- Historic Sites
The Thirties And Teddy
A fine documentary on the Great Depression, an admirable accompanying book—and a truly wretched biography
November 1993 | Volume 44, Issue 7
It has been six years since Henry Hampton’s extra-ordinary six-part documentary series Eyes on the Prize first ran on public television and reminded us, as nothing ever had before, of the role that ordinary citizens—black and white, but mostly black—played in the civil rights struggle of the 1960s.
In The Great Depression , the seven-part series currently being aired on PBS, Hampton’s organization Blackside, Inc., has now done the same for the struggle for democracy in the 1930s. “Somehow, in the hardest of hard times,” says the narrator in the first program, nicely summarizing the whole series, “with America slipping away, our parents and grandparents found it within themselves to fight their way out... . They may have done an imperfect job, but by the time the Great Depression was over, they had done better than simply save America, they had made a new America.”
The new series does not have quite the immediacy of its predecessor, simply because so many of the men and women the producers would like to have interviewed are gone. But even when they have had to settle for their protagonists’ children, old memories retain their sting: an interview with the son of the bank robber Pretty Boy Floyd intercut with one with the son of a lawman Floyd shot down, for example, and perhaps most chillingly memorable, the eerily unrepentant son of Tom Girdler, the Republic Steel magnate whose mindless intransigence helped bring about the deaths of ten unarmed strikers and the wounding of many more in what came to be called the Memorial Day Massacre in South Chicago in 1937.
This is a rich portrait of a tumultuous era, and it manages to cover an enormous amount of ground—from the failures of the Hoover administration through the limited successes of the New Deal to the coming of the war that finally ended the Depression—without overlooking any section of the country or straying far from the lives of the ordinary citizens most affected by it all.
In the second program the White House butler Alonzo Fields recalls a meeting of Herbert Hoover’s cabinet in early 1932 at which the subject of Gov. Franklin Roosevelt’s potential presidential candidacy came up; it was generally agreed that FDR could never be elected President once the people discovered that he was “only a half-man.”
That half-man remains mostly in the background, important only as he and his administration touch upon the local struggles the producers have chosen to chronicle; thus, for example, he remains a hero to those who recall his support for their struggle to organize Northern industry, but he badly let down the mostly black members of the Southern Tenant Farmers’ Union, who asked only to be allowed their fair share of the money bestowed upon Arkansas farmers by the Agricultural Adjustment Act.
Again, it is the most intensely personal stories that stay with the viewer longest. I was especially struck by a Detroit woman’s memories of the Depression’s corrosive impact on her childhood. Her father had lost his job at Ford, she explains, and her mother supported the family by baking bread and selling it door to door: “One of the worst things about that era for me was listening to my parents’ arguments. After we got in bed, they would begin to argue—argue constantly about money, argue about sex. … [Dad] was home all day doing nothing. He was full of energy when he went to bed at night, but Mother was exhausted from the baking and caring for her eight children. So I would lie there quivering all over and I’d put the pillow over my head and just pray that they would stop.”
Blackside prides itself on the collective spirit of its decision making, so I want to be sure to include here the names of the producers who made these seven hours: Jon Else, Terry Kay Rockefeller, Dante James (responsible for the third and fifth shows), Lynn Goldfarb, Stephen Sept, and Susan Bellows.
T. H. Watkins, now the editor of Wilderness magazine but also the biographer of Harold Ickes and a former editor with this magazine, has written a vivid, handsomely illustrated companion volume to the series, The Great Depression: America in the 1930’s (Little, Brown), which is well worth having even if you don’t own a television set.
Joe McGinniss’s The Last Brother: The Rise and Fall of Teddy Kennedy (Simon & Schuster) is emphatically not worth having. The noisy argument over whether its author’s startlingly faithful adherence to the ordering of facts carefully gathered by other, and better, writers actually constitutes plagiarism has, I’m afraid, obscured just what a very odd, very bad book he has written.
McGinniss himself doesn’t seem sure just what it is: when pressed on the “Today” program, he insisted his book “ is a biography … is nonfiction,” but in the understandably defensive author’s note hastily bound into each copy of the book after prepublication news stories threatened to damage sales, he calls it a “rumination.”