Letter-Report Concerning the Tennessee Valley Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

In 1933, Lorena Hickok, chief investigator of the Federal Emergency Relief Administration (FERA), began a nationwide tour to examine the effects of the Great Depression and whether New Deal programs were helping to mitigate them. In this report to FERA chief Harry Hopkins, she summarized her observations while traveling through the Tennessee Valley, including stops in Memphis, Tupelo, and parts of Arkansas. Hickok described public sentiment toward the New Deal, President Franklin D. Roosevelt, and the Depression. She also offered criticism on the areas in which Roosevelt's policies and actions fell short. Hickok's tour gave the president and his administration a firsthand view of conditions and attitudes during a key period in the first two years of Roosevelt's presidency.

Summary Overview

In 1933, Lorena Hickok, chief investigator of the Federal Emergency Relief Administration (FERA), began a nationwide tour to examine the effects of the Great Depression and whether New Deal programs were helping to mitigate them. In this report to FERA chief Harry Hopkins, she summarized her observations while traveling through the Tennessee Valley, including stops in Memphis, Tupelo, and parts of Arkansas. Hickok described public sentiment toward the New Deal, President Franklin D. Roosevelt, and the Depression. She also offered criticism on the areas in which Roosevelt's policies and actions fell short. Hickok's tour gave the president and his administration a firsthand view of conditions and attitudes during a key period in the first two years of Roosevelt's presidency.

Defining Moment

When Franklin Delano Roosevelt won the 1932 presidential election, he promised that Americans would be cut a “new deal” in a sweeping set of policy measures aimed at combating the worst of the Great Depression's fallout. At the time, Roosevelt's plan represented a radical re-envisioning of the role of the federal government. In the face of backlash from major actors in business and other sectors, Roosevelt stressed the urgency of the situation–with a quarter of the population out of work and banks closing at an alarming rate, the circumstances called for swift and drastic action.

Roosevelt and his congressional supporters introduced a wide range of bills designed to bring relief to those hardest hit by the Depression. Among these initiatives were direct financial aid, social services, work programs–including the landmark Civilian Conservation Corps–and grants to offset the effects of the Dust Bowl. Roosevelt's approach was a major departure from the activities of the previous three administrations–all Republican–which had advocated for a much smaller and less interventionist federal government.

Programs like the Civilian Conservation Corps–a program designed to provide environmental and conservation jobs to able-bodied young men and veterans–were illustrative of the New Deal philosophy: unemployed Americans would be given an opportunity to work for the federal government rather than simply receive an unemployment check. The Federal Emergency Relief Administration (FERA)–legislation for which was enacted in May of 1933–was a prime example of this approach. Headed by longtime Roosevelt advisor Harry Hopkins, FERA was launched as a two-year program divided into three areas: social service, public works, and rural rehabilitation. Initially, $500 million was to be issued to state agencies as grants (the states did not need to repay these funds). While a portion of FERA funds would be used in part to provide emergency food and shelter to the most impacted citizens, the main focus of state programs was to get Americans back to work.

In an effort to assess the efficacy of the New Deal programs on a human level, Hopkins turned to Lorena Hickok. Hickok was charged with traveling throughout the United States and documenting conditions and public attitudes as well as critiquing FERA program operations. Hickok's tour gave Hopkins and Roosevelt a firsthand view of the New Deal's effectiveness against the Great Depression's impacts.

Author Biography

Lorena Alice Hickok was born in East Troy, Wisconsin, on March 7, 1893. She attended, but did not graduate from Lawrence College in Appleton, leaving after her freshman year and becoming a writer for a Battle Creek, Michigan, newspaper. She worked on a number of newspapers thereafter, eventually being hired as a feature writer by the Associated Press in 1928. In 1932, she met and befriended Eleanor Roosevelt. In 1933, she was hired by Harry Hopkins to be the chief investigator for FERA. She would later work closely with Eleanor Roosevelt during her husband's administration. In 1940, Hickok was tapped to be the executive secretary of the Women's Division of the Democratic National Committee. Following Roosevelt's presidency, she moved to New York, collaborating with Eleanor Roosevelt on a book, Women of Courage, and later writing a biography of Mrs. Roosevelt. Hickok died in 1968.

Document Analysis

Lorena Hickok's June 11, 1934, report to Harry Hopkins covers her travels in the Tennessee Valley from the major cities of Tennessee, south to Tupelo, Mississippi, and west to Arkansas. During this trip, she met a wide range of political leaders, media representatives, and private citizens. In these locales, Hickok reports, citizens were generally pleased with President Roosevelt's New Deal programs, particularly the establishment of the Tennessee Valley Authority. She also saw an improvement in citizen morale with regard to the economy–although businesses were still slow to recover, she said, they were nonetheless improving.

