Wednesday, March 04, 2009
to my mind, this is essential reading for american middleclassmen, who in my experience universally underestimate still the long and dark shadow current events are going to cast on coming years. journalism of everyday events and conditions is not always easy to come by when studying history, and good examples -- such as william shirer's "berlin diary", which documents the deterioration of european political conditions in the interwar years from the perspective of a young american -- are invaluable for the perspective they provide.
it's a commonplace currently, for example, that things really aren't all that bad -- it's been worse, they say. so also they said in 1930.
One of the undercurrents of this book, in my view, was how long it took the author and many others to realize just how drastically their circumstances had changed and that the depression was not going away anytime soon. Though Love notes that some historians later would divide the depression into different phases (depression, recovery), for him there was little to distinguish these years and when the depression finally did end, it did so fairly suddenly.
As the author explains, the depression, at least at its worst, did not happen overnight and the author was not greatly impacted in the early stages. For instance, in September 1929 between graduating high school and starting college the author attended a military school in Missouri for a year. He notes that between semesters some classmates could not afford to return. His father lost most of his money in the Oct 1929 crash, ended up in debt, had to mortgage the lumberyard and came close to bankruptcy (46). However, the author, away at military school was largely unaware of this. Several of the authors' friends fathers also had lost big in the stock market and many people were worried about slow 1930 model car sales.
His family and others families started to cut spending (47). Still, though people were careful, they were still largely optimistic at that time hoping "[t]hings would be better in the spring when people started building houses again. The situation was only temporary" (48).
By June 1930, with the depression 8 months old, "[t]he panic had subsided and the wreckage had been cleared away. Most people could look about them and see just about where they stood." Though the spring had passed "[t]here was an air of puzzlement but the optimism was there, too" with many still expressing the belief that " 'prosperity is just around the corner.’ "
As the author explains (48-49) this idea: "would be repeated and repeated. When the fall had some and gone, people talked about the upturn that would come the next spring. The next spring people would say that the upturn would come in the summer, and so on. The thing is that people really believed this. They had a blind faith in it, and because they did, they set up a pattern of living called 'hanging on.’ ...
... One aspect of the depression which comes through in this book is the impact on the most vulnerable - such as the elderly, large families and the poor. In noting that the depression in summer 1930 still had not touched many Americans, the author explains: "[i]t was people like the alcoholic, I think, who first felt the full bite of the Depression. Lacking stability even in good times, they were the ones, in the end, who ended up in breadlines or selling applies. There weren't so many of them as dealers in Depression nostalgia would have one believe."
Still, even in the summer of 1930, the author noted "disquieting undertones" such as stories of people committing suicide, going to jail (e.g., embezzlement), going bankrupt and having stress-related health problems (heart attack, stroke). "The Depression produced all kinds of casualties," the author states (50). One of the authors' neighbors was arrested for embezzlement and his family evicted. Another friend and neighbor's father drank himself to death. People laid off from Flint's auto factories lost houses, suffered breakdowns and strokes and even committed suicide (94).
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