The late 1920s were a strange moment in American history: a time when it seemed possible for peace to reign around the world, with the United States as its supreme enforcer, a time when, as T.H. Watkins writes, "instant gratification in the matter of clothes and gadgets and even automobiles bloated consumer credit" and when speculation on the stock market reached rampant, unsettling highs. The moment ended in the failure of the market, then of the banks, and finally of the whole economy, leading to a massive depression that would last for a decade.
Published to coincide with the 70th anniversary of the crash, The Hungry Years offers a sweeping history of those terrible times. Watkins is slow to lay blame but quick to praise. He credits, for instance, the much-maligned Herbert Hoover, the president under whose watch the depression began, for his efforts in attempting to contain the widespread psychological damage that economic hardship wrought. He also offers a sometimes critical but generally appreciative account of the massive federal programs that the Roosevelt administration put in place to revive the economy--programs often characterized as giving working men only shovels on which to lean. But more important, he praises ordinary Americans for looking beyond immediate self-interest to find ways to help one another--and these ordinary Americans are the real heroes of Watkins's vigorous and exemplary historical narrative. --Gregory McNamee