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Hard Times Remembered

May 2024
23min read

Mr. Terkel, who has a daily radio show on WFMT in Chicago, is the author of Division Street: America . Published in 1967, this study of the lives and feelings of a cross section of Chicagoans quickly became a best seller. In his new book, Hard Times: An Oral History of the Great Depression , Mr. Terkel has explored a wider field. He has recorded the memories of hundreds of Americans who lived through the grim decade of the 1930’s. Some of their children also express vicarious feelings about those years—years that, in one sense or another, scarred their parents’ lives, and created attitudes that the children have come to admire or, just as often, to resent. In Hard Times , which will be published later this month by Pantheon Books, Mr. Terkel adds little commentary to the emotions and experiences that his sensitive interviewing elicited. He simply lets his subjects—sometimes famous men, more often ordinary citizens—speak. There are no statistics here. “The precise date is of small consequence,” the author writes in his introduction. “In their rememberings are their truths.” AMERICAN HERITAGE presents a selection of these American voices—remembering.


Peggy Terry , a child in Oklahoma when the Depression started, now lives in a poor district of Chicago.

I first noticed the difference when we’d come home from school in the evening. My mother’d send us to the soup line. And we were never allowed to cuss. If you happened to be one of the first ones in line, you didn’t get anything but water that was on top. So we’d ask the guy that was ladling out the soup into the buckets—everybody had to bring their own bucket to get the soup—he’d dip the greasy, watery stuff off the top. So we’d ask him to please dip down to get some meat and potatoes from the bottom of the kettle. But he wouldn’t do it. So we learned to cuss. We’d say: “Dip down, goddammit.” …

Even after the soup line, there wasn’t anything. The W.P.A. came and I married. My husband worked on the W.P.A. We were just kids. I was fifteen and he was sixteen…. My husband and me just started travelling around, for about three years. It was a very nice time, because when you’re poor and you stay in one spot, trouble just seems to catch up with you. But when you’re moving from town to town, you don’t stay there long enough for trouble to catch up with you. It’s really a good life, if you’re poor and you can manage to move around.

I was pregnant when we first started hitchhiking, and people were really very nice to us. Sometimes they would feed us. I remember one time we slept in a haystack and the lady of the house came out and found us and she said, “This is really very bad for you because you’re going to have a baby. You need a lot of milk.” So she took us up to the house.

She had a lot of rugs hanging on the clothesline because she was doing her housecleaning. We told her we’d beat the rugs for giving us the food. She said, no, she didn’t expect that. She just wanted to feed us. We said, no, we couldn’t take it unless we worked for it. And she let us beat her rugs. I think she had a million rugs, and we cleaned them. Then we went in, and she had a beautiful table, full of all kinds of food and milk. When we left, she filled a gallon bucket full of milk, and we took it with us.

Ward James , seventy-three, is now a teacher in a private boys’ school.

… I finally went on relief. It’s an experience I don’t want anybody to go through. It comes as close to crucifixion as … You sit in an auditorium and are given a number. The interview was utterly ridiculous and mortifying. In the middle of mine, a more dramatic guy than I dived from the second-floor stairway, head first, to demonstrate he was gonna get on relief even if he had to go to the hospital to do it. There were questions like: Who are your friends? Where have you been living? Where’s your family?—I had sent my wife and child to her folks in Ohio, where they could live more simply. Why should anybody give you money? Why should anybody give you a place to sleep? What sort of friends?This went on for half an hour. I got angry and said, “Do you happen to know what a friend is?” He changed his attitude very shortly. I did get certified some time later. I think they paid nine dollars a month.

I came away feeling I didn’t have any business living any more. I was imposing on somebody, a great society or something like that….

Eileen Barth was a county social worker during the Depression.

