It's difficult today to imagine how America survived the Great Depression. Only through the stories of the common people who struggled during that era can we really understand how the nation endured. These are the people at the heart of Amity Shlaes's insightful and inspiring history of one of the most crucial events of the twentieth century.Read more...
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It's difficult today to imagine how America survived the Great Depression. Only through the stories of the common people who struggled during that era can we really understand how the nation endured. These are the people at the heart of Amity Shlaes's insightful and inspiring history of one of the most crucial events of the twentieth century.
In The Forgotten Man, Amity Shlaes, one of the nation's most respected economic commentators, offers a striking reinterpretation of the Great Depression. Rejecting the old emphasis on the New Deal, she turns to the neglected and moving stories of individual Americans, and shows how through brave leadership they helped establish the steadfast character we developed as a nation. Some of those figures were well known, at least in their day Andrew Mellon, the Greenspan of the era; Sam Insull of Chicago, hounded as a scapegoat. But there were also unknowns: the Schechters, a family of butchers in Brooklyn who dealt a stunning blow to the New Deal; Bill W., who founded Alcoholics Anonymous in the name of showing that small communities could help themselves; and Father Divine, a black charismatic who steered his thousands of followers through the Depression by preaching a Gospel of Plenty.
Shlaes also traces the mounting agony of the New Dealers themselves as they discovered their errors. She shows how both Presidents Hoover and Roosevelt failed to understand the prosperity of the 1920s and heaped massive burdens on the country that more than offset the benefit of New Deal programs. The real question about the Depression, she argues, is not whether Roosevelt ended it with World War II. It is why the Depression lasted so long. From 1929 to 1940, federal intervention helped to make the Depression great in part by forgetting the men and women who sought to help one another.
Authoritative, original, and utterly engrossing, The Forgotten Man offers an entirely new look at one of the most important periods in our history. Only when we know this history can we understand the strength of American character today."
Publishers Weekly® Reviews
- Reviewed in: Publishers Weekly, page 52.
- Review Date: 2007-04-02
- Reviewer: Staff
This breezy narrative comes from the pen of a veteran journalist and economics reporter. Rather than telling a new story, she tells an old one (scarcely lacking for historians) in a fresh way. Shlaes brings to the tale an emphasis on economic realities and consequences, especially when seen from the perspective of monetarist theory, and a focus on particular individuals and events, both celebrated and forgotten (at least relatively so). Thus the spotlight plays not only on Andrew Mellon, Wendell Wilkie and Rexford Tugwell but also on Father Divine and the Schechter brothers—kosher butcher wholesalers prosecuted by the federal National Recovery Administration for selling "sick chickens." As befits a former writer for the Wall Street Journal, Shlaes is sensitive to the dangers of government intervention in the economy—but also to the danger of the government's not intervening. In her telling, policymakers of the 1920s weren't so incompetent as they're often made out to be—everyone in the 1930s was floundering and all made errors—and WWII, not the New Deal, ended the Depression. This is plausible history, if not authoritative, novel or deeply analytical. It's also a thoughtful, even-tempered corrective to too often unbalanced celebrations of FDR and his administration's pathbreaking policies. 16 pages of b&w photos. (June 12)
Reassessing the costs of FDR's New Deal policies
The children raised during the 1930s are facing the end of life. Among them, you'll find many who revere the name of Franklin D. Roosevelt. The New Deal brought a Social Security check to the house. A government agency employed a dad to cut grass. But come now the grandchildren of that generation. A gentleman would not ask a lady her age, but I suspect that Amity Shlaes, a financial journalist and the author of The Greedy Hand, grew up during the years when FDR's statist liberalism was roundly discredited by critics from William Buckley Jr. to Ronald Reagan. In her latest book, The Forgotten Man: A New History of the Great Depression, she pronounces the New Deal an economic failure, which it largely was, and a cultural calamity. More on that last below.
The reader will require some facility with math to follow the author's arguments about measures of misery. But the gross proofs, with which she prefaces each chapter, undercut any claim that the Roosevelt Administration beat the crisis of unemployment. Only preparation for war did that.
Shlaes faults one bad decision after another of the New Deal planners. Their greatest mistake, she insists, was to undercut the powerful economic engine that had built the wealth of the 1920s. Playing a significant role were the entrepreneurs who took advantage of open markets, like Samuel Insull and Wendell Wilkie. These two, according to Shlaes, had in their capability the most bountiful industry of all, electrical power generation and distribution. Another hero of this book is Andrew Mellon, whose wealth he turned back to establish a research center for innovation in business and a national art gallery for the United States.
Roosevelt's New Deal sought to punish financiers for the Crash, and so looked with favor on the prosecution of Insull for shareholders' losses. Wilkie and his privately held Commonwealth and Southern Corp. were driven out of business by the taxpayer-funded TVA; Mellon constantly had his income audited by the federal government.
And there is the "forgotten man" of the title, which is verbally ironic. This does not refer to the victim of hard times, but the "unwitting average citizens" whom the New Deal "coerced into funding dubious social projects." Here, Shlaes profiles the comical but determined Schecters, poultry middlemen of Brooklyn, who just wanted to sell their chickens to whomever would buyuntil an NRA Codes enforcer intervened. They suedand the humble bird brought down the Blue Eagle, when the Supreme Court declared the National Recovery Act with its police powers unconstitutional.
According to Shlaes, Roosevelt redeemed his failed policies by putting together a coalition of interest groups which certain New Deal actions did indeed reward: farmers, organized labor, black Americans. Although the author does not say so, she clearly invites us to consider the New Deal as the forerunner of today's America, split along lines of race, gender and class.
A short review hardly does justice to a book of this complexity and depth. None will read this book for the felicity of its prose style. But everyone who thinks and studies and writes about these traumatic yearswhat some have called another American revolutionwill have to take The Forgotten Man into account.
James Summerville writes from Dickson, Tennessee.