This is a paper I wrote about Studs Terkel
's book Hard Times
for a history
class.Node your homework
Studs Terkel is a peculiar kind of historian. He's become a sort of everyman for American history by emphasizing the personal perspectives of people who have lived through macro level historical events. Terkel usually confines himself to commenting through interview questions and allows his subjects to tell their own side of the story. Although this book was written in the 1970's, Terkel still remains active in literary circles and on the radio.
The title of this book also includes "oral history" in its wording which is a very accurate piece of terminology to use in describing Terkel's work. The accounts he captures are first person, subjective, and, at times, very opinionated. The author does little to dissuade his subjects from this personal perspective. There are few harsh cross-examinations in this book. No perspective is too conservative or radical for consideration. His expertise lies in allowing his interview subjects to extract their histories with their unique experiential perspectives and knowing that asking a seemingly innocuous question at the right time may serve to expose a brilliant kernel of the truth.
In his introduction to the book (subtitled "A Personal Memoir"), Terkel admits that "Hard Times" doesn't aim to be an absolutely accurate and concrete account of the Great Depression. That goal is entirely out of his scope. He aspires to put a human face on an epoch in the history of the United States. It was a time when the proverbial bottom nearly dropped out of the American breadbasket and most events of this nature are also tremendously complicated. Analytically tracking all of the causes and consequences of the Depression is not Terkel's goal. He seeks the essential human experience of what it was like to live through the Great Depression whether you were a member of Roosevelt's Brain Trust, a ruthless financier, or a share cropper in the deep South.
Terkel relates his own memories in a similar fashion. He remembers a "blur of images" instead of a cohesive, linear series of events. His memory of the Depression is measured by the success of his father's hotel. Instead of sweeping examples of the crash Terkel sees the change take place in baby steps with the once packed Grand Hotel becoming progressively more vacant and its once opulent clientele becoming more average. He watched the once confident and successful people surrounding him become more and more unsure and sober. Terkel was also involved in one of the New Deal programs. He worked for the Illinois Writers' Project creating radio scripts based on museum exhibits and cultural events.
The scope of "Hard Times" is admirably broad. Despite the obvious difficulty involved with attempting to document a period of American life that varied so much from person to person Terkel manages to cover a very wide spectrum of experience.
The book begins with a series of first hand accounts of Coxey's march on Washington. Several of the interviews feature Bonus Marchers who recount the harsh response they received from the government. One of the participants details the hardships he endured just to make the trip to Washington - hopping freight cars and "bumming" food and shelter wherever it could be found. Another account by a former Federal Trade Commissioner recounts watching General MacArthur and then aide Dwight D. Eisenhower calmly surveying the Army bayoneting and tear-gassing the Bonus Marchers.
The next section of the book concentrates on the people who wandered the country during the Depression whether out of necessity or wanderlust. Many people took to the rails in search of rumored employment in out of the way places or just because the monotony of life without work proved to be too much for them. The most interesting of this group of interviews is with the late labor activist Cesar Chavez.
Chavez recollects the loss of his family farm and his family's difficult transition into migrant farm work. Among his recollections many are related to the corruption involved with contracting farm labor. The roots of his later labor activism show in the stories he chooses to relate. Chavez also recalls unsuccessful labor strikes and the embarrassing situations caused by them. He mentions one instance where all of the workers walked off a farm after the owner was accused of cheating on the piece counts. Several weeks later, necessity forced his family to return to work for the same farmer at a much lower wage.
Another chapter is devoted to the men behind the Roosevelt Brain Trust. Many of them are well into their later years and it is interesting to note that most talk about the issues of that time with vehemence despite the thirty-year distance from the subject. For most it seems that their strongly held opinions about the right and wrong ideas of the New Deal have not changed. Surprisingly many of those intimately involved with New Deal programs were not confident about the possible outcomes of their plans. Raymond Moley, one of the original members of the Brain Trust, departed the administration citing Roosevelt's increasing radicalism as his impetus. He left with grave doubts about the ability of government to employ people in the long term.
In his interview, Alf Landon talks about the 1936 presidential election and his opinions of New Deal programs. He speaks very candidly about misinterpreting the results of a Literary Digest poll and choosing his Secretary of State before the final election results were in. Landon also admits that he thinks Roosevelt's leadership saved the country and that his main problem with Roosevelt's platform was the lack of enthusiasm for a gold standard that was a central issue of Landon's campaign.
Scattered throughout the sections are interviews with Black men. They are among the most honest, direct, and sometimes scathing. The consensus among them is that there was no Great Depression for Black people in the United States. They all state that Black people were always poor and didn't suffer the cataclysmic blow to their pride that many other people in the country did. One man uses shifts in diet as an explanation for the hardship of white people. He claims that the situation is different for a white man who is used to bringing home steak and is forced to bring home beans. While the shift in situation is perceived as catastrophic for more privileged people Black people are accustomed to shifts in income and quickly adapt without seeing the change as an indication of their worth as people.
This idea of poverty and need being very relative is close to the essential reasoning for the existence of this book. Terkel recognizes the validity of difference in experience and uses it to make a very important point. Although Americans are accustomed to reading about the Great Depression as a historical macro event there is no universal perspective on the Depression. Terkel's way of presenting this idea transcends the typical. He ignores the textbook methodology of dwelling on the thoughts and deeds of the big names. Granted, these names are not altogether ignored but the focus of the narrative remains on the people who lived through the historical event. The significance of this book in creating a greater understanding of the Great Depression is that it promotes the validity of oral histories within the context of canonical subject matter. Terkel doesn't attempt to refute any of the scholarship on the Great Depression. He attempts to inform it and create a more visceral image of a confusing era of American history. Terkel aims to connect the blank facts and statistics of historical record into something more understandable to those who did not experience the Depression themselves.
Another important component of this book is that it graphically illustrates that history is not a linear process of events. Many of the people who were in charge of repairing the damage caused by the Depression freely admit that they were improvising. The simple fact that the Roosevelt administration was making plans up as they went along is also very illuminating. It refutes the idea that simply having political power transforms humans into heroes capable of fixing every disaster with a flurry of money and a public relations campaign. To clearly see that governing isn't a Machiavellian science is valuable on its own.
The conclusion seems to be that there is no conclusion. History is a messy topic. There are no neat conclusions and one size fits all answers. American life is not a universal experience for all of its participants. Studs Terkel recognizes this and tries to answer some of our questions by essentially further complicating the process of questioning. In his introduction he refers to his own recollections of the Great Depression as a "blur of memories" without an adherence to particular dates or a linear outline of events. The Great Depression was more than just a single event or set of experiences to Terkel and to the others he interviewed. He rounds up as many different answers to the question as he can and leaves it largely up to the reader to draw conclusions. He forgoes the trappings of a sociological experiment by setting parameters and controlling environments. Terkel finds a niche that should not be so unique in historical writing: what happened to people. He arrives there by the simplest mechanism imaginable - he talks and listens.