Happiness Follows Achievement
A Review of Nick Taylor’s American-Made
Nick Taylor was born in Asheville, North Carolina. He graduated high school in 1963 and then went to Western Carolina College. He has written seven nonfiction books and collaborated with John Glenn on his memoir. Taylor moved to New York in 1984, where he still currently lives in New York City with his wife Barbara, an investigative reporter for the local news.
BY ALLISON VAN KIRK
During the 1930s, America endured the worst economic crisis that it had ever seen. Numerous factors heightened and worsened this, but perhaps the most substantial influence was the inability of the Hoover administration to handle this time of trouble for America. When Franklin Delano Roosevelt came to office, he knew that there had to be a change. In American-Made: the Enduring Legacy of the WPA: When FDR Put the Nation to Work, Nick Taylor chronicles the works of FDR and Harry Hopkins, “a lightning rod for action,” and their founding of the Works Progress Administration (WPA) that would help alleviate the growing effects of poverty on the nation.1 It was the WPA, though possibly the most controversial and criticized program of the New Deal at the time, that would help to get America back onto its feet. As FDR stated, “Happiness lies in the joy of achievement and the thrill of creative effort”; the WPA would be working hard to create that happiness and joy.2
In 1932, conditions in America began to gradually worsen. Nearly 13 million men and women were unemployed, and, consequently, more families began to slip into poverty and lose their homes. Thousands of banks closed as panicked families flocked to them to withdraw their money. In 1931, the government voted that “needed relief should be provided through private contributions and by state and local governments.”3 There were local attempts to aid the millions who were suffering, but they were haphazard and often on such a small-scale as to prevent any substantial improvement. Soon, millions were crying out for help on the federal scale, but Hoover still refused and tried to convince America numerous times that they had “now passed the worst…the depression is over.”4 However, as time continued, a more false statement could not have been uttered. It was hard for many of those in Washington to understand what the majority of Americans were really going through. During the depression, there were two Americas coexisting side by side but never actually intermingling: a rich America and a poor one. Business owners began the practices of speed-ups and stretch-outs to make workers do more work in less time for the same amount of money; furthermore, they received the support of the Supreme Court, who took a pro-business stance during this time period. As the election of 1932 approached, feelings toward Hoover were nothing but sour; accordingly, FDR ran essentially as the anti-Hoover. A “gregarious [man who], laughed easily, and was quick to smile,” FDR quickly won over the nation, especially with his plans for emergency public works to provide jobs.5 Once in office, Roosevelt instantly began to implement his professed plan for intervening into the ever-worsening economic crisis. Roosevelt, along with the help of a man named Harry Hopkins, created numerous works programs in an attempt to aid the nation. They created the Temporary Emergency Relief Administration (TERA), Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC), the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA), the Public Works Administration (PWA), the National Recovery Administration (NRA), and the Civil Works Administration, or the CWA, which would become the sister program of the WPA. But a majority of these programs were created for a more temporary relief. Furthermore, these programs were heavily criticized, and many hired by them reluctantly took their jobs because they worked under poor conditions. As a result, some of these programs, such as the CWA, only lasted a brief time.
Once the CWA was over, however, the government looked for new programs to implement to try and further ease the impoverished condition of the nation. New programs began spring up under Harold Ickes, who was a sort of rival of Hopkins. Ickes oversaw the PWA. However, Roosevelt began to work on “the most comprehensive work plan in the history of the nation.”6 In April 1935, founded by the Emergency Relief Appropriation Act of that same year, the Works Progress Administration emerged. The WPA was the largest program created during the Great Depression and employed millions of Americans to carry out public works projects, such as creating public roads, buildings, or even art and literary projects. And when hurricanes ripped through the Keys in Florida, the canal work that was needed after attracted laborers, even from as far away as New York or California. Jobs like these that fueled a reputation of the WPA for disaster response, especially because of the cooperation with the Red Cross, the National Guard, and other military and law enforcement agencies. However, a large majority of the WPA’s jobs were concentrated in the vast array of building projects that employed men of varying skills. It also gave out jobs as books carriers – to bring books by horseback to people in the countryside who did not have easy access to the literature. However, the WPA received heavy criticism from all sides of the spectrum something it would endure during almost all eight years of its existence. However Roosevelt continued to encourage support or work relief as an obligation of the government.
