I write from the premise that the more I read, the more informed my research becomes – or from the paralyzing fear that I’ll omit huge pertinent sections if I neglect to read some tangentially related tome.
In that spirit, I’ve been exploring some books related to the era and society of the 1930s. All are more or less non-fiction, and each has allowed me to build a more fully-developed world for the attendees of the reunions.
Two books not covered in this admittedly random list are the Pulitzer Prize winning, Slavery By Another Name by Douglas Blackmon and Traitor To His Class by HW Brands. As I’ve noted before, Blackmon’s book is history at its finest – illuminating, fascinating and deeply disturbing. I’m still reading the book about FDR, and I have to confess, the more I learn of him as a man and a president, the more I do admire him.
Unlike of course, Amity Shlaes, who’s charged polemic, The Forgotten Man demonizes FDR and the New Deal in no uncertain terms. In her worldview, the Keynesian economic model that underscored much of the New Deal was flawed in that it actually regulated the economy. According to her thesis, Hoover and the free market would have worked had they been given time. In the end, she argues that the Great Depression only ended with the advent of WWII. Now most reasonable folks do agree with that theory – but her gyrations to avoid concluding that the build-up to war was a gigantic government “stimulus” to the economy are head-spinningly entertaining.
The value in the book comes not so much from its conclusions, which often seem pursuant of Shlaes’ agenda, but from its illumination of the “haves,” during the Depression. Sadly, I must confess that I’ve done little reading about those completely unaffected by the economic chaos of the 30s. For an absolutely brilliant review of Shlaes’ book, read John Updike’s essay in the New Yorker (7/2/2007). Funny, poignant and erudite Updike pokes holes in the research, while humanizing the era.
For a more balanced treatment of the era, I concur with Updike in his recommendations of David Kennedy’s Freedom from Fear, and one of my personal favorites, Hard Times by Studs Terkel. Hard Times and The Good War are two books every student of the “greatest generation,” need to read, and IMHO, have on their shelves. Terkel does oral histories like no one else!
Two more contemporary journalists, Jeff Guinn & Timothy Egan have written compelling works on the Depression era that depict the Dust Bowl in remarkable detail. Go Down Together: The True, Untold Story of Bonnie and Clyde and The Worst Hard Time, respectively, look at how middle America responded to the economic and agricultural maelstrom that devastated the region. Most people come to the Dust Bowl and the Depression by way of John Steinbeck or Woody Guthrie, and these works depict the reality illustrated by the “Dust Bowl Laureates,” as they’ve been labelled.
Egan’s book is more academic, yet comprehensive in the sights, smells and sheer horrors of a world in which nature turns against you. After reading his book, the fact that anyone stayed in the Midwest during the Depression is a testament to fortitude and/or insanity. The insanity plays itself out in Guinn’s biography of Bonnie & Clyde. Stop picturing Faye Dunaway and Warren Beatty; the book challenges those popular fiction myths, painting the grim and gritty reality of a hardscrabble existence and crime as the only option for a chance to even look at the social ladder.
Finally, three quick social milieu reads:
For those who want more Dust Bowl – read Obscene in the Extreme, Rick Warztman’s fascinating account of the attempt by a California town to ban Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath from its library system. It gives you the other side of the Dust Bowl – what happened to the people who left? And how did it impact the towns and states receiving the flood of immigration? I found some interesting parallels to the internal refugees after Katrina? Plus ça change….
Looking back at those marvelous 20s, in which the seeds of the Depression were planted – check out Marion Meade’s Bobbed Hair and Bathtub Gin: Writers Running Wild in the Twenties. From Dorothy Parker, you know the “men seldom make passes/at girls who wear glasses,” quipster/much more complex woman, to the iconic flappers of Scott and Zelda, to Edna Ferber and Ernest Hemingway, Meade draws the reader into a world spinning heedlessly askew. It’s astonishing how close to the precipice creativity often teeters.
Speaking of teetering creativity, David Hajdu’s Ten Cent Plague: The Great Comic Book Scare and How it Changed America is just delightful. In an earlier stage of my life, I hung out with lots of comic book people – so I came to this volume with some expectations and a modicum of knowledge. And in my work on the 1930s, I’ve looked at the rise of the “superhero” during the era (Superman premiered in Action Comics #1 in 1938). So, technically, the book skirts the boundaries of my research. Read this for the politics, the publishing details, the societal norms – on any level it works. For example, as one reads of the explosion of comics publishers in the 30s and 40s, it reads like the genesis of the blogsphere. Will there be a similar backlash?
Enjoy your reading!
more reading tunes: Justice & Independence 85 (John Mellencamp); When the World is Running Down (the Police); Don’t Talk Back (Kasey Chambers); Where the World Began (John Mellencamp); Whistle While you Work (try the Artie Shaw version); 40 Acres and a Fool (Del McCoury); Fear, Hate, Envy, Jealousy (Neville Brothers); Treat me like your Money (Macy Gray and will.i.am); Went for a Ride (Radney Foster); Trouble (Pink); Wonderful World (Sam Cooke); Bourgeois Blues (Taj Mahal); Don’t Bet Money on the Shanghai (BR5-49); Money, Money, Money (from Mamma Mia!); NRA Blues (Bill Cox); Fearless (Taylor Swift); the Man without Fear (Drowning Pool & Rob Zombie); Don’t Be Stupid (Shania Twain); Haven’t Found (Pras & Sharli McQueen — an absolutely fantastic hip-hop take on the U2 classic); You Gotta Sin to get Saved (Maria McKee); Against History (Dan Wilson) and We Sure Got Hard Times Now (Barbecue Bob)
Nothing in life is to be feared, it is only to be understood –> Marie Curie