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The summer of one's senior year is traditionally a time for a last fleeting bout of irresponsibility before Entering the Great World That Lies Before You. The members of the class of 1929 took off for a summer in Europe or a season of sailing with all the seriousness of a group of children setting out on a picnic. For, the world of June, 1929 was, if not an oyster, at least a picnic, a beautifully tranquil, world in which happy boys and girls romped under a gentle sun while the stock market rose in an always ascending curve.
In the fall of 1929 the young men returned to begin serious work in advertising firms, brokerage houses, and graduate schools. They had been settled down for approximately three weeks when the bottom fell out of their world.
The stock market cracked and then crashed. On Wall Street brokers rushed frantically about, trying to salvage something from the debacle. The effect on Wall Street was immediate, but it took longer for the sound of The Crash of October 24 to reach the quiet streets of Cambridge for not until November 1 did the CRIMSON comment on the events of the previous days.
"The activities of the New York stock market in the past week," commented the CRIMSON urbanely "have doubtless lent force to the opinions of the more austere European critics who have so often blamed this country for the lack of continental finesse of the pursuit of this world's goods."
Predicts Some 'Ill-Effects'
But the editorial did recognize that the crash was more than a temporary set-back. "It is inconceivable that business conditions will not be affected in some way by this great decrease in the public's purchasing power--in spite of reassuring messages by President Hoover--and it would seem a reasonable guess that luxury lines and those trades which have padded their sales with the somewhat artificial methods of installment buying will feel such ill-effects as are developed."
Men in the class of 1929, however, experienced more than a loss of faith in the luxury market's future.
"After a pleasant summer in the brokerage office that Terry Collens is now running," wrote Benjamin H. Dorman in his class report, "I entered the Business School. This was two weeks before the crash that signaled the end of an era which had made this seem a most logical step. When I graduated two years later the step seemed considerably less logical. . ."
Almost the exact sentiments were noted by Sumner Cohen in his biography. "The decision upon graduation to enter the Business School seemed at the time to be a good one. After all, everyone was making millions in the stock market. . . . We were enrolled less than a month when came that Black Friday that ushered in the Depression. We spent the next two years in Cambridge concluding in consecutive monthly reports, backed by formidable statistics, that the depression was over . . . "
For those of the Class who has entered the Business School the depression seemed to destroy the very system in which they had invested their futures. But so long as they were in school some of them were forced to drop out when their father's business failed--they had no immediate contact with the depression. For those who had gone directly from College to work it was a different story.
Suicides were not the order of the day among the members of 1929. For the most part they had little invested in the stock market, in homes, or in families. They did not find themselves wiped out and out of a job with a wife and children to support. Their commitment to the Boom had been only a spiritual one. Their immediate problem was finding a job.
A common experience was that of Charles F. Ayers who upon graduation "went to work for the Aberthaw Company of Boston and stayed with them briefly until I became a victim of the great depression of mid-1930. Undaunted and completely ignorant of the economic trend of the time in which unemployment bulked large, I caught on with the Fuller Company . . . "
Others were not so fortunate. Many, like Richards H. Crawford, went through "several years of minor odd jobs with liberal stretches at leisure." Warren W. Anthony "searched in vain for two long years for a job connected with radio. There was not an opening anywhere during those depression years." And Richard Boonisar in the five years after graduation "changed jobs three times as the financial world and its values crashed all around me."
Makes Own Opportunities
With the golden land of opportunity no longer lay waiting in front of it, '29 fought desperately to make its own opportunities. Isaac Berman, now a manufacturer, was in quick succession a bell hop, A & P manager, magazine salesman, printing salesman, library book salesman, deck hand, and telephone directory salesman.
A long jump was taken by Eliot Atkinson who after graduation "did a number of things, from being a harvest hand in the west to working in investment banking, real estate, and construction . . ." Atkinson is today an artist and musician.
Some, like Frederic Felton, stuck with investment firms and "survived the shock that stocks go down as well as up--and down more quickly than up." Others, like James R. Carter, were "not emotionally suited to this type of endeavor (stock broker). My emotions rode with the tickers and inasmuch as it rode mostly steadily downward, I got out, just in time, in the summer of 1932."
