And A Time For Hope

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James R. McGovern. And A Time For Hope: Americans in the Great Depression. Westport, Connecticut: Praeger Publishers. 2000. pp.354. $125.00.Hardcover: ISBN 0275967867


Summary

In And A Time For Hope, James R. McGovern examines the reactions of those Americans most adversely affected by the economic catastrophes of the Great Depression. He begins by briefly discussing the events in President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s life which helped define both his private and public personalities as well as his presidency, but does not focus on the political history of the Great Depression. McGovern stated, “Roosevelt’s caring leadership and New Deal programs...do not explain adequately the remarkable stability of American society or the confidence manifested by Americans in the 1930’s.” (x) This is instead a social history which encompasses the experiences of Americans from various regions, social, racial and ethnic groups and how their strengths sustained them during the Depression years.

During the Great Depression, Americans sustained confidence in government because they had confidence in their leader, Franklin Delano Roosevelt. FDR embodied three attributes which were important to Americans living in a fundamentally religious society - faith, family and community. The American public believed that FDR understood their plight and many people felt like he was actually sitting in their homes when he talked to them over the radio during his Fireside Chats. Letters from faithful listeners of his Fireside Chats received at both Hyde Park and the White House confirmed this. (22) FDR’s “words as well as deeds lifted public confidence”. (ix) Americans not only exhibited confidence in FDR, but also in themselves and the ability of their country to endure the hardships of the Great Depression.

McGovern also discussed changes in popular culture during this time period both as a means of entertainment and also survival. Movies and novels depicted life before and during the Great Depression while radio provided a homey touch. The popular culture of movies had the potential to be truthful about the experiences of Depression era Americans but chose instead to cultivate “Hollywood’s special aptitude to render drama as reality”. (106) Radio, as exhibited by FDR’s Fireside Chats, was a powerful influence and utilized many of its programs to relay the importance of family values to its listening public.

McGovern examined various groups of people and discussed their collective strengths which helped each group endure the hardships of the Depression. Among the groups of people he discussed were farmers, migrant workers, African Americans, union organizers and members, immigrants both first and second generation, and groups of people living in rural and urban areas. For most of these groups of people the “three major institutions that shaped character were family, church and community.” (102) These were the same qualities which drew American’s to faith and trust in their president.


Commentary

Bonnie Clark, Fall 2008

James R. McGovern takes a new and innovative look at the Great Depression, not from the standpoint of political history, but that of social history. He focuses on the American people and their responses to the Great Depression providing a new interpretation of this era of American history. McGovern’s new interpretation of the Great Depression comes from the bottom up rather than from the top down.

America experienced the economic catastrophes of the Great Depression, yet sustained its democratic principles and ideologies. In contrast, some other western countries who endured lesser degrees of economic problems during this time period were unable to maintain their democratic ideals and reverted back to authoritarian systems of government. (ix) According to McGovern, America alone “achieved reform without revolution” during this troubled time.” (ix) While his brief explanation was acceptable, more detail regarding the effects of the Great Depression outside of the United States and the various ways in which other countries reacted would have been helpful.

A major theme of McGovern’s interpretation is hope. Hope for a brighter, better future for themselves and their families. Hope for the prosperity of the nation. During the 1930’s despite the effects of the Great Depression, American’s sought and found hope for the future in the themes of the two World’s Fairs which occurred during this decade, “Chicago’s Century of Progress Exhibition (1933-1934) and New York’s World of Tomorrow (1939-1940).” (141) The exhibits of these World Fairs included new inventions which if mass produced could ultimately provide jobs for the unemployed, thereby giving them hope for a brighter future.

McGovern covers the decade between 1929 and 1940 throughout the course of his book. It is difficult to follow a time line however, because the book is divided by topics instead of years. In addition, while I found his discussion of the World’s Fairs intriguing and relevant to his major theme, he only devoted two pages to the Chicago World’s Fair (141 & 166) and provided a more detailed discussion of the later New York World’s Fair (141-2 & 166-170). Since both World’s Fairs symbolized hope for the future, a more even discussion of each would have been helpful. --Blclark 02:25, 26 August 2008 (UTC)

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