Down and Out in the Great Depression

Down and Out in the Great Depression: Letters from the Forgotten Man

Edited by Robert S. McElvaine
Copyright Date: 2008
Pages: 280
https://www.jstor.org/stable/10.5149/9780807898819_mcelvaine
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  • Book Info
    Down and Out in the Great Depression
    Book Description:

    Down and Out in the Great Depressionis a moving, revealing collection of letters by the forgotten men, women, and children who suffered through one of the greatest periods of hardship in American history. Sifting through some 15,000 letters from government and private sources, Robert McElvaine has culled nearly 200 communications that best show the problems, thoughts, and emotions of ordinary people during this time.Unlike views of Depression life "from the bottom up" that rely on recollections recorded several decades later, this book captures the daily anguish of people during the thirties. It puts the reader in direct contact with Depression victims, evoking a feeling of what it was like to live through this disaster.Following Franklin D. Roosevelt's inauguration, both the number of letters received by the White House and the percentage of them coming from the poor were unprecedented. The average number of daily communications jumped to between 5,000 and 8,000, a trend that continued throughout the Rosevelt administration. The White House staff for answering such letters--most of which were directed to FDR, Eleanor Roosevelt, or Harry Hopkins--quickly grew from one person to fifty.Mainly because of his radio talks, many felt they knew the president personally and could confide in him. They viewed the Roosevelts as parent figures, offering solace, help, and protection. Roosevelt himself valued the letters, perceiving them as a way to gauge public sentiment. The writers came from a number of different groups--middle-class people, blacks, rural residents, the elderly, and children. Their letters display emotional reactions to the Depression--despair, cynicism, and anger--and attitudes toward relief.In his extensive introduction, McElvaine sets the stage for the letters, discussing their significance and some of the themes that emerge from them. By preserving their original spelling, syntax, grammar, and capitalization, he conveys their full flavor.The Depression was far more than an economic collapse. It was the major personal event in the lives of tens of millions of Americans. McElvaine shows that, contrary to popular belief, many sufferers were not passive victims of history. Rather, he says, they were "also actors and, to an extent, playwrights, producers, and directors as well," taking an active role in trying to deal with their plight and solve their problems.For this twenty-fifth anniversary edition, McElvaine provides a new foreword recounting the history of the book, its impact on the historiography of the Depression, and its continued importance today.

    eISBN: 978-1-4696-0481-7
    Subjects: History, Language & Literature

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-x)
  3. Foreword to the Twenty-fifth Anniversary Edition
    (pp. xi-xiv)
    Robert S. McElvaine

    RereadingDown and Outin full after a quarter century is, for me, an experience both nostalgic and stimulating. I have read portions of it many times in the intervening years, mainly in conjunction with the use of the letters in courses I have taught, but I had not read it from cover to cover since it was published.

    I find nothing that particularly embarrasses me, and I am not reluctant to stand by what I wrote then and how I said it. In my opinion, it still holds up well. In any case, I believe it is best to...

  4. Preface
    (pp. xv-xviii)
  5. Acknowledgments
    (pp. xix-xxii)
  6. INTRODUCTION
    (pp. 1-32)

    Americans’ interest in the Great Depression of the 1930s has been extraordinary. Recently Franklin D. Roosevelt surpassed Abraham Lincoln as the most written-about president in our history.¹ Popular fascination with the thirties is greater than era of American history save the Civil War and, possibly, the Revolution.

    Yet, despite all the writings on the thirties, until recently there have been of the thoughts and feelings of “ordinary” Americans, the Roosevelt collectively called, in those days before women’s “forgotten man.” There are volumes on almost every leading Roosevelt administration and on most New Deal intellectupis, memoirs of widely varying merit by...

  7. Part I: The Early Depression
    • Chapter 1. Reactions to Hoover and Economic Breakdown
      (pp. 35-48)

      The letters contained in this chapter were addressed to Herbert Hoover’s special committees set up to deal with the economic crisis, the President’s Emergency Committee on Employment (PECE) and the President’s Organization for Unemployment Relief (POUR). Unlike his successor, Hoover never managed to establish rapport with working-class Americans. Victims of the Depression rarely looked to him as a father figure. Accordingly, this chapter has a larger number of communications from relatively well-to-do citizens than will most of the later chapters. These are included to show the attitudes of some of those who remained basically unscathed by the Depression. Many such...

  8. Part II: Conditions of Life in the Thirties
    • Chapter 2. Proud But Frightened: Middle-Class Hardship
      (pp. 51-66)

      The ravages of the Depression did not hit all Americans with the same force. Some were untouched by it; a few even profited. The ill effects were so widespread, however, that they were not confined to the very poor. Many middle-class Americans, steeped in the values ofPoor Richard’s Almanacand Horatio Alger, suddenly found themselves either unemployed or with greatly reduced incomes. Some of their reactions are contained in the letters of this chapter.

      Statements made by middle-class people hit by economic hardship are especially revealing of the psychological impact of the Depression. They seem to have been proud...

    • Chapter 3. The Grass Roots: Rural Depression
      (pp. 67-78)

      Rural and small town people in the 1930s were, of course, steeped in the American values of individualism, self-reliance, hard work, and thrift. The hold of such values, as well as the bleak conditions of life, are evident in some of the letters contained in this chapter. Writers said that they sought not relief but work.

      The letters that follow show many of the problems that were frequently the lot of the rural poor in the thirties. The notes written by Arkansas tenant farmers to Norman Thomas, for example, underline in bold strokes the conditions landlords often placed upon tenants...

