The Hungry Years by T. H. Watkins

The Hungry Years: A Narrative History of the Great Depression in America
T. H. Watkins
Henry Holt & Company

One of the best vignettes in The Hungry Years, T. H. Watkins’ fine narrative history of the Great Depression, is his account of a forced auction of the stock and equipment owned by a widow whose Nebraska farm went belly-up in 1932, because she couldn’t pay the $442 she owed on her mortgage. Twenty-five hundred farmers, many as worn-down and desperately poor as she was, showed up for the auction, and a delegation offered the receiver $100 to settle her debt. The receiver refused, offering to postpone the sale instead, but the farmers insisted that they go ahead. Bidding ensued on her ten cows, 24 pigs and six horses, then her plow, hay binder and corn planter. At the end, the farmers who bought the stock and equipment returned them to the woman and handed the total proceeds of $101.02 to the receiver, strongly urging him to accept it as payment in full on the mortgage, which he wisely did.

The story illustrates one of the more cheering themes of Watkins’ ambitious, panoramic tale: the phenomenon of people, suffering the most severe economic hardship, uniting and rallying to help each other, even if only temporarily. A historian, and Watkins was a good one (he died of cancer last year), has to look hard to find a feel-good story amid the anguish and contention of 1930s America.

Watkins’ goal is to "pay tribute to those who lived through those times by offering a portrait of the era as rich and full as I can make it." Though he dutifully chronicles the great lurches and heaves that make up the big picture of the Depression and the New Deal—the grim statistics, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s feverish "Hundred Days," the programs that worked and those that didn’t, the emergence of Big Labor, the final guttering out of the New Deal flame—he returns repeatedly to the land and the people. Watkins was an environmental writer for most of his impressive career, and his strength was always his humanity, his sensitivity to the human dilemmas buried within economic and ecological questions. He does the same thing here, moving seamlessly from trends and movements, programs and policies to the individuals who had to live with them.

The "Bonus Army" march of 1932 was one of the first major eruptions of protest during these years. World War I veterans had been promised a bonus in a 1924 law but told that they would not get it until 1945. When hard times hit and legislators pressed for immediate payment, President Herbert Hoover and a Congressional majority wouldn’t go along. A peaceful army of 20,000 veterans, some with their families, set up camp in Washington. Watkins poignantly describes what happened immediately after the Senate voted against them: "'Comrades,' [their leader] shouted to the men, 'We have just sustained a temporary setback....Let us show them that we can take it on the chin. Let us show them that we are patriotic Americans. I call on you to sing America.' Slowly, the men complied, and after the last ragged note was lost in the summer night, a few of them booed the name of Hoover, then all drifted back to their encampments."

Watkins’ writing gifts are on display throughout this carefully researched book. He seems incapable of writing a bad sentence. In a particularly evocative chapter about the Dust Bowl in the West and Midwest that followed several years of drought, he describes the travail of trying to get through a simple meal: "Everything that could be baked, was baked....Pan-fried meat was cooked on as high a heat as possible, so the air rising above it would lift the dust away. Everything was eaten the instant it left the stove in the few precious moments before grime covered it. Even so, dust was ingested like a condiment with every meal." The only exceptions to the literary grace that pervades this book are occasioned by the sporadic need to cite statistics and to list the onslaught of bureaucratic imperatives.

Watkins also takes the opportunity to rescue some notably quirky 1930s celebrities from obscurity. Hugh Johnson, for example, the ex-general who headed the National Recovery Administration (NRA), was a man with sufficient hubris to declare that "it is no easy thing to reorient the universe." Arthur Morgan, the first chairman of the Tennessee Valley Authority, was another prize, described by Watkins as "certifiably racist, nakedly elitist, hypersensitive, paranoid and utterly without humor." One of Morgan’s associates said he could easily picture him "burning perfectly innocent people at the stake and feeling that he was doing a great thing." John L. Lewis, the founder of the Congress of Industrial Organizations, comes across as self-assured enough to view a powwow with FDR as a meeting of equals. Francis Townsend, a 66-year-old California doctor, campaigned so fervently for help for the aged that he became the godfather of the Social Security system.

The legacies of the Depression, of course, affect every aspect of our lives. Social Security, the abolition of child labor, the establishment of a minimum wage, the concept (if not much more) of a federal welfare program, the first cracks in the Jim Crow wall in the South—all began in the Depression years. It was a time when the Communist Party in America exploited every issue that could advance the cause of a proletarian revolution in the United States, with pathetically few successes. Watkins’ history, refreshingly, shows the Communists as just another player in the contentious arena of the Depression, even though politicians and businessmen fulminated endlessly about Red conspiracies in labor and government.

The New Deal, for all its vision and idealism, was something far less than a makeover of the American way. Old evils persisted: many of the best federal programs, such as the CCC (Civilian Conservation Corps) and WPA (Works Progress Administration), consistently discriminated against black Americans, especially in the South. Though the New Deal’s agricultural programs made halting attempts to improve conditions on tenant farms in the South and in migrant labor camps in the West, there was minimal real change. FDR was clearly no Bolshevik. His critics, Watkins writes, "were not inclined to admit Roosevelt’s essential economic conservatism, or hear his repeated calls for a balanced budget, or recognize his clear determination merely to refine the capitalist system—not obliterate it and replace it with something new."

But if it is useful to remember the limits of the New Deal, we also should acknowledge the grandeur of its scope and, often enough, the beauty of its intentions. Watkins, born in the midst of the Depression, helps us understand this while delivering on his promise of telling a wonderfully rich American tale. I knew Tom Watkins and respected him as both an editor and a writer. This book, which may well be the best ever written about the worst of times in America, makes his death last year at age 63 all the more unacceptable.

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