Thursday, May 5, 2011

Terkel - Hard Times

Terkel, Studs. Hard Times: An Oral History of the Great Depression. New York: Pantheon Books, 1986.[Originally published 1970]

Terkel offers an ordered collage of oral history to give a sense of various perspectives of the Great Depression. He moves from farmer to laborer to executive to criminal to transient worker to small business owner to politician to Brains Trust to historian (Christopher Lasch) to Radical movementist (Gerald LK Smith, member of Share Our Wealth, associate of Huey Long, anti-semite, racist, and future founder of the America First Party) and so on. We meet personalities from all parts of the political spectrum, with various thoughts on Roosevelt, the New Deal, and the resonance of the Depression. Some offer the expected memories of a dismal age of poverty, while others reminder the decade more fondly.

Early in the book, Terkel includes accounts from the offspring of Depression Era children, who not that their parents speak of the Depression as something they could never understand, and thus their inability to understand makes them inherently naive. Terkel also highlights a quote by a movie executive, who recalls the 1929 stock market crash as "Like a thunderclap." But even this memory is later undermined by a poor migrant farmer who has no memory of the crash at all.

Hard Times is inherently about memory. The introduction accepts that the accounts may not necessarily be true, but it is WHO the memory belongs to that is so interesting and significant. It is also being remembered FROM the 1960s, THROUGH the 50s and World War II.

I was also struck by Terkel's updated 1986 prologue, which compared the Depression to the moment in America: though the stock market and business seemed to be booming, farms were failing and unemployment was rampant in the cities.

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