Hard Times: An Oral History of the Great Depression

About a year and a half ago, I read Studs Terkel’s Working, which was an “oral history” of occupations in the mid-1970s. I reviewed it in this post, and if you read that, you’ll get a sense of how I came to know Terkel’s work. Working is kind of a snapshot of a time as opposed to the oral history of an event. Hard Times, on the other hand, is a true oral history, one of two that Terkel is known for (the other being The Good War, which looks at World War II).

Whereas my public library had Working, I had to buy a copy of Hard Times, so this falls under the “stay on the bookshelf and/or go” investigation. My library had The Good War and I could have easily read that without having to make this decision, but Hard Times appealed to me because it was the history of The Great Depression, the period of time that immediately preceded the war. There’s already been quite a bit filmed and written about the Depression, but aside from the occasional documentary or fictional portrayal, I didn’t know much about it. In fact, I’d say that most of my knowledge of the Depression was the type of stuff that has been mythologized. Furthermore, I’ve watched that “mythology” be turned and twisted over the last couple of decades to fit the political opinions of pundits.

Politics aside, I thought it was important to know more than just what I’d gleaned through glimpses. Clocking in at 462 pages, Hard Times is another dense tome (and in small type) that tries to be as comprehensive as possible when covering its time period. Unsurprisingly Terkel succeeds.

Like I said, my impressions of The Great Depression come from junior high history and photographs that appeared in Life Magazine back in the day. I know of the Crash, Hoovervilles, FDR, the New Deal, and World War II’s role in ending it, but those are more of a list than they are knowledge. Terkel interviews anyone and everyone he can find who have myriad experiences. There certainly are people who lost their jobs and were destitute, but there are also people who made money or weren’t affected at all by the crash. There are people who credit FDR with getting the country off its back and saving it from a dire fate while others deride the New Deal. You also have not just white voices but Black and brown ones as well, which helps give us an idea of life during the 1930s when Jim Crow was in full force.

It is a hyper-local and intimate look at history in a way that you don’t often get in a textbook, which is why I found it so valuable, especially considering that the voices you’re reading on the page are authentic. Plus, since Terkel wrote this in the late 1960s, a number of the people he interviewed were still young enough to have a very coherent perspective. You literally couldn’t write this book today because most of the people whom Terkel interviewed have passed on; in fact, we are so far removed from that time period that any documentary would have way more historians in the talking heads than people who were actually there.

I guess the downside to it is the book’s density. This took me months to finish. However, aside from the march of history (which you go in having an idea of), there’s no narrative running through Hard Times. You can even read it as episodic, taking each of the chapters that covers a different topic/type of person as a “part”. That seemed to break up the monotony and make it easier to get through.

Hard Times is still in print (I think I got mine off Amazon) and I’m glad I read it. I’m not sure when I’ll read it again, but I am going to keep it around.

Keep, Sell, Donate, or Trash?

Keep.

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