Editor's Choice October 2009

Life In (and After) Our Great Recession

Dashed hopes, less sex, even more Sisyphean labor for women—what the histories of the Depression era tell us about middle-class families in crisis, both then and now
Gordon J. Moore

Not to be faux-populist about it, but although such matters as the electoral turmoil in Iran, the Bernanke/Lewis he said/he said, and the bloating of the list of Oscar finalists (to take the week of June 21) constitute what Charlie Rose and his knowing ilk like to think of as the national discussion, I suspect that an altogether different set of concerns haunts the commuter driving home, is fumbled over on the AYSO sidelines, and is the chief subject across kitchen tables after the kids are put to bed. As Americans confront what has been dubbed the worst economic catastrophe since the Great Depression, they may be forgiven for failing to linger over soon-to-be-old current events, because they recognize that for the first time in their lives they’re in the grip of history. They’re anxious, even terrified, about what that may mean for their daily lives and dreams and—really the same question—for their children’s lives and dreams.

Because this pervasive trepidation is unprecedented in their lifetime, most Americans have reflexively invoked the Depression in their efforts to comprehend their experience. Facile comparisons are offered up and then shot down, and for good reason. Yes, by nearly all measures the Great Depression—Herbert Hoover chose Depression because it didn’t have the same ominous connotations as the terms for previous severe downturns, the now quaint-sounding panic and crisis—was incomparably worse than today’s Great Recession, even if pessimists remind us that in the year following the 1929 crash, Wall Street enjoyed its own bear-market rally and, like President Obama today, Hoover and Roosevelt kept seeing green shoots when the rest of the country correctly saw bare ground.

But in some respects the mythology of the Depression is bleaker than the reality. For all the terrible unemployment figures and searing WPA images of Dustbowl migrants, the typical worker remained on the job, though he had most likely been forced to take a pay cut. In fact, despite the breadlines and the soup kitchens and the Bonus Army, the population emerged from the Depression healthier than ever, thanks largely to government aid and advances in the then-new science of nutrition; the recruits of the Second World War were in every way more fit than the recruits of the First. Any broad historical analogies Americans reach for to make sense of the social, emotional, and quotidian experience of this current crisis will founder on the rocks of historical specificity. How, after all, can an economic crisis that was broadly defined by a tremendous number of unemployed industrial workers illuminate the social ramifications of our post-post-industrial crash, when the population is overwhelmingly middle-class and white-collar? For instance, the precipitous declines in home values and investment portfolios—realities that no doubt weigh heavily on readers of this magazine—feature calamitously in both eras, but in the 1930s a far smaller portion of the population owned houses or equities than does now.

The experience of that small group, however, may prove to be similar to that of today’s vast lower-upper-middle class and upper-middle class, to borrow Orwell’s nicely granulated categories, and a clutch of books probes the Depression experience from that group’s point of view. Most of these books purport to examine a wide range of the population, but because the haute bourgeoisie—a set defined as much by sensibility and educational attainment as by wealth and income—produced testimony that is unusually extensive, compelling, self-aware, and articulate, and because the writers doing the examining no doubt come from the same class, the books end up focusing overwhelmingly on it.

The seminal book—really the starting point for the others—is Robert S. and Helen Merrell Lynd’s Middletown in Transition (1937). The Lynds, husband-and-wife sociologists, had first descended on “Middletown”—the then-prosperous if stratified city of Muncie, Indiana—with their team of researchers in 1924, during the boom years. For the next 18 months, they dissected the everyday lives, habits, and attitudes of its inhabitants, concentrating on the middle classes. The book that resulted, Middletown (1929), remains a classic of immersive sociology and the most incisive and complete portrait of American bourgeois life in the 1920s. Having taken this minute snapshot, Robert Lynd and a smaller team returned to Muncie 10 years later to see what had changed in the intervening period, which included the darkest years of the Depression. They interviewed the city’s industrial barons, plant workers, and prostitutes; chatted up its teachers, prosecutors, and real-estate agents (although all sources were anonymous, this much of their identities can be gleaned); and pored over its newspaper files and tax rolls. Mostly, they seem to have gossiped, lingered over dinners, and played bridge with the members of a stratum that ran from the “less-secure business class” to the engineers and middle managers, the young married set, and the well-established doctors, lawyers, and executives in the lower-upper class. The fruit of their sojourn, Middletown in Transition, reveals, fact by fact, detail by detail, anecdote by anecdote, the “staggering, traumatic effect” of “the great knife of the depression,” which “cut down impartially through the entire population, cleaving open the lives and hopes of rich as well as poor.”

Today’s members of the middle and professional classes wonder daily what the new normal will be. They’re aware, some vaguely, others acutely, that during this period—the most chastening experience in their lives—their families’ habits and attitudes are changing both conspicuously and imperceptibly. They chew over what further adjustments are prudent; they worry over what additional ones may become necessary. And perhaps most disquietingly, they speculate whether the adjustments they’ve made in the face of unprecedented uncertainty—and whether that uncertainty itself—will become enduring features of their lives. These books suggest answers, some trivial and some profound. The Lynds’ focus on the myriad ways the Depression was altering the lives and spirit of the middle classes makes Middletown in Transition especially enlightening—and in many ways unsettling. Although it certainly chronicles grim want and hunger (though not starvation) among the working class and unemployed middle classes, the dominant themes are emotional: unrelenting fear and dashed hope.

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Benjamin Schwarz is The Atlantic’s literary editor and national editor. More

His first piece for the magazine, "The Diversity Myth," was a cover story in 1995. Since then he's written articles and reviews on a startling array of subjects from fashion to the American South, from current fiction to the Victorian family, and from international economics to Chinese restaurants. Schwarz oversees and writes a monthly column for "Books and Critics," the magazine's cultural department, which under his editorship has expanded its coverage to include popular culture and manners and mores, as well as books and ideas. He also regularly writes the "leader" for the magazine. Before joining the Atlantic's staff, Schwarz was the executive editor of World Policy Journal, where his chief mission was to bolster the coverage of cultural issues, international economics, and military affairs. For several years he was a foreign policy analyst at the RAND Corporation, where he researched and wrote on American global strategy, counterinsurgency, counterterrorism, and military doctrine. Schwarz was also staff member of the Brookings Institution. Born in 1963, he holds a B.A. and an M.A. in history from Yale, and was a Fulbright scholar at Oxford. He has written for a variety of newspapers and magazines, including The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Los Angeles Times, Foreign Policy, The National Interest, and The Nation. He has lectured at a range of institutions, from the U.S. Air Force Special Operations School to the Center for Social Theory and Comparative History. He won the 1999 National Book Critics Circle award for excellence in book criticism.

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