The Great Depression: America, 1929-1941

Robert S. McElvaine

Three Rivers 1993
A book review by Danny Yee © 2004
McElvaine's account of the Great Depression in the United States is a straightforward narrative, largely chronological. Its emphasis is on people and politics, with portraits of Hoover and Roosevelt and descriptions of events and conflicts in and around elections, parties and factions, Congress, workers' organisations, relief programs, and so forth.

There's no serious attempt at economic history — there's not a single table of figures — but the economic debates about the Depression and its causes are touched on in the opening chapters. There's much more depth to the social history, though that is mostly approached from the perspective of planners and programs; for the views of ordinary Americans, McElvaine draws heavily on the letters written to Eleanor and Franklin Roosevelt. There's also a (fascinating to me) account of the Federal Theatre Project and the other "art" relief projects.

McElvaine also attempts to place the Depression in the broader currents of US history, with a particular focus on large-scale, long-term changes in attitudes and values. This sometimes seems over-simplistic, but does give his narrative a guiding framework: the only real awkwardness comes with attempts to link the Great Depression to current politics (the work first appeared in 1984 during Ronald Reagan's presidency; this 1993 edition adds only a new introduction).

Little background is assumed by The Great Depression — I had no problems following it despite my sketchy knowledge of United States history — and McElvaine's approach makes for easy reading. As well as making a fine introduction, it provides a basis for further more specialised reading.

December 2004

External links:
- buy from or
Related reviews:
- books about the United States + American history
- more modern history
- more social history
%T The Great Depression
%S America, 1929-1941
%A McElvaine, Robert S.
%I Three Rivers
%D 1993
%O 2nd edition, paperback, references, index
%G ISBN 0812923278
%P 402pp