Down and Out in the Great Depression: Letters from the "Forgotten Man"

By Robert S. McElvaine | Go to book overview

Preface

What follows is not, despite the volume's title, the story of a singular "forgotten man." There was too much diversity among the down and out of the Depression for such a term to be accurate. Rather, it is a collection of portions of the stories of 173 forgotten men, women, and children of the 1930s. It is an attempt to let these people speak for themselves. They have been forgotten for so long not because they were silent but because their stories were not valued as they should have been.

The book is based on the belief that the social history of a people in a given historical period must begin with the testimony of the people themselves. "If you want Negro history," a former slave once told a Fisk University interviewer, "you will have to get [it] from somebody who wore the shoe, and by and by from one to the other you will get a book."1 This is a wise method. What follows is an effort to employ it in the case of victims of the Great Depression.

The "nameless masses" of the thirties are treated herein as individuals. The initials of those who signed their letters are given to show that the writers were genuine historical actors, not merely props in a play directed entirely from above them. The letters are reproduced exactly as they were written, not for the amusement of readers, but in order to give an accurate impression of the writers and the full flavor of their stories. No ridicule is intended.

The letters contained in the book were selected from the following manuscript collections: the President's Emergency Committee on Employment Central Files, the President's Organization for Unemployment Relief General Correspondence, the Federal Emergency Relief Administration Central Files, and the Civil Works Administration Administrative Correspondence Files, all in the National Archives, Washington, D. C., the Eleanor Roosevelt Papers in the Franklin D. Roosevelt Library, Hyde Park, N.Y., the Robert F. Wagner Papers in the Georgetown University Library, Washington, D.C., and the Norman Thomas Papers in the New York Public Library.

Included with the letters reproduced in the book is a small selection of the photographic art of the 1930s. This rich source has only recently begun to receive its due consideration by historians. The photographs can provide an

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