Historian Golay (The Tide of Empire: America’s March to the Pacific, 2003, etc.) has mined the thousands of letters between Associated Press reporter Lorena Hickock (1893–1968) and Eleanor Roosevelt (1884–1962), as well as Hickok’s reports, to present an unexpectedly horrific picture of America during a terrible time.
Hired by the incoming Franklin Roosevelt administration in 1933, Hickok traveled the nation to report on conditions, leaving behind “an incomparable narrative record…of America in the depths of the Great Depression.” Although a sophisticated reporter, she was appalled. Cities seemed devastated; storefronts were empty; factories were abandoned or barely operating; farmers continued to be hopelessly in debt, destroying crops they could only sell at a loss. Roosevelt’s National Recovery Administration encouraged unions, but even their victories could not create jobs. Usually, but not always, charities performed magnificently, until they ran out of money. Most victims were apathetic, but there was plenty of violence, especially in mines and rural areas. Conservatives saw communists behind the protests, and there was no shortage of conviction that American capitalism had failed and that revolution was imminent. The voluminous Hickock-Roosevelt correspondence also reveals a passionate friendship whose romantic possibilities have not escaped historians. Golay does not shy away from that material but keeps his focus on the awfulness of the Depression. Those who yearn for an America of low taxes, unfettered free enterprise, no entitlements, and where charities look after the unfortunate will discover that those were the conditions in 1933.
Even at the time, many counseled patience and denounced government aid as socialistic, but few readers of this gripping, painful account of third-world–level poverty and despair will agree that it is the natural order.