Not only did the WPA dabble in construction, but also there were many arts programs. The Federal Art Project (FAP) was one of the divisions of the WPA created under Federal Project One. It was the FAP, which provided the widest reach, creating over 5,000 jobs for artists and producing over 225,000 works of art for the American people. In addition to numerous arts projects, the WPA also employed men and women in theater projects. For the theater projects, there was no shortage of exciting and stage-appropriate events happening around the world. Perhaps the event that attracted the most attention was in the fall of 1935 with Mussolini’s invasion of Ethiopia. This attack was accompanied by biplanes and bombers of the Regia Aeronautica that “rained explosives and mustard gas down on civilian villages” providing an excellent source of ‘drama’ for the theater projects to replicate.7 These plays were not just shabby, high school plays. Once Macbeth performance was described as extremely entertaining and when “the curtain rose… the thunder of drums and an orgy of voodoo incantations” could be heard throughout the theater.8 The WPA’s theater projects operated in about thirty-one states. Some of these projects even overflowed into other locations.
The last chapters of this work take a step back to World War I and continues through World War II. Though seemingly random, this chapter was added perhaps because the Great Depression and Roosevelt’s New Deal were sandwiched in between these two wars. He discusses the festering movements that sprung up in America as a result of these two wars. However, the White House was alarmed that there was a view “that America could ignore the would and isolate itself behind the protective oceans that flanked its coasts.”9 But the reference to the World Wars served as a prelude to the issue that presented itself during the Great Depression. With the nation’s spirits dropping and its hope waning, Socialists and Communists found the foothold they need to spread their radical ideas. Seeing their government fail them and leave out to dry, some Americans joined the Communist Party in hopes of change. However, after the Red Scare that occurred in the early 1920s, many were not going to risk it. Furthermore, if workers “declined to sign the loyalty oath” they “were summarily dismissed.”10 At the end of the book, the reader sees the end of the WPA after eight years of providing jobs and an income to millions of Americans. But the WPA “died because it no longer had a reason to exist.”11 At the close of the New Deal, America was coming to the brink of World War II, which would provide a stimulus for many industries such as factories that would turn out planes, warships, cargo vessels; as well as guns and ammunition; or jeeps, tanks, tires, clothing, boots, or medical supplies. The WPA was not needed anymore; suddenly there was a high demand for for soldiers and workers in war industries. In his American-Made: The Enduring Legacy of the WPA: When FDR Put the Nation to Work, Taylor chronicles the work that the public works program, created by Franklin Delano Roosevelt, did, and more specifically, what the WPA accomplished. America in the 1930s saw hard times, not just for a few, scattered Americans, but for millions of previously hard-working Americans. Vast numbers of men and women were out of jobs leaving them no way to provide for their families, and many were left wondering where their next dime would come from, or if anything would ever come at all. According to Taylor, the Hoover administration worsened the crisis by refusing to intervene on the federal level and not providing any relief. Furthermore, Hoover was delusional and strongly convinced that all “this country need[ed was] a good big laugh.”12 However, once FDR took office, all this changed. Roosevelt immediately had the federal government step in and take charge. He implemented numerous works programs to try and alleviate the poverty that millions of Americans were suffering from. The strongest and most successful program was the WPA, which was the most permanent, and perhaps the most successful, of the programs and provided millions of Americans with jobs. It is largely thanks to the WPA, and not just laughter, that America was able to get back on its feet after the Great Depression.
Taylor’s point of view in this work is all over the place, changing ever so slightly as he discusses one time period and changes to another, or talks about countess different people. But one thing is for certain: Taylor strongly dislikes Hoover, his administration, and the incompetence that came of it – which is not a completely unusual opinion. After demonstrating his inability to handle crises, Hoover is not the most popular president. Furthermore, Taylor praises the Roosevelt administration and all the public works programs that were created during the New Deal. But he does not openly write his praise, but rather conveys his approval through tone. Taylor also hands a large amount of credit to the WPA and assumes that it was the best program of the New Deal, which is not necessarily a false assumption. The WPA did provide countless jobs for men and women and provided their families with a source of income, and with it meals, but more importantly, pride. He writes that the “breadlines and shantytowns were a bad memory, now…the WPA had made it possible to forget them.”13 In accordance, he intentionally shed a bad light on Hoover and his administration while talking more positively about FDR and his New Deal programs.
Historiography can have a huge impact on how a book finally looks and sounds by the time it is published. It can ultimately change and shape the point view of the writer. For example, American-Made was published in 2008, right around the time that our nation began to sink into a new depression. Our economic situation at the time was declining with no obvious signs of improvement. In fact, as America began to face another recession in 2008, more eyes began to turn back to the 1930s when Americans suffered from a similar crisis. Taylor published his book in 2008 because, like many other Americans, he too had taken a look back into the past – he had been looking to the past for solutions to the future. In fact, had America not been going through an economic situation that seemed to perfectly parallel what had begun in 1930s, then perhaps Taylor would not have had such a close eye on the WPA and its accomplishments. In conclusion, because of the current situation at the time that Taylor began to write American-Made, his writing largely reflects what was happening in 2008 as well as seeming to be a solution coming back from the past.
