August 2017

Review: Boom and Bust, Unit 6 of Joyce Appleby’s The American Vision

The American Vision falls short of many important historiographical trends. Political history, or more accurately Presidential history, is important for students to learn—our democratic government operates (or is at least supposed to) on a legalistic basis. But history is a discipline that at its best seeks to understand the human experience. It studies human beings doing things. A more comprehensive textbook would necessitate more space be given to history “from the bottom up.”

The authors of Unit 6, “Boom and Bust” in the American history textbook, The American Vision (2010), do a noteworthy job of distilling content for the overwhelmingly dense “interwar” period (1920-1941)—covering everything from President Warren G. Harding’s Tea Pot Dome Scandal to the myriad of New Deal programs. Interweaving chapters take time to detail advances in communication and household technology, the rise of literary modernism, and the resurgence of nativism and white ethnic and religious backlash.

Often, however, social and cultural history takes a backseat to political and “great man” history. For instance, the authors summarize the “why it matters” of “Boom and Bust” in the following paragraph:

In the 1920s, new technology, including automobiles, airplanes, radios, and electric appliances helped create a booming economy with rising stock prices and increased consumer spending. In 1929, economic problems triggered the Great Depression. This led to increased federal regulation of the economy and several new programs, such as Social Security as the federal government took on the task of protecting people from economic hardship. (586)

The summary is not necessarily “wrong” or misleading, though it distills a crucial period of American history into an economic morality tale—one where reckless spending triggered a financial meltdown that required extensive federal intervention in the economy. The authors do illustrate the socio-cultural changes of the two decades, but presidential politics and economic policy are clearly the main focus.

davis abstraction 37
Stuart Davis, Abstraction, 1937. Courtesy of Flickr.

The summary also lacks any human action. The economy boomed and then crashed; the government took action, etc. Individuals appear to have no agency or complexity. This issue seems relatively minor, and to be fair to the authors and editors at Glencoe McGraw-Hill, individual voices are often included in the form of short excerpts—particularly in their discussion on cultural output during the twenties and thirties. Nevertheless, throughout the three chapters that comprise Unit 6, the authors miss several opportunities for significant historical analysis.

Take for instance the textbook’s section on Claude McKay. The authors mention the famed black poet and novelist and include the text of his poem “If We Must Die,” but offer no biographical details on McKay (other than a brief mention of his being born in Jamaica) or any historical analysis of his poem short of it being written as a result of World War I era race riots (616-617). Recent “Common Core” standards have put an emphasis on literacy and historical method, though it is surprising that even in 2010 the authors would not promote greater interaction with primary sources.

This unit distills a crucial period of American history into an economic morality tale—one where reckless spending triggered a financial meltdown that required extensive federal intervention in the economy.

McKay was a remarkably transnational figure who makes any straightforward understanding of the 1920s more elusive. The authors offer no details regarding McKay’s formative years in Jamaica and how they might have shaped his attitude on the black freedom struggle. Nor does the book give any indication that Jim Crow might have differed from British colonial racism in the Caribbean. Perhaps most surprisingly (or unsurprisingly) the authors make no mention of McKay’s affiliation with the Communist Party.[1] If this information were included, the Harlem Renaissance would go beyond an expression of “racial pride,” as the authors of American Vision suggest (616). It would instead become a historical moment in which a Jamaican writer living in New York drew upon his unique experiences as a person of color and interest in Russian Bolshevism to critique American race relations and capitalism. McKay’s literature is widely available and would make an interesting foil for instructors of American history.

_The Meaning of Social Security Shahn
The Meaning of Social Security by Ben Shahn, 1939-1940. Courtesy of The Library of Congress.

The chapter on the Great Depression, while exceptional in its detail regarding the various “Alphabet Soup” New Deal programs, falls into similar editorial traps of limiting agency and complexity in favor of a clean, event-driven narrative. Though the authors discuss farmer protest and the “bonus march” as helping launch FDR into power, they do little else to describe grassroots movements that prompted government action (642-643).

