SOMEPLACE LIKE AMERICA: Tales from the New Great Depression. By Dale Maharidge. Photographs by Michael S. Williamson. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press. 2011.
The Great Recession is a relative matter. “My Great Recession is your Great Depression if you lose your job and your home,” writes Dale Maharidge in his and photographer Michael S. Williamson’s new book Someplace Like America (7).
In fact, even the Great Depression of the 1930s included two recessions, the first lasting from 1929 to 1933, and the second from 1937 to 1938. “From my street-level perspective, the technical definition … means very little to the jobless and unemployed” (7).
Someplace Like America is the latest book by Maharidge and Williamson to depict the lives of the marginalized in this nation, the people who began falling through the cracks after Ronald Reagan announced it was “morning in America” 28 years ago (31).
In their first, Journey to Nowhere: The Saga of the New Underclass, they traveled by “bus, by thumb, in boxcars, and in a rusting 1973 Olds Delta 88” across mid-1980s America and encountered a restless homelessness—not unlike the hoboes and Dust Bowl refugees Woody Guthrie sang about in the 1930s—desperate for a job and a future wherever the road led (4).
In Someplace Like America, Maharidge, now teaching at Columbia University, and Williamson, a Washington Post photographer, show us a new kind of desperation, one less likely to hit the road, one that knows “life is not better somewhere else” (227). As former steelworker Ken Platt of that “necropolis” of American de-industrialization, Youngstown, Ohio, says, “the rest of the country is down to where we are” (109).
Written in the grand tradition of the early 20th-century muckrakers—Lincoln Steffens, Ida Tarbell, Ray Stannard Baker—this is a book that occasionally confounds as it shifts from decade to decade, story to story, but which drives home its central theme that America has lost its way. Maharidge’s straightforward-but-impassioned prose and Williamson’s gritty black-and-white photographs make you angry. They’re an indictment.
The road traveled here leads to rural backwaters and to cities like Youngstown, Detroit, and New Orleans, metaphors for “a nation working for Wal-Mart wages” and, big surprise, can no longer afford the mortgage on the house (21). With rock musician Bruce Springsteen accompanying them, the authors visit the ruins of the Jeannette blast furnace in Youngstown and come face to face with what Springsteen in his foreword calls “the cost in blood, treasure, and spirit (of) the post-industrialization of the United States” (x).
Along the road are people like these: Sam, with his racquet and Adidas bag desperate to appear less lost than he really is; Jim and Bonnie Alexander, living in a tent near Houston with two small children; Jay, the most lost of all because he’s given up hope.
The enlightened leadership of Franklin D. Roosevelt helped America survive the Great Depression. Such leadership is missing today, the authors tell us, but hope lies in a growing awareness across the land, a grassroots sense of community that has the potential to stand up to Wall Street and Washington and redirect the nation back to road it was meant to travel.
Joseph B. Atkins, University of Mississippi