Young American Transients
A Review of Kriste Lindenmeyer’s The Greatest Generation Grows Up: American Childhood in the 1930s
Kriste Lindenmeyer is the author of books on late nineteenth- and early twentienth-century U.S. history. In 1991, she received her Ph.D. in history from the University of Cincinnati. A supporter of Web-enhanced teaching, she currently resides in Maryland as a professor of history at the University of Maryland.
BY KATHERINE LU
Written by Kriste Lindenmeyer, The Greatest Generation Grows Up: American Childhood in the 1930s details the social trends of children and adolescents during the Great Depression. During this melancholy time period, America saw its young citizens in a dejected, demoralized, and downtrodden state. As people noticed the growing problems among the younger generation, they took action, and the nation changed for the better. Lindenmeyer focuses on the “important shifts in the cultural and legal construction of childhood” while “include[ing] some of the voices of young people born during the 1920s and 1930s” as well.1 Through this book, she immortalizes the lives of children lost during this time and the lives of children that have flourished into the greatest generation that has graced the United States.
In the opening of the book, Lindenmeyer establishes the situation that engendered the social changes she focuses on in the rest of the book. This sets the tone and stage, allowing the reader to truly grasp the significant transformations in the lives of young Americans during the 1930s. Lindenmeyer uses specific examples and then explains the importance of them, such as with Gee’s Bend, Alabama. By exemplifying the Great Depression with this all-black community in the south, the reader understands that life in the 1930s is unimaginably horrific as one “Red Cross administrator in the area remarked… ‘Starvation was terrific.’”2 Moreover, Lindenmeyer predicts the reader’s thought and keeps the reader’s interest in mind, acknowledging that Gee’s Bend is an extreme case of the deprivation experienced by some Americans at the start of the Great Depression; however, many others were not considerably better off than the residents of Gee’s Bend. Lindenmeyer provides a multifaceted point of view for the 1930s, dispelling the preconception that all families suffered due to the economic collapse that marked the beginning of the Great Depression. Even though the period has a negative stigma, Lindenmeyer does not ignore the small percentage of communities that still fared well. The richer families of America managed to escape the nation’s hard times; their children enjoyed commercial luxuries such as toys. Nonetheless, the majority of America was “’ill-housed, ill-clothed, and ill-fed’” according to Franklin Delano Roosevelt, whose New Deal programs alleviated the discomforts of the Great Depression when he was president from 1933 to 1945.3 People’s views on money changed as the lifestyle they once led could not be maintained. As children were forced to witness the strain a lack of money had on their immediate family and others around them, “the 1930s generation tended to be more frugal than those who followed.”4 Glen Solder, a sociologist, also notes that people placed a stronger belief in the ability of money to solve problems. The first quarter of the book also highlights the discouraging condition of America, from high unemployment rates to child labor to “rising ill health.”5
Afterwards, Lindenmeyer focuses on the purpose of her book—children. By outlining the situations of families in the first two chapters, the reader gains an understanding of the reasons for childrens’ behavior and thoughts. The main reason why many children ran away from home was based on pecuniary matters. This generation known as the “transient youth”—their lifestyles were nomadic—did not wish to increase their parents’ burdens, especially if one of them was unemployed.6 The most children could do to help was by doing domestic chores as employers were reluctant to hire children when many older adults were unemployed. For example, one “help-wanted sign… read, ‘Dishwasher wanted—only college graduate need apply.’”7 Some children also suffered from domestic abuse from their mother or father due to the frustration that manifested from financial instability. Other reasons for leaving include being “told to leave” or hoping to “find jobs… elsewhere.”8 Furthermore, a considerable number of young transients “saw the open road as a path to adventure and excitement”— foreshadowing the darkness of an “economic depression and an uncertain future.”9 Since suffering was definite if they stayed at home, the general mentality was they might as well leave to discover a better future. Originally, the “young transients” were unaware of “the dangers associated with riding the rails” as a means of free transportation, “but many were injured or killed in the process.”10 Railroad bulls were also a “major threat to” the safety of young wanderers.10 Police brutality was common since they viewed young transients as criminals in the making; however, they did not understand that for many of the children, their wandering was not an impromptu decision but a necessary choice. In the early 1930s, people acknowledged a national “Youth Problem” because aimless children meandered throughout the U.S. in the search of basic life necessities. Empathy for their situation grew, but the view that they were “potential juvenile delinquents…if not already full-fledged criminals” could not be altered as well as the “racial stereotypes that portrayed all black males as the sexual predators of white females.”11 Soon, the media, including newspapers and movies such as Wild Boys of the Road, was urging the government to intervene and solve the nation’s youth problem. Thomas Patrick Minehan wrote a highly influential book in 1934 titled Boy and Girl Tramps of America that provided an opportunity for the public “to hear the voices of young… transients… to scare [them] into doing something to help American youth.”12 A focus on school also increased as people noticed more years of schooling led to a higher chance of finding a high-paying job.
