I don't know precisely when it happened, but sometime during the last half-century we began to mythologize the Depression. The fewer survivors there were, the more fantasies we had. Eventually we exchanged the images of Walker Evans for the image of the Waltons.
There evolved the myth that these bad times produced good feelings. The family that half-starved together stayed together. The community that was in the red together pitched in together. That sort of thing.
There was something appealing in this idea of togetherness. We imagined children who were grateful for shoes instead of greedy for Pac-Man. We imagined communities that had very little and gave each other very much.
I never bought the notion that there was some special virtue in hard times. Unemployment and poverty don't usually cement families or neighborhoods; they wreck them. I don't believe that on the whole stress brings out the best. But there was one way in which the sense of togetherness was not a myth. People in the '30s did share a belief that everybody was in the same boat, that they were in "it" together.
We don't seem connected by that sinew today, during our bad times. I don't hear a sense of collective destiny in the country. Now there are almost 10 million unemployed, and I'll bet two- thirds of them feel as if they were picked off by some economic sharpshooter instead of a massive bomb. Our troubles come with a deep sense of unfairness, a bitter edge.
Maybe it's because we're in a recession insteady of a duly labeled Depression. Maybe the name Depression gave people a gloomy umbrella to huddle under.
But I don't think so. I think it's because we're actually not in these bad times together, and the people suffering most know that in a way and with a clarity that wasn't possible in the '30s.
It's unemployment that's the killer, and it hasn't struck equally. It has hit the manufacturing Midwest more than the Southwest, auto workers more than office workers, black more than white, black teen-agers more than anyone else.
Let Reagan compare his policies to Roosevelt's all he wants, but his way out of this mess is by widening the gap between the rich and the poor. And in the '80s there is just no way not to see that.
I know there were untouched rich during the 1930s. The Depression had its Daddy Warbucks along with its orphaned Annies. But half-a-century ago the poor were more isolated from riches. To a certain extent the hollows of Appalachia, the farmlands of the Dust Bowl were like Third World countries in which poverty and even hunger were still seen as part of a natural cycle. Even those who could afford to glimpse Hollywood fantasy figures in the darkened movie theaters of that decade didn't see them every day.
But now television has brought us closer. The poorest live in a world in which riches are spread out before them. The definitions of what is "natural" and what is "fate" have changed.
The unemployed auto worker sees an evening news report on the sudden demand for race horses for tax shelters. The family living on unemployment compensation watches enthusiastic Americans parade goods in front of it in 30-second messages. It is constantly reminded that someone else can afford a Coke and a smile.
In the Third World we have seen how knowledge brings with it a press for equality. It has happened here too. Now the visual difference between the rich and the poor has shrunk, but the economic gap is growing again.
If the Waltons had sat down every night after a meager menu of hard choices to watch a prime-time banquet, their story might have had a very different tone. Today the poor rub daily against riches; the unemployed press their noses up against the television windowpane.
The hard-luck people of the '30s thought they were in the same boat together, but the boat people of the '80s, busily bailing out, look up. And they see the yachts.