Tag Archives: great depression

“FDR” by Jean Edward Smith

I listened to this book on CD (20+ CDs!) while driving to and from work for the past two months.

FDR most definitely lived through interesting times, and indeed was often the key player in the very events that made those times interesting.  The fact that he deftly led the country through the Great Depression and then to victory in World War II while effectively unable to walk makes his story all the more compelling.

I can’t help but compare this book to the biography of Truman I read last year.  I don’t know if it was the writing style of the authors or nature of the subjects, but I feel like I know Truman better than FDR.  Truman was scrupulously honest throughout his life and was virtually obsessed with making morally correct decisions, even if they were poor political ones.  FDR seemed more the politician – not that he was dishonest, but he held his cards closer to his chest.

FDR had a kind of strange, sad married life.  It seems like he and Eleanor quickly grew tired of each other.  FDR had an affair in the 1920s that, once exposed, permanently altered his relationship with ER.  They remained married and  eventually still respected one another, but more or less lived their separate lives.   (The author presents FDR filling the companionship void with his secretary Missy Lehand, but he doesn’t speculate much on how his relationships affected him emotionally, which would be interesting to know.  Did FDR regret his personal-life decisions which led to estrangement with ER?  Or did he just regret marrying the wrong woman in the first place?)

Interesting thing learned about the times:  Reporters in FDR’s day and age drew a strict line between the public news of political figures and private issues in those public figures lives.  This included no stories or even photographs of FDR in a wheelchair; also no scandals about affairs, etc.  With all the mudslinging in the news today, it seems like reporters thrive on digging up the personal dirt about public figures … one wonders if the old way wasn’t much better.

Historical things learned: court packing scheme, Roosevelt recession

Favorite quotes:

“Father always wanted to be the bride at every wedding, and the corpse at every funeral.” – Alice Roosevelt about TR (in section about FDR and Eleanor’s (TR’s niece) wedding)

“If you can’t use your legs, and they bring you milk when you wanted orange juice, you learn to say, ‘That’s all right!’ and drink it.” – FDR

“The Grapes of Wrath” by John Steinbeck

Here’s a coincidence for you – I just finished reading The Grapes of Wrath a few days ago, and then today on NPR I heard that it was published 70 years ago today!  Surprisingly, I never had to read this in high school — this was my first time reading the book.  And I really enjoyed it!  The story of the Joad family is tragic, but they somehow always maintain hope.

The book in a nutshell: it’s the Depression, and the Joads (along with many other farmers) are forced off their land in Oklahoma by the banks.  Small family farms just can’t turn a profit anymore – they are bought up and plowed by tractor in what I suppose is the beginning of industrialized agriculture.  The farmers hear about the promised land of California – where sun-drenched oranges are just waiting to be picked off the trees by anyone who wants one.  The Joads buy a run-down jalopy, load up their stuff and the family, and set out on Route 66.  Grandpa and Grandma die along the way – symbolic of moving from old to the new?  (Similarly, as the Joads look down on California’s Central Valley for the first time, Tom Joad says that the ones who are really seeing it are Ruthie and Winfield – the two youngest Joads.)

When they finally arrive, there are definitely oranges (and a lot of other agricultural wonders) ripe on the trees, but figuratively there is a man with a shotgun in the orchard who will shoot anyone who picks one for himself.  There are thousands of “Okies” and not enough work to go around.  The big land owners have in effect tricked people into coming to California with their stories and flyers (“Why would they print up flyers about there being jobs if they didn’t have jobs?  Those flyers is expensive!”) and now that they have a large, desperate labor pool they can save big bucks on labor costs.  The Joads travel around from job to job, eating and living from day to day.

The main theme that keeps creeping up is capitalism vs. communism/socialism.  The banks forcing Oklahoma farmers off their land and the landowners in California paying pitiful wages do what they do because they can, and because if they didn’t they would go out of business.  The farmers/workers on the other hand, realize that if they united against the bosses they would have the real power, but when they try to strike they are arrested and repressed.

This book made me glad for the time I live in today – not-so-pure capitalism with elements of social programs and the right to unionize.  Also, for all the talk of the modern financial crisis…we ain’t seen nothing compared to the trials of the Joads.