Tuesday, January 12, 2016

Alison Collis Greene's "No Depression in Heaven"

Alison Collis Greene is Assistant Professor of History at Mississippi State University.

She applied the “Page 99 Test” to her new book, No Depression in Heaven: The Great Depression, the New Deal, and the Transformation of Religion in the Delta, and reported the following:
From page 99:
December 1932

Hopeful out-of-work Arkansans began to appear before brand-new county committees organized to distribute Hoover’s Reconstruction Finance Corporation (RFC) work relief in the fall of 1932. Finally, the federal government had acknowledged the urgency of their need, and the state of Arkansas welcomed the RFC loans despite its own financial troubles. Those loans came with rules that promised not just work, but work for black and white men both at decent, albeit hardly generous, wages—twenty cents an hour for unskilled labor, and up to forty cents an hour for skilled workers. Eight hours a day at that rate and a man could put a little food on the table and maybe even a new pair of shoes on one of the kids’ feet. It seemed almost too good to be true.

Of course it was. Surely men’s hearts sank when they showed up to inquire about work and saw the same planters who distributed—and more often withheld—Red Cross relief also serving on the RFC committees. If Arkansas planters had any particular genius, it was too often aimed at slashing a poor man’s wages. After all, higher wages off the plantation meant fewer desperate cotton pickers on it.

True to form, each county’s planter-led committee crafted its own clever work relief plan—with emphasis on the work rather than the relief. In Phillips County, the committee assigned unemployed men to paint the county courthouse in Helena. Such skilled work usually brought forty cents an hour, but the committee set the rate at twenty. Wealthy locals were so pleased to find skilled men working for such low wages that they showed up at the courthouse and told them they would pay the same rate for the men to come paint their houses too. It looked like the RFC would bring down already-low wages in the county, which suited those paying them just fine.
Some context: No Depression in Heaven is a book about religion and the Great Depression—about the ways that people tried to make sense of the Depression and create a more livable world from the chaos that surrounded them, and the ways that religious communities engaged that process, both theologically and materially. On the latter front, religious agencies did a lot to help people out before the Depression, but it wasn’t enough even then. And that was before everything fell apart. By 1931, churches were barely scraping by, and they could hardly help anyone. They clamored for what became the New Deal in a fairly unified way, although of course that unity didn’t last, and I talk about that too.

In one sense, I fail the page 99 test, because my 99th page isn’t in the middle of a chapter. It is the first page of Part III, “The New Deal.” Each new part opens with a short narrative that provides a ground-level view of events and sets the stage for the chapters to follow.

But this page also highlights one of the things I wanted the book to do. You’re nearly halfway through the book before Roosevelt arrives. When we think about the 1930s, we often hasten to get to the (imperfect) solutions to the Depression, but for a good while there wasn’t a solution. There was just a sort of stunned agony and a lot of floundering. I talk a lot about that. This vignette also shows the problems with local administration of aid—it means the reproduction of local injustices.

The narrative begins after Roosevelt’s election, but before he took office, in December 1932. Herbert Hoover’s Reconstruction Finance Corporation made loans to the states for aid, and this excerpt is about where they went in the Delta.
Learn more about No Depression in Heaven at the Oxford University Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue