DOWN AND OUT IN THE GREAT DEPRESSION: Letters from the ""Forgotten Man by Robert S.--Ed. MeElvaine

DOWN AND OUT IN THE GREAT DEPRESSION: Letters from the ""Forgotten Man

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KIRKUS REVIEW

Please Mr Roosevelt dont Let them take our home away from us Please sir Because i have spent all of my money on this home and now they want to take it away from us. . . ."" This is a selection of 173 Depression-era letters to Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt and a few others (Norman Thomas, members of Congress, federal officials). To Professor McElvaine (History, Millsaps College), they ""afford a better feeling for what life was like for Depression victims"" than retrospective interviews like Studs Terkel's or the contemporary Federal Writers' Project interviews collected, most recently, by Ann Banks; and this contention is nonsense. What the bulk of letters do is demonstrate--graphically, often movingly--that desperate people, naive and in many eases near-illiterate, believed that they could get help by appealing directly to the Roosevelts. McElvaine also divides the letter-writers into categories--middle-class, rural, elderly, ""attitudes toward relief,"" ""the desperate""--that are mostly meaningless. Whatever their situation, many want to save a home. Some ask for personal favors--a loan ""a few old discarded dresses""; some ask for government aid--relief money, a WPA job, a pension. (One woman wants Eleanor Roosevelt to see that she wins a contest.) Others just want FDR to know how bad things are, and how little his programs are helping. Many want to complain that the unneedy or undeserving are getting the aid. A section of hostile letters, labeled ""The Conservative,"" is different: the letter-writers are all well-schooled, several are xenophobic and anti-Semitic. The section of letters from ""we colored peoples"" is different too: these are humble protests against discriminatory treatment. McElvaine also attempts to use the letters to show that there was little latent left-wing sentiment among the impoverished--and it is perfectly true that even those critical of the rich or the bureaucrats see themselves mainly as hard-working folk in need of a boost. It's also true that few blame the Roosevelts for their troubles--though there is the occasional personal reproach (""Your plate at the table is full"") or complaint of promises unkept. These, however, are not revelations. But if it can only be said that the collection confirms long-held impressions--of what people were reduced to, their dismay at being dependent, their faith in the Roosevelts--it does so in a way to make later generations, whether for or against ""entitlements,"" sit up and take notice.

Pub Date: March 1st, 1983
Publisher: Univ. of North Carolina Press