… I’ll never forget one of the first families I visited. The father was a railroad man who had lost his job. I was told by my supervisor that I really had to see the poverty. If the family needed clothing, I was to investigate how much clothing they had at hand. So I looked into this man’s closet ( pauses, it becomes difficult )—he was a tall, gray-haired man, though not terribly old. He let me look in the closet—he was so insulted ( she weeps angrily ). He said, “Why are you doing this?” I remember his feeling of humiliation … this terrible humiliation. ( She can’t continue. After a pause, she resumes. ) He said, “I really haven’t anything to hide, but if you really must look into it…” I could see he was very proud. He was so deeply humiliated. And I was, too….

Diana Morgan was the daughter of a socially prominent businessman in a small North Carolina town.

The banks failed about the time I was getting ready to go to college. My family thought of my going to Wellesley, Vassar, Smith … but we had so little money, we thought of a school in North Carolina. It wasn’t so expensive.

It was in my junior year and I came home for Christmas … I found the telephone disconnected. And this was when I realized that the world was falling apart. Imagine us without a telephone! When I finished school, I couldn’t avoid facing the fact that we didn’t have a cook any more, we didn’t have a cleaning woman any more. I’d see dust under the beds, which is something I’d never seen before. I knew the curtains weren’t as clean as they used to be. Things were beginning to look a little shabby. …

Louis Banks , a Negro, is now in a veterans’ hospital.

Were there black and white hoboes together?

Yes, it didn’t make any difference who you were, ‘cause everybody was poor. All friendly, sleep in a jungle. We used to take a big pot and cook food—cabbage, meat, and beans all together. We all set together, we made a tent. Twenty-five or thirty would be out on the side of the rail, white and colored. They didn’t have no mothers or sisters, they didn’t have no home, they were dirty, they had overalls on, they didn’t have no food, they didn’t have anything….

Sometimes we sent one hobo to walk, to see if there were any jobs open. He’d come back and say: Detroit, no jobs. He’d say: they’re hirin’ in New York City. So we went to New York City. Sometimes ten or fifteen of us would be on the train….

Tom Yoder is a recent Notre Dame graduate, whose mother lives in a middle-class house in Evanston, Illinois.

How did you come to your knowledge of the Depression?

( Smiles slightly, indicating his mother ) I suppose I learned most of it from my parents. My mother has a fantastic story, in my opinion. It seems just absolutely—it’s almost in a black-humorous sense—funny to me. To realize that a hundred miles from Chicago, about forty years ago, my mother’s brothers, whom I know well now, were out with little rifles, hunting for food to live on. And if they didn’t find it, there were truly some empty stomachs. I mean, this is just too much. I don’t think my generation can really comprehend what all this means. I’ve never gone to bed hungry—I wish I had. I haven’t and I probably never will.

Whenever I’ve griped about my home life, Mother’s always said, “I hope you always have it so good.”

Mary Owsley set out with her husband for Oklahoma in 1929 after he lost his job as a dynamite man in a Kentucky mine.

We lived in a company house. We had to buy every bucket of water we used, ‘cause the company undermined things so bad, they ruined all the water wells. I bought my food from the company store, and we bought our furniture from the company store, and we paid three prices on it. I’ve seen my husband have to borry from his next paycheck what they call scrip, to buy just medicine and things like that. And we didn’t live extravagant either. We paid over two-hundred-and-sixty-someodd dollars for furniture from the coal company. We paid it all back but twenty dollars. And when he went and got another job, he brought a truck down there for the furniture. And they took the whole thing away from us. They wouldn’t let us pay the twenty dollars….

Peggy Terry , again, recalls her childhood.

… And when my father finally got his bonus, he bought a second-hand car for us to come back to Kentucky in. My dad said to us kids: “All of you get in the car. I want to take you and show you something.” On the way over there, he’d talk about how life had been tough for us, and he said: “If you think it’s been rough for us, I want you to see people that really had to rough.” This was in Oklahoma City, and he took us to one of the Hoovervilles, and that was the most incredible thing.

Here were all these people living in old, rusted-out car bodies. I mean that was their home. There were people living in shacks made of orange crates. One family with a whole lot of kids were living in a piano box. This wasn’t just a little section; this was maybe ten miles wide and ten miles long. People living in whatever they could junk together….

Dynamite Garland , forty-five, is now a waitress in Chicago. She formerly danced in burlesque.

