Prelim Readings: Hurtling Into Depression

I hit three books and three articles yesterday:

John Milton Cooper, Pivotal Decades: The United States, 1900-1920.  A synthesis history of two decades which, per the title, were “pivotal.”  By which he means “really, really important, because there was radio and cars and women’s suffrage and the NAACP and black migration and a fundamentalist backlash and OH! Roosevelt and Wilson were so cool.”  Cooper has a love affair with the two presidents (he wrote a dual bio of the two).  Not much of an argument, but certainly good on details about the era.  Tedious.

William E. Leuchtenburg, The Perils of Prosperity: 1914-1923.  Another synthesis, but way more interesting and better written than Cooper because it–gasp!–has a thesis.  [Sidenote digression: it’s stupid to write a book without a thesis, even if that book is a synthesis.  C’mon.  Do your homework and make it interesting, even for the undergraduates who are forced to read your book.]  That thesis, in my awkward paraphrasing: During 1914 to 1932, the United States became an unwilling world leader while at the same time confronting domestic tensions rising from the increasing contact between the urban present and future and the rural past.  Country mouse vs. city mouse, and city mouse wins, though he pisses off country mouse and creates a ramshackle economy.  Which leads us to…

Lester Chandler, America’s Greatest Depression, 1929-1941.  Yet another synthesis–it was one of those days–that’s great on detail and short on argument.  The best I could come up with:  The Great Depression had deep and complex roots, had deep and complex effects, and was addressed by a series of deep and complex federal government responses.  A good book from which to jack some lecture material.

Roy Rosenzweig and Barbara Melosh, “Government and the Arts: Voices from the New Deal Era,” The Journal of American History 77, no. 2 (September 1990): 596-608.  Neat article about oral histories of people who were involved in all those marvelous WPA programs–the Federal Art Project, the Federal Music Project, the Federal Writers’ Project, and the Federal Theatre Project.  Despite what some historians have argued, these projects actually produced good art, according to the people who were involved.  Okay, so that’s expected.  Still, these folks look back on WPA projects with a solid sense of their contribution to society and society’s (through the federal government) contribution to them.  Sigh.  I love WPA art.

Christina D. Romer, “The Great Crash and the Onset of the Great Depression,” The Quarterly Journal of Economics 105, no. 3 (August 1990): 597-624.  Holy economic mumbo-jumbo, Batman!  Still, a good thesis and thoroughly demonstrated: the stock market crash of October 1929 freaked people into uncertainty, which kept them from buying durable goods, which really damaged the economy and led to the Great Depression.  Romer’s found a way to prove the connection between the Crash and the Depression, and it’s pretty convincing.  With graphs and stuff.

Christina D. Romer, “What Ended the Great Depression?,” The Journal of Economic History 52, no. 4 (December 1992): 757-784.  Romer’s got an attraction to the Depression, which is a good thing, because she’s got a way of understanding and tackling the big questions.  Here, she argues that an expansion in the money supply–from an influx of gold after FDR’s revaluation and political instability in Europe in 1934–lowered interest rates and increased investment and spending on durable goods.  Not all that sexy, but an interesting contribution that goes beyond “The war stopped the Depression.”

Today’s reading: Brinkley’s The End of Reform and Voices of Protest, Cohen’s Making a New Deal, Skopol’s Protecting Mothers and Soldiers, Smith’s Building New Deal Liberalism, Worster’s The Dust Bowl, and Borgwardt’s A New Deal for the World.  Whee!

3 thoughts on “Prelim Readings: Hurtling Into Depression

  1. I took a History grad class once, and I was shocked by the workload. It was absolutely unmanageable, and I was shaking in my boots, until I realized that people in history are masters and mistresses of the judicious skim, whereas I, a literature grad, am inclined to linger over a well turned phrase until it’s time to have tea and crumpets. Very different reading practices. Which is my way of saying: stop making me feel bad because I’ve been reading through the same book all week and haven’t finished it!

    btw, I was looking at Borgwardt last weekso I look forward to your follow up. I’m concerned about Borgwardt’s infatuation with the Atlantic Charter, though, and disturbed by what seems like her implication that all of post-WWII history is an anomaly, yet taking little notice of pre-WWII history either. It’s a weird framework.

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  3. ZZ: I simply don’t know what you’re talking about. I read every word of each page of all the books, front cover to back blurbs…

    Truth be told, I’ve “read” some of these before (Brinkley, Worster, and Borgwardt, for instance), so it’s an even faster gutting than usual. And it’s pretty well unsatisfying. Some of these books (Brinkley’s, for instance), I would love to read more carefully and appreciate the prose and nuance. Others I’m happy to skim–the majority, come to think of it, because historians have a problem writing well. Sort of like that last sentence. Or this one.

    More on Borgwardt in tomorrow’s post, but for now: when I read it a couple years ago, I liked it. She’s got a crush on the Atlantic Charter, true, but who doesn’t? It’s just so romantic: Roosevelt and Churchill, sailing the seas, holding hands and determining the fate of the world. So cute!

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