Franklin D. Roosevelt was inaugurated as president on March 4, 1933, almost four years after the stock market crash of 1929 sent [End Page 530] the nation’s economy spiraling into the Great Depression. By the time FDR took office, about one quarter of the nation’s workers were unemployed. With the overwhelming cooperation of Congress, FDR pushed through legislation that began the New Deal, but those early programs barely made a dent in unemployment. For that, FDR turned to Harry Hopkins, putting the tough-minded social worker in charge of the Federal Emergency Relief Administration (FERA). Hopkins hired journalist Lorena Hickok to tour the nation and write reports for him. From those reports, and from Hickok’s letters to her dear friend Eleanor Roosevelt, Michael Golay has crafted a highly readable book.
Hopkins told Hickok, “I don’t want the social worker angle. I just want your own reaction, as an ordinary citizen . . . . Tell me what you see and hear. All of it” (p. 39). From January 1933 through August 1934, Hickok traveled the nation. A tough, hard-drinking, heavy-smoking reporter, she was shocked by what she saw: emaciated children, jobless men, families facing the winter without coats, farmers on strike, people talking union and people talking revolution. Some people would regain employment if the economy improved, but others were “stranded,” their former jobs rendered redundant by new technologies. Hickok found complacent elites who opposed the New Deal because it would upset the local labor, racial, and social arrangements that insured their high status. Church groups valiantly tried to feed the hungry but charity was not enough in a time of mass unemployment.
In late summer 1933, Hickok toured Kentucky’s coal country. A relief supervisor in Pineville told her that the state had not distributed relief funds in three weeks. Golay writes, “Kentucky’s relief funds were exhausted,” and “the state couldn’t find a way to meet FERA’s matching grant requirements” (p. 83). Given that everyone was armed, Hickok wondered why the men of Bell and Harlan did not “go down and raid the Blue Grass country” (p. 87). She decided that they were too enfeebled by hunger to even protest. She used conditions in Kentucky to illustrate for Hopkins what happened [End Page 531] when FERA cut off funds in a place where 62 percent of the people were on relief.
Drawing heavily from Hickok’s vivid writing, Golay enables us, like Hopkins and FDR, to see into conditions throughout the nation in 1933. Through Hickok, it is easy to understand why the New Deal developed the way it did, turning to massive work-relief programs in 1934 and 1935. This is the public story told in America 1933, and Golay tells it well, although the episodic nature of Hickok’s reports gives us snapshots rather than depth or analysis. But there is another story here, a private one. Hickok got the FERA job because she was Mrs. Roosevelt’s friend, so close a friend that Eleanor gave her a room in the White House. Their relationship is essential background for the public story, but Golay never quite gets to the heart of the matter: were they just friends or lovers? Terming their correspondence “warm, intimate and inconclusive,” Golay notes that “some historians suggest one thing, others another” (p. 22). Hickok lived in the White House for the rest of FDR’s multiple terms of office and moved to the Roosevelt estate after the war. Eleanor continued to get Hickok jobs, encouraged her writing, and occasionally gave her money. As Golay notes, the passionate nature of the relationship faded away by the mid-1930s, but the friendship never ended.
JEANETTE KEITH is a professor of history at Bloomsburg University of Pennsylvania. Her most recent book, Fever Season: The Story of a Terrifying Epidemic and the People Who Saved a City (2012), is a popular history of the 1878 yellow fever epidemic in Memphis.