Every Sunday we used to go house hunting. That was a recreation during the Depression. You’d get in the Model A with the family and go look at the houses. They were all for sale or rent. You’d go look and see where you could put this and where you could put that, and this is gonna be my room. I knew where I was gonna have my horse in the barn. My mother’d go down in the basement, saying, “Oh, this is well constructed. This is where we’re gonna put the potato bin, this is where we’re gonna put the onions.” We knew just where everyone was gonna be ( laughs )….


Tad , twenty years old

It’s something that has been filtered through by my parents. I didn’t know much about it, and they don’t mind my not knowing much about it. They control the source of information—sort of like the high priest: you can’t approach the altar too closely or you’ll be struck dead. This purple heart in their background has become a justification for their present affluence….

Hiram “Chub” Sherman , sixty years old, is an established Broadway actor.

It was rock-bottom living in New York then, it really was. Cars were left on the streets. There were no signs about restricted parking ( laughs ). If somebody had a jalopy—a few friends, you know, would have some old car —it would sit there for months on end neither molested nor disturbed. It would just fall apart from old age.


You didn’t count your possessions in terms of money in the bank. You counted on the fact that you had a row of empty milk bottles. Because those were cash, they could be turned in for a nickel deposit, and that would get you on the subway. If you took any stock in yourself, you looked to see how many milk bottles you had, because they counted. Two bottles: one could get you uptown, one could get you back….

I remember being employed once to stand in front of St. Patrick’s Cathedral on Fifth Avenue, Easter morning. With a clicker in each hand. A fashion woman had engaged me to note the acceptance of patent leather purses and white hats. Each white hat I saw, I clicked my right hand. And each patent leather purse I saw, I clicked my left hand. Then I had to go home and tote up what the clickers said. White hats were in that spring, patent leather purses were out.

I remember also what you’d pick up odd dollars doing. There were sight-seeing buses—see Chinatown, see the Bowery, see New York. They were lined up right on Times Square. If you’ve ever noted a sight-seeing bus, there’ll be a couple of people sitting on the bus. And they’d say: “It’s leaving right away, guided tour, just leaving for the Bowery and Chinatown.” Well, the people inside were usually shills. They’re engaged for a quarter or fifty cents to sit there and look eager. I shilled in Times Square sight-seeing buses ( laughs ). As people came on, you got off: “Excuse me for a moment.” And then you got into another bus. It’s a sitting job.

There were all sorts of things that went on like that from which you earned a living. It wasn’t a very good living, but it kept you alive….

Ben Isaacs , a salesman, now lives in a middle-class suburb.

We tried to struggle along living day by day. Then I couldn’t pay the rent. I had a little car, but I couldn’t pay no license for it. I left it parked against the court. I sold it for fifteen dollars in order to buy some food for the family. I had three little children. It was a time when I didn’t even have money to buy a pack of cigarettes, and I was a smoker. I didn’t have a nickel in my pocket.

Finally people started to talk me into going into the relief. … I didn’t want to go on relief. Believe me, when I was forced to go to the office of the relief, the tears were running out of my eyes. I couldn’t bear myself to take money from anybody for nothing. If it wasn’t for those kids—I tell you the truth—many a time it came to my mind to go commit suicide. Then go ask for relief. But somebody has to take care of those kids….

Wherever I went to get a job, I couldn’t get no job. I went around selling razor blades and shoelaces. There was a day I would go over all the streets and come home with fifty cents, making a sale. That kept going until 1940, practically. Nineteen-thirty-nine the war started. Things started to get a little better. My wife found a job in a restaurant for twenty dollars a week. Right away, I sent a letter to the relief people: I don’t think I would need their help any more. I was disgusted with relief, so ashamed. I couldn’t face it any more.

Justin McCarthy quit college in 1933 and went to work in a Ford assembly plant near Chicago.

I sandpapered all the right-hand fenders. I was paid five dollars a day…. The gates were locked when you came in at eight o’clock in the morning. They weren’t opened again until five o’clock in the evening. People brought their own lunch. No commissary wagons were permitted on the grounds. Nobody bothered to tell me. So I didn’t eat that first day.

