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.”