Tales of Distress

One Third of a Nation: Lorena Hickok Reports on the Great Depression Edited by Richard Lowitt and Maurine Beasly University of Illinois Press; 378 pp; $18.95

A FEW WEEKS AGO, Newsweek featured a special report on poverty in America. Ceaselessly, it alleged, the current Administration has waged war against the nation's poor, not merely with social programs discontinued or relief aid discouraged, but with a pronounced philosophy of indifference. Taking the President to task with charts and figures, of welfare programs slashed and unemployment roles overburdened, the magazine painted a picture of poverty and inequality. Its few photographs and interviews contributed to an impression of squalor and wretchedness.

Debunking those doctrines that go by the moniker of Reaganomics has little to do with economic ideology; it's hard to get impassioned or poetic about interest rates and budget deficits. Newsweek deserves credit for disentangling these issues of fiscal and monetary consistency from a more urgent one. "And the poor get poorer," its headline cried out, overburned on a more forceful epigram--the color photograph of a pale young girl, frail, lips parched, and with a gaze, projected out of dreary-blue irises, of a spirit struck with morbid hopelessness.

Editors Richard Lowitt and Maureen Beasley, too, begin their book on Lorena Hickok with such an epigram of economic dismay. In the words of Franklin D. Roosevelt:

I see millions of families trying to live on incomes so meager that the pall of family disaster hangs over them day by day... I see one third of a nation ill-housed, ill-clad, ill-nourished.

For those of us in an age where electronic impressions guide opinion and sentiment more effectively than all else. Hickok's reporting during the Great Depression serves as a positive example of thoughtful reporting not shrill cant.

Passionate but without the headline-grabbing mania of a young reporter, she travelled the United States from 1933 to 1937. Hired by the chief of several federal relief programs, she interviewed recipients of federal assistance. Charged by her boss with giving as honest an account as possible. Hickok spoke with countless needy Americans, along with businessmen, relief workers, and countless standers-by who watched with alarm as America's "golden age of individualism" withered under the exigencies of a depressed economy. Her dispatches, collected in this volume, read effortlessly. Loathe to embellish her account of what she saw or heard, her portraits of towns in distress often sing with the openness of a fair appraisal.

THE EDITORS wisely leave out mention of Hickok's alleged affair with Eleanor Roosevelt, for Hickok's importance lies only in her reporting for the Federal Relief Administration. Apathy and despair, hope and joyfulness, take on real meaning in her smoothly-styled prose. Often she becomes emphatic--in her concerned voice for the poverty-stricken or her impatience with the laziness she perceived among the Blacks she interviewed. (The editors don't spare Hickok's prejudices. In Negroes of the deep South, she sees only laziness and irresponsibility--no doubt bred from the legacy of paternalism and slavery.)

Lorena Hickok observer occasionally becomes Lorena Hickok prophet. In a letter to Eleanor Roosevelt from North Dakota, she describes the squalor and degradation of a family of farm laborors: no shoes or stockings, feet purple with cold. Only one bed, with dirty pillows, a ragged mattress, and a blanket in tatters. "This," she concludes "is the stuff that farm strikes and agrarian revolutions are made of Communist agitators are in here now, working among these people, I was told. What to do about it--I don't know." And again, from Houston, the strains of the emerging impatience: She tells of businessmen and their desire for compulsion, their willingness to take orders--to have a dictator end the incessant haggling.

The task for philosophers, Marx said, is not to interpret the world, but to change it. As Hickok never pretends to philosophy, there can be no faulting her unwillingness to call for change. What a reader finds in her reporting, instead, might prove more enduring. With her sensitivity, her thirst for detail, and above all, her sincerity, Lorena Hickok succeeded in finding what radical social theorists have merely postulated to exist--that among us which is human. In taking to the home' of America, and then, reporting what she felt, Lorena Hickok avoided the flaw that undermined other 1930's writers, from John Steinbeck to Malcolm Cowley. No golden mountains, no grapes of wrath, no morality play--she gives us a vision of the America that peers out from that frail cover-girl's eyes. It's an image as haunting as it is compelling.