The Real Great Depression?
Amity Shlaes does not believe in playing it safe.
In 2007 she issued the original edition of The Forgotten Man: A New History of the Great Depression, which dared to badly dent the established shibboleths regarding America’s Great Depression and how Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal did—or did not—dealt with it.
In 2013, she departed the beaten path still more provocatively, resuscitating the reputation of the much-maligned Calvin Coolidge. Coolidge defied all odds and joined The Forgotten Man in achieving best-seller status.
Having placed such high-stakes bets and won, she doubled back—and doubled-down—to collaborate on a “graphic” version of The Forgotten Man, which is likely the first major use of that medium for conservative nonfiction.
It was, to say the least, a helluva gamble.
Before we judge its success, let’s circle round and revisit the narrative of the Great Depression that Shlaes conveys in both formats—traditional and graphic—of this title.
Liberal orthodoxy and popular opinion has anointed Franklin Roosevelt as a dual national savior—in times of war and of peace. His leadership certainly brought America to victory in 1945. The efficacy of his domestic leadership is certainly less tangible. While the nation recovered quickly from its previous depression (of 1920–21), the Great Depression lingered on, not only through the remainder of the unfortunate Herbert Hoover’s term, but through two full terms of Franklin Roosevelt.
Ms. Shlaes’s first edition of The Forgotten Man not only deftly explains why and how that happened, it weaves a tapestry of disparate characters, all of whom played significant parts in that immense national tragedy: FDR and Herbert Hoover, of course; utilities executives Wendell Willkie and Samuel Insull; Treasury Secretaries Andrew Mellon and Henry Morgenthau Jr.; Brain Truster Rexford Tugwell; New Dealers David Lillienthal, Marriner Eccles, and Harold Ickes; and, last, but certainly not least, the National Recovery Administration–challenging Brooklyn poultry vendors, the Schechter Brothers. For good measure, we are treated to two Depression-era figures diverging from the path of government intervention, two proponents of traditional American self-help: the controversial Harlem evangelist “Father Divine” and Alcoholics Anonymous founder Bill Wilson, aka “Bill W.”
It is a refreshing antidote to facile and conventional orthodoxy, boldly reminding us that government intervention did not “solve” the Great Depression, and that unemployment remained abnormally high thoughout the decade. It reminds us too of the vengeful prosecutions of Depression scapegoats Insull and Mellon, of Roosevelt’s ill-considered “court-packing” scheme, and, above all, of the influence of Soviet-style centralized planning initiatives—and their ultimate and inevitable failures.
Publishers Weekly praised Shlaes’s 2007 book as a “thoughtful, even-tempered corrective to too-often unbalanced celebrations of FDR.” Readers, particularly conservatives and libertarians, certainly agreed.
Which brings us to this new graphic edition. One is tempted, of course, to blurt out “graphic novel” edition, but this, of course, is no novel, no work of fiction. Graphic novels have been enjoying increasing popularity at least since Art Spiegelman’s Maus (1991) won the Pulitzer Prize. Tom Hanks’s 2002 movie Road to Perdition was based on Max Allan Collins’s 1998 work of the same name. The late leftist historian Howard Zinn certainly enjoyed good luck with the graphic adaptation of his nonfiction A People’s History of the American Empire.
Older readers may also recall fondly the post-war Classics Illustrated series of illustrated books that faithfully recreated scores of literary classics as graphic novels, occasionally also venturing into nonfiction, usually exploring Wild West themes. Concurrently, parochial school students were treated to the monthly Treasure Chest comics, a surprisingly well-executed mix of illustrated nonfiction, fiction, and, not surprisingly, theology.
The concept is thus not new. But everything old is new again. And so The Forgotten Man’s print edition assumed a new identity, a fresh format in a still-innovative medium. Changes in media demand revisions in both form and substance. A book cannot translate exactly to the screen. A film cannot be transported in total to the television screen—or vice versa. And so it is here, but it cannot be said that the result is a diminution in quality. Certainly there is less data in the new edition—at least in facts and figures, though the amount of data transmitted within the graphic edition’s myriad of pen-and-ink panels is simply staggering. And it is remarkably accurate. Yes, that is what the New York State Governor’s Mansion looks like. Yes, that is the type of china sold in England (and perhaps used by John Maynard Keynes) in the 1930s, and so on.
Both editions commence in the same fashion with the sad tale of Depression-era despair and suicide. It is not a case of Hoover-era tragedy but a product of continued economic stagnation in Franklin Roosevelt’s second term in the fall of 1937. In both formats the story is a bit of a tease. We are not initially informed that this is 1937. That bit of information is the in-your-gut punchline. The telling may indeed work better in the graphic novel, as do many other incidents, though the original book better conveys the more complex concepts and incidents.
Perhaps the greatest single adjustment here is the decision to employ Wendell Willkie as the narrator. Willkie may not be every conservative’s cup of tea, but here he serves his purpose. His switch from mainstream Democrat to aggrieved businessman to anti-interventionist (non-caped) crusader fills the bill.
It must be noted that Shlaes did not produce the graphic edition single-handed. She may be talented, but if her skill-set includes technically producing graphic “novels,” that has escaped my notice. Fortunately, HarperCollins chose not to skimp with the duo of skilled professionals who have turn her words and ideas into something else quite again.
Both text adapter Chuck Dixon and illustrator Paul Rivoche are veterans of the graphic form, and they have outdone themselves here. The Toronto-based Rivoche’s rendering of Dorothea Lange’s famed “Migrant Mother” photo is particularly riveting, though it may be unfair to single out any single drawing.
“Migrant Mother” occupies but one panel. Franklin Roosevelt occupies many. The Shlaes-Dixon-Rivoche team reached an interesting decision in this regard, invariably portraying him from the rear or in silhouette, much as presidents were once discretely depicted in Hollywood films, in obvious homage to their high office. This was, however, not the current authors’ rationale. Nor was it their thought to render him more mysterious (though many FDR edicts were indeed mysterious, such as the arbitrary manner in which he set the price of gold). Their idea actually was to downplay Roosevelt, for The Forgotten Man is not really about him. It is about something much bigger—about economic forces and centralizing planning—and how to wreck an economy and to keep it wrecked.
There is the occasional hiccup here. The account of Calvin Coolidge’s death, for example, is strangely off-kilter. But as noted, different media call for different production values. Despite the ranks of copy editors and line editors, acquisition editors, managing editors, and editors-in-chief at publishing houses, books are, nonetheless, solitary efforts (I have been on both sides of this divide). Still, in immensely collaborative efforts like films, TV shows, and plays, many a fact (or even the simplest thought) has been strangled in translation. It is remarkable how few times facts have suffered that fate in these new pages.
The result is a sprightly and spectacular black-and-white kaleidoscope of people and events, a history as it is meant to be told. As Amity Shlaes herself now likes to say: “Graphic novels are a gateway drug to content.”
That may be an inelegant phrase, but with so many other forms of communication serving as mere dead ends on the information superhighway, or pernicious detours to incessant celebrity gossip, perhaps a gateway drug can serve as cure rather than disease. The Forgotten Man, Graphic Edition falls somewhere in such a spectrum between penicillin and the Salk Vaccine. Bravo.
David Pietrusza is the author of three books on twentieth-century presidential elections (1920, 1948, and 1960), as well as three volumes on President Calvin Coolidge. He is working on a study of the 1932 elections.
Posted: July 13, 2014
What We’re Reading (Summer 2015)