Timothy Egan’s Fascinating Read For Those Who Watched Dust Bowl on PBS

The Ken Burns PBS special Dust Bowl could well have been based upon Tim Egan’s book The Worst Hard Time. Although Egan appeared in the  television special, his book takes the reader on an even more vivid journey.  Of course it is also in the Dust Bowl that begins Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath.

The Worst Hard Time bTimothy Egan dramatizes remarkable similarities between the Great Depression of the 1920s and the 1930s and the Great Recession of 2008-2011. The land grab in the High Plains, the breaking of the virgin sod, and the rampant speculation in wheat by homesteaders and suitcase farmers alike all fueled by easy money.  Sounds a lot like no income check mortgages home equity loans!

If you interchange  a few names: Housing Bubble for High Plains land, wheat speculation for Mortgage Backed Securities and suitcase farmers for real estate and Wall Street speculators Tim Egan could have very well been describing today’s financial crisis.

Egan wrote The Worst Hard Time in 2005 and uncannily described exactly what was coming in the next Worst Hard Time! 

Another fine Tim Egan book is The Big Burn which includes many additional lessons on what happens when financial speculation and politics trumps common sense. It is all about Teddy Roosevelt, the environment and our National Parks.

Both books are timely reads.


In the excitement of  the release of  the Steven Spielberg  movie Lincoln, I have coincidentally just completed H.W. Brands’ The Man Who Saved The Union , Ulysses Grant in War and Peace.  Grant, not Lincoln, the man who saved the union?  On the surface, the book’s title is a dichotomy of  enormous proportion. In reality, Grant accomplished much of Lincoln’s vision and the movie Lincoln  should encourage renewed interest in the presidency of Ulysses Grant.

Historian Brands takes nothing away from the great emancipator. To the contrary, he highlights Lincoln’s wisdom in plucking Grant from the western theater of the Civil War and rapidly promoting him to command all Union forces.  Brands forcefully makes the case for Lincoln’s stubborn confidence in General Grant amid repeated periods of doubt, chaos and defeat. Following the war, Lincoln relied on General Grant to carry out the challenge of reconstruction it’s the South including its return to civil order.

Spielberg’s  Lincoln, is based in part of Doris Kerns Goodwin’s book Team of Rivals.  Brands’ biography of Grant portrays how together, two of the greatest figures in American history, Lincoln and Grant, crafted an outcome that did indeed preserve the union. Ironically, through an act of fate, it was the hand-picked military general who carried out the brilliant politicians foresight. The movie Lincoln, and the books Team of Rivals and The Man Who Saved The Union embrace the same cast of historical figures.  Following a biographical review of Grant’s early and then wartime years, Brands continues his narrative after Lincoln’s assassination and the debacle of Andrew Johnson’s ascension to the presidency, leading to Grant’s election as president.

Brands leaves no doubt that General Grant, as the overseer of reconstruction while Johnson was president, used every tool within his power as commanding general, to carry out Lincoln’s philosophy toward bringing the rebel states back into the union. Grant’s zeal was equal to Lincoln’s regarding equality and the rights of full-citizenship for the recently emancipated slaves, while at the same time finding the way to keep the Southern States in The Union.   Lincoln ‘s death and the Johnson presidency made the task nearly impossible.  It was during this period that Grant came to fully understand and embrace Lincoln’s intellect which laid the foundation  for a Grant presidency that would bring into fruition Lincoln’s dream.

General Ulysses Grant, the man who disavowed politics and  as General in Chief refused an office in Washington, casts aside his disdain for public office and accepts the nomination of the Republican Party for President of the United States. It is Grant who carries forth the Lincoln legacy by navigating  passage of the, Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments to the Constitution through a bitterly divided congress.  In order, these amendments granted equal citizenship under the U.S. Constitution and created the voting rights act.  Brands details Grant’s deft handling of reconstruction during his two terms in the White House utilizing diplomacy and the military to neutralize the Klu Klux Clan and other White Citizens Organizations.  You see in Grant’s ability do deal with the disparate forces in congress much of the same political savvy wielded  by Lyndon Johnson over a half century later!

I caution readers not to look here for a battlefield  history of the Civil War although there is substantial detail on the capture by Grant of Fort Donelson and Fort Henry in the west and the epic battle at Spotsylvania in Virginia.  While the military overview of the war is complete, this book is mainly about Grant, the man, the general and the president.  You will find many of Lincoln’s Team of Rivals still in play while Grant begins his ascendency and assumes the presidency.

Team of Rivals by Doris Kerns Goodwin is an obvious read before seeing Lincoln.  The Man Who Saved The Union by H.W. Brands is a must sequel.  Brands is also the author of the great FDR biography Traitor to his Class.