In the beginning of the latter half of the book, Lindenmeyer depicts an extreme, yet gradual change in American youth. Viewed as a group independent from adults, the youth developed their own consumer and popular culture. Their interests included play and entertainment, “essential parts of the modern childhood ideal popularized during the Great Depression.”13 The establishment of an ideal had a detrimental effect on the psychological development of many children. Because of it, they now felt the growing pressure to mesh with their peers and fit into a mold. Their new consumer culture also gave “advertisers and entertainment executives” a new population to cater to, and thus treat them as “pawns of business interests.”13 A shift in children’s means of entertainment transformed dramatically. Much more were listening to the radio for fifteen-minute programs such as the Little Orphan Annie Show or looking at newspaper comic strips, known as “funnies.” Even though this is a social change, it also resulted in the solidification of traditional American ideals that espoused hard work and popular themes such as good conquering evil. The spread of media also provided new ways for children to learn and exposed them to content that might be considered too mature for their age. Henry James Forman’s book Our Movie-Made Children in 1933 expressed these sentiments by proving movies and radios were “a source of lessons about… kissing and sexual petting.”14 Soon, many other studies started proving that the media had a profound effect on the behavior of young Americans, who were susceptible to imitating the people they see and hear so often; however, an individual culture produced an identity for a people that grew up in a time of uncertainty and instability.
The last part of Lindenmeyer’s book focused on the specific actions the government took to help younger Americans, resulting in the betterment of conditions for children. Many lives were improved from the proliferation of technology like electricity and running water. The agenda of the federal government in their actions was that they “needed to offer a helping hand to America’s youngest citizens so that they could carry on the country’s heritage of democracy, freedom, and opportunity.”15 She also delineated the beginning of the establishment of the “modern childhood,” fostered by the “New Deal Generation.”16 Once again, not all adolescents perceived the government in the same way: there was a unified feeling of a direct connection to it as well as feelings of confusion and frustration “by an America that promoted democracy… while so many policies appeared blatantly unfair.”17 The majority of children, however, expressed positive regards for Roosevelt, his New Deal, and the federal government.
The author’s thesis is that the 1930s, though only one decade, had profound effects on present-day America. Many of the social changes that occurred during this time are still in effect today, such as the ideal childhood model as well as the importance of an education. These changes were greatly in part from the government’s attempts to implement state and federal initiatives. It is because of big government that gave children a new brighter outlook on their future, “touch[ing] the lives of the vast majority of Americans who grew up in the 1930s” even though “help did not reach everyone who needed it.”16
The point of view of the author is that the 1930s were a positive time for children as many acts were passed to protect them from exploitation in the job market as well as keep them in school until they could graduate. As “school officials and states…solicited the federal government for help,” American schools increased in quality due to government involvement in the wellbeing of its younger generation.17 The onset of the 1930s may have been dim, but the proactive behavior of citizens and politicians alike proved to be most effective in amending the wrongs and installing the rights. Lindenmeyer also considers the 1930s as a precedent for future generations concerning social conventions as well as pop culture for children and adolescents. The idea of the traditional American childhood was firmly rooted in the culture, providing an illusion of wholesomeness. A decade of duality, the 1930s coupled the polar opposites of poverty and richness, despair, and hope.
The context time period in which the book was written and published, also known as its historiography, did not affect the content and point of view considerably. The forces that did influence Lindenmeyer in her book are her career and the book which her own title was based upon—The Greatest Generation by Tom Brokaw published in 1998. Because she majored in history with a passion for childrens’ and womens’ role, Lindenmeyer focuses on the social aspects of their lives, wanting “to show how children both influenced and were targets of important social and political changes” of the Great Depression.1 The generation that grew up during the Great Depression earned the title “the greatest generation” because they grew up in restless times, fought in World War II, and made a decisive contribution to the resurgence of the American economy due to the war. Because of the greatest generation, located between the Lost Generation of the 1920s and the Silent Generation of the 1930s, the U.S. transformed into the global superpower it is today.
