By Michael Golay
Free Press. 316 pp. $26.99
More than 80 years after laying waste to the American economy, the Great Depression has been reduced to a cable television talking point and a subject of revisionist histories. In “America 1933,” Michael Golay reminds us what was at stake for those who lived through it. In vivid detail, he conveys the suffering and poverty that overwhelmed Americans as they coped with the greatest economic crisis the nation had ever faced.
Golay tells the story of that period through the lens of Lorena Hickok, a former Associated Press reporter who toured the country for Harry Hopkins, the head of President Franklin Roosevelt’s Federal Emergency Relief Administration. Hickok joined the administration after striking up a friendship with Eleanor Roosevelt during the 1932 presidential campaign. Their relationship blossomed into an emotional intimacy — Golay refuses to speculate about whether it became physical — that continued, albeit less intensely, until the former first lady’s death in 1962.
Hickok visited impoverished coal-mining communities in West Virginia and Kentucky, dismal turpentine camps in rural Georgia, and bone-dry wheat fields in Kansas. She interviewed displaced middle-class families in the South, unemployed workers in New York City and children who spent all day on their knees harvesting sugar beets in the West. At one point in her reporting days, Hickok had worked as a “sobbie,” a specialist in sentimental feature stories, but she was no pushover. Tough, irascible and determined, she persevered with her assignment from Hopkins despite dealing with a variety of physical ailments, a car wreck and the loneliness that resulted from her separation from Eleanor Roosevelt.
Under the circumstances, it is understandble that Hickok’s reporting was occasionally shallow. Less forgivable was the racism that marred some of her reports from the South. (Golay notes that Hickok refrained from sharing these feelings when she corresponded with the first lady.)
With his focus firmly on the conditions Hickok encountered, Golay’s anecdotes and details of local conditions can sometimes be a bit overwhelming. Nevertheless, he makes skillful use of Hickok’s reports, supplementing them with contemporaneous accounts from newspapers and magazines.
The Great Depression was more than a political tussle between Democrats and Republicans or an occasion for arid debate about macroeconomic policy. People from all walks of life endured tremendous hardship. In his portrait of day-to-day life in the first year of FDR’s first term, Golay puts this sobering reality back at center stage, where it belongs.