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Down and Out in the Great Depression: Letters from the Forgotten Man Paperback – March 1, 1983

12 customer reviews
ISBN-13: 978-0807840993 ISBN-10: 0807840998

Price: $8.39
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Editorial Reviews


[This] book is easily the best thing of its sort ever done.—David Shannon, Commonwealth Professor of History, University of Virginia --This text refers to an alternate Paperback edition.


A collection of unforgettable vignettes that offer vivid testimony to the hardships the 'forgotten' men and women endured in the 1930s.--William E. Leuchtenburg, University of North Carolina

|[This] book is easily the best thing of its sort ever done.--David Shannon, Commonwealth Professor History, University of Virginia

|The editor provides solid background.--Publishers Weekly

|Here is history written by the people who had to live it, in the U.S.A. of the 1930s. . . . A hell of a good book.--Pete Seeger

|Spanning the continent and representing a wide variety of groups, these letters give eloquent voice to the people embodied in government statistics and reports.--Wisconsin Magazine of History

|McElvaine . . . successfully draws the reader into the heart and mind of the era-as it affected individuals.--Clarion-Ledger

|The book makes good reading. . . . Compelling human drama as well as important history.--Hartford Courant

|Here are 'real people' at rock bottom, in their own words, often heart-breakingly desperate and ungrammatical.--Spectator

|McElvaine . . . recreates the Great Depression with this collection. . . . The result is a much more vivid account than most historical works can provide, with their usual emphasis on statistics and generalizations. . . . The letters make vivid reading.--Houston Post

|First-rate explanatory essays by the editor.--The New Yorker

|McElvaine is to be commended. . . . Down and Out in the Great Depression is a remarkable testament to a time that no longer seems so distant and, at times, strikes awfully close to home.--Philadelphia Inquirer

|The most readable and entertaining historical work I [have] ever seen.--T.M. English, Mississippi Magazine

|McElvaine . . . has produced [a] compelling, often poignant glimpse of America's mood during the Great Depression. . . . It makes a fitting memorial to 'the forgotten man.'--Newsweek

|These are the forgotten men, women and children of the Depression years.--Newsday

|Some of the letters are heartbreaking with their revelations of deprivation, illness, and old age; some provoke a smile, and all are enormously affective.--Progressive

|McElvaine makes a unique and significant contribution. . . . The thorough mastery of the subject that he has brought both to the selection and the introductions gives authority to the work far beyond that which a statistical, quantifying study could achieve.--Frank Freidel, University of Washington

|Soundly conceived and imaginatively edited, Down and Out in the Great Depression shows how Americans responded to economic collapse, not in memory, but in their own words at the time-a compelling contribution to our history.--Arthur Schlesinger, Jr.

|This is a good book . . . capturing people's moods well." --Library Journal

|The book is unique. Nowhere else can we read of despair as recorded by those who were feeling it hardest, unfiltered by memory.--Southern Living

|Robert S. McElvaine has compiled a fascinating, touching and above all illuminating book. . . . This book is a classic. No New Statesman reader should be without it.--New Statesman (London)

|Reminiscent of Walker Evans' photographs in Let Us Now Praise Famous Men.--The Mountain Times

|A powerful collection, offering a rare glimpse of the conditions of the poor during the Depression.--Mississippi Magazine

|An illuminating contribution to the history of a bad time half a century ago.--Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., New York Times Book Review

|Adds an important new dimension to our knowledge of a vastly important period in American history.--Jonathan Yardley, Washington Post Book World

|Like a well-chosen seasoning . . . it . . . bring(s) out the flavor of history. By rescuing the struggles of individuals from the anonymity of statistics, this volume preserves the Depression as it was experienced-with sorrow, anguish, hatred, faith, and humor.--The New Republic

|There's nothing more deeply moving than reading the words and thus hearing the voices of the actual survivors of hard times. McElvaine has captured these voices as no one else ever has.--Studs Terkel

|McElvaine's . . . contribution [is] significant and his conclusions . . . [are] more convincing than those of other scholars who have also tried to recount the Depression 'from the ground up.' . . . There is a poignancy which occasionally pushes past the confines of history and turns into street poetry, art, delirium.--Los Angeles Herald Examiner

|[I] found Down and Out very interesting and informative.--Rosalynn Carter

|The dispirited reality of the Walton's age is vividly outlined in . . . Down and Out in the Great Depression.--Kansas City Star

|A stark documentary of a people one short step from despair.--Center Magazine

|The letters bear a sense of urgency that recollections of the Depression lack, and Robert McElvaine's solid introduction and method of organization deepen their meaning.--Christian Century

|These are voices that need to be heard.--Journal of the Illinois Historical Society

|As a record of the Depression era's forgotten men, women and children-Down and Out is worth much more than its purchase price.--Charlotte Observer

|McElvaine . . . has found and filled a gap. . . . [He] has brought the feelings of these invisible people to life.--St. Petersburg Times

|An enormously valuable and revealing document. . . . An experience that pays rich if painful rewards. The most obvious of these is that Down and Out in the Great Depression adds an important new dimension to our knowledge of a vastly important period in American history.--Washington Post Book Review

|These letters are a moving testimony.--Times Literary Supplement

|McElvaine has done a masterful job.--Sojourners

--This text refers to an alternate Paperback edition.

