IN GROWING UP, Russell Baker's haunting memoir of coming to young manhood in the Depression, there is no more troubling or poignant presence than that of "a Dane, a big, yellow-haired, outgoing man in his late forties," whom Baker recalls only by the name of Oluf. He was "a skilled baker who had graduated to traveling salesman," and Baker's widowed mother responded to his attentions because, among other qualities, he had "the venturesome business spirit my mother admired." He appeared to be "a man with a future," yet that future was destroyed by the Depression. The last of his letters to Baker's mother is terrible and heartbreaking:
"Thanks for your letters, yes I received them all, but as I told you what is the use to keep on writing. I was in hope someday to come to know you, by getting a job down there, but now I never can come down, I am like I told you before, lost. I tried to raice anof money so I could go over Home, but so far I diddent, this Town is going down and out, so I am asking you to stop writting to me, because I am not interested in anything any more, love to you all from Oluf."
Oluf, who with that letter "disappeared into the Depression," was one of the "forgotten men" who rested, in Franklin Roosevelt's words, "at the bottom of the economic pyramid" and whose lives were shattered--in many instances beyond any hope of repair--by the cruelties of the severest and most lasting economic calamity ever to strike this country. They are men who were forgotten at the time and who have subsequently, as Robert McElvaine notes in his introduction to Down and Out in the Great Depression, been forgotten by the historians as well, in part because "the sources of traditional history--governmental records, organization files, collections of personal papers, diaries, memoirs, newspapers--yield only spotty information about the problems and attitudes of the 'down and out.' "
Yet as McElvaine also observes, " 'ordinary' people are not merely acted upon by history," they "are also actors and, to an extent, playwrights, producers and directors as well." As the new generation of historians might put it: To the extent that we fail to understand how the Depression affected ordinary men and women, we fail to understand the Depression. Thus it is that McElvaine's collection of letters written by "forgotten" men, women and children is an enormously valuable and revealing document.
These are not family letters, but correspondence sent to people in or close to government, most prominent among them Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt. Some are expressions of rage, others of desperation; almost all, in one way or another, are pleas or demands for help. For the most part, the voices that speak in these letters are inarticulate: "Spelling, syntax, grammar and capitalization have been preserved exactly as written, in order to convey the full flavor of the letters." If anything, though, the halting and unconfident language in which they are couched heightens the reader's sympathy for the correspondents, intensifies one's awareness that these are the voices of real people, makes their plight even more vivid and immediate.
Not surprisingly, certain themes occur over and again. There was a widespread sense of injustice: that "the big moneyed men" were escaping the pain of deprivation, that diligent and honest workers were being put on the street through no fault of their own, that administrators of relief programs were overpaid and underworked. There was a similarly widespread sense--it is now almost beyond the powers of the imagination--that government cared about ordinary people, that it would respond to their calls for help, that its highest officials were their friends. There was, for all the indignation and anger and occasional talk of uprising, a belief in the American system and its capacity not merely to restore prosperity but to create more equitable opportunities for all citizens. There was a refusal to knuckle under, to accept the defeat that seemed the Depression's only offering to so many; people were determined not to lose their dignity along with their possessions, though the struggle to hold onto it was a fierce one.
Here are extracts from a couple of their letters. The first is from a woman in upstate New York who earlier had written to Mrs. Roosevelt "asking if you would buy some baby clothes for me with the understanding that I was to repay you as soon as my husband got enough work." Now she writes:
"Please Mrs. Roosevelt, I do not want charity, only a chance from someone who will trust me until we can get enough money to repay the amount spent for the things I need. As a proof that I really am sincere, I am sending you two of my dearest possessions to keep as security, a ring my husband gave me before we were married, and a ring my mother used to wear. Perhaps the actual value of them is not high, but they are worth a lot to me. If you will consider buying the baby clothes, please keep them (rings) until I can send you the money you spent. . . . If you still feel you cannot trust me, it is allright and I can only say I donot blame you, but if you decide my word is worth anything with so small a security, here is a list of what I will need--but I will need it very soon. . . ."
The second is from a group of Works Progress Administration workers in Maryland. Addressed "To our President," it is a plea to be paid what the workers believe to be "the Proper W.P.A. wages" of "45 Cents an hour for 30 hrs a wk," and it ends as follows:
"President Roosevelt we are Poor People but we are human. We wish to be treated that way. The Majority of us men gave you our votes and we are intending to again at this election And we are thanking you for the good you have done us. And thats why we are writing you we feel you'll give us justice and again we thank you."
For all the strength and determination these letters reveal, reading them is a saddening experience; the helplessness of a human being is not a pretty sight, and for the most part these were indeed desperately helpless people. But it is an experience that pays rich if painful rewards. The most obvious of these is that Down and Out in the Great Depression adds an important new dimension to our knowledge of a vastly important period in American history that we have become accustomed to viewing largely through the actions of the well-placed and powerful. Not much less obvious, but certainly every bit as important, is that these words from the 1930s speak all too intimately about conditions that have become all too familiar to all too many Americans exactly a half-century later.