1929: The Year Of The Great Crash, by William K. Klingaman
I expected more out of this book having read another book where the author went through another dark year and discussed what happened among the people (especially those people whose thoughts and behavior were able to leave a paper trial), and this book met those high expectations. For better or worse, I do not have a great deal of personal interest in 1929 and the author’s political worldview is likely to be one very different from me, but as he did in writing about the year after Pearl Harbor, the author did a good job here of allowing different people with different perspectives to speak for themselves, which then allows the reader to determine which information is most credible and whose perspectives are the ones that make the most sense. Opinions from readers will differ on these matters, but to the author’s credit he keeps the editorializing to a minimum and allows people in primary sources to speak their own opinions and judgments and to be shown through their own behavior, and that is commentary enough on the attitude of speculation and political grandstanding that made the year such a pivotal one in making World War II increasingly likely and increasingly ugly.
This sizable work of 350 pages is divided into four parts and 20 chapters. We begin with a prologue that views the crash of 1929 as a glimpse of hell, which is a bit dramatic. Part One, titled “Vanity,” covers the first seven chapters, beginning with election day in 1928 (1), and moving on the exploration of winter’s bitterness (2), the dawn of a new year (3), speculation with other people’s money (4), a discussion of people with their heads in the sand (5), the behavior of the Fed (6), and the spider in the center of the web (7). After that the author looks at greed (II), with discussions about the perils of prosperity (8), the legacy of war (9), the business of politics (10), the twilight of the jazz age (11), and the attack from the left in Europe (12), as well as the thought that everybody ought to be rich (13). After that the book turns to the destruction caused by the crash (III), with a look at how people who looked smart suddenly were shown to be dumb (14), the breaking of the financial storm (15), those dealing with the eye of the hurricane (16), the smashup of corporate wealth (17), and the aftermath of the crash (18). Finally, the book concludes with the despair (IV) that followed the crash, including the financial abyss (19) as well as the death of dreams (20) that followed the financial meltdown.
There are some reasons why 1929 does not truly interest me as a reader. For one, I find the intersection of politics and finance to be rather regrettable, especially since 1929 is often pitted in some sort of false dilemma between crony capitalism and socialism of some kind, both of which I hate. Thankfully, there are at least a few people here who showed some sense, and there was definitely plenty of time that people had to get out of the market before the crash happened, as the boom had stopped months before the real crash happened. Still, there are undoubtedly lessons that can be learned from this book and from the times that it happens to talk about. Among the most important of these lessons is the insight that it is unwise to invest in anything that is based on inside information and that one cannot understand the logic of. This book is full of poignant tales of loss, but a lot of that loss could have been avoided had people behaved in a responsible fashion and not bought the hype that the market can only go one way–up. Also, widespread prosperity depends not only on healthy markets, but also healthy standards of living for ordinary people, and the failure of the 1920’s (and 1990’s) to provide this proved crucial in leading to financial disasters that we seem seldom to learn from.