9 books about the Great Depression and the Dust Bowl

The Great Depression is without a doubt the strongest economic downturn in recent history. Millions were unemployed (unemployment rates reached 25% in the US, and 33% elsewhere in the world), thousands of banks collapsed, and hundreds of thousands of US families were left homeless, living in shanty towns across the country. The effects of the Great Depression were so powerful and far-reaching that it gave momentum to a number of major political movements, such as Germany’s Nazi and Communist parties.

Unemployed men queue outside a soup kitchen in Chicago, 1931.

To make matters worse, over the same period, the Dust Bowl occurred. The Dust Bowl was a period of severe dust storms in the Great Plains region of the United States, caused by a combination of severe drought and unsustainable farming processes. Because the topsoil in this region had been plowed by farmers over the preceding decade, and the deep-rooted grasses that once held it in place had long since been removed, the soil turned to dust and blew away, causing dust storms so severe they were called ‘black blizzards’.

Ken Burns and Dayton Duncan discuss the making of their documentary The Dust Bowl.

There have been many great books written about this culturally and historically significant period. Here are just a few.

Monetary theory: what caused the Great Depression?

There are a number of very detailed analyses of the Depression from an economic perspective. The exact cause is still debated, but there are two mainstream theories - firstly, that it was caused by a large scale loss of confidence which led to a reduction in investments and spending (the Keynesian explanation), or secondly that it was caused by the failures of large banks, and the inaction of the Federal Reserve to take the appropriate aggressive action to prevent them (the monetarist explanation, given by Milton Friedman and Anna J. Schwartz).

The General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money by John Maynard Keynes

The General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money
By John Maynard Keynes

The Keynesian theory is detailed in John Maynard Keynes’ book The General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money. Although it was popular in the 40s, 50s and 60s (and indeed Richard Nixon once famously declared ‘we are all Keynesians now’) but during the seventies and later the popularity of Keynes’ theories declined in favour of New Keynesian economics.

It remains however the cornerstone of many economic theories, and in 2011 it was placed on Time Magazine’s All-Time Top 100 Non-Fiction Books.

A Monetary History of the United States by Milton Friedman and Anna Jacobson Schwartz

A Monetary History of the United States
by Milton Friedman and Anna Jacobson Schwartz

The monetary theory of the cause of the Great Depression was detailed by economists Milton Friedman and Anna Jacobson Schwartz in A Monetary History of the United States.

A Monetary History uses historical data and sharp analytics to support the role of monetary policy in management of the economy of the United States. Milton Friedman won a Nobel Prize in Economics in 1976 for work related to A Monetary History, and it’s considered one of the most influential economics books of the century.

Chapter 7, The Great Contraction, covers the Great Depression, and was published as a separate paperback by Princeton University in 1965.

Other economic accounts of the Great Depression

Besides the main economic theory books, there have also been some other books written from different perspectives, each telling the story of the Great Depression from a different angle.

The Great Crash, 1929 by John Kenneth Galbraith

The Great Crash, 1929
by John Kenneth Galbraith

First published in 1955, The Great Crash is an economic history of the lead-up to the 1929 Wall Street crash that heralded the start of the Great Depression. Galbraith argues that what caused the crash was rampant speculation in the stock market, and the belief of participants that they can become rich without work.

Galbraith focuses less on the depression itself and more on the Wall Street crash of 1929, and argues that it played an important role in the severity of the depression, which was contrary to the popular beliefs at the time of publishing. Galbraith argues that the 1929 crash and the Great Depression were caused by five weaknesses in the financial system. Galbraith also highlights the risks of participants who believe that there were unlimited rewards to be had with little effort, and those who believe ‘that God intended the middle classes to be rich’.

The Great Depression: A Diary by Benjamin Roth

The Great Depression: A Diary
by Benjamin Roth (edited by James Ledbetter and Daniel B. Roth)

Benjamin Roth was just starting out as a young lawyer in Youngstown, Ohio when the stock market crashed in 1929. He started writing a diary when he realised the magnitude of what was happening.

His work as a lawyer gave Benjamin unique insights into the lives and mentalities of everyday Americans living through the depression. In the preface, his son Daniel Roth writes about joining his father’s law practice when he graduated from law school in 1956. His father told him to study the diary to gain insight into the depression mentality of his clients at the time, and understand the scars that many clients still bore into the 1950s.