If you wanted to go to the toilet, you had to have permission of the foreman. He had to find a substitute for you on the assembly line who could sandpaper those two right fenders as they went by. If he couldn’t right away, you held it ( laughs ).

If you didn’t punch that clock at eight o’clock, if you came in at two minutes past eight, you were docked one hour’s pay. There wasn’t any excuse. If you did this two or three times, you got fired.

I made the mistake of telling the foreman I had enrolled at Northwestern University night school. He said, “Mr. Ford isn’t paying people to go to college. You’re through.”

General Robert E. Wood , who recently died, was a vice president of Sears Roebuck during the l930’s.

We had to lay off thousands of people. It was terrible. I used to go through the halls of the building and these little girls, they were all terrified. I remember one Italian girl I called in. She had a family of ten, father, mother, and eight children. She was the only one working. It was terrible. But we had to lay ‘em off. I could see how frightened to death they were.

Tom Sutton , a lawyer, heads Operation Crescent, an organization of white property owners.

I remember standing in my father’s office watching a march on City Hall. I was seven or eight. I remember his comment about red flags and revolution. He said, “The poor devils are just looking for bread.” They weren’t out to harm anyone. All they were marching for was food. I thought: Why were they looking for food? There were plenty of stores.

There was always talk in the house about the financial crisis. I remember listening to Father Coughlin about money-changers in the temple. I lived in a Protestant neighborhood. It seemed there were more Protestants listening to Father Coughlin than there were Catholics. My father listened to him. He was like everybody else: anybody that had a solution, they’d grab onto it.

He was a liberal and a Democrat and a strong supporter of Roosevelt. One of my favorite pastimes during the campaign was sitting across the front room watching him repeat after Roosevelt as Roosevelt talked. You know, telling off the other side. Since most of his brothersin-law were conservative Republicans, he enjoyed that particularly.

I went along with him. I can remember writing a term paper in high school: “The Need for a Planned Economy.” I take it out and read it once in a while, just to see how foolish youth can be.

Senator Russell Long talks about his father, Huey Long.

He was really catching on around the country. His plan was pretty well patterned after the old Populist philosophy. Money had gotten down to where a few people had practically all of it. He thought it was time you spread it among everybody. His share-the-wealth program was for one third of the nation’s money to be divided among all the people, even though you did permit the other two thirds to be captured by the upper one per cent. It had a lot of popular appeal.


His critics would say: in three or four years, the wealthy would have the money back in their coffers anyway. The Long people would answer: maybe so. But think what a good time we’d have in the meanwhile ( laughs ).

Harry Hartman works in the bailiff’s office in the Chicago County Building. He has been there for thirty-three years. His work deals with evictions, levies, and replevins (in which goods bought on credit are repossessed by the seller if the payments are not met).

We had ‘em [replevins] every single day. We used to come there with trucks and take the food off the table. The husband would come runnin’ out of the house. We’d have to put the food on the floor, take the tables and chairs out. If they were real bad, we’d make arrangements, you understand, to leave a few things there or something. So they could get by. But it was pretty rough there for a lot of people.


Once we went to a house and there were three children. The table seemed to be part of the furniture company’s inventory. That and the beds and some other things. The thing that struck us funny was that these people had almost the whole thing paid for when they went to the furniture company and bought something else. So instead of paying this and making a separate bill, the salesman said, “You take whatever you want and we’ll put it on the original bill.” They paid for that stuff, and then when they weren’t able—when the Depression struck—to pay for the new articles they bought, everything was repossessed.

Mick Shufro was assistant director of the Chicago Housing Authority in the late 1930’s.

A mother of nine children was receiving two quarts of milk. Because of a budgetary crisis, she was cut down to one quart. She raised hell at the relief station. She became vituperative. The caseworker wrote her up as a psychotic. And sent her to a psychiatrist. Fortunately, he responded as few did at the time. He said: “When this woman stops reacting the way she does, let me know. Then she would be abnormal. …”

Elsa Ponselle , a young teacher during the Depression, is now the principal of one of Chicago’s largest elementary schools.

