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The Big Change: America Transforms Itself…

The Big Change: America Transforms Itself 1900-1950

by Frederick Lewis Allen

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195560,388 (3.81)7



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Summary: A social history of the United States from 1900 to 1950 chronicling the expansion of the middle class, the technological changes that occurred, and the impact of two World Wars and the Depression.

Want to know what life was like for your grandparents or great grandparents, and the changes they saw in their lifetimes? This is a great book for understanding what the U.S. was like during the first half of the Twentieth Century. It was fascinating for me, as someone born two years after this work was first published in 1952. The book ends just before I began and the last chapters describe well the Baby Boom years of the early 1950s, and describe well the changes my own parents saw in their growing up years.

Frederick Lewis Allen was a popular, rather than academic historian who served in a variety of editorial positions including editor-in-chief of Harpers Magazine from 1941 until shortly before his death in February of 1954. He was a contemporary of such popular historians as Allen Nevins, Douglas Southall Freeman, Bernard DeVoto, and Carl Sandburg. The Big Change was his last work, and a National Book Award finalist in 1953. He also wrote histories on the decades of the 1920's (Only Yesterday) and 1930's (Since Yesterday) as well as an economic history of the U.S. from 1890 up to the Depression (The Lords of Creation). All of these works have been re-published recently by Open Road Integrated Media.

While not having read the other works, I sense that this book is a synthesis of all of them that not only summarizes each of the periods covered by the others, but does so with an eye to the transformation of the United States from an economy with a small percent of very rich who lived in extravagant homes and vast disparities of wealth and poverty to a post-World War II economy with a huge expansion of consumer goods, mass communication via radio and TV, and changing cities with the vast migrations from rural to urban setting, including Blacks (called Negroes in Allen's time) from the Jim Crow South.

The first part of the book covers the beginning of this period, describing the technology of the period, including the beginnings of the automobile age, the robber barons and their wealth and a relatively limited government, at least until Teddy Roosevelt. Part two chronicles the changes Roosevelt and the muckrakers brought, the growth of mass production, including the revolution Henry Ford led, the 1920's as the last gasp of the old order, the grinding experience of the Depression, and the acceleration of economic and social change brought on by the war experience. The third part talks gives an economic and social description of the country at the end of the period, describing the growing middle class, the reduction of wealth disparities due to progressive taxes, and the alternative form of luxury spending of the period known as the expense account. He also chronicles the leveling influence of education, mass media, and the wide availability of goods once the exclusive preserve of the wealthy.

He concludes with the apprehensions of the early years of the Cold War and McCarthyism, the concerns about an increasingly large government and large corporations, and the growth of educational and economic opportunities for many and the vibrancy of private organizations and individual initiative in the country. Discussions of racial faultlines anticipate both the Civil Rights movement of the 1960's, and the growing affluence anticipates the counter-culture reaction of the later 60's and early 70's.

His style is very readable, even a bit "chatty". The origin of the book was a Harpers article and it has the feel of a well-informed communicator who knows his audience well enough to engage with them directly. Reading this nearly 65 years after it was first published brings home to me how much we have changed since then--the complexities of a post-Soviet, post 9/11 era, the boom in information technology and the interconnectedness of everything, and the social changes of an increasingly diverse nation. This is a transformation I've lived through and makes me wonder who will write "Big Change II." Whoever that may be, Allen's book provides a great jumping-off point.


Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the publisher via Netgalley. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. ( )
  BobonBooks | Jul 14, 2016 |
After reading the two classics by Frederick Lewis Allen, ""Only Yesterday" and "Since Yesterday", I was very much looking forward to reading "The Big Change." The original text of "The Big Change" is great and is worth reading just for the comparison to today. It is a great survey of the political and social changes from the first half of the 20th century.

The kindle edition is listed with Guy Foster as "co-author" although he was born after the book was first published. He has added a very opinionated, conspiratorial survey of the history of the Federal Reserve that has little relation to the Frederick Lewis Allen original and contradicts many of the things explained in Only Yesterday about the lead-in to the 1929 crash. It is as though Guy Foster hijacked by Guy Foster. Although many of the statements in the preface are difficult to swallow and are probably wrong, the preface does provide a nice, short survey of the topic. It just has nothing to do with the original book.

Despite the preface, I can very much recommend the Allen book. It is easy to read and very informative. Tthe Kindle edition is also good, although my download did not include the cover shown on the Amazon site. ( )
  M_Clark | Feb 28, 2016 |
Includes a book of the month club review and a note from Gene Crowley.
  StephenBeaulieu | Nov 14, 2014 |
In the early thirties Allen wrote Only Yesterday, about America in the twenties, fascinating because it described the causes and effects of 1929 crash just after it had happened. Since Yesterday, Allen's history of the thirties, is just as interesting. The Big Change also starts off well, with a compassionate description of the lives of the citizens of the early 1900s. The poor lived in cramped, insanitary conditions, close to starvation. Life expectancies were less than fifty years.

Allen's thesis is that mass production brought prosperity, education and democracy to the working classes, dragging them out of poverty. This is, he says "THE American story of the first half of the twentieth century." The statistics Allen presents certainly seem to support the claim that Americans in the fifties were far better off than they had ever been before.

Th problem is that Allen is too concenrned with countering the criticisms of unnamed "European" critics. When the critics claim, for example, that the majority of African-Americans (negroes in this book) still live in poverty, in fear of lynchings, Allen counters that lynchings are fewer, and the people on the bottom of the economic heap are better off then they were in 1910. The Europeans just do not understand American society. This boosterism reduces the credibility of the book, which is unfortunate because the first two thirds are well worth reading. The ending is oddly abrupt, as though Allen suddenly ran out of time.

The Big Change is available free on Project Gutenberg Australia, as are the previous two books. ( )
  pamelad | Mar 12, 2012 |
I read this because I so appreciated the author's Only Yesterday back when I read it in 1946 as a senior in high school. This is a different type of retrospective look back (in 1952) at the USA in the first half of the 20th century. It has interest in that it shows how an intelligent spectator (he was editor of Harper's from 1941 till nearly the time when he died in 1954) saw the country--somewhat more hopefully than some of the observors of the time, and before the space age, Vietnam, the computer, and Brown v. Board of Education. ( )
  Schmerguls | May 13, 2008 |
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