A Narrative History of the

Great Depression in America

By T.H. Watkins

Henry Holt. 587 pp. $32.50

Reviewed by Henry Mayer

That the last week in October marks the 70th anniversary of the stock market crash that heralded the Great Depression is not merely a calendar curiosity but a reminder that this grave period is about to pass from living memory. A 10-year-old then is 80 now, and those of us raised in the 1940s and '50s on stories of our parents' and grandparents' travail are about to become the senior custodians of knowledge we gained at second hand. T.H. Watkins's fine social history, The Hungry Years, offers a great deal of assistance in this passage from anecdote to history with a big-hearted, abundant narrative that conveys the political vitality, as well as the desperate circumstances, of the period.

The Hungry Years is meant to be a "beyond the Beltway" book that forsakes the detailed ground of policy formation for the national landscape of felt experience and offers us a cavalcade of "people whose lives were changed by what the Great Depression brought." From the women in Minneapolis who broke into grocery stores to distribute unsold food to the needy to the children in a Philadelphia day care center who mimed reporter Ernie Pyle's description of "all the pale dead people walking slowly around the red clay countryside" of Alabama, Watkins draws compelling portraits of people oscillating between despair and hope and a political culture in the midst of historic transformation.

Watkins, a prolific writer of popular history, is best known for Righteous Pilgrim, his monumental, prize-winning biography of FDR's Interior Secretary Harold Ickes, and the new book mines remarkably fresh material from the oral histories, the contemporary periodicals, and the documentary records he has studied for many years. The first third of The Hungry Years surveys what Watkins terms "the crucible years" from the '29 Crash and the ensuing recession ("the single worst" in our history) to the misery of 25 percent unemployment and the contemptuous, violent dispersal of the "bonus army" of veterans encamped in Washington in the summer of 1932.

This substantial narrative covers neglected topics such as state and municipal relief programs and self-help cooperatives and introduces voices not often heard in the standard "slam Hoover then bring on the savior FDR" approach to these years. Watkins has us witness the failure of a Jewish immigrants' bank in New York and the rise of the notorious "kitchenettes" of Chicago, in which numerous black families had to crowd into apartments meant for one. He makes us feel the despair of "those hostages to a middle-class dream gone bad -- salesmen, promoters, businessmen, brokers . . . Rotarians, Lions, toastmasters," who now helplessly cried before their sons and, footsore, filled the streets, in Sherwood Anderson's phrase, as "men new to the art of begging." We see the breadlines and the apple salesmen, although Watkins exposes this as "less a spontaneous movement among the unemployed than a calculated effort" by the apple shippers' trade association to get rid of a surplus in a gimmicky promotion that helped them far more than it helped the vendors.

The remainder of the book is divided into equally vivid, well-drawn sections that treat, first, the problems of urban society -- stabilizing the economy, extending relief and social security, and establishing the basis for industrial unionism -- and, second, the challenges of rural society that included the woes of both large producers and tenant farmers and the erosion of the land itself. In both sections Watkins focuses not so much upon Roosevelt and the New Deal as upon the insurgent popular movements that created a constituency for change. His accounts of the policy issues and administration figures are capable enough, but the book's most heartfelt passages concern the doomed efforts of migrant Hispanic cotton workers and black Southern tenant farmers to win themselves a place at the table.

Watkins tends to lump "the New Dealers" into a composite type -- paternalistic idealists whose schemes created unintended negative consequences -- and is stronger, perhaps, at noting the Roosevelt administration's shortcomings than putting its successes into context. One wishes he had devoted more attention to some of the controversial New Deal topics that still vex us, such as deficit spending, social security and the safety net. While Watkins understands the New Deal's concern for the quality of public life, his book devotes comparatively little attention to how the American people came to accept the vastly transformed role of the federal government in their lives.

The Hungry Years is coming out shortly after another important treatment of these years, David M. Kennedy's Freedom From Fear: The American People in Depression and War, 1929-1945, which has appeared in the well-promoted Oxford History edited by C. Vann Woodward [reviewed in Book World, Aug. 22, 1999]. It would be a pity if Watkins's book goes overlooked. It is a strong companion piece, a more accessible and human-scaled account of the 1930s than the formidable Kennedy volume, which is stronger on the years of war that brought, at last, the prosperity that remained, as The Hungry Years demonstrates anew, just around the corner. Two compelling books on the century's watershed decade that shaped our forebears' lives and whose legacy still affects our own are hardly too many.

Henry Mayer, who is writing a biography of Dorothea Lange, is the author of "All on Fire: William Lloyd Garrison and the Abolition of Slavery," which won the J. Anthony Lukas Prize and was a finalist for the 1998 National Book Award.