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Excerpt from Oral History Interview with Paul Green, May 30, 1975. Interview B-0005-3. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) See Entire Interview >>

Remembering the Great Depression and worrying for the soul of America

Green remembers the Great Depression as an extension of his childhood in rural Harnett County, North Carolina. His plays about poverty both expressed something about his roots and what he saw around him in the 1930s. As Green reflects on poverty and history, he shares his fears about the disintegration of America's freedoms and his withering faith in the instruments of American power.

Citing this Excerpt

Oral History Interview with Paul Green, May 30, 1975. Interview B-0005-3. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) in the Southern Oral History Program Collection, Southern Historical Collection, Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Full Text of the Excerpt

I want to ask you a very general question first, which is not a very good way to do this, but as you think back over your work when you first began writing plays here with the Carolina Playmakers in the '20s and then the '30s, what do you see as the impact of the Depression and the social ferment the Depression era had on you as an artist and as a person?
PAUL GREEN:
Well, you ask what effect the Depression had on me as a writer and an artist, that's asking what effect it had on others. You could ask the same sort of question about what effect the First World War had, or what did the disappointment in such people as Warren Harding and Calvin Coolidge have, or what effect did the failure of Woodrow Wilson's dream of a united world, a League of Nations, what effect did that have on me? All these things are a part of the pabulum or part of the grist that comes out of your mill that you mix up and feed on. So, you see, the Depression of the '30s, its effect on the environment in which I grew up, was simply a continued statement of the poverty that I knew as a child. In Harnett County, when I was a child, the effect of the Civil War was still there. The state, this university in part, had not recovered. Anyway, the rural life in eastern North Carolina when I was a boy was very much like the life and cimes of, say, the Revolution or pre-Civil War. The roads were just sand beds and often in riding along in a wagon, you would have to dodge the limbs that hung over the road from the trees on either side. There was no paving. The doctors were rather crude. I remember old Doctor McNeill, he carried his instruments of torture in a saddle bag and he always came smelling of liquor. So, there was a hiatus between my childhood and the '30s when I came up here as a student and life was a little more active and less poverty stricken, but the Depression was just a familiar condition to me and I had been writing lots of stories and one act plays about the tenant farmers and about the Negro and all of those plays and stories or playlets sang the song of poverty, of depression, of almost disfranchisement, of lack of opportunity, of the squeeze of economic serfdom.
JACQUELYN HALL:
But did the change in the intellectual climate of the '30s change the way that you thought about those problems, the causes of that poverty, the solutions to those injustices?
PAUL GREEN:
Well, that's a good question, because when I was growing up and we would go to church on Sunday and I remember that if somebody had a dollar bill, they would say to my father, "Mr. Billy, I want to give a quarter to the church today. Could you change a dollar?" Well, my daddy, like everybody else, would open his little purse, he had a little well worn pocketbook with a little snap on it, and he would always turn his back on the questioner and open it and fish out four quarters or fifty cents. That was an interesting habit that people would always turn their backs when they made change. I used to think about it. Well, money was so difficult to get and I guess that they didn't want you to see how little they had in their purse. Anyway, money was a squeezed item. So, poverty was just natural to me, it was natural and the '30s was just an old familiar thing. Of course, some of us had been able to … I was able to get an old tin lizzie, a Ford, to drive in, and during the Depression I was able to continue because I was teaching here and I got some sort of a salary, not much. But all down in eastern North Carolina where I was born, the people were reduced to what they called "Hoover carts." I don't know whether you know what a "Hoover cart" is. Well, they weren't able to buy gasoline and they would take two wheels off of a Ford and put it to a cart and have a mule or horse to pull it. My sister, they all had "Hoover carts." And their old Fords, that was about all they could afford, would set up under the shelter. The kids had a lot of fun with these "Hoover carts." So, I don't think it affected …well, a person like John Steinbeck writing Grapes of Wrath came out of that. His fine novel was due actually, I guess, to the Depression. Maybe he wouldn't have written it without the Dust Bowl and so on in the Midwest. But it didn't change me.
JACQUELYN HALL:
