Monday, April 28, 2008

Joseph Speakman's Balanced Appraisal of the CCC

At Work in Penn's Woods: The Civilian Conservation Corps in Pennsylvania

By Joseph M. Speakman

Pennsylvania State University Press, 2006

I don’t know that you’ll find a more balanced appraisal of the CCC than this book; it’s an elegant piece of scholarship. Joseph Speakman manages to hit all the high notes while reminding us that the CCC was, after all, a government program, and as such, it was far from perfect.

Speakman comes by his interest in the CCC naturally – like many of us his father gained from the program as a young man and the stories told seem to have ignited the fire of interest. That said, Speakman has gone into the task of scholarship with his eyes open and he seems to have remained so to the end. The result is a study of the CCC that is both interesting and informative without a whiff of an agenda.
Each of us remembers things a certain way, for a particular reason, even if we don’t in fact realize we are doing so. The experiences of Speakman’s father serve as something of an allegory for the way we have chosen to recall the CCC and its impact on this nation and the young men who rose from being the Great Depression generation to become The Greatest Generation. In the preface to Penn’s Woods, Speakman recounts that his father’s stories of having gained twenty pounds of muscle in the CCC were offset somewhat by the fact that his CCC discharge indicated he gained just nine pounds during his enrollment in the CCC.

With this seemingly inconsequential statement, Speakman sets up something of an overarching metaphor for his entire account of the work of the CCC in Pennsylvania. Specifically this: that while we may often gravitate toward the positive and uplifting aspects of the CCC, there are underlying truths that remain unpleasant at times. The CCC did not offer the same opportunities to young men of all races. The CCC occasionally squandered resources. The CCC did attempt to be too many things to too many people over the course of its lifetime. Speakman has done a terrific job of documenting these shortcomings, while avoiding the trap of revisionist polemics.

At Work In Penn’s Woods is well documented with a substantial list of sources and notes. Speakman makes a point of apologizing early on for his use of statistical data, but he weaves the statistical material so seamlessly through the narrative that it easily becomes another useful part of the story. This book will easily find a place in the canon of CCC literature and should be on the reading list of anyone who is interested in the New Deal or the CCC.

To visit the Pennsylvania University Press web page for At Work in Penn’s Woods, go here:

1 comment:

Todd said...

Hello, Mike!

I live near two CCC camps in SW Missouri; one at Roaring River State Park, and one at the Big Spring unit of Ozark National Scenic Riverways. I know both sites to promote their CCC heritage.

I'd be happy to visit with you about them sometime.

Great web site! I teach American history at the local community college and my Great Depression lecture usually focuses on the CCC.

Buffalo Crossing Camp, Eastern Arizona

Buffalo Crossing Camp, Eastern Arizona