Generally, Lindenmeyer’s book received positive feedback from professional critics. Richard A. Reiman of South Georgia College holds Lindenmeyer’s book in high regard because of her observations and discussions of “a plethora of government agencies not normally associated with children,” thereby providing a new perspective.18 A negative Reiman noted is that her first person quotes did not “help advance [Lindenmeyer’s] argument” because she had “many provocative claims.”18 The book, nonetheless, is informative of the “changing history of twentieth-century children.”18 Julia Grant has a more positive review, hailing the book as a “remarkably compelling and enlightening account” and “a work of serious historical scholarship.”19
Because of the author’s concise prose, The Greatest Generation is clear and lucid, allowing the reader to absorb the information without any hindrance to his or her understanding of the text. It is also apparent that Lindenmeyer researched the topic thoroughly before embarking on her project in order to have a book teeming with facts and first person accounts. Even though she uses statistics to corroborate her statements, the points Lindenmeyer make are not bogged down by such data; instead, she supplements her thesis appropriately with relevant information, “using archival research and conduct[ing] several oral histories” while also relying on extensive use of edited collections of letters” and “memoirs written by individuals who grew up in the 1930s.”20 It is also interesting to note that even though the number of changes in public policy was overwhelming due to its consequences on the lives of young Americans, Lindenmeyer is direct; it takes great skill to draw from different sources and mesh them together to form a cohesive book. She also organized the book in a logical manner to prevent circuitous passages. Another characteristic of her book that makes it an appealing read is the number of quotes she included—they made the Great Depression come alive as the audience reads the actual words the past generation wrote or enunciated. Lindenmeyer balances the book in order for it to be equally fascinating and informative. The first person accounts are also extremely effective in providing the reader with individual perspectives of the people at that time. While the reader may notice that each person underwent different situations due to varying socioeconomic levels and places of residence, he or she cannot help but notice the similarities that parallel most of the young Americans of the Great Depression and younger generation afterwards. Lindenmeyer takes great care to elucidate the material she presents so that history is not a subject centered on past lives that are irrelevant to the present.
Despite the positive aspects of Lindenmeyer’s book, there were negative parts of it as well. One glaring downside is that it was quite redundant in parts. She constantly reiterated the same ideas in every chapter; originally, this served the purpose of drilling certain important points into her audience, and later understanding its repercussions. Nonetheless, as the book progresses, her good will causes the book to be somewhat dry as its ability to grab the attention of the reader degenerates into an empty abyss. For example, Lindenmeyer concludes that “the 1930s model of childhood became the standard of American life,” but that insight has been repeated five times before.21 In fact, she foreshadowed this statement in the first chapter, referring to “the twentieth century’s ideal of modern childhood.”22 As the new content subsides in the book, so does the interest level in the readers and the amount of information that is learned.
According to Lindenmeyer, the 1930s was a watershed in cultural history. It created the social norm that is still in effect today. Even though the “model of childhood” from the 1930s is “still unattainable for too many,” the ideal is still there, a permanent part of the American culture.21 The 1930s created an atmosphere of new means of living, getting information, playing, and thinking. A unique American culture arose from the 1930s almost overnight. The 1930s digressed from past beliefs, such as new perspectives about sex and gender roles. One-fourth of females admitted to premarital sexual relations in high school, and Nancy Drew books challenged gender roles. Besides a time of great change for children, it was also the nascent start of a great change for women.
The 1930s were in fact a time of profound change—not only in the lives of adults, but also children and adolescents. Many sources ignore the effect government actions have on the younger generation, but Lindenmeyer revealed there are more effects than the ones apparent on the surface. The 1930s are a watershed because they created an entirely new culture and tradition typical of American values and beliefs. The 1930s was an era that cannot be quantified -- having underwent many changes from the beginning to the end. Even though it was only a decade long, the effects were long-lasting. Americans seventeen and under were now protected by the federal government because they were considered “a special group apart from adults.”24 It established a new mindset and new public policies, creating the greatest generation that has ever lived.
1: Lindenmeyer, Kriste. The Greatest Generation Grows Up. Chicago: Ivan R. Dee, 2005. 3.
Born in San Gabriel, California, Katherine Lu has resided in Taiwan, Canada, and Nevada before moving to Irvine. She is the president of the American Cancer Society Club and president-elect of Youth Action Team. With her love of literature, she aspires to get into a liberal arts college.
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