I guess that what I am wondering is not so much whether the poverty of the Depression changed you, surprised you, because I can see that it would be very unlikely to. Just as the Depression for poor people didn't make that much difference in people's lives in a lot of ways. It made a difference much more slowly and wasn't a great shock to those people. But by 1930, you were part of a broader intellectual community. I am wondering more whether you began to think more systematically about things that you had taken more for granted, whether you felt more anger, were you moved more toward looking for solutions?
PAUL GREEN:
Yes, I think that's a very good question. I sort of slipped away from it. Did I ponder somewhat the reasons for this sort of thing, why it had come? Now, the earlier post-Civil War thing, there were a lot of old soldiers around and I would hear their stories, the shadow of that great foolish tragedy, I guess, if a tragedy can be foolish, was still clouding the scene, but slowly disappearing. That came naturally. I had already begun to feel that it was a foolish and insane war then, but I understood the reasons for our condition, why there was so much poverty in eastern North Carolina. I understood that, but when this thing in the '30s came on the nation, it certainly raised a question of "What is wrong here? What is wrong with our democracy that causes this to happen?" Then, there were rebellions, blow-ups at places where people, the mill workers sometimes and in sporadic instances in farming, you would read where a Negro tenant had murdered his landlord or something. So, there were sporadic rebellions against this condition, but no answer as to why this had happened. I don't think that we got an answer. Actually, I think that we hadn't solved the thing and this Second World War came along and that put everybody in fear of an enemy and you could get gas rationing, you could get controls, you could get all of that because as soon as you are threatened from an outside enemy, you can behave yourself and cooperate. So, now that we are in this present recession, call it a depression, I am completely confused as to the reasons and just as much confused by the remedies that are suggested. They don't make sense. So now today, following the 1930 business, and we were assured by the fellows in Washington that it could never happen again, couldn't have another one because we've got these safeguards, we've got the Federal Reserve, we've got the bank insurance and so on and banks can't fail and it can't happen again. Now apparently we are approaching the same sort of thing and no answers are given.
JACQUELYN HALL:
What did you think about the New Deal at the time?
PAUL GREEN:
Well, I was suspicious of the New Deal because from way back, hard work, and I guess the way that we were raised in Harnett County, I felt that you could not give people liberty, freedom and so on, just give it to them. I will never forget the feeling that I had here at the University. I went out to the athletic field one day where they had a steam shovel digging a bank and so on. The steam shovel had been moved over to one side and they had about a hundred men with shovels and wheelbarrows. I said, "Great gun, what is going on here?" "Oh, the New Deal is providing jobs." I said, "Gee whiz, but look. It is just picayunish, that steam shovel can do this." "Yes, but we have got to have jobs." So, I said, "Well, this is crazy, because the whole philosophy of the machine age is more result with less effort. Push a button and a great bulldozer will push right through a hill." So, I felt that this was not right, this was charity and there was something wrong about it. Then when I was down in Manteo working on a drama down there, and seeing the CCC camp boys, which was a WPA, a government thing set up, these boys were planting sea oats along the sand dunes and were protecting the sea shore and doing all kinds of good work, I thought, "Well, this is great, because that is the only way that they can do it." But to stop a steam shovel! I don't know what is wrong, except a simple statement that a democracy whose liberty, the liberty of its individuals can run rampant without a concurrent responsiblity to go with the liberty or freedom, will produce this sort of thing. If a labor union thinks mainly in terms of its own self and EXXON oil people think only in terms of their profit, then you get these head on competitions and you get fights and this one will grab and this one will grab. So, our democracy now, that I have always believed in, has got a terrible evil in it, a lack of sense of responsibility to go with the freedom and I think that there should be a balance there, a liberty carries with it an equal responsibility. Only in that way will the liberty survive. It will run rampant and go into some kind of madness and ultimately produce some kind of dictatorship. This man, Judge Craven here, addressing the law students recently for graduation ….
JACQUELYN HALL:
Braxton Craven?
PAUL GREEN:
Braxton Craven said that the American people will not continue to fear for their lives, violence, and be without jobs. They won't endure that ultimately. Ultimately, they will be willing to give up the Ten Amendments, freedom of assembly, freedom of this and that and the other, in order to get these values which are now pretty much lost. When I was in Russia, I could walk at night up and down the streets of Leningrad or Moscow at any time of night. I can't do that in Washington or New York. I don't dare do it. The fear for your life has become so strong that Judge Craven said that ultimately people would be willing to give up their certain kinds of liberty for jobs and for safety. Well, my good friend Jonathan Daniels, who was Press Secretary for awhile for President Roosevelt, editor of the News and Observer, he said, "Oh, you quit worrying. We will muddle along. We'll continue."
