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.
For this twenty-fifth anniversary edition, McElvaine provides a new
foreword recounting the history of the book, its impact on the
historiography of the Depression, and its continued importance