Book: 'Bill Clinton: An American Journey'

Edith, meanwhile, decided to carve her own career and proceeded to take a correspondence course in nursing, gaining a certificate as an auxiliary, or private-duty, nurse without having to attend college. It was just as well. In the wake of the Great Crash, a long drought, and the worsening economy, as Virginia recalled, money would become "extremely tight"-so tight that when Eldridge lost his job, he was unable to keep up the payments on his mortgage. The Great Depression had arrived.

The Depression Strikes

The Depression hit Arkansas as hard as or harder than any other state in the Union, largely because of its overdependence on cotton. "Cotton remained king for the first half of the twentieth century," the Pulitzer Prize-winning newspaper editor-turned-historian Harry Ashmore related-and the cost, in the 1920s and '30s, was ruin. After a brief rise in the price of cotton during World War I, the price began to slide until it fell lower than the cost of production: down to 16 cents per pound in 1928, even before the Great Crash-and to a mere 4 cents four years after that.

In a state where, in 1930, 63 percent of Arkansas farmers worked someone else's land, the quasi-feudal system of sharecropping spelled, in the Depression years, disaster and starvation. Attempts to unionize tenant farmers proved a failure, and cooperative farming also failed, since few but a handful of farmers, in the traditionally individualistic land of "hillbillies," were interested in cooperating. Only God could provide.

The Depression, in other words, hit Arkansas like a long affliction, vitiating any hopes that the state would ever raise itself from its reputation as one of the most backward, uneducated, and fraudulent in America. "The state government remained insular and corrupt," wrote Ben Johnson in his history of modern Arkansas, while the rapidly declining market price of cotton dragged down a region that had set its face against agricultural diversification and lacked sufficient credit-state or private-to invest in alternative crops. As Johnson pointed out, the average Arkansas cotton farmer owned only $137 in equipment in 1929, but the average rice grower required almost twenty times as much. Without federal, state, or commercial programs, cotton sharecroppers in the state found themselves simply too poor to make the switch. They had already racked up a 150 percent rise in indebtedness in the 1920s, following World War I-and they could not withstand the triple onslaught of flooding (which in 1927 affected more than 13 percent of arable land), a crippling drought in 1930, and the financial catastrophe resulting from the collapse of the Wall Street stock market and banking system the year before. With four out of every five of the state's residents living and working on farms and plantations-compared with only 20 percent working on the land in America as a whole-Arkansas was bound to suffer in the Depression, and it did, grievously.

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