At our school we had many Mexican children. When I get violent against big business, I think of those poor little kids. The Mexicans were imported to come up and work on the railroads, and when the work gave out, well, brother, can you spare a dime? They were thrust out, just like that. And they accepted it. I mean, this was the way the world was.

At times, when it was raining and snowing the middleclass children were all bundled up, or else kept at home. Our kids came to school every single day, whether they had anything to wear or not. ‘Cause it was warm, the classroom was warm….

Today the kids blithely make fifty dollars and off they go and spend it. As they very properly should. One time somebody said to me, “What these’kids need is to experience a depression.” Two of us, remembering the hard times, screamed at him, “Never! Not in a thousand years!” I don’t care how blithe they are in spending money. Nobody should experience a depression. No young person should….

Pauline Kael is now the film critic of The New Yorker magazine.

When I attended Berkeley in 1936, so many of the kids had actually lost their fathers. They had wandered off in disgrace because they couldn’t support their families. Other fathers had killed themselves so the family could have the insurance. Families had totally broken down. Each father took it as his personal failure. These middleclass men apparently had no social sense of what was going on, so they killed themselves.

It was still the Depression. There were kids who didn’t have a place to sleep, huddling under bridges on the campus. I had a scholarship, but there were times when I didn’t have food. The meals were often three candy bars. We lived communally and I remember feeding other kids by cooking up more spaghetti than I can ever consider again….

Robert Havighurst is a professor at the Graduate School of Education, University of Chicago.

The S.D.S.-type of student was rather visible on the campus during the thirties. As I see it, I think they had more to object to than today’s young dissenters. They emerged from the social soil of the Depression. They came from families where the father had no job, though desperately seeking one. No one living in that decade could avoid the feeling that something was terribly wrong with society….

Clyde T. Ellis was in the Arkansas state senate from 1934 to 1938. He later was elected to Congress.

The Dirty Thirties—the phrase was coined where we had the dust storms. My people came from Arkansas, where the years of drought coincided with the hard years of the Depression. Even the one good year was no good. Everything dried … the springs, the wells, the ponds, the creeks, the rivers.

We saw bank failures everywhere. In my county, all but three failed. The president of the bank where my people had their little savings didn’t wait to be indicted. He committed suicide. The worst thing we lost was hope. A man can endure a lot if he still has hope.

Mountain people are more rigorous than others. We lived a harder life. We had to grow or make most of the things we needed. The country never did lend itself to mechanization … still doesn’t. Rock. We had relatives who just gave up. Broke up homes, scattered to different states. From down in my county, many would go to what we called DEtroit. Then they started to go to California, any way they could. Thumbing rides … I thumbed rides when I was peddling Bibles. It was during a summer, while still in high school. The Grapes of Wrath was no exaggeration. We saw it, we lived it. The Joad family had an automobile. We never could afford one. Had we been able to, I’m sure my family would have done the same—gone to California. And we were better off than most….

Ruth Loriks lives on a farm in Arlington, South Dakota. Her husband, Emil, was a state senator from 1927 to 1934

This neighbor woman lost her husband and, of course, he was owing in the bank. So the auctioneers come out there, and she served lunch, and she stood weeping in the windows. “There goes our last cow. …” And the horses. She called ‘em by names. It just pretty near broke our hearts. They didn’t give her a chance to take care of her bills. They never gave her an offer. They just came out and cleared it out. She just stood there crying….

Oscar Heline , seventy-eight years old, has lived on the same Iowa farm all his life.

What I remember most of those times is that poverty creates desperation and desperation creates violence. In Plymouth County—Le Mars—just west of us, a group met one morning and decided they were going to stop the judge from issuing any more deficiency judgments. This judge had a habit of very quickly okaying foreclosure sales. These farmers couldn’t stand it any more. They’d see their neighbors sold out.

