Commentary on Robert S. McElvaine’s “The Great Depression”

[T]hat quaint period, the thirties, when the huge middle class of America was matriculating in a school for the blind. Their eyes had failed them, or they had failed their eyes, and so they were having their fingers pressed forcibly down on the fiery Braille alphabet of a dissolving economy.

— Tennessee Williams, The Glass Menagerie

William Faulkner famously stated that “good history is, not was.” By this Faulkner meant that history is a tapestry of interconnected events whose meaning and significance cannot be appreciated unless past causes, present manifestations, and future consequences are assessed. Robert S. McElvaine, author of The Great Depression: America 1929-1941, provides us with the kind of tapestry to which Faulkner was alluding as McElvaine analyzes the first momentous collapse the United States ever experienced.

I was recently gifted with this book by a friend who thought that as an historian, I would appreciate it and find it timely, and certainly I do, but due to current events and how rapidly they are unfolding, my comments about it here will not be from an academic perspective. I am much less interested in the quality of history in McElvaine’s book, although I find it first-rate, and more interested in the values the author is emphasizing and that the Great Depression manifested among the masses of American people. You might say that I have been touched by and wish to share the soul of this book, more than its intellect. For that reason, I choose to describe this article as a commentary rather than a review of the book.

One cannot thoroughly appreciate the catastrophic nature of the Great Depression without understanding what preceded it. The decade of the 1920s, not unlike the economic milieu of the 1980s and ‘90s, was a time of dizzying, unrestrained, and frantic consumption. It was the apotheosis of the “conspicuous consumption” about which Thorstein Veblen wrote in his turn-of-the-century classic The Theory Of The Leisure Class. Threading his tapestry forward, McElvaine writes that, “Put simply, most Americans late in the twentieth century have adopted the consumption ethic that was rising in the 1920s, but was temporarily reversed during the Great Depression.” McElvaine, of course, wrote this book in the ‘80s, but certainly the consumption ethic has not abated but rather intensified since then.

Ironically, one factor that contributed to the onset of the Depression, and that eventually pulled the nation out of it, was consumption. Franklin Roosevelt’s stellar accomplishment in the engineering of New Deal policies was the emphasis on “purchasing power” for average Americans. McElvaine occasionally draws parallels throughout the book, and also in recent articles, between the 1920s and the late twentieth century, not only with regard to consumption but also to a stock market index that seemed during the 1920s to reach unprecedented heights. Clearly, the consumption on steroids that we have been witnessing the past sixty years in the United States is no longer capable of “curing” an economic depression, but it is certainly capable, along with mountainous debt, of contributing to the occurrence of a Second Great Depression.

Elevated levels of consumption are almost always attended by an increase in “individualism” and a decline in a sense of community. The Great Depression reversed this trend in America dramatically, and for me, that is perhaps the most riveting feature of McElvaine’s book as he writes, “…the most significant fact about the Depression era may well be that it was the only time in the twentieth century during which there was a major break in the modern trends towards social disintegration and egoism.” (xxiii)

From the perspective of today’s world, whenever I reflect on the 1930s, I never cease to be amazed at the spirit of cooperation that blossomed amid the hardship and impoverishment of the times. Of this McElvaine notes: “The economic collapse that started in 1929 obliged people who had begun to accept the new values of unlimited consumption and extreme individualism to take another look at these beliefs in comparison with the more traditional, community-oriented values that had existed in earlier times.” (xxiv) The author also notes that many men who had become unemployed and found themselves spending more time at home also found themselves in the position that women had traditionally experienced — that is, at the bottom of the economic hierarchy. Whereas the Horatio Alger-style self-made man was championed in the Victorian era, during the Depression the “self-made man became the self-destroyed man.” (xxiv) In other words, during the Depression, people began to recognize the value and necessity of interdependence, which manifested in a preference not for the highly individualistic urban lifestyle, but for rural and small-town life.