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Product Details

  • Paperback: 268 pages
  • Publisher: The University of North Carolina Press (March 1, 1983)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0807840998
  • ISBN-13: 978-0807840993
  • Product Dimensions: 6 x 0.6 x 9 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 14.4 ounces
  • Average Customer Review: 4.7 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (12 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #2,757,705 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Most Helpful Customer Reviews

32 of 33 people found the following review helpful By Barron Laycock HALL OF FAME on November 24, 2000
Format: Paperback
This wonderful collection of depression-era letters from both ordinary men in the street as well as from celebrated people alike is offered by noted Depression era historian Robert McElvaine. In the opinion of most contemporary historians, the Second World War was the single most important event shaping and directing subsequent developments throughout the 20th century. Moreover, no single other event so shaped the 1930s world or influenced the events leading to WWII than did the great worldwide depression. Through the words of the survivors of those terrible time themselves we are introduced into the world of those times, and in the process are treated to a terrific account of the human ordeal of the 1930s, which, as noted historian Arthur Schlesinger Jr. Notes, "does justice to the social and cultural dimensions of economic crisis as well as to its political and economic impact." Here we take a busman's tour into a world literally turned upside down by the massive and systematic economic dislocations that suddenly arose in the late 1920s.
This collection of letters breathes life into the otherwise stale statistics of the times. Moreover, this is a quite interesting collection that imaginatively recreates the amazing social, economic, and political conditions of the Great Depression for the reader in a most entertaining and edifying way. Today it is difficult, especially for younger readers, to understand just how traumatic and dangerous the crisis in democracy that the events surrounding the Great Depression were, not only in this country, but also in all of the constitutional democracies of the west. To the minds of many fair-minded Americans, the capitalist system had failed, and it was the man in the street with his family who bore the cruelest brunt of this failure.
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13 of 13 people found the following review helpful By Charles Ashbacher HALL OF FAMETOP 500 REVIEWERVINE VOICE on October 22, 2004
Format: Paperback
When I was a child, my older relatives would occasionally talk about the depression. While I understood what they were saying, in many ways I took it to be another one of the "you kids have it so much easier" stories. It was also the case that the story was being told decades after the event. Even the most traumatic events become softened over time, years of living better had taken some of the edge off of their experiences.

The letters in this book will put that edge right back on. These are messages written by people who have had their world turned inside out by forces they could not understand. Their despair, fear and uncertainty are evident in their statements, which are letters to government officials such as President Franklin Roosevelt. Many are also addressed to Eleanor Roosevelt, a tribute to her image as someone who cared. It is moving to read the simple letters, most of which are filled with spelling and grammatical errors. These are common people who are seeking help, yet in most cases, what they ask for is so little. In one letter in particular, the writer is only asking for a little coal so that their house would not be so cold in the winter.

This collection of letters takes you back to a time in the United States when pessimism reigned. Despair was the emotion of the day, and some people poured their emotions and desperation out by writing letters to people they thought might help. A message from the days of hard times, these letters tell the story of the depression in a way that is more powerful and moving than hearing it in words could ever be. It is well worth reading and would be a strong supplement for any class covering the history of those years.
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9 of 9 people found the following review helpful By Kevin Wang on July 30, 2004
Format: Paperback
McElvaine's fascinating compilation is read like an anthology of prose and poetry. By looking at the Great Depression from the perspectives of its victims of diverse backgrounds-- the old and the young, the rich and the poor, men and women, blacks and whites, the optimists and the pessimists, the educated and the barely literate etc.--the reader is able to gain a better understanding of their struggles on a more personal level. Correspondances range from angry letters denouncing the responses of President Hoover in dealing with the Depession, to cheerful letters praising President Roosevelt as a saintly figure, to poignant letters written to Eleanor Roosevelt begging for money and old clothes, to disturbing letters that sound eerily like suicide notes of people who have lost all hope, to bitter letters decrying New Deal legislations and the creation of a generation of lazy dependents of federal welfare.

One complaint I have is that this books does not contain a single correspondance dated after 1937, as the Great Depression did not end there, or a chapter devoted to people's responses as the United States gradually pulls out of depression during World War II. Nevertheless, it's a minor flaw of an otherwise great work by McElvaine.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful By Faith Colleen Carr on August 15, 2011
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
I could only read this in small sips or I'd never get out of my emotional shock.
The Shock? Each of these letters are mirrored in the Letters to the Editors of my local paper.

From the despair of the working (or unemployed) poor to the blame the victim letters.

Increased the size of my food garden beds as the remedy of the truth facing us now.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful By Jenny S on May 9, 2010
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
This book provides an excellent adjunct to the statistics normally produced about the Great Depression, providing significant insights to the perspective/s of the 'common man'. McElvaine's selection process has been quite rigorous, and the repetitive nature of the letters is undoubtedly representative of what thousands of Americans were experiencing.
The phenomenon of writing to Roosevelt was clearly unique, and probably only recently emulated during Obama's election campaign.
A good read, and although McElvaine provides some background to the Depression in his introduction, I recommend reading in in conjunction with some of the other historical texts written about the Great Depression.
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