Northern Illinois University Press

In the Eye of the Great Depression

New Deal Reporters and the Agony of the American People

John F. Bauman and Thomas H. Coode

In late 1933 and early 1934, Harry Hopkins, director of the infant Federal Emergency Relief Administration (FERA), dispatched an elite corps of journalists and authors, including Bruce McClure and Lorena Hickok, to obtain a grass-roots portrait of Depression-wracked America. His marching orders to Hickok were "to go out around the country and look this thing over.... Tell me what you see and hear.... All of it."

She and her compatriots spent two years in different regions of the country, talking with preachers, teachers, civic leaders, businessmen, and "the small fry John Citizen," monitoring the mood of a nation battered by natural and economic disaster. They found the downside of the American dream: flophouses overflowing with tenants who once had been sturdy middle-class citizens, aid administration offices awash in incompetence and corruption, and, beneath it all, a permanent underclass of the illiterate, the mentally ill, and the aged. Untrained in sociology or economics, the reporters described their impressions in passionate and graphic terms that helped move the Roosevelt administration to implement the work programs of the New Deal.

Bauman and Coode reveal another dark side of 1930s America, one that is evident in the words of the writers themselves: racial and class prejudice. Comfortably middle-class, mostly from traditional East Coast backgrounds, Hopkins's reporters reflected prevalent beliefs concerning the "deserving" and "undeserving" poor—beliefs that would influence the scope of such New Deal ventures as the 1935 Social Security Law. Author Marth Gellhorn, repulsed by the pattern of inbreeding and degeneration she observed among the "white trash" families of South Carolina, suggested a two-pronged aid program of education and eugenics.

In the Eye of the Great Depression objectively portrays a period of American history that is too often romanticized as a time when a combination of inspired leadership and pioneer resilience pulled the nation through a great test of its mettle.

(1988) 240 pp., 23 photos
ISBN: 978-0-87580-541-2
paper $14.00

Table of Contents

1. The Dimensions of the Depression and the Quest for Data
2. The Reporters and the Reports
3. City Streets and Slouching Men
4. Beleaguered Households
5. Of Mill Towns, Mine Patches, and Stranded People
6. Stricken Hamlets
7. The South
8. Trouble in America's Eden
9. Conclusion

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ISBN: 978-0-87580-541-2
paper $14.00