I don’t wish to romanticize the Great Depression era as some golden age of cooperation and community, but I do believe there are applicable lessons to be learned from the way in which communities responded to the suffering of their time, particularly as we stand on the shifting sands of a cliff called “collapse.” As I have said many times, collapse is not an event but a process — a process which is not in the future but in which we are deeply engaged at this moment whether we recognize it or not. And imperfect as the spirit of interdependence may have been in the Depression era, it was, as McElvaine emphasizes, “…the time in which the values of compassion, sharing, and social justice became the most dominant that they have ever been in American history.” (7) Conversely, “…more and more people became dependent as the nation industrialized.” (7)

As the friend who gave me this book stated, “This book reveals very poignantly what has been lost in American culture.” He was referring above all to the issue of cooperative values, and values is something historians often avoid addressing in their frantic attempt to remain “objective.” Yet, as McElvaine notes, “Values are the critical base on which any society rests.” (196) Unfortunately, American capitalism itself is a poster-child for the schizophrenia between economics and ethics.

America in the 1920s was capitalism on steroids with the ruling elite gorging on corporate profits, most notably profits from the automobile and related industries. Three presidents in a row, Harding, Coolidge, and Hoover had agreed that “the business of America is business.” Yet when the house of cards collapsed in 1929, the working and middle classes, alongside intellectuals who had been criticizing capitalism for some time, awakened to the nightmare that the American dream had become. Not surprisingly, countless working and middle class individuals moved dramatically to the left politically, many embracing socialism and organizing and protesting for economic and social justice. Why else during the McCarthy era was the ‘30s referred to as the Red Decade? (203)

And of course, gangsters of the Depression era were portrayed in film as Robin Hoods. The 1960s cinematic portrayal of support for and idealization of Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrows was not exaggerated. In my family, I grew up on an often-told and retold tale of my grandmother’s matter-of-fact statement that “if John Dillinger knocks on my door, I’ll give him a hot meal and a place to hide down in the cellar behind the furnace.” The Depression brought people — all kinds of people — together and kept them together.

One of the most powerful and moving pieces of cinema in the ‘30s was King Vidor’s Our Daily Bread in which a young unemployed husband and his wife (John and Mary) living in the city become desperate for income. John appeals to Mary’s rich uncle who gives them several acres of land, which they are totally unskilled in farming. But along comes a farmer from a Midwestern state on his way to California with his family who joins them and begins teaching them how to farm. Soon the population of the farm grows and more and more unemployed, wandering individuals wind up on John and Mary’s land looking for not only a new start, but a sense of community with which to launch it. Together, the farm’s residents survive by hunting, growing their own food, and sharing skills. A series of challenges arises, but each time, the community moves through them — except for the most formidable of all, drought. However, near the farm is a reservoir, but the community has no way to access it. Therefore, they must construct a conduit from the reservoir to their crops — a gargantuan project that has them working day and night with picks and shovels routing the water to their land.

For me, the most powerful and moving scene in the film was the long brigade of men digging with their shovels and the coordinated thud of their picks into the earth, toiling around the clock, to bring water to their land. I’ll never forget the sound of those picks reverberating with sweat, determination, and above all, cooperation. They were successful, and their crops flourished, but only because they never gave up on creating a new life, and they never stopped working together to do so.

Today, no movement offers any viable alternatives for political, economic, social, or ecological justice. Few are even cognizant of the severity of the issues at hand, and most are woefully unprepared and uninformed. A frightening and naïve assumption prevails: that the U.S. government will “take care” of its citizens in the throes of natural disasters, pandemics, blackouts, or dirty bomb attacks. These realities could exacerbate one’s angst as one contemplates collapse, but in fact, they might instead motivate us to begin building the lifeboats we must have in order to navigate it. We will not be able to do this until we have experienced a profound transformation of our values — and our sense of community.

