Book Review: “The Forgotten Man ” – Amity Schlaes
Posted on April 6, 2009
“The Forgotten Man ” – Amity Schlaes
ISBN: 978-0-6-093642-6 (Harper Perennial)
(from my review posted on www.amazon.com)
Well written, fascinating Chapter Two, well researched, with a few oddities, March 11, 2009
Short Review: Definitely a very interesting and enjoyable book. Deals with a lot more than just the economic history of the Great Depression. Incorporates lots of historical facts, names and some figures, but manages to do so with sufficient elan and flow, that ‘readability’ remains of a very high quality. Yes, there ARE a lot of names mentioned. Some reviewers have struggled with that, and complained. But then, remember, this is not a novel, and there were indeed lots of players strutting the stage at the time. Chapter 2, “The Junket “, details the surreal meeting with Stalin, at the Kremlin, of some of our later ‘Great Leaders’. It was almost like a pilgrimage. Many of these intellectuals later became influential members of FDR’s intelligentsia. They had a massive impact on public opinion and hugely affected the American public’s perception of Stalin. This aspect of the book, for me, was very well written. Many of these pilgrims were prominent in later New Deal thinking. We ask ourselves: were they gullible? Sincere, well meaning, but naive? Absolutely fascinating. The growth of the Stalin cult, its subtle later influence on FDR, who many claim, was no great thinker or scholar, culminating in the accusation of 325 confirmed Soviet spies in FDR’s administration (as per Venona decripts), and ultimately the furiously controversial events at Yalta.
This book really does do an excellent job of showing how grotesquely distorted a view of the Soviet Union was served up to the American people. And not just for a few years, but for a couple of decades. We read how people who started having doubts, seemingly preferred to ignore those doubts, and still went along with the fairy tale. And then of course, there were the legions of dreamy idealists, who bought the whole “Soviet workers’ paradise ” story, hook-line-and sinker, and who wished only to emigrate to the workers’ paradise of the Soviet Union, and never -ever- come back to the sullied shores of corrupt, capitalistic Americay…
A hard book to put down. You kind of might end up (I did) shaking your head wearily: how is it possible that such a distorted view became mainstream thinking, and how is it possible that ‘we, the people’ can be manipulated so easily and effectively. Can it still happen today?
This book will NEVER be described as an apology of FDR’s New Deal. I have some sympathy with those who are angry that the positive accomplishments of the New Deal are glossed over. The well meaning idealism, arguably misguided at times, on the part of many of the rank and file, does not come out very well. If at all. The poverty, the despair, is not painted in depth to us. Miss Frances Perkins, secretary of Labor, first woman cabinet minister, one of my favorite characters, is relegated to a very minor role. (she gets my sympathy vote as being this book’s ‘Forgotten Woman’) But to accuse the writer of bias is too strong. I see it more as being the case that the author was more preoccupied with the economic aspects of the crisis, rather than any in depth description of the humanitarian aspect. Other books do that for us.
However, read the book, with an open mind, and draw your own conclusions.
Very topical, as we all ponder the economic future, as of March 2009. With certain politicians advocating the “New New Deal “, and returning to increased ‘Central Planning’ thinking, and a strong drift towards European style government (and hence rapidly growing government share of GDP, I believe approaching 40%) this book could hardly be in the news at a more controversial time. The subject matter is furiously relevant to today’s political debate. Especially if we are going to be told that the debate is “over “. And that the ‘winner’ is FDR and the New Deal.
Not so fast…
An easy, solid, four star. I do have some minor grumbles. The biggest one for me is the lack of numerical source notes embedded in the text. Amity does have ‘bibliographic notes’ in the back, but it’s not the same.
From, admittedly, the perspective of March 2009 the biggest oddity (and some wry thoughts) for me was the very last paragraph, on page 396. It seemed to me be a bit of an internal contradiction, from an author who spends 395 pages dissecting the many flaws and outright, expensive, failures of the New Deal. It’s open to assault, now, for sure, but I don’t hold that against the author. How times change.
