- The New Deal and the Great Depression ed. by Aaron D. Purcell
The New Deal and the Great Depression sets forth an ambitious agenda: to recap the voluminous historical literature about the 1930s in thematically organized, accessible chapters. This era has often been explored by historians—not to mention by filmmakers, photographers, musicians, and novelists—and seems to resonate in current political and economic debates. Far from past, the New Deal and the Great Depression are with us still, perhaps more now than ever before.
The currency of the Great Depression and New Deal are among the reasons that this is such a welcome, and in many regards quite unusual, volume. Aaron D. Purcell introduces the book with a question one of his [End Page 474] students posed: “So what was the New Deal, and why should we care?” (p. 1). Fewer and fewer Americans count these years among their lived experience, and thus historical works now provide what personal anecdotes cannot. But how are we to understand the wide variety of views articulated by historians? With refreshing candor, Purcell explains that historians’ views of the period are altered by the events of the era in which they wrote. Additionally, many of the historians contributing chapters to the book are young scholars who bring both deep historiographical knowledge and fresh perspectives to their work.
The book’s chapters are organized thematically: politics, agriculture, the environment, the economy, social programs, art, African Americans, organized labor, overseas intervention, and memory. Those chapters are organized more broadly into three parts. The second part, “The Fringes of the New Deal,” which includes chapters on African Americans and organized labor, will be problematic for some readers. However much African Americans were marginalized by the local implementation of some New Deal programs, I cannot see why replicating their marginalization in the nomenclature of the book’s structure makes sense. As the chapter’s author, Gloria-Yvonne Williams, puts it: “The New Deal marked a pivotal moment in the African American struggle for equality and justice” (p. 131). This does not sound like the “fringe” of the New Deal to me. Moreover, many other people of color—Native Americans in particular—had their lives and communities transformed, indeed revolutionized, by some programs of the New Deal. The absence of these experiences, as well as any extended discussion of race politics within the other chapters, is a very significant oversight. Likewise, the lack of a chapter or even a major section of a chapter devoted to women, family, sexuality, or gender theory is difficult to understand.
The chapters themselves, as is common in an edited volume, vary in their sophistication and presentation. The best chapters show how really good historiography is done. In fewer than twenty pages, for example, Todd Holmes wrestles with some of the most complex (and not always the most scintillating) New Deal historiography: that which reviews and assesses President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s programs for agriculture. Holmes begins his chapter with writers and sociologists from the era, both those who supported and those who critiqued New Deal programs. He then connects the “long-lasting historical paradigms” created by those scholars to the historical works that followed, and discusses their implications for politics and policy (p. 53). Holmes also makes a surprising connection between the literature of agricultural policy and the emerging literature of food studies. Other chapters do not integrate themes as well, define topics in more limited ways, or are organized by devoting one paragraph to one book over and over again. The chapter on “The Environment and the New Deal” by Douglas Sheflin stands out from the rest because the environmental history of the New Deal is a relatively new field, giving Sheflin space to delve quite deeply into the key works in the field, like Donald Worster’s now classic Dust Bowl: The Southern Plains in the 1930s (New York, 1979). On balance, this volume of essays creates a welcome contribution for students...