Updike on Shlaes

As a non-historian who aspires to review works of history here and there - and perhaps even write one, who knows? - I don't want to begrudge a non-historian like John Updike the chance to review Amity Shlaes' revisionist history of the Great Depression. But if you're reviewing a book that makes specific historical arguments - helpfully summarized here by Shlaes herself - about whether the New Deal did or did not make the Great Depression worse, you need to do better by way of analysis than this (extended) "rebuttal":

The Depression was a good time in which to be a sheltered only child. The small town around me didn’t change; horse-drawn farm wagons mingled the clip-clop of horseshoes with the swish of automobile tires. The vacant lots remained vacant; shoppers and workers were carried to the nearby city (Reading, Pennsylvania, with its Socialist mayor) on the same swaying, sparking trolley cars; the movies and radio were never more innocently entertaining; the schools were safe and tidy, with girls and boys segregated at recess on the asphalt playground; nickels and pennies counted for something; major-league baseball had two symmetrical leagues of eight teams, with five cities fielding two teams each, as they had for years. A child did not know that change and expansion were the norm for a thriving economy. But the two men of my snug household, my father and my maternal grandfather, had both taken deep economic wounds: my grandfather had lost almost all his investments in the stock-market crash, and my father had been laid off from his job as a happily peripatetic telephone lineman. He endured a long interval of odd jobs and no job, with summer stints on local W.P.A. projects. Fortunately, the town school board eventually hired him, for twelve hundred dollars a year, as a math teacher. The job saved him for respectability, but he never forgot the trauma of being out of work with an infant son and no home of his own, in a world with no economic safety net, just breadlines. Hoover in his obtuse aloofness later wrote of the crisis, “Many persons left their jobs for the more profitable one of selling apples.” Shlaes’s account of economic-philosophy wars en haut in Washington could have done with a little of the gritty testimony Studs Terkel collected, for instance that of Peggy Terry, who remembered of a soup line:

“So we’d ask the guy that was ladling out the soup into the buckets—everybody had to bring their own bucket to get the soup—he’d dip the greasy, watery stuff off the top. So we’d ask him to please dip down to get some meat and potatoes from the bottom of the kettle. But he wouldn’t do it.”

My father had been reared a Republican, but he switched parties to vote for Roosevelt and never switched back. His memory of being abandoned by society and big business never left him and, for all his paternal kindness and humorousness, communicated itself to me, along with his preference for the political party that offered “the forgotten man” the better break. Roosevelt made such people feel less alone. The impression of recovery—the impression that a President was bending the old rules and, drawing upon his own courage and flamboyance in adversity and illness, stirring things up on behalf of the down-and-out—mattered more than any miscalculations in the moot mathematics of economics. Business, of which Shlaes is so solicitous, is basically merciless, geared to maximize profit. Government is ultimately a human transaction, and Roosevelt put a cheerful, defiant, caring face on government at a time when faith in democracy was ebbing throughout the Western world. For this inspirational feat he is the twentieth century’s greatest President, to rank with Lincoln and Washington as symbolic figures for a nation to live by.

So far as I can tell from parsing this solipsistic flapdoodle, John Updike thinks the New Deal should be judged a great success because FDR was politically skillful enough to persuade Updike's Dad to become a Democrat. Which is well and good so far as it goes: Political savvy is no small thing in a President, particularly at a moment of global disarray, and the perception of government activism in the face of the Great Depression was politically necessary even when economically undesirable. But one of the implications of Shlaes' book, which Updike is supposed to be reviewing, is that FDR could have given us the fireside chats and the rhetoric of government action and yes, even the stronger safety net without the counterproductive attempts at centralized planning and the relentless scapegoating of business, both of which helped keep unemployment well above ten percent until World War II intervened. One can give Roosevelt the credit he deserves for the "inspirational feat" of keeping faith in American democracy alive among the men waiting in Studs Terkel's soup lines, but it's still worth addressing The Forgotten Man's argument - which Updike doesn't even touch, with all his florid talk of "the moot mathematics of economics," the "merciless" quality of business, and government as "ultimately a human transaction" - that the men waiting in those soup lines might have benefited from an actual job as well, and that the New Deal's role in stifling the growth that might have created such jobs (and shortened those soup lines) needs to be considered when assessing Roosevelt's legacy. A Presidency that makes Americans "feel less alone" in the midst of a crisis is an admirable thing, but so is a five percent unemployment rate, and Updike leaves unrebutted Shlaes' suggestion that a better, less-utopian New Deal might have given America both.