There were a few judges who would refuse to take the cases. They’d postpone it or turn it over to somebody else. But this one was pretty gruff and arrogant: you do this, you do that, it’s my court. When a bunch of farmers are going broke every day and the judge sits there very proudly and says: this is my court … they say: who the hell are you? He was just a fellow human being, same as they were.

These farmers gathered this one particular day. I suppose some of ‘em decided to have a little drink, and so they developed a little courage. They decided: we’ll go down and teach that judge a lesson. They marched into the courtroom, hats on, demanded to visit with him. He decided he would teach them a lesson. So he says: “Gentlemen, this is my court. Remove your hats and address the court properly.”

They just laughed at him. They said, “We’re not concerned whose court this is. We came here to get redress from your actions. The things you’re doing, we can’t stand to have done to us any more.” The argument kept on, and got rougher. He wouldn’t listen. He threatened them. So they drug him from his chair, pulled him down the steps of the courthouse, and shook a rope in front of his face. Then, tarred and feathered him.

The governor called out the National Guard. And put these farmers behind barbed wire. Just imagine ( he weeps ) … in this state. You don’t forget these things.

Emil Loriks

There’s a saying: Depressions are farm led and farm fed. That was true in the thirties. As farmers lost their purchasing power, the big tractors piled up at the Minneapolis-Moline plant in the Twin Cities. One day they closed their doors and turned their employees out to beg or starve. My cousin was one of them. I took my truck to Minneapolis and brought him and his family out to my farm for the duration. They stayed with us until the company opened up again, two or three years later.

During my first session in the state senate, in 1927, five hundred farmers came marching up Capitol Hill. It thrilled me. I didn’t know farmers were intelligent enough to organize ( laughs ). They stayed there for two days. It was a strength I didn’t realize we had.

The day after they left, a senator got up and attacked them as anarchists and bolsheviks ( laughs ). They had a banner, he said, redder than anything in Moscow, Russia/What was this banner? It was a piece of muslin, hung up in the auditorium. It said: “We Buy Together, We Sell Together, We Vote Together.” This was the radical danger ( laughs ). They’d been building co-operatives, which the farmers badly needed.

Horace Cayton , a Negro, is a sociologist and writer.

What was the black people ‘s attitude toward Roosevelt?

Oh yeah, that was something. He broke the tradition. My father told me: “The Republicans are the ship. All else is the sea.” Frederick Douglass said that. They didn’t go for Roosevelt much in ’32. But the W.P.A. came along and Roosevelt came to be a god. It was really great. You worked, you got a paycheck, and you had some dignity. Even when a man raked leaves, he got paid, he had some dignity. All the songs they used to have about W.P.A.: Oh, I’m for you, Mr. President / I’m for you all the way / You can take away the alphabet / But don’t take away this W.P.A.

When they got on W.P.A., you know what they’d mostly do. First, they’d buy some clothes. And tried to get a little better place to live. The third thing was to get your teeth fixed. When you’re poor, you let your teeth go. Especially the child. If she’s got a rotten or snaggle tooth and that tooth may ache, dulled by aspirin or something or whisky. Then they’d pull them out. They’d get their teeth fixed. W.P.A….

Ed Paulsen did odd jobs in the igso’s. Now he has an administrative job with UNICEF.

The N.Y.A. [National Youth Administration] was my salvation. I could just as easily have been in Sing Sing as with the U.N. Every bit as good a chance. Hell, yes. Everybody was a criminal. You stole, you cheated through. You were getting by, survival. Stole clothes off lines, stole milk off back porches, you stole bread. I remember going through Tucumcari, New Mexico, on a freight. We made a brief stop. There was a grocery store, a supermarket kind ofthing for those days. I beat it off the train and came back with rolls and crackers. This guy is standing in the window shaking his fist at you.

It wasn’t a big thing, but it created a coyote mentality. You were a predator. You had to be. We were coyotes in the thirties, the jobless.

No, I don’t see the Depression as an ennobling experience.

Daisy Singer is a photographer who grew up in New York.