Social skills became life-savers. Herbert W. Richards, an expert dancer in college, became a dancing teacher in 1930 and rose to become national director of the Arthur Murray Studios. Graduating from the Business School in 1931, Scott W. Burbank, who had earned spending money in college by playing with local orchestras, found "that the offers to stay in music were more lucrative that those from other fields of business, so I decided to remain in music for a while. One offer led to another and I am still in show business."
The net economic effect of the depression was on the whole a loss of from two to six years, a period of treading water, of searching around for the right job with the right future. The men married a bit older than most Harvard graduates--experienced observers note a comparative lack of senior sons and daughters at the reunion with a corresponding increase in younger offspring.
Once the members of the class found their opportunity, their progress was that expected of Harvard graduates. The average income reported by 200 of the 900-member class was $24,000. Though this figure is certainly unrepresentative of the class as a whole, it indicates that many members survived the crash in good shape. And the Class Fund, despite a campaign to withhold money on the part of some class members, is running ahead of last year's record amount.
If the Class was too young to be permanently damaged by the depression in a material sense, it might be expected that the years of poverty would have an effect on its members' political and social views. It was the depression, after all, which swung many young Americans in the early '30's, into the Communist Party.
At least one member of the class, author and critic Robert Gorham Davis, was himself a Communist for a time. He quit the party and last year testified freely before a Senate investigating committee, revealing names of his friends who has been in his faculty cell at Harvard.
Impressions Color Politics
"I had to decided whether. . . one should be silent about the communist movement, give it the protection of retrospective secrecy. I decided that it should not have this protection, that public candor about the relations of past and present best served the interests of democracy and of higher education," Davis says of his agonizing decision to inform.
Many men, though not as far left as Davis and socialist Allen Sweezey, were profoundly influenced by the depression, agreeing with lawer George Freudenthal that "the painfully vivid impressions which I received during this period of distress long continued to color my thinking."
Some, like Peter Bove, strayed temporarily from the political paths of their fathers. "Came the depression and the grim realities of life and my vote along with a few million others was cast for Franklin D. Roosevelt," Bove writes. "We thought he would save the day. And maybe he did. But when he began to drown the little pigs and plow the wheat fields under my views changed. I became a Republican and have voted so ever since."
Government service claimed a number of men from the class, but it did not necessarily put any claim on their opinions. Edward U. Denison, who went from Business School to government after "two years of starvation with a public utility in Washington" found that "thought it all I have reserved my conservative nature . . . in spite of the New Deal."
Those who went into academic life, such as M.I.T. history professor Lynwood S. Bryant, tended to remain pro-Roosevelt. He writes "The specter of creeping socialism does not keep me awake nights. I think we are doing all right in this country."
Members of the class were New Dealers before the New Deal. Dr. William Finklestein noted that "Politically I have been an egg-head from way back--way back to a spring in 1929 when I had the good fortune of hearing that year's Phi Beta Kappa oration as it was delivered by the then governor of New York Franklin Roosevelt."
The same man had an opposite reaction on William Cleaver, who, noting the message to the class from FDR in the 1929 Album, writes "it has been a long time after all and I hope the trend of the past 20-odd years toward a centralized and socialized state has at last been halted."
In general the class, like broker Henry Cobb, has "slowly but inexorably swung farther and farther to the right . . . " Cobb is not alone in thinking that "What makes some Harvard graduates violently liberal internationalists and others violently conservative nationalists is in itself a fit subject for research and prayerful study."
Harvard itself has come in for a good deal of attack from the right wing of the class, from publisher John Fox, letter-writer Kenneth D. Robertson, and Dr. Samuel Allen, who thinks "the college today looks kind of sickening--a lot of pasty-faced, radical, non-God fearing anemic youths, yelling about the rights of reds."
More, however, agree with screen-writer Philip Dunne who is "proud that Harvard, under the leadership of presidents Conant and Pusey, has been out in front in the battle for freedom of the mind."
Though a Harvard education could at time be a handicap ("It had cultivated my taste and appreciation of good things far beyond my ability to provide," writes James M. Barnes) it had for the most part been worth the trouble. Few members had heeded the prophetic Baccalaureate speech in which President Lowell asked "Do we want it (America) to be merely big, prosperous, and comfortable or do we want to have it great in purpose and in moral stature?" Instead the recent years of the depression class of 1929 fit in aptly with Stewart Boal's brief biography: "Very pleasant, Episcopalian, progressive Republican life.
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