    • Chapter 4. A Worse Depression: Black Americans in the 1930s
      (pp. 79-94)

      Letters written by black Americans during the Depression show both the similarities and differences between their problems and those of their white countrymen. Like many whites, black letter writers wanted no one to know that they had written; but their reason was not, in most cases, the shame that whites attached to seeking assistance. Instead, it was fear of reprisals by local whites against complaining blacks. Blacks expected to be jailed, killed, beaten, or run out of their homes if their letters were discovered.

      Remarkably, in spite of the requests for confidentiality, many of the letters blacks addressed to the...

    • Chapter 5. To Be Old, Sick, and Poor
      (pp. 95-112)

      Many older Americans had worked hard all their lives, expecting to reap some benefits when they reached their last years. Such people were understandably bitter when the Depression prevented them from enjoying what they believed they had coming to them. Desperation forced many of the aged to seek help; the traditional status of society’s elders justified a demand for government assistance.

      A significant portion of the American population above the age of sixty was attracted to the Townsend Plan. The passage of the Social Security in 1935 satisfied some, but by no means all, of the older people who had...

    • Chapter 6. The Forgotten Children
      (pp. 113-120)

      Out of the mouths of babes and sucklings,” Jesus said, “thou hast brought perfect praise.”¹ As with most proverbs, there is much truth in this one. Children are often able to see things more clearly than their elders, and they tend to be less reticent in expressing their thoughts and feelings. Thus it is possible to gain another, and especially illuminating, perspective on the problems of the down and out by examining a selection of letters written by children in the 1930s.

      Like the old, children faced special problems in the Great Depression. The troubles of children and adults were...

  9. Part III: Reactions to the Depression
    • Chapter 7. Attitudes toward Relief
      (pp. 123-142)

      The letters that follow include a wide range of opinions on relief. Starting with a rather typical criticism of boondogglers, the selection continues through letters from poorer people who share the view that many relief recipients are lazy and intemperate. Some of the letters demonstrate the preference of almost everyone for work relief over the dole. Others show the prevalence of complaints about injustices in the distribution of relief. These letters shade into the sort that see relief as a right and become demanding in tone and content. The chapter closes with a series of communications that attack relief bureaucrats...

    • Chapter 8. The Conservative
      (pp. 143-154)

      The small selection of letters reproduced in this chapter provides a good sampling of the array of conservative and right-wing beliefs expressed during the Depression.

      Most of the more affluent conservatives sounded similar themes. Unlike the writers of many of the letters that appear in other chapters, they were absolutely opposed to any ideas of redistribution. Some complained that laborers and “reliefers” were getting too much already.

      Constantly reiterated in these letters is the belief that the down and out are in that condition because they deserve to be. The poor are said to be shiftless, lacking in frugality, prone...

    • Chapter 9. The Desperate
      (pp. 155-172)

      Desperation was a common reaction to the Depression. The writers of many of the letters in other chapters were plainly desperate. The letters reproduced on the following pages, though, seem particularly illustrative of various forms of desperation.

      Some people who were pushed to desperation simply lost all hope. Few such fatalistic people wrote letters. The very act of writing for help showed that a person was not completely without hope, no matter how desperate his letter might be.

      Desperation was breaking into an empty building to find a place to sleep; it was fathers and older children staying out of...

    • Chapter 10. The Cynical
      (pp. 173-182)

      Those who did not blame themselves for their Depression-related problems often blamed others. Many such people became cynical. If not always quite resigned to their fates, they at least saw little likelihood that most people were concerned about anyone but themselves.

      Scorn for the motivations of politicians was widespread during the Great Depression (as it has been throughout most of our history). Oddly, though, many who were cynical about politicians in general seemed to trust the master politician of the age, Franklin D. Roosevelt. A number of the letters that follow bitterly mock the putative motives of local and state...

    • Chapter 11. The Rebellious
      (pp. 183-200)

      The letters that follow fall into three categories of rebellious Americans. The first includes poor, angry people who complain bitterly and generally seek a greater degree of justice and equality. These people, despite their egalitarian attitudes, show scant signs of adherence to a formal socialist ideology. Most such writers appear to have been poorly educated.

      Letters in the second group do express ideological commitment. Such leftist terms as “industrial slaves,” “oppressors,” and “financiers and capitalist” dot these communications. It is apparent, too, that the authors of these more ideological letters were better educated than most of those of the first...

  10. Part IV: The “Forgotten Man” Looks at Roosevelt
    • Chapter 12. The Unconvinced
      (pp. 203-214)

      As undeniably the dominant personality of the Depression era, Franklin D. Roosevelt was the focal point of the feelings and attitudes of millions of Americans. There can be no serious question that a substantial majority of Roosevelt’s countrymen, particularly among the working class, admired and supported him. Since this attitude was most prevalent, it seems appropriate to discuss such people in the final chapter of letters. For the moment, however, our attention will turn to those Americans who were less enamored of their leader.

      Although there clearly were fluctuations in Roosevelt’s popularity, the evidence of letters supports that of elections...

    • Chapter 13. “Our Savior”
      (pp. 215-230)

      Americans wrote literally millions of letters praising the Roosevelts. The small collection that follows provides some of the flavor of such communications.

      The selection begins with an example of the feelings many had toward the new president in 1933. Following this letter a sampling of some of the more common views of Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt is given. These admiring statements range from those of religiously oriented writers who compare the president to saints or to Moses through the frequent references to the Roosevelts as parents to the nation. Also included are examples of people who considered the president a...

    • [Illustrations]
      (pp. 231-232)
  11. Notes
    (pp. 235-242)
  12. Sources of Letters
    (pp. 243-246)
  13. Index
    (pp. 247-251)