Hard Times by Studs Terkel
I miss shelving at my local library. It’s really a great way to discover books I’ve never heard of, with the added bonus of the fact that someone else found it worthwhile to check out—which is not much better than just stumbling across a book in a bookstore, I know, but it feels better. Which is how I found Hard Times. I’d never heard of Studs Terkel in my life and the Great Depression is not exactly a historical event that sweeps me off my feet, but the fact that it was a broad oral history intrigued me, and the bit I read interested me. (I am the reason some books don’t make it back onto the shelves. I’m a patron too!)
Hard Times is, as the subtitle tells us, “an oral history of the Great Depression”. Written in 1970 (with a new introduction added in 1986), Studs Terkel interviewed hundreds of Americans who lived through the Great Depression in order to provide a record of a time that receded so quickly from memory that the children of its survivors, who Terkel also interviews, are almost utterly ignorant of it. These personal stories are sorted into five books according to theme—working life, social life, politics, indifference, and the arts—and make for a broader picture of a decade narrowed in future thought.
In American high school, American History classes teach the early half of the twentieth century thusly: the Roaring Twenties happen, the stock market crashes, causing the Great Depression, which was just awful for everyone, and then Franklin D. Roosevelt was elected and fixed everything with the New Deal, and, oh, thank God, we’re at World War II, that’s actually interesting. It’s a simplistic approach, further simplified by the fact that it’s usually the end of the school year when they hit 1900 and time is of the essence. And that’s why Hard Times is so important, not just as a record but by simply exploding that simplistic approach by proving it wrong over and over again.
Terkel, after his pompous introduction, fades into the background, letting his interviewees speak for themselves. When footnotes are necessary, Terkel often cross-references accounts or asks his subject to elaborate. He introduces his subjects—most of the time—and occasionally prompts them with questions, but he’s otherwise invisible. And this is a good thing—and not just because I find his writing style very florid and pompous. It puts the focus on these people, who range from Alf Landon, who ran against Roosevelt in 1936, to actresses to government workers to day laborers, who all experienced it differently.
A lot of the horrors modern Americans associate with the Great Depression are here—one man describes how, while riding the rails, he watched a baby die because the baby’s father was too proud and refused their offer of milk. Starvation is common, poor medical care, and the soul-crushing humiliation of losing your work and having to rely on charity in a society that values the man who provides. (While it wasn’t discussed, I’m wondering if a text dealing with masculinity in the Great Depression wouldn’t be a fantastic read; it seems to me a lot of the suicides are based on masculine pride, especially when I read, in passing, about a gentleman who committed suicide so his family could live off the life insurance. Obviously, it’s very complex and I can imagine breadwinners of any gender doing the same in these circumstances, but it would be an interesting approach. Exist, text, exist!)
But there’s more to it than that. I’ll admit, I always thought that the Red Scare of the 1950s was pure paranoia—I had no idea that communism and socialism were actual, if small, forces in American political life in the 1930s. Several interviewees recall a feeling of revolution among the working classes, who suffered the most from the Great Depression, as well as a general idea that capitalism had failed them. However, they also say that the New Deal and general disorganization nipped any revolution in the bud, as well as the initial idea for many people that they, personally, were to blame for their economic hardships. But the way people looked at their government and its role in their life was irrevocably changed.
One of the most fascinating things about Hard Times is Terkel’s decision to interview the children of his subjects. Despite their hardships, many survivors of the Great Depression interviewed here recall a strong feeling of community and a stronger respect for the law, while their children, if they even know about their parents’ struggles beyond the vague idea that they struggled at all, often feel alienated from that time period and those who lived through it, creating a generation gap. Towards the end, a young man who wants to recreate the river voyage of Huckleberry Finn with a friend, comments on his father’s ashen-faced rejection of the idea: “Our Mississippi thing didn’t strike him as the right kind of dream to have somehow” (460). Instead, his father offered to pay for a trip to Europe. While Terkel doesn’t explore it much—there’s little to no analysis here, just personal accounts—this complex generation gap is mildly horrifying and, therefore, fascinating.
To be wholly honest, it can get a little dry, especially in the book dealing with politicians—I imagine it would be interesting to political scientists, but I ran screaming from that field a long, long time ago. But the accounts are short, so if one is boring you, the next is only in three pages or so. Additionally, some of these interviews can be heard at Studs Terkel’s website—despite the broken images, the sound files should work fine enough if you have Real Media Player.
Bottom line: Studs Terkel’s oral history of the Great Depression is an eye-opening work on a oft-simplified historical event; by simply including account upon account from those who lived through the event (and contrasting it with their children’s accounts), he provides a broad and nuanced look at the time period. Very good.
I rented this book from the public library.