Study Guide

The Great Depression

The Great Depression Introduction

We Americans are, to quote the historian David Potter, "people of plenty." That phrase could refer to our excessive consumption of cheese products (although really, we could eat more), but in this case, he was talking about our love affair with money.

The U.S. is chock-full of natural resources, and thanks to our convenient capitalist system, a tendency to expand over whatever territory we might need (regardless of who's already living there), and a technological edge over other folks, we've been more or less rolling in dough since the early days. For most Americans, at most times in our history, the economy has provided opportunities for individuals to succeed. Like, at least half of the time. For some people. Who were mostly white, male, Protestant, and from a good family.

At least we were trying.

But what would you do if the economy suddenly stopped providing that opportunity? What if it no longer seemed to matter how hard you worked, how smart you were, or how responsible you were with your money? What would you do if there were absolutely nothing you could do to avoid soul-crushing poverty? 

In 1929, the stock market crashed in the worst economic collapse in American history. It was even worse than that time the NYSE tripped and did a face plant in the middle of Wall Street. To be fair, it really should have looked to see where it was going. It was an epic laissez-faire fail. 

Imagine if your college savings fund was suddenly worthless. For over a decade after the crash, jobs were scarce, pocket money was scarcer, and thousands of Americans sank into complete and total poverty. It was called the Great Depression, not because everybody needed a Prozac, but because the economy was depressed, as in, "pressed down." Blame Latin if that's confusing.

Throughout the 1930s, neither the free market nor the federal government was able to get the country working again. The American people endured a full decade of almost unbelievable economic misery.

While a much-feared revolution—of either communist or fascist persuasion—thankfully never materialized, Americans flirted with a number of radical alternatives to the status quo. Some of those radical alternatives, plus Hoover's panicked hand-waving, faded into memory, while others were incorporated—in watered-down fashion—into the New Deal, where a few remain with us even today.

What is The Great Depression About and Why Should I Care?

Our country's blessed with a wealth of natural resources, and our democratic capitalist system has delivered us a level of material affluence unprecedented in human history. 

For most Americans, at most times in American history, the economy has provided real opportunity for real individual success.

But what would you do if the economy suddenly stopped providing that opportunity? If it no longer seemed to matter how hard you worked, how smart you were, or how responsibly you took care of your money? If the system just stopped working, seemingly dooming you to a life of poverty through no fault of your own?

Would you blame yourself? Would you work harder, striving to prosper, against all odds, within the failing system? Or would you try to change the system itself? And if so, what would you try to change it into?

These are the questions that faced every American through the long, lean years of the Great Depression, which stretched mercilessly through the 1930s. Their answers might surprise you.

The Great Depression Resources

Books

Alan Brinkley, Voices of Protest: Huey Long, Father Coughlin, & the Great Depression (1982)
Brinkley's detailed study explores the politics of resentment and the populist demagogues who rode them to fame and power. The best resource for understanding the Kingfish, the Radio Priest, and their impact on 1930s-America.

Michael Denning, The Cultural Front (1997)
Denning's provocative, challenging work suggests that left-wing activists associated with the Communist Party during the Popular Front period of the late 1930s had an influence that traveled far beyond the communists' own ranks, forever altering American culture.

David M. Kennedy, Freedom from Fear: The American People in Depression and War, 1929–1945 (2000)
Kennedy's massive, magisterial history of the Roosevelt era weighs in at 936 pages and perhaps ten pounds. But the prose is much lighter, and no survey of the Depression and wartime era offers such a comprehensive narrative.

Richard Lowitt and Maurine Beasley, eds., One Third of a Nation: Lorena Hickok Reports on the Great Depression (1981)
Lorena Hickok—journalist and intimate confidant of Eleanor Roosevelt—traveled the country in 1933 and 1934, gathering intelligence on the conditions of life for ordinary Americans in order to help the New Deal's relief effort work more efficiently. Her humane letters, collected here, detail the heartbreaking conditions of the American people after five years of Depression.

John Steinbeck, The Grapes of Wrath (1939)
At the time of its release, this brutally honest novel was considered controversial and even dangerous by those suspicious of its leftist tone. But it's come to be a pretty big deal book that sheds a lot of light on the Depression and the Dust Bowl.

Studs Terkel, Hard Times: An Oral History of the Great Depression (1970)
Studs Terkel's collection of oral histories of life during hard times is another fantastic resource for anyone interested in understanding what the Great Depression was really like.

Music

Various Artists, Brother, Can You Spare a Dime? (2001)
This album offers a sampling of tracks representing various regions, ethnic backgrounds, and class perspectives from the Depression era.

Various Artists, Ken Burns' Jazz: The Story of American Music (2000)
Check out this comprehensive collection of jazz masterpieces from the early-20th century compiled by filmmaker Ken Burns for his documentary on the history of the genre.

Various Artists, O Brother, Where Art Thou? [The Soundtrack to the Film] (2000)
The music here serves as the focus, rather than simply the backdrop, for the plot of the Coen Brothers film. Even if you never see the movie, be sure to pick up this soundtrack, which features American roots music, folk, and bluegrass tunes from the Depression era.

