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Book review

‘America 1933’ by Michael Golay

A woman with her youngest child, one of seven, on US 99 near Brawley, California.

Library of Congress

A woman with her youngest child, one of seven, on US 99 near Brawley, California.

A reporter for the Associated Press, Lorena Hickok was drawn into the Roosevelts’ ambit in 1932 when she began covering FDR’s presidential campaign. Her beat soon became the first lady, but she overshot the mark: The reporter-source relationship deepened into an intimate friendship.

Historians don’t agree on whether Eleanor Roosevelt and “Hick” were lovers. “Their correspondence is warm, intimate, and inconclusive,” Michael Golay writes in “America 1933,” while noting that Hickok destroyed some of the letters. The closeness, evident at the time, enmeshed Hickok in a blatant conflict of interest. If her relationship with Eleanor Roosevelt was to continue, her wire-service reporting days had to end.

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As Golay details, journalism’s loss was the country’s — and history’s — gain. At Eleanor Roosevelt’s urging, New Deal administrator Harry Hopkins hired Hickok to traverse the country and report on the impact of both the Great Depression and federal relief efforts. Golay’s elegantly written book gives a granular account of her three-year mission, focusing on its most intense portion, from July 1933 to September 1934.

Readers of the second volume of Blanche Wiesen Cook’s masterful Eleanor Roosevelt biography, published in 1999, will find much here that is familiar. Like Cook, Golay, a history teacher at Phillips Exeter Academy in Exeter, N.H., draws on the Hickok-Roosevelt correspondence, as well as Hickok’s vivid reports for Hopkins. He contextualizes these with contemporary newspaper stories and other reportage, supplemented by his own visits to some of the locales.

As the American economy collapsed and millions of Americans faced homelessness and hunger, the durable, workaholic, “[i]ndifferently educated” Hickok logged thousands of miles by plane, train, bus, and car. For much of the trip, she drove her own Chevrolet convertible, christened “Bluette,” which she eventually totaled. From coal country to the Dust Bowl, from rural Southern towns and San Francisco docks to the slums of New York, Hickok conducted a remarkable series of interviews with indigent men and women, relief workers, labor leaders, business owners, politicians, and others.

By March 1933, 25 percent of the US workforce was unemployed, and as many as a third of the rest were working “short time.” Hopkins’s Federal Emergency Relief Administration addressed the crisis with direct aid to states, which funneled the funds through local agencies with varying degrees of corruption and inefficiency. While making the disparities clear, Golay never pauses to offer an adequate overview of how the relief administration worked.

In late 1933, the agency unveiled the Civil Works Administration, a short-term, quick-fix jobs program that emphasized manual labor. Whatever its failings, the CWA put millions to work at pay generous enough to set private-sector employers grumbling. By injecting money into communities, it fueled hope and a mini-recovery. Hickok applauded it, and Golay calls it “an astonishing demonstration of bureaucratic agility and dash.”

Overall, the challenges faced by the Roosevelt administration were daunting. The outlook was particularly grim in regions such as coal country, where the miners’ situation had been deteriorating for years. In West Virginia, Hickok wrote Eleanor Roosevelt about “the tents, all black with coal dust and dampness, . . . huddled together along the highway near a river. In the background, those beautiful — and rather terrible — hills. A little group of men sitting silent and thoughtful on a rock. Ragged, discouraged, bitter.” Their children, Golay adds, “were afflicted with open, running sores,” probably contracted “from playing in the mine-poisoned river.”

While mine wars exploded into violence, farm strikes flared in the northern Plains states, which were plagued by freezing temperatures, drought, dust storms, grasshoppers, poor harvests, and foreclosures — an almost Biblical catalog of woes. “A more hopeless place I never saw,” Hickok wrote of South Dakota. “Damn it, what right have we, any of us, to any comfort and security when there is so much misery in the world?”

In the South, both the Depression and the New Deal heightened racial tensions. Employers told Hickok that blacks could live on less money than whites and would only spend extra cash on drink and dissipation. Hickok’s politically incorrect reports to Hopkins reflected her own prejudices and fears, demonstrating her limitations as an observer.

Hickok’s life on the road was lonely and stressful. Strenuous days were followed by nights in shabby, near-empty motels, where she composed her letters and reports. Her only break was occasional visits with Eleanor. But the first lady’s public and private duties and the increasing impossibility of anonymity when they traveled together frustrated Hickok and strained the relationship.

Meanwhile, the New Deal sputtered along. The CWA died but was replaced in 1935 by another Hopkins program, the Works Progress Administration, which “would institutionalize his great innovation: work relief rather than the dole.”

Did Hickok’s forays into communities of destitution and despair shape the shifting contours of the New Deal? Golay fails to make the case that her narratives were truly pivotal. But he does use her accounts to burrow deeply into the era’s quotidian miseries, filling in our view of the 1930s even as they fade from memory.

Julia M. Klein is a cultural reporter and critic in Philadelphia and a contributing editor at Columbia Journalism Review. E-mail her at julklein@verizon.net or follow her on Twitter at @JuliaMKlein.
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