“For the first time in my personal business life I am witnessing a major financial crisis. I am anxious to learn the lessons of this depression. To the man past middle life it spells tragedy and disaster but to those of us in the middle thirties it may be a great school of experience out of which some worthwhile lesson may be salvaged. With this thought in mind I am going to write down brief accounts of developments as they occur from time to time

Benjamin Roth, JUNE 5, 1931

Lords of Finance: The Bankers who Broke the World by Liaquat Ahamed

Lords of Finance: The Bankers who Broke the World
by Liaquat Ahamed

Taking aim at a small number of central bankers, Lords of Finance, winner of the 2010 Pulitzer Prize, argues that the Great Depression resulted from the decisions taken by four central bankers. We meet Montagu Norman from the Bank of England, Émile Moreau from the Banque de France, Hjalmar Schacht of the Reichsbank, and Benjamin Strong from the Federal Reserve Bank of New York. In their attempts to reconstruct the world of international finance after World War One, they were united by their belief that inflation was the greatest threat to capitalism, and that the solution was to return to the gold standard.

Ahamed argues that the bankers’ belief in the economic orthodoxy of their time – that monetary policy should revolve around the gold standard – caused them to make decisions that in fact turned out to be contrary to the best interests of the economy. However, Ahamed also suggests that we can’t easily assign blame – not even the era’s most renowned economists could predict or guard against a catastrophe on the scale of the Great Depression.

The Midas Paradox: Financial Markets, Government Policy Shocks, and the Great Depression by Scott B. Sumner

The Midas Paradox: Financial Markets, Government Policy Shocks, and the Great Depression
by Scott B. Sumner

Influenced by Milton Friedman, Scott B. Sumner explains the multitude of twists and turns the economy took during the Great Depression in The Midas Paradox, and provides an explanation of its causes, both monetary and non-monetary.

Sumner argues that the Great Depression was ultimately caused by bad policymaking, by central bankers, legislators, and two presidents, and like Liaquat Ahamed above, suggests that policymakers were misguided by common beliefs of their time.

Scott Sumner also maintains a blog called The Money Illusion and has done a Reddit AMA.

Cultural accounts: what was life like during the Great Depression?

The Great Depression was a devastating time to live through. Affecting both rich and poor, it had dramatic effects on economies around the world. Between the Depression and the Dust Bowl, crop prices dropped by 60%, forcing many farmers to leave their homes and land and look for employment elsewhere.

Many workers fled their farms in search of employment in California, and were known as ‘Okies’, even if they weren’t from Oklahoma.

The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck

The Grapes of Wrath
by John Steinbeck

The Grapes of Wrath is a novel written by Nobel Prize winner John Steinbeck in 1939, and has won the National Book Award and Pulitzer Prize.

The Grapes of Wrath follows the Joad family, poor tenant farmers from Oklahoma who were driven from their land due to foreclosures caused by the Great Depression. They, and thousands of other ‘Okies’, set out for a better life in California after foreclosures and the Dust Bowl made their life in Oklahoma hopeless.

The story follows their journey to and work in California, where they are told work is plentiful. When they reach California however, they discover that the state is oversupplied with labour, wages are low, and workers are exploited.

How can you frighten a man whose hunger is not only in his own cramped stomach but in the wretched bellies of his children? You can’t scare him – he has known a fear beyond every other.

Chapter 19, The Grapes of Wrath

The Worst Hard Time: The Untold Story of Those who Survived the Great American Dust Bowl by Timothy Egan

The Worst Hard Time: The Untold Story of Those who Survived the Great American Dust Bowl
by Timothy Egan

In contrast to The Grapes of Wrath, The Worst Hard Time tells the true stories of half a dozen families and their communities who decided to carry on through the Dust Bowl and the Great Depression, rather than leave their homes.

Capturing the grit and courage of those communities, Pulitzer Prize-winning author Timothy Egan tells the story of the rise and fall of farming communities, who went from sod homes, to new framed houses, to huddling in basements with the windows sealed trying to keep the dust out.

The Worst Hard Time captures the endurance and heroism of those who survived the Dust Bowl, who are now in their eighties and nineties.

Dancing in the Dark: A Cultural History of the Great Depression by Morris Dickstein

Dancing in the Dark: A Cultural History of the Great Depression
by Morris Dickstein

In Dancing in the Dark, historian Morris Dickstein explores American culture during the Great Depression, including film, design, literature, theatre, and music, all art forms typically thought of at the time as ‘escapist’ entertainment. Dickstein describes how the FDR administration recognised that the arts could enable “the helpless to become hopeful, the victims to become agents”.

Dancing in the Dark contains extended analyses of the popular entertainment of the decade, including the performances of Humphrey Bogart, and of cultural movements like the Art Deco movement and the orchestral pieces of Aaron Copland.

A monumental study of one of America’s most remarkable artistic periods, Dancing in the Dark was described by NPR’s Maureen Corrigan as ‘a penetrating work of cultural history’, and was nominated for the National Book Critics Circle Award in Criticism.

Looking for something more fictional? Here’s a few fiction books that aren’t specifically about the Great Depression, but are set in the same era:

Looking to read some of these? Check out Shelvable, our main site, which helps you keep track of books you want to read.