Hard Times by Studs Terkel

Published by The New Press

Reviewed by Leigh Kimmel

Historians divide historical source materials into two types: primary and secondary. Primary sources are documents written (or recorded, from the invention of the phonograph onward) by a person or persons who actually experienced the event under discussion, while secondary sources are written from research by persons who did not personally experience the events about which they are writing. Primary sources are particularly valued because they give the historian as close as possible to an unfiltered account of the event being studied.

However, primary sources are not always easy to come by, particularly when one is attempting to go beyond official documents and the writings of the cultural elite to get at the experiences of the ordinary people. Even in a highly literate society such as the United States in the early twentieth century, where almost everyone received at least enough basic education to read and write, most people never record their experiences. Here and there we find people who kept diaries of their experiences, or who wrote long and chatty letters in which they chronicled their lives. But for the largest part, even literate people leave few documents save those regarding their interactions with officialdom.

Instead, people are often surprisingly more comfortable talking about their experiences to a historian than writing them down for posterity. As a result, people studying events taking place within living memory have turned increasingly to oral history, that is, finding ordinary people who lived through an event and are comfortable talking about their experiences, and interviewing them about what they remembered seeing and doing. Of course one must consider the problem of memories becoming blurred or selective with the passage of time, which means that recollections from years or decades after the event may not be as accurate as a diary entry or other document made immediately after it.

During the 1960's Studs Terkel traveled across the country talking with people who had lived through the Great Depression of the 1930's. He interviewed a wide variety of individuals, from housekeepers and manual laborers to financiers and politicians. As a result, he was able to show what it felt like to live through the Great Depression for people in all walks of life, from the coal miners struggling to get enough to eat to the wealthy people who had friends and neighbors who took their own lives rather than face a future of destitution and humiliation.

The book is arranged in the form of brief narratives dealing with specific topics and clustered around a number of broad subject areas. As a result, it is possible to find narratives from the same person in several parts of the book.

Although times may have changed, particularly in relation to technology, we see in these accounts elements that are strongly applicable to life today. There is of course the struggle to make ends meet when one is unemployed, the problem of dealing with social services that become increasingly hostile and suspicious of possible cheating, and the like. But there are also the heartwarming stories of unexpected kindnesses, often from people who really didn't have that much to give.

One of the accounts that had astonishing resonance for me was that of a repo man who was talking about how people ended up losing everything as a result of shady lending practices. In the 1920's it was very common for stores to sell durable goods such as furniture and radios on credit. People would buy a piece or two, perhaps a bed or a sofa, and as they were coming close to paying it off, they would decide that they should buy something else to make their home just a little bit nicer. Instead of finishing paying off the previous purchase and starting a new loan, they would have the new purchase put on the existing note. This practice might go on for several cycles, with more and more items added to the note. When the family finally ran into trouble, perhaps with only two or three payments left, instead of just losing the last two or things they purchased, they suddenly had everything taken as collateral for the loan, including things that in theory should have been long since paid off.

Of course it's not exactly the same as the predatory lending practices by which people were given mortgages with far higher rates than they thought they were signing for, to the point they weren't even paying all the interest from month to month. Yet there's a certain chilly familiarity when we think to the stories of people refinancing again and again to cash out more equity as the housing bubble drove real estate prices far higher than the fundamentals could account for, using that equity to fund lifestyles they really couldn't afford, and then being left with mortgages tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars underwater when the bubble finally burst.

Reading these recollections may make you cry for a society that has learned nothing except new ways to make the same old mistakes, or it may make you laugh with joy at an ordinary person who outwitted the slings of outrageous misfortune to win a victory, however tiny and fleeting, against the forces that seemed to be conspiring to grind them down to nothing. But it will all be food for thought as we face yet another year full of pundits insisting that recovery is just around the corner, while ordinary people are seeing no improvement whatsoever in their circumstances.

Review posted October 19, 2010.

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