Hard Times: An Oral History of the Great Depression

Between the start of the Great Depression and the early years of the New Deal, the author of this book – Studs Terkel (1912-2008) – was a young man working in his parent’s Chicago boarding hotel. Although he later completed a law degree at the University of Chicago, Terkel had no intention of practicing law. Instead, he joined a theater group and later became a radio actor and disc jockey. Gradually, he began recording and writing about his conversations with both noted and “everyday” individuals. Oral history was only then emerging as a professional historical methodology and Terkel became the great popularizer of the field. He published numerous books and continued to broadcast about oral history on the radio. Known as a keen listener, Terkel loved to tell and retell his favorite stories. His later book, The Good War: An Oral History of World War II was the recipient of a Pulitzer Prize.

Years after his childhood observances in the hotel lobby, listening to and conversing with Wobblies (IWW laborers), anarchists, conservatives, and many other kinds of urban drifters – Terkel returned to the period through oral histories. In 1970, he published selections and essays drawn from oral histories called, Hard Times. A section of the book focuses on the New Deal. Terkel chooses portions of eight oral histories to represent various aspects of the New Deal. The selections represent recollections from the vantage point of corporate leaders, individuals within Roosevelt’s “Brain Trust,” and Senators.  While the oral histories contained in this volume represent valuable additions to the available record on the New Deal, they need to be carefully weighed against many other kinds of source materials, like archives and the many other published accounts of the era. Terkel would be among those to suggests that the accounts he included are incomplete. Although his books are peppered with a few examples of the lived experiences of those in Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) camps or as a rural farmer under the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) – they offer an incomplete record. Setting aside these deficiencies, Terkel’s book continues to manage to take the reader through the heartbreak, trauma, ideas, and even the joy found in the Great Depression and its aftermath. Through the lens of oral history and a selection of important first hand accounts, this book thoughtfully invites us to rethink the New Deal.

Reviewed by Sam Redman

Dr. Sam Redman is an Academic Specialist at the Regional Oral History Office (ROHO) at The Bancroft Library at the University of California, Berkeley.

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