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Potts, David 1937- (David J. Potts)

PERSONAL:

Born 1937.

CAREER:

Writer, educator. University of Melbourne, Melbourne, Victoria, Australia, instructor, beginning 1965; LaTrobe University, Melbourne, instructor.

WRITINGS:

(As David J. Potts) Place Names around Appin, from Oban to Glencoe: With Notes on Meanings, Origin and Oral Tradition, illustrated by Fiona Hunter and Ken Massey, An Comunn Ghàidhlig na h-Apainn (Port Appin, Argyll, Scotland), 2001.

The Myth of the Great Depression, Scribe (Melbourne, Victoria, Australia), 2006.

SIDELIGHTS:

Australian historian and writer David Potts caused a stir down under with his 2006 work of social history, The Myth of the Great Depression, a book whose central tenet was that the Depression of the 1930s may not have been as grim as history presents it. Potts's book is the result of extensive interviewing of Australians during the 1960s and 1970s. A professor at Melbourne University in 1965, Potts initiated a program for his students to interview any person in Australia who had personal memories and recollections of the period. The Depression in Australia, part of the worldwide Great Depression, was a historical fact. It wiped out savings accounts when it struck Australia, hitting the economy hard with unemployment at twenty-nine percent. People lost their homes, and in Australia, as in many other parts of the industrialized world at the time, one of the dominant images of the period is a photo of destitute people lining up for free food. However, as Potts and his students continued to interview Australians, they discovered that people remembered the period with something like nostalgia and that the times, though hard, were not as desperate as has been portrayed in historical reconstructions of the period. Many of those interviewed felt that their lives, though challenging, had more meaning during the Depression, and that overall people, though they had fewer material possessions, were happier then. Skeptical that such views were simply the result of fond memories of youth, Potts began to search the public record for cold, hard statistics. He found, as Arena Magazine reviewer Annie Davis noted, "that evidence overall suggests health actually improved and death rates declined." Altogether Potts and his students interviewed 1,200 men and women who had lived through the Depression, and Potts came away from these firsthand accounts with a deeper understanding and a more complex view of that era. Situations that outwardly seemed oppressive, might, at the time, have been less so. For example, Potts points out that those in the country had to depend more on homegrown vegetables during the Depression, and this tended to make for a healthier diet. Also, people were less dependent on comforts that were mass produced, since they were forced instead to rely on their own ingenuity.

Reviewers of The Myth of the Great Depression responded variously to Potts's revisionist history. Writing in the Age, Jeff Sparrow noted that Potts starts with "an intriguing premise." That is, Potts contends, according to Sparrow, that "the struggle to survive provided many with a sense of purpose, even a happiness, absent from more prosperous times." However, Sparrow went on to point out, "Potts has transformed an interesting thesis into a polemic far more unbalanced than the orthodoxy he seeks to correct." Specifically, Sparrow objected to stories in the book wherein Australians were forced to hunt down berries in the country or trek across major cities in search of food on grocery store shelves as a form of exercise that was good for the health. "Only the most determined Polly- anna would celebrate" such conditions, according to Sparrow. Similarly, Barry York, writing on the LastSuperPower Web site. observed: "The book meshes well with current debates about the nature and sources of happiness but this political-philosophical dimension is, to me, the book's great flaw." York did not object so much to Potts's overturning of the usual historical analysis of the Depression, but he did find it a "a folksy populist vision of the past-as-future with family and community at the centre." York further found fault with Potts's reconstruction of "the good ol' days when people swam in rivers, yarned and played cards—and there was no Keith Richards." Meighen Katz, writing in Eras, also applauded the basic premise of the book but ultimately concluded that The Myth of the Great Depression was itself a "myth," and a "fanciful simplification of a complex process and period."

BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:

PERIODICALS

Arena Magazine, August-September, 2006, Annie Davis, review of The Myth of the Great Depression, p. 53.

Times Literary Supplement, November 10, 2006, Frank Bongiorno, review of The Myth of the Great Depression, p. 26.

ONLINE

Age Online,http://www.theage.com.au/ (July 29, 2006), Jeff Sparrow, review of The Myth of the Great Depression.

Eras,http://www.arts.monash.edu.au/eras/ (March 22, 2008), Meighen Katz, review of The Myth of the Great Depression.

LastSuperPower,http://www.lastsuperpower.net/ (March 22, 2008), Barry York, review of The Myth of the Great Depression.

Potts, David 1937- (David J. Potts)

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