Students in HIS350 Modern America are engaging with a variety of primary and secondary source materials this semester. Recently they were given an essay assignment that asked them to consider the following:
All of us approach an historical era that is new to us with impressions: ideas, feelings, or opinions about something or someone, often formed without conscious thought or on the basis of little or disconnected evidence. The purpose of this assignment is to reflect on how your thinking (“impression”) about the modern American experience is being reshaped by your encounters with a variety of primary and secondary source evidence.
Sophomore History and Social Studies Education major Tom Keefe reflects on the unique insights literature can offer the student of history in his essay, “Transformed Perspectives: The Harsh Reality and Complexity of Depression America.”
Of the many eye-opening topics from which we have studied thus far in Modern America, the activity that has been most stimulating and impactful has been our recent studying of Great Depression life. This is best exemplified through primary source documents in the Polenberg text and confirmed through Harper Lee’s classic novel, To Kill a Mockingbird. This topic was interesting for me because I had previously studied the Great Depression and I do not believe that I understood the complexity or the overall poverty of the era. In addition, my previous experience with To Kill a Mockingbird did not necessarily occur with any focus on the historical implications of the Depression, as portrayed by Lee. This era, as portrayed by primary sources and the eloquent Lee; provided me one of my more stimulating academic endeavors not only in this class but in my schooling experience overall.
Within Polenberg’s text, a vast array of impactful individuals provided insight to the harsh realities of Great Depression life, realities that were later reflected in Lee’s novel. To begin, the first of these unfortunate truths was that of extreme poverty and economic difficulty. This is one element of the Depression that I already comprehended was prevalent, yet I am not necessarily sure I understood to what extent. This was especially true in the case of people like the Okies, or others who were moving West in a hope for a more prosperous reality. In a piece written by John Steinbeck regarding the crisis in agriculture, he states, “It is quite usual for a man, his wife, and from three to eight children to arrive in California with no possession but the rattletrap car they travel in and the ragged clothes on their bodies.”1 For whatever, this statement resonated with me due to the vast scarcity of “things” in these people’s lives. They literally had nothing to call their own, and this reality was troubling for me.
Another element of the Great Depression that is discussed in Polenberg delves is that of gender discrimination. This not only manifested itself in political and economic endeavors, but women continued to be given extremely difficult circumstances, socially, even in the midst of the Depression. Eleanor Roosevelt understood this fact and attempted to remedy it throughout her time as the First Lady, yet her words continued to very telling of the experience for an American woman in the Great Depression. She states, “Where the married women are working and there is a low wage, which the majority of them are working under, there, too, she has to see to it that that little wage supplements the family income; because with that low wage, she doesn’t escape her family responsibilities of working in a home.”2 A woman was forced to work in jobs where she received lower pay, and upon her arrival at home, continued to perform her domestic duties that were implicitly required by society. Previous to this study, I did not clearly understand the life of a Depression woman.
Another element of the Great Depression was a perpetuation of the extensive racial stereotypes that were happening in America. This is topic is focused upon in Lee’s novel, as African-Americans initially did not receive the benefits of Social Security and other welfare practices. As W.E.B Du Bois proclaimed, “In the recent endeavor of the United States government to redistribute capital so that some of the disadvantaged may get a chance to develop, the American Negro should voluntarily and insistently demand his share.”3 So, Du Bois is basically stating that Black Americans were not even included in many of the needed reforms of the era. This infers an incredibly deep prejudice of the era, and confirms the natural discrimination existing in America towards minorities.
Reminiscing on my previous exposure to To Kill a Mockingbird induces memories of literary analysis, motifs, and symbols. It was extremely difficult to break from this mold the second time delving into the novel, but I eventually did and was met an interesting commentary on the state of the American South within the Great Depression. Of the many issues dealt with by Lee, the most intriguing to me were the issues of economic difficulty, and the social issues of racial inequality and gender discrimination. Frequent times within the text, the economic situation is posed as dire in Maycomb County, especially in the description of the Cunningham and Ewell families. Yet, the passage that best exemplifies the struggle economically was following the trial of Tom Robinson. Atticus returns home to find a multitude of baked goods in his kitchen and states, “Tell them I’m very grateful, he said. Tell them—tell them they must never do this again. Times are too hard…”4 To me, this best verified the economic climate not only do to the explicit comment by Atticus, but also by the preponderance of food given by the black community, and how this show of affection brought Atticus to tears. He understood the weight of the gift, how it must have caused even more difficulty for the givers. Despite this, the supporters of Tom Robinson still provided the Finch family a large gift.
The description of the racial state of the South, as cast in the book during the Great Depression, was also challenging to encounter throughout the reading of this novel. The gross racism was demonstrated best through the guilty verdict in the trial of Tom Robinson, where a jury filled with white males took three hours to find him guilty with only circumstantial evidence from two very conspicuous individuals. Discrimination was prevalent as well, and was seemingly ingrained in the minds of the people, that it was a simple reality of life that blacks were inferior to whites. This sentiment is strengthened by a statement by Jem Finch within the novel regarding mulatto children. Although his father tirelessly attempts to instill a racially equivalent worldview (and Jem eventually achieves this), the effects of being socially conditioned still are exemplified through this statement. Regarding mixed race children, “They don’t belong anywhere. Colored folks won’t have ‘em because they’re half white; white folks have ‘em ‘cause they’re colored, so they’re just in-betweens, don’t belong anywhere.”5 This quotation not only reveals a skewed sense of human equality, but also an ingrained sense of racial segregation. The fact that Jem casts blacks and whites as two separate sides is a perfect metaphor for the state of racial affairs in the South during the Great Depression.
Lee also delves into gender role issues within the novel. This is exemplified by Aunt Alexandra’s constant desire to Scout to be a lady, and also just with how the women (Ms. Maudie, others of the Missionary Club) are portrayed in the book. In this case, Lee not only uses characters to portray this element of Depression life, but also Scout’s narrative to make interesting comments regarding the plight of women. In particular, a comment made by Scout during her experience at First Purchase Church is thought-provoking to say the least regarding gender roles. “Again as I had often met it in my own church. I was confronted with the Impurity of Women doctrine that seemed to preoccupy all clergy men”6 I believe that Lee was making a statement regarding the perception of women at the time of the novel. The language she utilizes is suggestive and provides insight into the gender roles placed on women by strong voices of society, in this case clergy men. Gender discrimination was yet another quality of this time, and one that manifested itself institutionally and socially.
To Kill a Mockingbird is one of the most influential novels in American history. Coupled with the revealing nature of the influential voices of the Polenberg text, I was capable of transforming my perspective on Great Depression life. Both delve into extremely complex issues within one of more difficult times in American history. The troubling reality is these issues are all applicable today in some regard. I understand that America and the world will never be exempt from economic inequality, race and gender discrimination. Although the progress we have made is encouraging, it is unsettling to think that a portion of America still lives in poverty and minorities and women still do not have completely equal opportunities as white males. These should not be accepted realities of an imperfect world. Rather, these social injustices can be remedied to some extent, and one positive aspect proven in the Great Depression is that our government can help with these imperfections. Change can be made, and it ought to be desired.
1. John Steinbeck in Richard Polenberg, The Era of Franklin D. Roosevelt, 1933-1945 (2000), 80.
2. Eleanor Roosevelt, Polenberg, 95.
3. W.E.B. DuBois, Polenberg, 143.
4. Harper Lee, To Kill a Mockingbird (1960), 286.
5. Ibid., 215.
6. Ibid., 162.