Hard Times Remembered

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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?