In the Eye of the Great Depression
John Bauman and Thomas Coode’s In the Eye of the Great Depression is not simply a study of how the Federal Emergency Relief Administration (FERA) studied American poverty in the early years of the New Deal; it is also a pointed critique of the biases that affected reformers in general in the early twentieth century. The book’s chief theme is how FERA-appointed reporters explored and depicted the mood of the American people, as filtered through their own assumptions about poverty and ethnic groups.
The result, the authors claim, was a new understanding of American culture that transcended the material and looked more at folkways and beliefs, though it was not a totally radical view perspective. They write that FERA’s reporters redefined the “American way of life” by studying the folkways and beliefs of the middle- and working-class population. FERA’s study shaped the creation of a national welfare system, but Bauman and Coode argue that it did not radically break from traditional views that blamed individuals for their poverty, not their environments.
The reports FERA chief Harry Hopkins recruited were largely educated, middle-class, products of the Progressive Era who believed in positive social change yet often feared and disdained the poor. They tended to divide the poor into groups deserving or undeserving of assistance, based on arbitrary or bigoted criteria. One reporter, Martha Gellhorn, considered poverty the result of “incompetence and emotional lassitude” (Bauman and Coode 27).
Some were ambivalent toward the South, while others noted poor people’s ambivalence toward welfare; for example, Maine’s Calvinist Yankees refused help and disdained their French-Canadian neighbors for accepting it (Bauman and Coode 126-127). Nonetheless, they adhered to Hopkins’ orders to report everything they witnessed and link it to a sense of decay in American culture. Bauman and Coode seem generally fair in their treatment of the FERA reporters, using a post-revisionist approach to criticize the writers’ class and race biases while also acknowledging their good intentions and valuable work.
The authors maintain that, despite their Progressive influences and aims, FERA’s writers were often insensitive to urban blacks’ problems and blamed intermarriage for Appalachian poverty (Bauman and Coode 64, 102). They do not depict the New Dealers here as either heroes or villains, but as individuals shaped by their times and experiences who performed unprecedented tasks generally well, if not flawlessly. What emerges is a realistic look at reformers at large and how their outlooks shaped the imperfect yet necessary federal relief programs of the 1930s.
Bauman and Coode incorporate a wide array of sources. The primary materials include FERA reports, department correspondence, biographical information about the reporters, contemporary studies of the poor, and other academic and journalistic writings of the 1930s. The secondary sources include various general histories of the Depression and New Deal, including works by eminent historian William Leuchtenberg, as well as regional histories of the places the FERA reports studied.
The authors use these well, drawing from them an even-handed picture of the people who performed this work and the prejudices and higher aims that guided them. In the Eye of the Great Depression is an even-handed work that looks less at the relief programs themselves (about which much has been written) than at the methods and biases its employees used to determine the mood and needs of those affected by the crisis. It works well as not so much as a history of reform, but as an understanding of how reformers thought and perceived the situations they tried to remedy.