In The Forgotten Man, Amity Shlaes, one of the nation’s most-respected economic commentators, offers a striking reinterpretation of the Great Depression. She traces the mounting agony of the New Dealers and the moving stories of individual citizens who through their brave perseverance helped establish the steadfast character we recognize as American today.
This breezy narrative comes from the pen of a veteran journalist and economics reporter. Rather than telling a new story, she tells an old one (scarcely lacking for historians) in a fresh way. Shlaes brings to the tale an emphasis on economic realities and consequences, especially when seen from the perspective of monetarist theory, and a focus on particular individuals and events, both celebrated and forgotten (at least relatively so). Thus the spotlight plays not only on Andrew Mellon, Wendell Wilkie and Rexford Tugwell but also on Father Divine and the Schechter brothers—kosher butcher wholesalers prosecuted by the federal National Recovery Administration for selling “sick chickens.” As befits a former writer for the Wall Street Journal, Shlaes is sensitive to the dangers of government intervention in the economy—but also to the danger of the government’s not intervening. In her telling, policymakers of the 1920s weren’t so incompetent as they’re often made out to be—everyone in the 1930s was floundering and all made errors—and WWII, not the New Deal, ended the Depression. This is plausible history, if not authoritative, novel or deeply analytical. It’s also a thoughtful, even-tempered corrective to too often unbalanced celebrations of FDR and his administration’s pathbreaking policies. 16 pages of b&w photos.