THE GREAT DEPRESSION: America, 1929-1941 by Robert S. McElvaine

THE GREAT DEPRESSION: America, 1929-1941

By
Email this review

KIRKUS REVIEW

From the more recent literature on Progressivism and after, the 1920s, the Crash, and the Depression itself, Millsaps College historian McElvaine, editor of Down and Out in the Great Depression, has fashioned an account of the period pegged to the idea that, in the 1930s, ""the values of compassion, sharing, and justice became the most dominant that they have ever been in American history."" According to this interpretation, the Depression led middle-class Americans to identify their interests with the self-interest of the poor, or working class, in income redistribution, or ""economic justice""; and the genuine reforms of the 1935-36 Second New Deal (by contrast with its earlier, palliative measures) followed therefrom. Thus, Father Coughlin, Huey Long, and the Townsend Plan, 1935's three popular challenges to FDR, become forces on the left--where, in his treatment of popular culture, McElvaine also places the 1930s longing for an imagined, secure past. How so? ""What was evident in the films of Capra and Ford, as well as many other Depression-era movies, was a call for a kind of cooperative individualism that recognized individuals could achieve a degree of independence and self-respect only by cooperating."" All this is a far piece from the WPA, Social Security, and the Wagner Act, the three 1935 measures whereby the government stepped into the breach and assumed responsibility for the public welfare. McElvaine is a populist-romantic, in American terms, influenced (as he frequently notes) by E. P. Thompson's Making of the English Working Class. From his contact with the ""down-and-out,"" he presumes a class identity and class attitudes at variance with the complexity of working-class culture, as close students have round it, and in general disregard of larger economic forces; of the very scale of 20th-century business, for one. On such particular matters as the role of Herbert Hoover or the causes of the Depression, McElvaine tends to knock down straw men: the continuity of policy between Hoover's New Era and the First New Deal is a textbook-truth; Galbraith and other historians of the Crash have long identified maldistribution of income as a major cause. In the latter instance, McElvaine is arguing against Reaganite economics today-part of his relentless schematizing. Only in describing the experiences of the Depression's victims, an extension of his anthology, and suggesting its social effects (e.g., toward glorifying women as homemakers), does McElvaine's treatment stand up; the test redresses what he sees as an imbalance--short shrift to popular radicalism--with idealization and oversimplification.

Pub Date: Jan. 24th, 1983
ISBN: 0812923278
Publisher: Times Books