History, Interpretation, and Memory of the Great Depression

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From Franklin Roosevelt through Ronald Reagan, the legacy and memory of the Great Depression shaped American culture and politics, and continue to stand as major interpretive questions for scholars. Because of the Depression and New Deal, generations of Americans supported an active presidency and expansive national government, and insisted that frugality was a virtue, even as they enjoyed economic prosperity. Perhaps the most enduring political legacy of the Great Depression was the Democratic Party's half-century hold on Congress. A coalition crafted by Roosevelt insisted that Social Security, farm commodity price supports, and the regulation of banking, securities, wages, and working hours remained essential duties of the national government. Generations of labor union members voted for the party that secured their right to organize. As direct memories of the Depression receded, Americans' loyalties to particular New Deal programs waned, but most citizens still look to the president and Congress for economic initiatives and leadership in times of crisis, both legacies of the Depression years.

Great Depression scholarship has focused not only on the event's causes, but also on the government's responses to the challenge. Herbert Hoover's presidency was long judged a failure on the grounds that he did little to ameliorate the crisis. By the 1970s a more nuanced version of Hoover appeared, one that emphasized his progressive impulses and recognized that he took unprecedented government action in the face of hard times. Many Americans of the 1930s and later assumed a direct causal relationship between the stock market crash of October 1929 and the Great Depression. Most scholarship (e.g., Robert S. McElvaine) has pointed to the more fundamental problem—that consumer demand could no longer keep up with production—and has emphasized the weakness of the nation's banking system and relatively unregulated securities markets of the 1920s. Historians and economists continue to debate the roots of American economic conditions of the 1930s, although practically all agree that the phenomenon was international rather than strictly American in character. Such interpretations trace the Depression to the unstable international economic situation created by post-World War I tariff barriers and war reparations.

From the 1930s through the 1960s Roosevelt himself stood as the central figure in most accounts of the Great Depression. The image of Roosevelt as master pragmatist and unparalleled politician reached its zenith in Arthur Schlesinger's Age of Roosevelt trilogy (1957–1960). By the 1960s some historians viewed the Depression less as the occasion for the emergence of Rooseveltian consensus than as the crisis of liberal capitalism; the New Deal thus became not a triumph of moderate reform, but a successful maneuver by capitalists to save the old order (e.g., Barton Bernstein). By the 1970s and the 1980s, historians continued to produce a rich literature on the Depression years, assessing the particular impact of the Depression on minorities and women (e.g., Harvard Sitkoff and Susan Ware), for instance, and exploring the social and cultural history of the Depression (e.g., Richard Pells). Recent scholarship on Depression-era politics has emphasized not the boldness and initiatives of the New Deal, but the relatively limited bureaucratic capacity of the American government.

Representations of the Depression have appeared regularly in American culture from the 1930s to the present. In the 1930s, comic strips such as Dick Tracy and Little Orphan Annie noted the country's hard times, sometimes excoriating the rich, but always assuring Americans that their institutions were sound. Films such as William Wellman's The Public Enemy (1931) and Frank Capra's Meet John Doe (1941) attempted to explain the Depression. John Steinbeck's novel The Grapes of Wrath (1939) and John Ford's 1940 film adaptation provided the most enduring representation of Dust Bowl poverty. Economic hard times also appeared in popular songs, such as "Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?" However, most music painted a rosier picture; "Happy Days Are Here Again" became the Democratic Party theme song until the Clinton years. During the prosperous years of the 1950s and 1960s fewer writers and artists gave their works a Depression setting, perhaps because some 1930s communitarian responses to the Depression appeared suspect in the context of the Cold War, but also because of a changed focus on civil rights and other contemporary struggles. By the 1970s some television series, such as The Waltons (1972–1981), rediscovered the Depression. But such images were tinged by nostalgic longing for home and community bonds rather than an anxious memory of systemic economic failure. The musical and movie Annie (1982) emphasized grit, individualism, and luck. Studs Terkel's oral history of the Depression reminded readers that for millions of Americans the 1930s were not the good old days, but hard times. Nostalgia for World War II during the late 1990s and early 2000s again focused popular attention on the generation that weathered the Depression, although the lessons drawn emphasized individual character rather than the need for bold, large-scale government responses to common national problems.



Bernstein, Barton. "The New Deal: The Conservative Achievements of Liberal Reform." In Toward a New Past: Dissenting Essays in American History, edited by Barton Bernstein. 1970.

Brinkley, Alan. The End of Reform: New Deal Liberalism in Recession and War. 1995.

Garraty, John A. The Great Depression: An Inquiry into the Causes, Course, and Consequences of the Worldwide Depression of the 1930s as Seen by Contemporaries and in the Light of History. 1986.

McElvaine, Robert S. The Great Depression: America, 1929–1941. 1984, 1993.

Pells, Richard. Radical Visions and American Dreams: Culture and Social Thought in the Depression Years. 1973.

Schlesinger, Arthur M., Jr. The Age of Roosevelt. 1957–1960.

Sitkoff, Harvard. A New Deal for Blacks: The Emergence of Civil Rights as a National Issue. 1978.

Stock, Catherine McNicol. Main Street in Crisis: The Great Depression and the Old Middle Class on the Northern Plains. 1992.

Terkel, Studs. Hard Times: An Oral History of the Great Depression. 1970.

Ware, Susan. Holding Their Own: American Women in the 1930s. 1982.

Wilson, Joan Hoff. Herbert Hoover, Forgotten Progressive. 1975.

Trent A. Watts

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History, Interpretation, and Memory of the Great Depression

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History, Interpretation, and Memory of the Great Depression