Seabiscuit and the Great Depression: It's Not About FDR, Stupid!
As an instructor of a course entitled,"The Great Depression," I have the liberty to explore this fascinating decade in depth and detail (www.siu.edu/~histsiu/faculty/bean/DepressionSyllabus1.pdf ). I find distressful, however, the bastardized pro-New Deal version of history that is handed down by popular writers and Hollywood screenwriters since--well, since the New Deal propaganda machine revved up! On the latter, see Gary Dean Best, _The Critical Press and the New Deal: The Press Versus Presidential Power, 1933-1938_ (Praeger, 1993).
Part of this received wisdom--Big Business baaad, New Deal gooood--is handed down through the oft-required text _Grapes of Wrath_, written by John Steinbeck. For a libertarian critique of this socialistic novel (i.e., why it is good entertainment, but bad economic history), see Nicholas Varriano,"The Trouble with Steinbeck," _Liberty_, March 2004, 41-44.
Another irritating example of the New Deal gospel can be found in the entertaining, yet historically jarring movie _Seabiscuit_ (2003). The movie is about a private entrepreneur--a highly successful Ford dealer--who has lost his son through a tragic car accident and his wife through a resulting divorce. In his search to find a new life, he takes risks on men (a jockey and horse trainer) who are"down and out" but who have the untapped potential to turn the horse"Seabiscuit" into a legend. In short, the movie is all about risk-taking, individualism, taking chances, and the rough trade of horse-racing. Instead, the creators of this otherwise endearing, if sappy, movie periodically insert monologues from David McCullough ("The American Experience" voice) about how the New Deal saved poor figures like those in the New Deal. Thus, when the jockey (played by Tobey Maguire) dips into a bowl of tomato soup at his mentor's house, the film cuts to New Deal soup lines"giving hope to the masses." It is this kind of political drum-beating that gives Hollywood, and academia, their well-deserved reputations for statist liberalism, because the New Deal had nothing to do with the characters in _Seabiscuit_.
A more proper context would be the manic pop culture of the era, documented so well in Gary Dean Best's short survey _The Nickel and Dime Decade: American Pop Culture During the 1930s_. People paid to watch horse-racing, just as they did for roller derby, six-day bicycle races, dance marathons, flag-pole sitting, and so on. But doing right by history would not allow Hollywood producers to grind their political axes against the past and present.
Fortunately, I have the time (fifteen weeks) to inform students of the broader aspects of American culture during the 1930s. Many people experienced"hard times," during the Great Depression, but many did not (real wages actually _increased_ fifty percent, though this caused higher unemployment, one of the unintended consequences of New Deal labor policies). Moreover, there was so much more going on than the New Deal, including horse races won by individuals who were not turning each corner for the ol' WPA or CCC, Hollywood notwithstanding.comments powered by Disqus
Keith Halderman - 4/1/2004
I too noticed the pro-FDR pablum unecessarily inserted into the movie version of Seabiscuit. Fortunately this is absent from the book, which, by the way, is one of the most remarkable pieces of writing I have ever read.
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