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Down and Out in the Great Depression: Letters from the Forgotten Man [Paperback]

by Robert S. McElvaine
4.6 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (9 customer reviews)

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Book Description

December 18, 2007 0807858919 978-0807858912 25th anniversary
Down and Out in the Great Depression is a moving, revealing collection of letters by the forgotten men, women, and children who suffered through one of the greatest periods of hardship in American history. Sifting through some 15,000 letters from government and private sources, Robert McElvaine has culled nearly 200 communications that best show the problems, thoughts, and emotions of ordinary people during this time.

Unlike views of Depression life "from the bottom up" that rely on recollections recorded several decades later, this book captures the daily anguish of people during the thirties. It puts the reader in direct contact with Depression victims, evoking a feeling of what it was like to live through this disaster.

Following Franklin D. Roosevelt's inauguration, both the number of letters received by the White House and the percentage of them coming from the poor were unprecedented. The average number of daily communications jumped to between 5,000 and 8,000, a trend that continued throughout the Rosevelt administration. The White House staff for answering such letters—most of which were directed to FDR, Eleanor Roosevelt, or Harry Hopkins—quickly grew from one person to fifty.

Mainly because of his radio talks, many felt they knew the president personally and could confide in him. They viewed the Roosevelts as parent figures, offering solace, help, and protection. Roosevelt himself valued the letters, perceiving them as a way to gauge public sentiment. The writers came from a number of different groups—middle-class people, blacks, rural residents, the elderly, and children. Their letters display emotional reactions to the Depression—despair, cynicism, and anger—and attitudes toward relief.

In his extensive introduction, McElvaine sets the stage for the letters, discussing their significance and some of the themes that emerge from them. By preserving their original spelling, syntax, grammar, and capitalization, he conveys their full flavor.

The Depression was far more than an economic collapse. It was the major personal event in the lives of tens of millions of Americans. McElvaine shows that, contrary to popular belief, many sufferers were not passive victims of history. Rather, he says, they were "also actors and, to an extent, playwrights, producers, and directors as well," taking an active role in trying to deal with their plight and solve their problems.

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Editorial Reviews


A New York Times Book Review Books for Vacation Reading & Notable Book of the Year

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

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

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

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

About the Author

Robert S. McElvaine is Elizabeth Chisholm Professor of Arts and Letters and professor of history at Millsaps College.

Product Details

  • Paperback: 280 pages
  • Publisher: The University of North Carolina Press; 25th anniversary edition (December 18, 2007)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0807858919
  • ISBN-13: 978-0807858912
  • Product Dimensions: 8.9 x 6.1 x 0.7 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 13.6 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.6 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (9 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #378,630 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews
30 of 31 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Terrific Compilation Of Depression- Era Correspondance November 24, 2000
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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12 of 12 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A powerful story of the great depression October 22, 2004
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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8 of 8 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Interesting look at the Depression July 30, 2004
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
5.0 out of 5 stars Right Out of Today's Headlines June 2, 2009
To say I was amazed and saddened by the letters contained in this book is an understatement. It seems to me that changing the dates and names are all that need to be done to make the letters to President Hoover and his Cabinets appear to have been written today. It was also a little shocking to read of the resentment of illegal immigration expressed by the jobless of the Depression. Until I read this book I had not considered this as a factor and I have read many, many books on the Depression. This subject was never mentioned.
This book is an eye opener and strikes the heart with a very heavy hand. The huge difference I could see in the people of the Depression and people of today is a greater and better work ethic and a willingness to make do without a handout. Stoicism ruled the working class of the Depression. People of the Depression, college degree or not, would gladly use a 'shovel and pick' to support their families while, sadly, too many of the younger generation of today would collect their unemployment, look for a bailout and bitch.
I highly recommend this book to anyone looking to put their live in perspective.
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