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Sunday, April 19, 2009

John Steinbeck: A Primer on the '30s'

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A Primer on the '30s' by John Steinbeck, 1960, pgs. 17-31: Sure I remember the Nineteen Thirties, the terrible, troubled, triumphant, surging Thirties. ... I remember '29 very well ... the drugged and happy faces of people who built paper fortunes on stocks they couldn't possibly have paid for. ... In our little town bank presidents and track workers rushed to pay phones to call brokers. Everyone was a broker, more or less. At lunch hour, store clerks and stenographers munched sandwiches while they watched stock boards and calculated their pyramiding fortunes. Their eyes had the look you see around a roulette wheel ...

Then the bottom dropped out ... I remember how the Big Boys, the men in the know, were interviewed and re-interviewed. Some of them bought space to reassure the crumbling millionaires... "Don't be afraid - buy - keep on buying" Meanwhile the Big Boys sold and the market fell on its face...

The came panic, and panic changed to dull shock. ... People walked about looking as if they'd been slugged. ... Then people remembered their little bank balances, the only certainties in a treacherous world. They rushed to draw the money out. There were fights and riots and lines of policemen. Some banks failed; rumors began to fly...

What happened in the seats of power? It looked then and it still looks as though the Government got scared. The White House, roped off and surrounded by troops, was taken to indicate that the President was afraid of his own people. ... I speak of this phase at length because it was symptomatic of many positions of leadership. Business leaders panicked, banks panicked. Workers demanded factories stay open... Voices shrill with terror continued to tell people what was happening couldn't happen...

We didn't have to steal much... All over the country the WPA was working... [I]t was the fixation of businessmen that the WPA did nothing but lean on shovels. I had an uncle who was particularly irritated at shovel-leaning, When he pooh-poohed my contention that shovel-leaning was necessary, I bet him five dollars, which I didn't have, that he couldn't shovel sand for fifteen timed minutes without stopping. He ... grabbed [a] shovel. At the end of three minutes his face was red, at six he was staggering and before eight minutes were up his wife stopped him to save him from apoplexy. And he never mentioned shovel leaning again. I've always been amused at the contention that brain work is harder than manual labor. I never knew a man to leave a desk for a muck-stick if he could avoid it. ...

[I]n the Thirties when Hitler was successful, when Mussolini made the trains run on time, a spate of would-be Czars began to rise. Gerald L.K. Smith, Father Coughlin, Huey Long, Townsend - each one with plans to use the unrest and confusion and hatred as the material for personal power.

The Klan became powerful, in numbers at least... The Communists were active, forming united fronts with everyone... Except for the field of organizers of strikes, who were plenty tough ... and devoted, most of the so-called Communists I met were middle-class, middle-aged people playing a game of dreams. I remember a woman in easy circumstances saying to another even more affluent: "After the revolution we will have more, won't we dear?" ...

One night we got Madison Square Garden [on the radio], a Nazi meeting echoing with shrill hatred and the drilled litany of the brown-shirted audience. Then a dissenters voice broke through and we could hear the crunch of fists on flesh as he was beaten to the floor and flung from the stage. America First came through our speaker and it sounded to us very much like the Nazi approach. ...

Prosperity had returned, leaving behind the warm and friendly associations of the dark days. Fierce strikes and retaliations raged in Detroit, race riots in Chicago: tear gas and night sticks and jeering picket lines and overturned automobiles. The ferocity showed how frightened both sides were, for men are invariable cruel when they are scared...

The strange parade of the Thirties was drawing to its close and time seemed to speed up. Imperceptibly the American nation and its people had changed, and undergone a real revolution, and we were only partly aware of it as it was happening...

A few weeks ago, I called on a friend ... in midtown New York. On our way out to lunch, he said, "I want to show you something." And he led me into a broker's office. One whole wall was a stock exchange trading board. .. Behind an oaken rail was a tight-packed, standing audience, clerks, stenographers, small businessmen. Most of them munched sandwiches as they spent their lunch hour watching the trading. ... And their eyes had the rapt, glazed look one sees around the roulette table. ... [full version]

    Posted by on Sunday, April 19, 2009 at 06:39 PM in Economics | Permalink  TrackBack (0)  Comments (10)

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