Reading Our Way Through Economic Disaster

(A post at WVFC by my boss Patricia Yarberry Allen, for which was a quite active midwife. Stay for the Henry Fonda video!)

Americans are drowning in a sea of information about the financial calamities that roil our society.  We seem to be incapable of understanding that our Titanic, a ship of a country so large and so prosperous, could ever go down.  One of the reasons these events seem so incomprehensible to us is that many of us have no memory of   the U.S. stock market boom of the 1920’s.
This was a time when people felt and acted just the way we did for the last 25 years. Rising stock prices on Wall Street enticed millions to invest and to borrow money to do so.  The automobile industry and industrial output in general were fueled by easy credit.  Businesses were assuming that they could sell more goods and services every year and were increasing their expenses.  Farmers were not part of this party but tried to survive by mortgaging the farm.  Interest rates were kept low by the government; thus credit was easy and business could grow.  It was all about more, more, more.
There were intelligent people then who warned that no system could grow quickly year after year after year without substantial adjustment.  “Too good to be true…you can’t get something for nothing,” then-New York governor Franklin Delano Roosevelt wrote in the late 1920’s.  But no one wanted to hear. Then on October 29, 1929 the stock market crashed, followed by a “run on banks.”

So many people wanted their money out of those banks that crowds clustered outside closed bank buildings.  The banks couldn’t give it to them — they had loaned out too much of the money, and could not cover mass redemptions.  The Great Depression began and lasted for much of the next decade.  The political inertia of the president at the start of the economic collapse, Herbert Hoover, did much to worsen the new downturn’s severity.
When Franklin Delano Roosevelt was elected as the next President after Hoover, he immediately got to work. He began to rebuild the economy and banking structure,  and put into place programs which are the still a part of the framework of the current government. The programs he created helped employ millions of Americans and built much of the country’s infrastructure.
The words above don’t really convey the complex madness of the “ Roaring Twenties” and the gritty texture of The Great Depression. Thankfully, there are several classic novels and histories that have become the standards by which those years are understood. I believe that  we can gain a better understanding of our own financial boom and bust if we immerse ourselves in a small library of essential reading now.   These are my basic recommendations.  I would love to hear from readers with suggestions.

  • Gatsby
    The Great Gatsby
    was written by F. Scott Fitzgerald in 1925.  This novel describes the boom at its pinnacle, wild parties, wild spending, and speculation run rampant.  The narrator, Nick Carraway, is a young man from the Midwest who has come to Wall Street to make his fortune in stocks and bonds. The character of Jay Gatsby  is a poor man from the Middle West (born James Gatz) who becomes a rich racketeer, obsessed with making more and more money — all in order to impress Daisy, the love of his life, never accessible and now married.  It takes place in summer, whose heat is Fitzgerald’s motif for the over inflated economy and out of control spending.
  • John Kenneth Galbraith’s The Great Crash, a history of the 1929 stock market debacle and its aftermath, has not been out of print since its 1955 publication.  “Each time it has been about to pass from bookstores,” Galbraith noted years later,  “another speculative episode – another bubble or the ensuing misfortune – has stirred interest in the history of this, the great modern case of boom and collapse, which led on to an unforgiving depression.”  Last week, the UK Independent, noting that the book’s Amazon ranking has skyrocketed, called the book “still essential reading.” It is.
  • The Grapes of Wrath, written by John Steinbeck, won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction.  This novel, the story of a dispossessed farm family fleeing the Dust Bowl for California, is moving and enduring. It is a bitter chronicle of the exodus of farm families from the Dust Bowl during the 1930’s and an indictment of the failed economic and capitalistic system.
  • Gellhorn
    The View from the Ground by Martha Gellhorn. Later famous for her reporting on the Nazi death camps and as the wife of Ernest Hemingway, Gellhorn tells of what she saw when she crossed the country in the 1930’s for the Federal Emergency Relief Agency, on a commission from Eleanor Roosevelt.  (The result can also be seen in novella “The Trouble I’ve Seen,” in this collection.) Nearly quitting several times out of frustration, Gellhorn’s vivid snapshots include the former farmers and ranchers who suffered at the hands of federal contractors after suffering from the loss of their land and self respect, suffered anew at the hands of bureaucrats in the FERA system.
  • Agee
    Let Us Now Praise Famous Men by James Agee and Walker Evans.  This book combines reporting, and passages of text that are poetic and mystical with stark black and white photographs of three white tenant farm families in Alabama during the depression.  The sensitivity of Agee’s writing and his concern about these people who have so little compels the reader to suffer with the images on those pages. And 40 years later, journalist Dale Maharidge and Michael Williamson retraced Agee’s journey, interviewing their descendants for And Their Children After Them — called by the New York Times “a book that reaches into this country’s heart of darkness.”
  • Poet Edward Estlin Cummings knew hearts of darkness very well, from a French prisoner-of-war camp through World Wars I and II — and including the madnesses of the Jazz Age and the Depression.

We’ll end with a glimpse from Cummings of the fall of 1929, but please do send your own suggestions.
what if a much of a which of a wind
gives the truth to summer’s lie;
bloodies with dizzying leaves the sun
and yanks immortal stars awry?
Blow king to beggar and queen to seem
(blow friend to fiend: blow space to time)
-when skies are hanged and oceans drowned,
the single secret will still be man

what if a keen of a lean wind flays
screaming hills with sleet and snow:
strangles valleys by ropes of thing
and stifles forests in white ago?
Blow hope to terror; blow seeing to blind
(blow pity to envy and soul to mind)
-whose hearts are mountains, roots are trees,
it’s they shall cry hello to the spring
what if a dawn of a doom of a dream
bites this universe in two,
peels forever out of his grave
and sprinkles nowhere with me and you?
Blow soon to never and never to twice
(blow life to isn’t:blow death to was)
-all nothing’s only our hugest home;
the most who die, the more we live


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