September 11, 2016

FROM CANNED FOODS TO BANNING THE BIG GULP: A Square Meal: A Culinary History of the Great Depression, a new book by left-leaning authors Jane Ziegelman and Andrew Coe is reviewed by Joseph Bottum at the Washington Free Beacon, and compared to Amity Shlaes’ landmark 2007 revisionist history of FDR’s Great Depression, The Forgotten Man:

Shlaes’s book appeared during another economic downturn, within shouting distance of the election that would give us President Obama, and whether it was attacked or praised seemed mostly to depend on the politics of the reviewer. In the midst of a belated but particularly angry review of the book in 2009, the journalist Jonathan Chait insisted that “the real point” of The Forgotten Man was “to recreate the political mythology of the period.” And Chait was at least right that Shlaes had a profoundly revisionist goal in mind. She wanted us to rethink the New Deal’s responses to the Depression—and the way the essential rightness of the New Deal has become the standard history, the political mythology, of the era.

What Amity Shlaes doesn’t quite explain, however, is why the nation reacted so strongly to the Depression, electing Roosevelt to four terms in office despite the history of an unsolved economic crisis that she relates. For that, we need an even more revisionist account.

Jane Ziegelman and Andrew Coe’s A Square Meal gives us, in some ways, a small case study of the New Deal that Shlaes pictures: a set of governmental interventions that both failed to solve an immediate problem and created future problems. Even more, however, A Square Meal offers an explanation for why the nation responded to the Depression with such intense support for the changes of the New Deal. Down at its root, economics always has something to do with food—and the fact of hunger, in a nation that had believed itself the land of plenty, seemed to require a new way of national acting. A new way of national being. A new way of national self-understanding. And a group of reformers used that hunger as an excuse to reshape American culture into something more to their liking.

“Why should the Soviets have all the fun remaking a world?”, FDR advisor Stuart Chase wrote at the conclusion to A New Deal, the 1932 book that gave the name to the series of FDR’s statist government policies that would prolong the Great Depression for years.

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