JACQUELYN HALL:
When did he say that? Recently?
PAUL GREEN:
Yes. I don't know that any of these things have affected what I've been trying to do, what I have been trying to write, except right now I am working on something and I can feel the present situation in the country, the lack of leadership, the cruelty, the wastage bearing down on me so that the scenes that I am working at now, I feel them affected by it. So, I am having my characters say things that were true then, this is back in 1783, they are saying things that they might say a little differently if we weren't in this dilemma. So, I go back to Washington's farewell address, not in the play but as something consonant to that. He said, "The nation is like a man, its word, its honor. It must be believed in and it must adhere to the truth, to the virtues." Now, our democracy has gotten to where they wouldn't think of telling the truth. "Oh, no, you musn't tell the truth." Like Henry Kissinger, he meets someone and he smiles. And the CIA, now the arm of the government has gotten so far and dissolute and degraded that it indulges in murder. It advocates murder of your adversaries. It has been pretty well proved. The Rockefeller Commission may not come out as strongly about it, but I believe from what I have read, talked about and heard, that they actually did plot to kill Castro, that they actually did have something to do with the murder of Allende in Chile and that murder … they use the word, "elimination, to eliminate." Well, you say, "Great God, what have we come to in this American democracy?" And this whooping up, even worse than the Boy Scout jubilation of Henry Kissinger and Ford over this wretched incident of the Mayaguez, this ship, and they went over there and tore loose, and they came out with a great victory and people are applauding. Now and whenever Ford appears, they stand up and give him an ovation. So, you say, "Oh, American people, what are you? What's happened?" Well, Jonathan would say, "Well now Paul, we are just the way that we have always been." But Rome wasn't always the same, Carthage fell, Babylon fell, Tyre, a great many civilizations, Greece fell. I have just been reading Oswald Spengler, I picked up his book in Germany in 1928, I think it was, and he wrote a book, a two-volume thing, already prophesying the downfall of the western world. He called it Der Untergang des Abendlandes, the going down of the western world. His theory was that the western world's civilization is ripe and as Sir Walter Raleigh says, "in reason rotten." I don't necessarily—well, I don't know enough about it. One thing that H.L. Mencken helped us do in the South, he used to make fun of the Bible Belt, you know, and he said that one of the first ways of repentence and rebuilding is to recognize the situation or condition that you are in. So, way back then, before the Depression, I would go down to Harnett County, or travel in eastern North Carolina, and the fields were all brown in the winter time, the cotton stalks standing brown and empty, and the tobacco stalks. I wrote a piece way back, a kind of a roll call, I think that it was 1925, calling for us to have green fields in the winter in the South. Let's have cattle. In Minnesota, where it goes forty below zero, a great dairy country. And all of the Piedmont, North Carolina is a wonderful soil for dairying, but we have got more Baptists in North Carolina, than we have cows. "We need more cows and less Baptists." Well now, part of the whole southern reawakening came all around here. When I wrote that in 1925, there wasn't a single dairy anywhere. My calling the roll had nothing to do with it except that I was just representative of the whole mood of the people, a reawakening in North Carolina. The University here had a lot to do with it and State College, sending people out teaching better farming. Now you can travel through here and you have green fields all over eastern North Carolina. You can see cattle grazing. So, we have done a lot in that way physically, but there is something that has gone wrong in the political set up. Well, when Eisenhower became President, I said, "Well, he may not be a very brilliant man, but he is an honest man." Then we had this fellow Powers, who flew over Russia in his U-2, whatever it was, and he fell and Eisenhower declared that he knew nothing about any spies. He was telling a lie. Later it was proved that he was lying and I thought, "Oh, my goodness!" Then when Ford was appointed, I thought that maybe he was an honest guy and he is going to tell us the truth. One of the first things that he did was he claimed that he had read all the correspondence and there was no agreement with Vietnam, no agreement about force. Well, gosh, it comes out that the very stuff that he said he had read, they showed it t.v. and quoting Nixon who said, "We will respond with force." So, I said, "My gosh, there's Ford. I can't even believe in Ford."