In the book Hard Times: An Oral History of the Great Depression, Pulitzer Prize winner Studs Terkel not only accurately recorded the sad memory of the Depression that devastated the lives of almost all people – the coal miners, the farmers, the veterans, and the hoboes – so that the legacy of the Great Depression will not be forgotten, but he also discovered and hoped to preserve the humanity people found in the most desperate of time that they were willing to help each other even though they lost almost everything.
The Great Depression struck the US and nearly everyone, but according to Terkel, people that were less economically independent suffered more from the Depression. Coal miners and farmers were the most vulnerable and experienced the most pain. Terkel interviewed Joe Morrison, a coal miner who spent “half his working life… in the coal mines of southwestern Indiana.” Morrison explained why coal miners were the most vulnerable business. Not only that working in the mines were extremely dangerous at that time – a mine explosion in 1927 which “killed thirty-seven men,” but also the entire coal industry had never been completely recovered from the hit of ‘26, making it even more vulnerable and failed “long before the stock market [crashed].
” Due to the failure of the mining industry, coal miners lost the only income, causing them to live under “suffering and starvation,” and leaving their children “fainted in school” (Terkel 122). Farmers were also deeply suffered during the Depression. Firstly, farmers could not borrow a dime from the bank because banks only offered loans to those who had jobs, and all farmers had were lands, equipment, and crops.
Without the loans from the bank, farmers lost their lands to mortgage foreclosure. The people were desperate, and they “came very near hanging that judge” when they caught the “judge foreclosing farm mortgages, and they had no other way of stopping it” (Terkel 214).
The lives of farmers were also threatened by other factors, for example, a plague of grasshopper in 1933, covered the sun, darkened the sky, and “taken every leaf off [they’re] trees.” Another factor that threatened the lives of farmers was the government. Taking Sumio Nichi as an example, an owner of a big farm near Salinas, California, he was forced to sell his $80000 worth of equipment at the price of $6000 when WWII started. He was informed that he couldn’t store it because it “would be hampering the war effort,” and after the war, he got none of it back (Terkel 229-235).
WWI veterans were also deeply affected by the Great Depression. Terkel claimed that those “fellas who had fought for democracy in Germany” walked up to the street in Washington and protested to the Hoover administration for the bonus they should get “right then” because “they needed the money” to survive from the Great Depression. Not only that the veterans didn’t receive the bonus they deserved, they were also pushed and attacked by the soldiers of their own country. Soldiers “[poked] them with their bayonets” and “hit them on the head with the butt of a rifle.” Some of the veterans were even injured. And so, the bonus marchers “straggled back to the various places they came from… without their bonus” (Terkel 13-16).
During the Great Depression, lots of hoboes lost their jobs and home and were forced to ride in the freights and travel all around the country. Ed Paulsen was one of those who “rode the freights across the land” in 1926 and ended up in San Francisco in 1931 hoping to find a stable job. However, things didn’t go according to his plan. The American Legion represented the interests of “Main Streeters.” They were “doing all right” – “merchants, storekeepers, landowners” – and they resisted people like hoboes who traveled from other cities to look for jobs, forcing hoboes like Paulsen to become criminals just to survive. Paulsen said that it created a “coyote mentality,” stealing “clothes off lines” and “milk off porches,” stealing bread from a grocery store in Tucumcari, New Mexico. “We were coyotes in the Thirties, the jobless,” Paulsen said, “survivors” (Terkel 29-34)
The purpose of Terkel’s oral history was not only interviewing and recording human’s miserable past but also to discover and hope to preserve the highlight of humanity even in the most desperate time, that most people were still willing to help the more unfortunates even though their lives were in also a crisis. Kitty McCulloch, an old homemaker gave away his husband a nice tailored suit to a man who came to her house asking for food. “Your clothes are all ragged. I think I have a nice suit for you,” she said, and she gave him the nice suit. She also took people in and gave them something to eat in the kitchen even though she didn’t have much money (Terkel 39).
Louis Bank, a poor black man who worked as a prizefighter, a chief, and once hopped trains all over the country shared to Terkel that he found kindness from a hobo who helped him on that train. According to his story, Callahan, the hobo who shared the same train with him saved his life, which led his way to join the army and survive the Depression. “The hobo – only reason I’m alive.” (Terkel 43). Emma Tiller worked as a cook in western Texas, she shared that southern white people would feed all Negros who came to their doors. They would ask the questions nicely. They would give them money. They hired Negroes for some jobs that they wouldn’t hire for white people. At the most desperate time, these white people forgot their differences and they were willing to offer help to other people, despite their different races and skin colors (Terkel 44).
To summarize all, by collecting and recording the little-known stories of the Great Depression, Studs Terkel demonstrated a different perspective of the Depression told by those who struggled the most and fought as hard as they could to survive during the crisis, and therefore, proving that even in the most desperate time, humanity still existed. The fact that those people who were willing to help the more unfortunates, giving out money, food, and clothes that they didn’t have many even though their lives were barely hanging together created the only spotlight in this darken age, making them as admirable as the people who fought to end the Depression. And by highlighting these humanities, Terkel hoped to influence more readers to remember the story of the Depression and to preserve the characteristic of helping one another in society.