We lived on Park Avenue before the Depression, like in eleven or fourteen rooms. One of those big apartments which are essentially very dreary. But they’re what people hoped to achieve. After the crash, we moved to Central Park West, which wasn’t such a terrible comedown. Except my grandparents moved in with us:.keep up appearances and double in brass.

I remember vaguely family conferences, which took place behind closed doors. Like loans negotiated and things like that. The front would have to be maintained because I’ve learned that in business if people smell failure in you, you’ve had it. …

I always had governesses. I remember going to the park with the one I really liked. There was a shantytown. Like a Hooverville. It was for me the palpable memory of the other side of the tracks. Ever since, when I encounter poverty, it is this memory … holding the hand of one’s governess. For years, I felt exempt. I grew up feeling immune and exempt from circumstance. One of the things I suffered from was that I never felt adversity. I was confirmed in a sense of unreality. I never saw a real bread line. I saw it in the movies.

We never went far a field. Once, I remember, my brother was robbed. He was twelve, so that was about three years after the crash. The outside world was so far from us, one didn’t expect to encounter it. The doors were shut, as if there were some kind of contagion out there. I guess it was innocence, but I don’t think of it as anything pretty at all….

Virginia Durr is a member of an old Alabama family. Her husband was with the Federal Communications Commission during F.D.R.’s administration.

Oh, no, the Depression was not a romantic time. It was a time of terrible suffering. The contradictions were so obvious that it didn’t take a very bright person to realize something was terribly wrong.

Have you ever seen a child with rickets? Shaking as with palsy. No proteins, no milk. And the companies pouring milk into gutters. People with nothing to wear and they were plowing up cotton. People with nothing to eat and they killed the pigs. If that wasn’t the craziest system in the world, could you imagine anything more idiotic? This was just insane.

And people blamed themselves, not the system. They felt they had been at fault: “If we hadn’t bought that old radio”… “if we hadn’t bought that old secondhand car.” Among the things that horrified me were the preachers—the fundamentalists. They would tell the people they suffered because of their sins. And the people believed it. God was punishing them. Their children were starving because of their sins….

Tom , twenty-one, is the son of a very successful businessman. He is now in Canada, in defiance of his 1-A draft status.

My father talks about the Depression didactically. He tries to draw little lessons from it. He has an anecdote every time the subject comes up. It’s sort of a heroic past for him. It makes him an extremist: you have one analysis you can fit everything into. He has an extremist definition of what the goal of a nation should be … what a guy should be preparing for at school. Since most people feel this way, it’s not called extreme. But it is. …

My father is slick. He tries to say something we will dig. The other night we played Billie Holiday, and he started naming some of her other songs. You see, he’s really saying, “I am one of you.” He uses the same sort of mechanism at work.

He’s become a king in welfare capitalism, because he knows how to work with labor. He’s always said that unions are the greatest. I’m sure he was a real slick worker when they were changing their roles from real unions to company-minded unions. Which they are today. He learned all this in the Depression. It was his war.

Peggy Terry , again

… It’s different today. People are made to feel ashamed now if they don’t have anything. Back then, I’m not sure how the rich felt. I think the rich were as contemptuous of the poor then as they are now. But among the people that I knew, we all had an understanding that it wasn’t our fault. It was something that had happened to the machinery. Most people blamed Hoover, and they cussed him up one side and down the other … it was all his fault. I’m not saying he’s blameless, but I’m not saying either it was all his fault. Our system doesn’t run by just one man and it doesn’t fall by just one man, either.

When I read Grapes of Wrath , that was like reliving my life. Particularly the part where they lived in this government camp. Because when we were picking fruit in Texas, we lived in a government place like that. They came around and they helped the women make mattresses. See, we didn’t have anything. And they showed us how to sew and make dresses. And every Saturday night, we’d have a dance. And when I was reading Grapes of Wrath , this was just like my life. I was never so proud of poor people before, as I was after I read that book.

Jack , twenty years old

A Depression might be interesting today. It could really be something. To be on the bum, and have nobody say: “Look, I’ll give you ten thousand dollars if you’d just come back and go to school.” We have a choice today. What would it be like if we had no choice?


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