Studs Terkel’s “Hard Times”

Although I had heard of Studs Terkel prior to his death in October I was not familiar with his work. Upon his passing in October 2008 I read and watched a couple tributes to him by various journalists. When I learned that he specialized in “oral history” I was intrigued.

Given the economic downturn we find ourselves in today I thought it might be interesting to pick up his book Hard Times which is an oral history of the Great Depression.  Written in 1970 the book is a series of interviews with hundreds of people recalling their experiences in the Great Depression.

The diversity of experiences is striking.  Most of the people that Terkel interviews recall stories of economic hardship.  Many of the men left their families to “hobo” around the country looking for work.  However, on page 79 William Benton recalls his experiences during the 1930s which included making $2 million per year.

Here are some notes from the book:

*Jim Sheridan recalls there being greater camaraderie during the Great Depression than there was at the time of his interview.  This is also something that my grandmother talks about.  As I talk to people today about the economy and the new political direction our country is taking many of them are hopeful that society will “come together” to make things better.  When times are tough it seems like people take greater care of each other.

*E.Y. Harburg recalls that during the depression she lost all her possessions which forced her to use her creativity.  This represents another byproduct of difficult times.

*A man named Roy speculated that a depression today would hurt society more than it did in the 1930s.  His rational is that because we take so many things for granted we wouldn’t know what to do with ourselves.  I’m not so certain.  I think we would make it through.

*It was interesting to read many of the people’s thoughts regarding the depression because in a lot of ways there are similarities to what people are thinking today.  Here are a couple quotes that you could just as easily read in today’s newspaper:

“…the American way that seemed so successful.  All of a sudden, things broke downand didn’t work.  It’s a difficult thing to understand today.  To imagine this system, all of a sudden- for reasons having to do with paper, money, abstract things-breaking down.”

“the market went down again…The public got scared and sold….Over speculation was the cause, a reckless disregard of economics.”

* The depression made people appreciate security:

“…there’s a conditioning here by the Depression.  I’m what I call a security cat.  I don’t like the job I have, but I don’t dare switch….I won’t hang around with failures.  When you hang around with successful people, it rubs off on ya.

*Another positive byproduct of the difficult times as explained by Country Joe McDonald:

“I travel around and talk to some of the Mexican migrant workers.  In a way, they seem closer to each other than most well-off middle-class people.  Their impoverished condition somehow made them very real people.  It’s hard to be phony when you haven’t got anything.  I mean when you’re really down and out.  I think the Depression had some kind of human qualities with it that we lack now.

*William Benton was probably the most interesting interview in the book for me.  This man thrived during the Great Depression selling his advertising business in 1935 for multi-million dollars.  He described his time during the Depression as “Progress through catastrophe”.  It was a great reminder that even in difficult times it is possible to do well.

*Martin DeVries recalled that had people been more fiscally responsible in the late 1920s the Depression may not have happened.  Likewise, had people made better decisions about lending money, borrowing money, and speculating on real estate the same could be true about the turmoil we find ourselves in today.  Here is Martin’s quote:

“…But many of them hadn’t lived properly when they were making it.  They hadn’t saved anything.  Many of them wouldn’t have been in the shape they were in, if they had been living in a reasonable way.  Way back in the ’29s, people were wearing $20 silk shirts and throwing their money around like crazy.  If they had been buying $2 shirts and putting the other $18 in the bank, when the trouble came, they wouldn’t have been in the condition they were in.”

*During the Depression soe households would open up their basements for people to stay who were down and out.  Since they couldn’t get jobs to pay rent they would “work around the house”.

*A women named Dorothe recalls that, “The faith people had in each other was different” during the Depression.

*Lary Van Dusen recalls:

“The Depression left a legacy of fear, but also desire for acquisition- propery, security.  I now have twenty times more shirts than I need, because all during that time, shirts were something I never had.”

*During the presidential campaign many people compared Obama to Kennedy.  However, listen to this quote and think about any similarities to the conditions underwhich FDR was elected:

“It was the hopeful voice of FDR that got things out of the swamps.  He didn’t have much to offer, but it was enough.  He was a guy flexible enough to understand the need for experiments, for not being rigid and for making people feel there was somebody who gave a damn about them.”

*One miscelaneous point that I found interesting was that bike racing was appaerntly a fairly popular sport prior to the Depression.  During that time it lost its popularity and was never able to come back.

*Dr. Nathan Ackerman speculates:

“I think a depression today would have a paradoxical effect, at least temporarily.  Political upheaval, on one hand- and bringing people closer together, on the other.  Greater consideration for one another.”