“In fact, infrastructure spending is often just a nicer name for what we used to call pork. Given the depth of modern capital markets, the new Deal’s old argument that “only the government can afford this ” looks particularly weak. The New Deal edifice is solid enough, but it doesn’t form the best basis for the national future. “
Long Review: Right from the beginning, the Introduction, this book had me in its grip. The author sets us a small trap on page 5 (into which I promptly stumbled) and quickly shows her firm grasp on History. There are many, many quotes, and detailed references to contemporary events, which quickly gave me confidence that this work has been exhaustively researched. Some reviewers deny that fact, however. This is about the tenth specific FDR/New Deal book I have recently read, and the sixth I’m trying to review. I’m going to try something different this time from my other reviews: Let’s go straight to the negative reviews and comments, and summarize some of these -furiously- hostile critiques.
Arnold Kling had the temerity to post a soft spoken ‘five star’ review, and even says, very diplomatically:
“I should stress that these are my own views, and that TFM is much less prone to making generalizations and drawing conclusions. Readers with a variety of backgrounds and predispositions can appreciate the book and learn their own lessons… “
And THEN, if you read the comments (hopefully including mine) you will quickly see that all hell broke loose.
‘Diane’, bless her, says words to the effect of:
” The author has cherrypicked her information to write a history that supports her ideological bias that government intervention in the economy is always bad, conveniently leaving out information that does not support her ideology. Useful to read to find out what the anti-FDR Republican party believes; not useful to read if one desires a true history of the 1930s. “
T.Carlsen has a lot to say. And gives us -helpfully- a lot of details of his thinking. More than can be said for the many gray variants you read everywhere of “I HATED this stupid book “, with no references to the book, and no explanations why…
And Michael Emmet Brady also wades in, furiously plastering the label “libertarian economist ” on poor Mr Kling, and giving us some jargon you should look at, that I do not pretend to understand. I’m not actually sure if I am even meant to. I have some University level mathematics, and if I was pointed helpfully in the right direction, I might learn something, but that comment is for chosen insiders, the exalted ones, and excludes the vulgar plebs.
Also check out the review by Jim Powell, the author of “FDR’s Folly ” (see my review). I personally love it when busy authors take the trouble to be involved in these discussions.
In the review by Prof. CJ “The Eclectic Professor “, there is a reference to an ominous press statement by Mr Obama. I have not been able to find a link on the web to the exact wording of that statement, but do check it out, aswith my comment.
So… what do we make of all that then?
As I said, this simple fellow enjoyed the book. I found it stimulating, contained good (excellent) prose, and provided me with plenty of opportunity to see different points of view. Some conclusions I took with a pinch of salt, and I’ve read enough to be able to “filter ” the overall aspect. The New Deal to me was not ‘all bad’. I agree wholeheartedly with Mr Kling, when he says:
” Readers with a variety of backgrounds and predispositions can appreciate the book and learn their own lessons… “
I’m also inclined to believe that a book that can stir such vitriolic passion against it, must have some achievement and merit. There seem to be people who are most anxious that we do NOT read it.
Diane’s comment I found singularly unhelpful. It is, however, an excellent example of a particular attitude. I would ask: Did you actually READ the book, m’dear? We seriously wonder. Forgive me for suspecting a closed mind, that would rather avoid the undoubted cerebral effort to read the book, and does so by conveniently sticking a label on it. Such an unhelpful, entrenched, boring, class warfare statement.
Thank goodness for Mr Carlsen. He not only says he doesn’t like the damn book, but he tells us WHY. He goes to some trouble to tell us WHY. His review you should read, before you buy the book. I mostly do not agree with him, but I respect him for a detailed argument.
I have replied with a comment to his. If I am missing the boat, quite possibly, please comment constructively, and let me know. Suggestions for further reading always very much appreciated.
In summary: The New Deal era was a pivotal time. What we are sailing into, as a troubled nation, in March 2009, has profound echoes from that time. My instinct is to examine every possible point of view. The debate, far from being “over ” is once again hotting up.
To reject this book, without even reading it, because somebody stuck a label on it of “ideological bias “, and “untrue history “, and describes it as a prop for the “anti-FDR Republican party “, to me, would be a great pity.
But such are the odd, polarized polemics of Amazon. Watch the “unhelpful ” votes descend on this -perfectly honest- review, from a simple chap trying hard to understand our History, and be open-minded!
Peace. Enjoy the read.