Despite a summary of the United Autoworker’s 1936 sit-down strike against General Motors, the strike appears merely as a result of the Wagner Act (which gave federal protection to workers seeking collective bargaining rights) rather than as a result of labor practices years in the making. The authors could have written about the Harlan County labor wars of the early 1930s, when mine owners (with the complicity of local and federal law enforcement) jailed, shot, and starved miners who sought a living wage. Or perhaps the authors could have detailed the River Rouge hunger march of 1932, when private security guards hired by Henry Ford and Detroit-area police officers fired upon unemployed workers with live ammunition.

The unit falls into editorial traps of limiting agency and complexity in favor of a clean, event-driven narrative. Though the authors discuss farmer protest and the “bonus march” as helping launch FDR into power, they do little else to describe grassroots movements that prompted government action.

The Wagner Act was a transformative law in American politics that reversed the trend of the government backing capital as opposed to the working class. The law would not have come to fruition, however, if laborers had not put their lives at risk to become the potent force that FDR and the Democratic Party sought to mobilize.

In other moments, the authors acknowledge historical ambiguities, but do not explore them fully. For instance, they write that both the Agricultural Adjustment Act, which helped stabilize farm prices by reducing supply, and the Social Security Act, which provided a safety net for the elderly and the disabled, disproportionately excluded or adversely impacted African Americans. They do not, however, give the same consideration to other New Deal programs like the Tennessee Valley Authority or Works Progress Administration (which also discriminated against non-white workers), or explain why these exclusions were written into law. Recently, scholars have explored the relationship between the New Deal and Jim Crow. Often, Southern politicians only supported New Deal programs and joined FDR’s “New Deal Coalition” on the condition that the racial hierarchy not be undone. The division was so entrenched that southern Democrats bolted the party in 1948 when the Party added a civil rights plank.

800px-Eloy,_Pinal_County,_Arizona._Truck-load_of_cotton_pickers,_just_pulled_into_town_in_the_late_afterno_._._._-_NARA_-_522260
Agricultural laborers in Pinal County, Arizona, 1940. Courtesy of Wikimedia.

Most of “Boom and Bust’s” shortcomings are no fault of the authors. Textbooks are naturally limiting in their ability to convey historical depth and complexity. Editors must make difficult decisions in order to meet the litany of state imposed “learning standards” in a limited amount of space. It is not an enviable task.

Still, The American Vision falls short of many important historiographical trends. Political history, or more accurately Presidential history, is important for students to learn—our democratic government operates (or is at least supposed to) on a legalistic basis. But history is a discipline that at its best seeks to understand the human experience. It studies human beings doing things. A more comprehensive textbook would necessitate more space be given to history “from the bottom up.”

Recommended Readings

Tony Badger, The New Deal: The Depression Years, 1933-40 (New York: Hill and Wang, 1989).

Kevin Boyle, Arc of Justice: A Saga of Race, Civil Rights, and Murder in the Jazz Age (New York: Henry Holt and Company, 2004).

Lizabeth Cohen, Making a New Deal: Industrial Workers in Chicago, 1919-1939 (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1990).

Jefferson Cowie, The Great Exception: The New Deal and the Limits of American Politics (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2016).

Lynn Dumenil, The Modern Temper: American Culture and Society in the 1920s (New York: Hill and Wang, 1995).

Ira Katznelson: Fear Itself: The New Deal and the Origins of Our Time (New York: W.W. Norton and Company, 2013).

David M. Kennedy, Freedom from Fear: The American People in Depression and War, 1929-1945 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999).

Edward J. Larson, Summer for the Gods: The Scopes Trial and America’s Continuing Debate over Science and Religion (New York: Basic Books, 1997).

Notes

[1] Between the 1920s and 1930s, numerous black writers, including Langston Hughes, Richard Wright, Lorraine Hansberry, and Ralph Ellison, identified as being communist or a so-called “fellow traveler.” For more see William J. Maxwell, New Negro, Old Left: African-American Writing and Communism Between the Wars (New York: Columbia University Press, 1999).

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