Robert Johnson, The Complete Recordings (1990)
African-American blues artist Robert Johnson was born and raised in the Mississippi Delta during the height of the Jim Crow era, when legal segregation and the threat of violence controlled the lives of all Southern Blacks. When the Great Depression hit the Delta, Johnson had already spent his entire life struggling to make ends meet. 

Woody Guthrie, The Greatest Songs of Woody Guthrie (1972)
Emerging as a folk balladeer and protest singer during the Great Depression, Guthrie was––and continues to be––a major influence on rock songwriters and performers who find inspiration in his bold, forthright poetry.

Woodie Guthrie, Dust Bowl Ballads (1940)
Perhaps the greatest folk musician in American history, Guthrie was himself a Dust Bowl refugee. His collection of Dust Bowl Ballads rivals Steinbeck's Grapes of Wrath as the definitive cultural expression of "Dust Bowl Blues."

Images

The Kingfish
Huey P. Long, Louisiana populist and advocate of "Share Our Wealth."

Father Coughlin
Charles Coughlin, "The Radio Priest," began as a backer of FDR's New Deal but eventually became a virulent critic and even a fascist sympathizer.

Townsend's Old-Age Pension Plan
The Townsend Plan, which called for generous state-funded pensions for the aged in order to boost spending and open up jobs for younger workers, attracted enthusiastic support in the 1930s, and Townsend Clubs spread across the land.

Fascism in America
While America's economy sputtered throughout the 1930s, Adolf Hitler's fascists seemed to have succeeded in rescuing Germany from economic collapse, encouraging Nazi sympathizers such as the German-American Bund to push for a fascist America.

American Communists
The Communist Party failed to instigate a proletarian revolution during the Great Depression, but it did move a bit further into the mainstream of American life.

The "American Führer"
The 20,000 people who turned out for the German-American Bund's "Pro-American Rally" in February 1939 heard self-styled "American führer" Fritz Kuhn denounce "Frank Rosenfeld" and his "Jew Deal." Fortunately, the anti-Semitic Nazi sympathizers of the Bund remained a fringe minority throughout the 1930s.

Dust Bowl Nightmare
A dust storm—known as a "black blizzard"—approaches Stratford, Texas, in 1935.

"Okies" Flee the Dust Bowl
Dust Bowl refugees, bound for California.

Movies & TV

Jazz: A Film By Ken Burns (2001)
The companion site for this documentary film refers to jazz as "America's greatest cultural achievement." Filmmaker Ken Burns beautifully illustrates why this isn't simply hyperbole.

O Brother, Where Art Thou? (2000)
Considered one of the best films directed by the Coen brothers, O Brother is as entertaining and silly as it is somber and surreal. Stars George Clooney, Tim Nelson, and John Turturro play a group of escaped convicts who set out to find fame, fortune, love, and justice in the Depression-era rural South.

Paper Moon (1973)
Starring Ryan O'Neal and his famous child-actor daughter Tatum O'Neal, Paper Moon is a sometimes dark comedy about a scam artist who partners with an orphaned girl to travel throughout the Midwest in search of easy money during the Great Depression. It's not your typical road trip film, but certainly a memorable one.

The Grapes of Wrath (1940)
Today, this film based on John Steinbeck's Pulitizer Prize-winning novel is heralded as a historically significant movie masterpiece about life during the Great Depression.

Gold Diggers of 1933 (1933)
You might assume that rapper Kanye West coined the term "gold digger," but you'd be wrong. In fact, the term has long been in use; it's almost as if this early-20th-century movie about women aspiring to marry into wealth inspired that early-21st-century chart-topper. An interesting note: In 1933, at the height of the Great Depression, this film featuring an elaborate dance sequence to "We're in the Money" was a top box-office hit. (Wishful thinking?)

Websites

Hitler and the German-American Bund
An interesting independent website called Traces of History provides an overview of the Nazi-sympathizing activities of the German-American Bund.

Father Coughlin
The excellent History Matters site, from George Mason University's Center for History and New Media, hosts a good sample of Charles Coughlin's sonorous—if sometimes disturbing—radio commentary.

Upton Sinclair's End Poverty in California Movement
The Virtual Museum of the City of San Francisco hosts a small online exhibit devoted to Upton Sinclair's EPIC candidacy for Governor of California in 1934. The site includes primary sources representing opinions both for and against Sinclair's radical communitarian vision.

Huey Long's Share Our Wealth Plan
The Long Legacy Project has produced a website devoted to "The Man, His Mission, and His Legacy." You won't find much material critical of "The Kingfish" here, but you'll find no better online repository of Huey Long content elsewhere.

Video & Audio

Huey Long's "Share the Wealth" Speech
Huey P. Long outlines the "Share Our Wealth" plan to the nation, March 12th, 1935.

Father Coughlin's Politics
1936 newsreel reports on Father Coughlin, "The Radio Priest," and his political impact.

Historical Documents

Old-Age Pension Plan
The Townsend Plan and related documents.

"Share Our Wealth"
Huey Long's Share Our Wealth Plan.

The Radio Priest
A Father Coughlin sermon.

"Every Man a King" Speech
Huey Long introduces the "Share Our Wealth" plan, February 23rd, 1934.