:: Article

The Tangible Past

By Robert O’Connor


[This is part of a series looking at the complete works of Studs Terkel. The last book was Division Street.]

Studs Terkel grew up in the hotels his family owned. The first was on the west side of Chicago, the second on the near north side, specifically on the corner of Wells and Grand. The hotels were always booked, and had a waiting list all through the 1920s. But then, the Great Depression hit and their customers went away. Studs would always say that the symbol of the Depression to him was the neon “vacancy” sign put in the Wells-Grand at the start of the Depression.

Studs begins Hard Times by telling his own story. He went to the University of Chicago as a law student, which he was completely uninterested in. His real discovery was “race records,” records put out by people he would eventually befriend like Big Bill Broonzy and Mahalia Jackson. He would eventually work at the Illinois Writers’ Project radio division and write essays that appeared on WGN and act in radio soap operas.

Studs interviews participants of the Bonus March of July 1932, when World War I veterans gathered in Washington and demanded payment for their service. President Herbert Hoover ordered them removed. Army Chief of Staff (and future Supreme Commander for the Allied Powers in the Pacific Theater) Douglas MacArthur commanded an infantry and cavalry regiment along with six tanks to force them out.

MacArthur was good friends with the publisher of the Chicago Tribune, Col. Robert McCormick. His successor, Don Maxwell, is interviewed and talks about McCormick’s famous opposition to the New Deal.

When Franklin Roosevelt was running for president in 1932, he often played the song “Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?” The writer of the song, Yip Harburg, is one of the first people interviewed in the book. Harburg was working a regular job when the Depression his. His friend Ira Gershwin told him “you’ve got your pencil. Get a rhyming dictionary and go to work.”

Another person who changed jobs when the depression hit was Saul Alinsky. He was working as a criminology fellow with the University of Chicago, researching criminals at the Lexington Hotel (Al Capone’s base) when he decided to quit and go into mass organizing. He organized the Back of the Yards neighborhood for better working conditions and helped write the book (literally) on community organizing.

John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath, the story of a family who moves to California as laborers, is quoted a few times throughout the book. Cesar Chavez, the labor and civil rights activist, tells his story in the book of how his family moved to California and worked as day laborers. Carey McWilliams, the editor of the Nation (to which Studs was a lifelong contributor), told his story of working for the State of California inspecting the resettlement camps that attracted people like the Chavez family and the Joad family in the book.

Studs prefaces Hard Times by saying it isn’t a scientific examination of the era, but, as he calls it, a “book of memory.” Whether the memories are accurate are inconsequential. Throughout the book, Studs interviews people under the age of 30 who have only heard stories of the Great Depression, even devoting a section to them called “Sgt. Peppers Lonely Hearts Club Band.” They have no concept of what the Great Depression was, or what it was like. It’s not their fault, they didn’t live through it.

Hard Times shows what the Great Depression was like in the most tangible way – through the memories of those who lived it. It also has snippets of poems, song lyrics and other mementos of the time to try and recreate it as best as possible.

[Next time: What do people do, and how does it define them in Working]


profileRobert O’Connor is a journalist, writer, adventurer and a few dozen other things (including a Co-Editor of 3:AM). His stuff has appeared in the Twin Cities Daily Planet, Hot Press, KFAI and a few other places. He lives in St. Paul, Minnesota.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Saturday, March 3rd, 2012.