence of major war, was capable of managing an economy to evoke general prosperity...
...Finally, there was a tendency to judge the Depression as a natural calamity for which no man or institutional arrangement was really to blame...
...Another was the persistent tendency of many of the unemployed and the bankrupt to blame themselves for their misfortunes...
...Yet far from celebrating their parents' achievements, the young are prone to seek convenient walls against which to place them...
...I was struck by still another difference between those times and ours...
...A perplexing age indeed...
...And even Long could be neutralized by as restrained a measure as the Social Security Act of 1935...
...If the catastrophe had a plausible explanation it was likely to be as general as the mysteries of the business cycle or a decline in morality, or as pathological as Coughlinite fantasies of an international conspiracy by Jewish bankers and radicals...
...Evidently it is much easier to treat poverty and joblessness than the more complex sicknesses of an affluent society...
...First of all, poverty was general...
...Thus it was that no overall impulse toward revolutionary change surfaced during the Great Depression...
...Many have, after much struggle, achieved the income and the security that years ago seemed beyond their reach...
...As many of Terkel's respondents realize, the solution to the Depression was actually World War IIa remedy worse than the ailment...
...here he has succeeded in evoking from the Great Depression's survivors some amazingly sharp and poignant memories of the 1930s...
...Unlike the 1960s, the 1930s were marked by extraordinary social patience...
...Attempts by Communists and Wobblies to convert poverty and unemployment into mass revolutionary action were surprisingly futile...
...The stories they tell into Terkel's tape recorder recall the horror of the 1937 Memorial Day massacre at Republic Steel, the almost routine brutality of the police toward labor organizing, farm revolts against sheriffs' sales, the collapse of standards of life based upon paper values in the stock market, the shame of going on relief, and the vicissitudes of life on the road...
...Even during the extreme conditions of the Depression, the American confidence in individual action and self-reliance was strong enough to operate as moral condemnation of the man who lagged behind...
...In Hard Times the famous (among them Sally Rand, William Benton, Saul Alinsky, and Alf Lan-don) jostle con-men, carnival grift-ers, waitresses, ex-miners, and ordinary folk of many other varieties...
...To date human wit has not been equally capable of coping with the issues of alienation, youthful rage, social equity, and environmental quality which are at the heart of present disorders...
...Roosevelt and the New Deal figure affectionately in the memories of the painters, writers, and actors who found a renewal of hope in the wpa arts projects, the farmers who were rescued by the Agricultural Adjustment Administration, and the former officials whose best years were spent in New Deal agencies...
...With incredibly few exceptions, millions of men and women bore prolonged deprivation, acceeded meekly to the humiliating conditions attached to public assistance, and waited with flagging hope for a better day...
...And second, because poverty was widespread and social pretension a waste of time and energy, ordinary folk shared what little they had with those who had still less...
...A generation ago television did not flaunt in the face of the poor the general affluence of the majority...
...These are familiar generalizations, even when couched in the frequently pungent language of Terkel's cast of characters...
...Reviewed by Robert Lekachman Studs Terkel's Hard Times is every bit as good as its generally enthusiastic reviewers have said it is...
...There was no general affluence, and there was no television...
...But when, lacking a consistent diagnosis of his own, he contented himself with powerful rhetoric and mild action, the only serious impetus from the Left was the native American populism of Huey Long...
...Pity the veterans of the 1930s in the puzzling world of the 1970s...
...In retrospect, the New Deal was far more successful as a placebo than as a fundamental reform or agency of recovery...
...In an earlier volume, Division Street, Terkel established his credentials as an exceptionally gifted interviewer...
...And to these recollections he has effectively contrasted the reactions of young people whose only knowledge of the period derives from books they are discinclined to read and parental reminiscences that bore them...
...One, no doubt, was their own maladroitness...
...Depression or no, the frontier myths of independence were more persuasive than the alien ideologies of Marx and Lenin...
...The radicals gained little ground for a number of reasons...
...In the early months of his tenure, Roosevelt probably could have proceeded a good deal further than the nra, the aaa, and the patchwork of recovery and reform measures that supplemented them...

Vol. 53 • May 1970 • No. 10


 
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