Book World: Ted Gup's 'A Secret Gift' draws from Depression to enlighten us now

By Robert S. McElvaine
Friday, December 24, 2010; 8:59 PM

One day in June 2008, Ted Gup's mother gave him an old suitcase that contained a large envelope on which his grandfather had written, "PERTAINING TO XMAS GIFT DISTRIBUTION." Inside were 150 letters written by residents of Canton, Ohio, in December 1933 to someone named "B. Virdot," responding to his offer to give $10 each to 75 people who wrote to him describing their need. Gup soon realized that this mysterious B. Virdot was, in fact, his grandfather Sam Stone, and he began to investigate the story behind the offer.

In exploring a mystery of his own family, Gup, a former reporter for The Washington Post, simultaneously explores America's past, taking us into the depths of an era that was both similar to and very different from where we are today. He captures one of the main differences when he pointedly notes that it was "a time when consumption meant TB, not a shopping spree. . . . Their creed was self-discipline, not self-indulgence."

"Reading the letters put things in perspective," the author says, and reading his book should do the same for others. "They reminded me of the difference between discomfort and misery, between the complaints of consumers forced to rein in their spending and the keening of parents whose children went hungry night after night."

As I read this book, it brought back not only the hard times of eight decades ago, about which I have written extensively, but also my own experience. Gup's reaction when reading the letters sent to his grandfather duplicated mine when I began reading letters written to Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt that became my first book, "Down and Out in the Great Depression: Letters from the 'Forgotten Man.' " Gup says the Depression had had no "immediacy" for him, but the letters made it come alive by providing an "unvarnished and compelling" account of the era.

He writes that he felt as if he were "eavesdropping on others' prayers." The letters in "A Secret Gift" were written in one city at one moment during the Depression and largely by one class of people, yet the conditions they portray were similar across the country. "I worked all my life and would work at any honest work if I could get it," one letter writer said, speaking for much of the nation. Another pointed out that those who were "lucky enough to have no worry where the next meal is coming from don't realize how it is to be like we are."

While there are significant parallels between the 1930s and today, the differences are striking. The Great Depression tended to unite the United States; the so-called Great Recession has tended to divide us. Americans during the Depression were much more familiar with hardship, more reticent about their personal problems, less greedy and more compassionate than we are today. And, terrible as conditions are now for many of our citizens, they were far worse in 1933. This book reminds us that the main reason people are not as bad off in the wake of the 2008 collapse as they were after that of 1929 is precisely because of government intervention in the economy that Republicans have just won an election by deriding.

Gup points out that his grandfather's experiences had "chastened him to remember that the line between the down-and-out and himself was not drawn in indelible ink." That is a realization that all too many of us no longer have. Gup describes his grandfather as "a onetime socialist-turned-capitalist" who had "seen the faults in both and was a true believer in neither." Sam Stone had a checkered past, which he frequently altered to suit his current needs. In 1933, he owned a chain of clothing stores and thought he was in a position to assist others who had fallen on hard times, as he had in the past.

"Enough," Gup rightly notes, "was a byword of the Depression." It is a word that nearly vanished from the American lexicon in recent decades, as the national anthem could appropriately have been changed to "I Can't Get No Satisfaction." "A Secret Gift" speaks to us eloquently of how similar are the consequences of economic folly in both times and how sobering are the differences between us as people today from what we were eight decades ago.

McElvaine teaches history at Millsaps College. His most recent book is a 25th anniversary edition of "The Great Depression: America, 1929-1941."

A SECRET GIFT

How One Man's Kindness - and a Trove of Letters - Revealed the Hidden History of the Great Depression

By Ted Gup

Penguin Press. 365 pp. $25.95


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