Main Street in Crisis: The Great Depression and the Old Middle Class on the Northern Plains

By Catherine McNicol Stock | Go to book overview

4
CRISIS The New Deal and the New Middle Class

Grace Martin Highley was a welfare inspector for the town of Edgemont, South Dakota, throughout the 1930s. There, she saw the hardships that Dust Bowl conditions could bring to a community and its people. Unlike others who recalled it later, however, Highley saw the depression as much more than an economic or environmental disaster. The real crisis of the Great Depression was not in people's wallets, she felt, but in their souls. Describing why many "independent people" accepted relief after desperately trying not to, she said, "I think men face up to reality and do what they can to survive. . . . And I think that people compromise. I think [they] attach to something that comes somewhere near ideal, but in reality [they] reach out and take what [they] can if [they] need it."1 Even so, the decade had been "a struggle. It was an ideological struggle" against dependence.2 In short, Highley recognized what only a few professional historians have seen as clearly in nearly fifty years of scholarship on the 1930s. The Great Depression was a time of intense cultural crisis for the people of America's heartland.3

The experience of Dakotan farmers and townspeople reveals this crisis in particularly sharp detail. As we

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