The crisis of being unemployed in the United States goes back to the earliest decades of the republic. In 1807, President Thomas Jefferson urged the establishment of an embargo on all American exports in an attempt to free United States shippers from interference by Great Britain and France, then locked in the struggle of the Napoleonic Wars. Whatever its impact upon the nations of Europe, Jefferson’s embargo soon created casualties in the United States. In New York City and elsewhere, American sailors lost their employment and demanded of the local authorities bread and jobs, not private charity or the poorhouse. Other workers soon joined the sailors in their plight. A few jobs were created, some food was provided, and some jobless went to debtors’ prison; others were encouraged to find better days on the western frontier. In time, the embargo was canceled, the economy improved, and many of the formerly unemployed again found work. As America continued to industrialize and urbanize, however, the problem of unemployment remained, reaching crisis proportions during the years of economic panic and depression: 1837, 1857, 1873, 1893, 1907, and most tragically during the years of the Great Depression that began in 1929. It is the story of the unemployed that Franklin Folsom tells inImpatient Armies of the Poor.
Folsom has had an extraordinarily full literary life. A native of Colorado, he was a Rhodes Scholar at the University of Oxford in the 1920’s. He has worked as a college instructor and as a director of adult education, and he served in the merchant marine during World War II, but throughout his long life he has been primarily a free-lance writer. Folsom has written numerous books, sometimes in collaboration with his wife, Mary Elting, on such varied topics as archaeology, the West, baseball, geography, language, children’s stories, Christopher Columbus, and the Soviet Union. The problem of the unemployed, however, is among Folsom’s greatest interests and concerns. During the 1930’s, he was personally involved in various unemployment organizations, and he states in the epilogue to Impatient Armies of the Poor that he began the manuscript in 1936 and pursued the topic during his own periods of unemployment during the next half century. Few literary works have had such a long gestational period.
Although a work of history, Impatient Armies of the Poor also partly a personal memoir of the author’s involvement in some of the events of the 1930’s. Folsom tells the story of the unemployed from the early nineteenth century, but half the volume concentrates upon the years of the Great Depression. The book is organized chronologically, and Folsom’s literary approach is primarily narrative rather than analytical. His focus is on the unemployed, and he tells of their struggles and difficulties in the face of economic disasters brought about by conditions beyond their personal control: industrialization, the swings of the business cycle from boom to bust and back again, the economic system of capitalism, and the prevailing ideologies of American society, which have extolled individualism and permitted government aid to business and industry but denied it to workers and the unemployed.
This is history written from the bottom. Although many individuals, from presidents to hobos, have played parts in the story of America’s unemployed, Folsom’s study concentrates upon what the great anonymous body of the unemployed have done to help themselves. In his opinion, to concentrate upon the achievements of individuals is to miss the story of how unemployment has affected vast numbers of Americans. Written without resort to academic phraseology and lacking the analytical frames of reference now common in the writing of social history, Impatient Armies of the Poor is a passionate portrayal of persons, groups, and classes often left out of traditional history, which usually focuses on the elite and the powerful.
Folsom’s approach is different. He argues that the initiative that might eventually have led to government action on local or national levels has come not from the top, even among those in power sympathetic...
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