Hard Times by author Studs Terkel, and I quote…

From the book:    “Hard Times, An oral portrait of the Great Depression” by Studs Terkel, copyright 1970.

Pick up a copy or download it to your eReader… revealing given our current economic situation…a series of interviews with all sorts of people talking about the Great Depression; how it affected them, those around them and the world they inhabited. Some were at the top and fell to the bottom. Others were already at the bottom and got pushed lower. The spirit of decency, strength and survival prevails, while all around people saw ruin and failure.     So if you care to, some excerpts, at random:

“It was a mood of great bewilderment…No one had anticipated it…The innocence of the business leaders was astonishing…”

“We saw bank failures everywhere. In my county, all but three of perhaps a dozen failed. The most valuable think we lost was hope. A man can endure a lot if he still has hope.”

“The struggles people had to go through are almost unbelievable. A man lived all his life on a given farm, it was taken away from him. One after the other. After the foreclosure, they got a deficiency judgment. Not only did he lose the farm, but it was impossible for him to get out of debt.”

“These beautiful yachts that cost a half million dollars were sitting around with barnacles on them. These are the people who had jumped out of windows. Who’s gonna buy a yacht? A man came up to me and said, “Hey, any of these yachts for sale?” I said, “Are you kiddin’? They’re all for sale.” This guy was a bootlegger. So I sold half million dollar yachts to bootleggers…for five or ten thousand dollars. And took my six per cent commission on them. Beautiful.”

“Back in the Thirties, when it was really tough, and nobody was working, we divided whatever we had with each other.”

“If it happened today, I don’t think the country would be able to stick together like they did in the first one. I think the whole place would just fall apart. And America’d be completely ruined. Everybody seems to be just out for themselves…back then it seemed like everybody tried to help each other, now it’s hard to get a relative to help you. Because today everybody’s all to themselves.”

“Everyone was emotionally affected. We developed a fear of the future which was difficult to overcome…there was…this constant dread; everything would be cut out from under you and you wouldn’t know what to do. It would be even harder, because you were older…”

“I went around trying to find a job as a salesman.They wouldn’t hire me on account of my age. I was just like dried up. Every door was closed on me, every avenue. It looked like bad luck had set its hand on my shoulder. Whatever I tried, I would fail.”

Do you think another Depression might be good for us?”   ” No. I wouldn’t say that. What I do say is we are not all deserving the sympathy some of these bleeding hearts have for the people. A great deal of their misery is self-inflicted. These people are constantly looking for assistance. What would happen if we all had this attitude?”

“Hardly any of the observers of the Thirties sensed a revolutionary mood among the people. Almost all describe the same sense of dismay and disorientation, futility and shame. People who talk of revolution today (this interview took place in the 1960s) underestimate the capacity of American capitalism, its resiliency and inventiveness.”

“Those punks, they never felt the Depression. Look at the things they are doing.”

Don’t underestimate “…the tremendous power of struggle to awaken both the consciousness and understanding of people.”

“You know, when you get down so low that you can’t get any lower, there’s no place else to go but up. You do either one of two things; you either lay down and die, or you pull yourself up by your bootstraps and you start over.”


Hard Times by author Studs Terkel, and I quote… — 5 Comments

  1. Studs Terkel’s Hard Times (circa 1970) was one of my text books in the mid-70’s when I was a graduate student studying political economy at American University. One of the quotes you highlighted about people having a “fear of the future” became a frequent topic for many of my student water cooler discussions. The bottom line it seemed then and now is how fear changes how people and companies behave in the marketplace. Then as now, the more things change, the more they stay the same. Given this tendency in our human reality, one would think we would be more prepared by now and certainly more hopeful.

  2. Thanks, Emily. My copy of that book is so old the pages are orange yellow. But there are fascinating parallels between then and now, as you said. There are also many things that are quite different now; partly because the pain is not affecting everyone as deeply as a few. If and when entitlement cuts and benefit roll backs start to hit home, we might see some real screaming and protesting. When over 40% of Americans pay no taxes and a similar percentage get their only income from some segment of government, there is a day of reckoning coming. sooner or later.

  3. Alan, first, glad to see you finally got a blog! I wasn’t familiar with this Terkel book but sounds fascinating. I think there are many differences between the “Great Depression” and now, some of which are stated in the quotes, like we are not family-connected (according to the 2010 census, there are more adults living single than married for the first time in our history); homelessness is something we have (shamefully) come to accept – in supposedly the richest country on earth. Our government was high-jacked and we now have a corporatocracy, but people who work for corporations (and their shareholders) are more concerned with keeping their jobs and generating profits than whatever appalling environmental and social impacts it may have. We seem to need to be creating this crisis, or breaking point. There’s no knowing which way we’ll choose to go as a species, but we stand at a certain crossroads, at the brink at our own survival. This is not something pre-nuclear 1930s citizens could have imagined.

  4. Thanks, Aysha! I may not get the chance for a full reply to you this AM, but will try to later on. I appreciate your taking time to leave a comment.