The topic of the New Deal is extremely intriguing and interesting to study. All the different programs are also interesting in their own right. This book, though interesting, is extremely similar to an encyclopedia. Taylor provides countless facts and statistics about that time period to his work, which does add his credibility, but it makes for a lackluster read. Taylor often writes sentences such as “the WPA spent about $10.5 million and employed 8.5 million persons since its inception in 1935 and…it had sent back $105 million in unspent funds and $25 million worth of supplies and materials to the U.S. Treasury.”14 Though probably very accurate, over the course of the book, a multitude of facts and statistics bombard the reader with more specific information than is necessary for understanding the WPA – and probably more than the reader ever wanted or needed to know. On the other hand, Taylor wrote in short and brief chapters of about three to four pages each. This made all the numbers and facts he provided much easier to swallow and more manageable. Also, if there is not a sentence loaded with facts and statistics, then there is a sentence written in simple, colloquial terms that make his book easy to understand for everyone – not just the Harvard-educated super historian. But many of these short chapters do not seem to hold a lot of relevance – or at least they seem to have been placed out of order, as if they were placed there by mistake. Taylor jumps around, crossing numerous time periods as well as geographical boundaries and discusses numerous men and women he feels are important to the tale of the WPA. Many are. However, some of the men and women that he describes in detail seem to have little if any relevance. But if they must be talked about then they could probably have been dealt with in a few sentences or a paragraph rather than an entire chapter.
Due to the recent recession that were are presently going through, many people have returned to American Made as a point of reference and as a relevant source for the solutions it provides about a similar crisis. As a result many reviews have been written in length about this work. For example, in one review, Elinor Teele writes that American-Made “is the story of how American energy, administration, and improvisation coalesced in one of the country’s finest hours.”15 This review goes on to describe the neutrality of Taylor’s writing. He describes the main and most important men and women of his book as both a “saint…[and] a sinner.”16 Also, Taylor writes directly and bluntly – in a way as to avoid confusion on the reader’s part, yet still sound elegant and not rough or uneducated. Taylor is described as being witty and having fervor, which he uses to include the personal histories of the WPA to provide an opportunity for the readers to, maybe not relate, but at least be able empathize easier with fellow human beings who suffered during a crisis that seems to be paralleling our current economic situation.
Another similar review reaffirms the fact that Taylor “interweaves personal stories with explanations of policy.”17 Furthermore, they note “his brisk manner” as Taylor uses small chapters of about four or five pages, which seem to fly by.18 Taylor is praised for his attempt at neutrality by providing both the good and the bad of the different sides of the story, rather than heavily praising Roosevelt or trying to cut him down completely, which is easy to do. Furthermore, they write, “no one should want to see the WPA experiment repeated.”19 Though the WPA did demonstrate that democracy could act decisively in a national emergency, to achieve the same political circumstances that made the success of the WPA possible, it would mean that America would have to relive the economic circumstances as well.
Recently, we have begun to go into a “recession.” Because of this economic problem we seem to be facing, many have returned to reading this book because of its relevance to our current situation. Taylor said that he hopes that this book could be used as “one of the sources where Barack Obama and his new administration may find some answers to dealing with the new hard times.”20 He hopes that he has provided a detailed description of what worked and what should and should not be done when dealing with an economic crisis. But, it its own right, this work opens the readers eyes on a watershed in America’s history. During this time period there was a drastic change in political practices from one administration to another. The Hoover administration, as well as many other presidents throughout history, was reluctant to give so much power to the federal government; or if they were not afraid to take power, then they were reluctant to use that power for the benefit of the local man. But Franklin Delano Roosevelt was the opposite. His entire campaign when he ran for president in 1932 was based on his promise to send in federal help to those suffering from the Great Depression. Furthermore, where Hoover refused to inject the federal government into the problems of the common man, FDR addressed their problems head on. He created programs specifically to help alleviate the poverty that millions of Americans were suffering from.
American-Made provides an increasingly relevant example of perhaps some of the darkest times in American history, but also the successes of the government and of democracy in providing relief for millions of sufferers. Furthermore, it provides an extremely factual account of the Great Depression as well as the New Deal. Though Taylor’s opinion, like all writers, is ever present in his story, a majority of his work is facts, providing the reader with a deeper understanding of the New Deal, the WPA, and the ways that it saved America.
1: Taylor, Nick. American-Made: The Enduring Legacy of the WPA: When FDR Put the Nation to Work. New York: Bantam Dell, 2008. 2.
Allison Van Kirk was born in Indio, California to Richard and Betty Van Kirk in June 1993. She has one younger brother named Jackson and two pets: a dog, Jessie, and a cat, Molly. She is currently playing water polo as well as swimming at the high school.
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