instagram pinterest linkedin facebook twitter goodreads

The Great Depression: America, 1929-1941

“A vivid interpretation of the era, written in a lively . . . style.” – PUBLISHERS WEEKLY

Robert McElvaine’s sweeping and authoritative history of the Great Depression has long been acknowledged as one of the best and most readable studies of the era. Combining clear-eyed insight into the machinations of politicians and economists who struggled to revive the battered economy, personal stories from the average people who were hardest hit by an economic crisis beyond their control, and the popular culture of the decade, McElvaine paints an epic picture of an America brought to its knees—but also brought together by people’s widely shared plight.

In this interpretive history, McElvaine discusses the causes and the results of the worst depression in American history, covering the time from 1929 to 1941. He examines the causes of this catacylmic event, its impact upon the American people, and the political, governmental, and cultural responses to it. He comes down firmly in favor of the "demand-side" argument that maldistribution of income in the 1920s having left the bulk of potential consumers with too small a share of national income to buy all that mass production was putting on the market was the principal cause of the collapse. Building on his innovative use of letters written by "ordinary" Americans during the Depression that were collected in his first book, Down and Out in the Great Depression, McElvaine takes readers into the experience of Depression victims to an extent never before achieved.

The book was among the first to use popular culture, especially film, as an important resource in understanding the mood of a time. The book has stayed constantly in print since its publication. A second edition was published in 1993, coinciding with the eight-part PBS television series, The Great Depression, for which this book was a major resource. A 25th-anniversary edition, with a comprehensive new introduction comparing the circumstances leading up to the financial collapse of 2008 with those in the 1920s that led to the Great Depression, was published by Three Rivers, an imprint of Crown Publishing, late in 2009.

A new introduction to the book's 25th anniversary edition looks back at the original publication of the book in the midst of the Reagan Revolution and supply-side “Reagonomics.” McElvaine draws striking parallels between the roots of the Great Depression and the economic meltdown that followed in the wake of the credit crisis of 2008—a collapse that he had predicted more than a year before. He also examines the resurgence of anti-regulation free market ideology, arguing that some economists and politicians revised history and ignored the lessons of the Depression era, resulting in a collapse in 2008 that was caused by repeating the mistakes of the 1920s.

“McElvaine has written a book that is at once a thorough work of scholarship, a lively story, and a highly original feat of analysis that has a good deal of contemporary relevance.” – BUSINESS WEEK

“Robert McElvaine’s lively account is unique. Unlike authors who limit their attention to Roosevelt or the New Deal, McElvaine offers a sweeping view of the Great Depression and its impact—on women as well as men, black as well as white, on popular culture, especially the film, and, most ambitiously, on American values.” – William E. Leuchtenburg, author of Franklin D. Roosevelt and the New Deal

“Fair-minded, incisive, thoroughly informed and eminently readable, The Great Depression is a fine account of the ordeal of the 1930s—one that does justice to the social and cultural dimensions of economic crisis as well as to its political and economic impact.” – Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr.

“Bob McElvaine’s reflections on the Great Depression recreate one of the most dramatic and traumatic times in the history of our country. With our sense of past imperiled, this is essential reading.” – Studs Terkel

“This is one of the best books anybody has attempted on this amazing era . . . . McElvaine is an uncommonly talented writer who knows how to clarify the mysteries of a complex subject. He does it with a disarming lack of academic ponderousness.” – SACRAMENTO BEE

“A vivid view of the Depression . . . . It is in the portrayal of the suffering where The Great Depression is at its best. . . . a scholarly but human [statement] that still manages to strike the heart quite often." – DALLAS TIMES-HERALD