Historians generally agree that Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal and Keynesian economics rescued the nation from total catastrophe, but McElvaine points out that, “the changing mix of American values in the Depression — was of even more significance than was Roosevelt himself.”(324) Roosevelt’s agenda would have fallen on deaf and smug ears ten years earlier, and it could not have succeeded without a change in values in the American people that was able to resonate with the values of the New Deal. I hasten to add that I do not believe that it was the New Deal that ultimately pulled the nation out of the Depression, for as I make clear in my book U.S. History Uncensored, it was ultimately World War II and the launching of the military industrial complex that did so and has continued to “prevent” depressions and mask more protracted, less visible economic and social injustice.

“Perhaps the chief impact of the Great Depression,” says McElvaine, “was that it obliged the American people to face up to the necessity of cooperative action because it took away, at least temporarily, the easy assumptions of expansion and mobility that had decisively influenced so much of past American thinking.” (337) Expansion? Mobility? Do these sound like aspects of American life that could be severely curtailed by energy depletion, climate change, or an increasingly worthless U.S. dollar?

Mainstream economists have just begun to use the “R” word in relation to the economy, but anyone who has done even minimal research, with or without a degree in economics, understands that the United States — in fact many nations on earth –are moving rapidly toward a Second Great Depression. It is therefore imperative to understand the causes and effects of the First Great Depression, particularly its impact on the culture and the values of individuals in it.

The author goes on to point out the “feminization” of American society during the Great Depression, noting that, “The self-centered, aggressive, competitive ‘male’ ethic of the 1920s was discredited. Men who lost their jobs became dependent in ways that women had been thought to be.” (340) Yet it was not only in loss of jobs that men became more “feminized.”

Whenever any individuals, male or female, join to create community in a spirit of cooperation, they are “feminizing”, for the feminine principle is, above all, relational — a concept inherent in the traditions of many indigenous peoples. It is this kind of joining that characterized the Great Depression era and to which we must aspire as we build economic, emotional, and spiritual lifeboats for the daunting journey ahead.

There will be no New Deal, no FDR, no parental federal government to kiss everything and make it better. There will only be ourselves and the others with whom we choose to join and prepare.

Carolyn Baker, Ph.D. is author of a forthcoming book, Coming Out from Christian Fundamentalism: Affirming Life, Love and The Sacred, and also U.S. HISTORY UNCENSORED: What Your High School Textbook Didn’t Tell You. Read other articles by Carolyn, or visit Carolyn's website.

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  1. Moller de la Rouviere said on June 9th, 2007 at 12:02am #

    Great review! Encouraguing to see the ‘relational’ feminine element alive and well in the academic world.

    You are right, Carolyn, what is required is indeed this lost sense of togetherness. The materialism of the present day leaves a humanity in its wake that no longer recognises the importance of relational integrity. So much of what we do is mere expediency. We have lost the plot of what human happiness is all about and strive toward a never-ending dream of material gain in the false belief that more is beautiful.

    It seems to me that much of our present dilemma centers on the inability of the male brain to think integrally or relationally. The male energy fragments, and out of this fragmentation it creates science. From science comes technology and from technology our fascination with the things we create. But this fascination is fundamentally based on inner emptiness – a lack of self-knowledge and true self-love. Bereft of self-love we seek and admire (even revere) outer forms to compliment our inner emptiness. This is the basis of materialism. And from this results the rampant egoistical, non-relational approach to life.

    My sense is that this is not a problem we could overcome by trying to change society. Freedom from self-centered activity and relational failure is a personal matter. This is why my own work in this regard challenges the problem from a personal point of view. In my book: Spirituality Without God -A Humanist alternative to conventional spirituality’, I attempt to describe how the individual, through meditative enquiry and self-knowledge could get in touch with themselves and find from within their own deep humanity the sense of wholeness they seek outwardly in the world of possessions, ideas, religions, dogmas, self-escape and self-fulfillment.
    Moller de la Rouviere