The South was an area particularly hard hit by both the Depression and the Dust Bowl drought of the early 1930s. Hickok says that many of the programs implemented through the New Deal appeared to be improving conditions, however. The Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) was bringing electricity to some of the region's most rural and isolated communities. Crops were starting to return in great numbers, including staples like cotton. Attitudes were also starting to improve with regard to the Depression, Hickok reports. Although many were still out of work and living in poverty, they were receiving steady streams of aid from the government to sustain them. Certainly, there were incidents she observed that would warrant improvement, such as social workers who seemed to have a condescending attitude toward aid recipients. Those citizens who were not optimistic at least had come to accept and adjust to the hardships that had been placed upon them by the collapsed economy.

Hickok also observed the political landscape of these areas. Political bosses and leaders alike were energized by the New Deal and its impact on their respective constituents, Hickok reports. Some businesses expressed disdain for the principles of the New Deal and the increased activity of the federal government, she writes, but most of the same people who protested the government's activities were seeing improved business–their protests, therefore, rang hollow.

One important trend Hickok reports is the fact that many citizens in the Tennessee Valley region were “ignorant” of the Depression's scope and impact, as well as what the federal government was attempting to do to reverse this economic trend. Part of the blame for this ignorance, she writes, rests on the shoulders of the citizens themselves. Although their businesses suffered and then started to improve again, she says, they were too “lazy mentally” to understand what had occurred.

Within her report, Hickok recounts a conversation she had with the editor of the Memphis Scripps-Howard newspaper. In their talk, the editor placed some of the blame for the public's ignorance on the Roosevelt administration and alluded to the role the press might play in better propagandizing on behalf of New Deal programs and goals. It is important for the government, Hickok writes, to take stock of the Depression's effects, disseminate information about the programs it offered to address these issues, and even take credit when those programs were successful. People were slowly becoming more optimistic about the economy, Hickok says, and such optimism was generated by the New Deal's programs.

Essential Themes

As a former journalist, Lorena Hickok was deemed by the Roosevelt administration to be the ideal individual to travel the United States and report on the Depression as well as the effectiveness of the New Deal. Hickok reported that the New Deal was indeed having a positive effect on the areas of the Tennessee Valley that were hardest hit by the Depression. There remained work to be done, both in terms of the economy and in terms of how the federal government informed the public. Nevertheless, she said, public sentiment was improving, a trend that warranted optimism about economic recovery.

Hickok met with a wide range of individuals and groups during her visits in Memphis, Knoxville, Nashville, Tupelo, and elsewhere. In general, she said, people were either optimistic that the economy was turning around, or had adjusted to the Depression's effects. What she did not see was desperation, nor did she see the devastation of the Dust Bowl drought. People were appreciative of the president's efforts, she reported, as Roosevelt's programs were having a positive impact.

One of the largest issues she observed in this report, however, was that of ignorance. Those who philosophically objected to the New Deal, she argued, had but to look around them to see their businesses showing signs of improvement as a direct result of New Deal policies. Far too many people other than partisans, however, also did not take stock of what had occurred during the Depression and what the government was doing to reverse the trend. These residents, she concluded, were the victims of their own laziness–they had but to look around themselves for evidence of improvement, but could not be made to do so.

Besides the willfully ignorant, Hickok said, there were those who sought, but could not find, the best possible information. In this arena, she stated, the federal government was well-advised to do more to communicate with the citizenry. But Hickok advised that Washington should “sugar-coat” its propaganda with news, so as to communicate information without coming off as blatantly propagandizing. The New Deal's success was a story worth telling the people, she suggested.

Bibliography and Additional Reading
  • Deeben, John P. “Family Experiences and New Deal Relief: The Correspondence Files of the Federal Emergency Relief Administration, 1933–1936.” Prologue. National Archives, 2012. Web. 25 June 2014.
  • “Federal Emergency Relief Administration.” Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History. Gilder Lehrman Institute, 2014. Web. 25 June 2014.
  • Hickok, Lorena A., Richard Lowitt, & Maurine Hoffman Beasley. One Third of a Nation: Lorena Hickok Reports on the Great Depression. Urbana: U of Illinois P, 1981. Print.
  • “Lorena Alice Hickok (1893–1968).” The Eleanor Roosevelt Papers Project. George Washington University, 2014. Web. 25 June 2014.
  • Rose, Nancy Ellen. Put to Work: Relief Programs in the Great Depression. New York: Monthly Rev., 1994. Print.
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