Talcott Parsons: History and Biography
Talcott Parsons returned from study abroad during the Roaring Twenties. For many, it appeared to be a time of growing prosperity, an era of limitless opportunity. However, in important ways this was a decade of the bizarre and the banal. The postwar problems of unemployment and inflation were superimposed on a social order suffering from runaway urbanization, the resurgence of the Ku Klux Klan, and the rise of Al Capone. Herbert Hoover had declared in 1922 that American business enterprise was no longer plagued by the win at any price philosophy. Bruce Barton's popular book The Man Nobody Knows: A Discovery of the Real Jesus was published in 1925 and praised the Nazarene as the founder of modern free enterprise. Shares of stock could be bought for 10 percent cash and the buyer's good credit (Baritz, 1970).
During the twenties, a pair of courtroom dramas electrified the nation and came to symbolize the politics of the times. One focused on a trial for murder and banditry of two Italian immigrants, Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti. However, the criminal charges were transformed by the prosecution (Frankfurter, 1927: 409-432). The defendants were required to testify concerning their political beliefs (they were socialist and pacifist), and the real charge appeared to be their flight to Mexico to avoid the draft. With the "red scare" raging, a verdict of guilty was reached on July 14,1921. Despite a six-year attempt by civil libertarians to secure a new trial, Sacco and Vanzetti were executed in the summer of 1927.
In that same summer, in the small and sleepy town of Dayton, Tennessee, the "Scopes Monkey Trial" was the stage on which the deep conflict between science, and fundamentalist religion was joined. Clarence Darrow, as defense attorney, and William Jennings Bryan, as prosecutor, played out their roles in a clash of the sacred and the secular, urbanism and folk society. Scopes, the erstwhile teacher of evolutionary theory, lost and was fined $100. But the symbolic victory went to Darrow and the changing times (Allen, 1925). Then two years after the execution of Sacco and Vanzetti, the Scopes Trial, and the move of Talcott Parsons to Harvard, the show business newspaper Variety signaled the beginning of a long economic nightmare for the United States with a headline: "Wall Street Lays an Egg!"
On October 24, 1929, a financial collapse began on the New York Stock Exchange. As reported by the New York Times the next day, "the most disastrous decline in the biggest and broadest stock market in history" was temporarily repelled by "five of the country's most influential bankers." However, the reprieve was short-lived. On October 29, the crash became irrevocable. The loss on issues of the exchange was estimated at between eight and nine billion dollars.
When dramatic shock wave of the crash had subsided somewhat, the more pervasive gyrations of an economic system gone out of control became apparent. Unemployment began a terrifying upward spiral. In March 1929, the estimates of joblessness ranged from 3.25 to 4 Million. A year later, some four or five months after the Wall Street debacle, those estimates had doubled. By March 1932, the range was reported at 11.25 to 12.5 million people unemployed, and a year later the Congress of Industrial Organization estimated that the number had grown to 16 million. In 1931 the Soviet Union, in need of skilled workers for industrial development, advertised for 6,000 American workers to move to the Soviet Union and accept pay in rubles. Over 100,000 applications were received (Business Week, October 7,1931).
The circles of tragedy rippled throughout much of the society. Hoovervilles, as the shanty towns for the homeless were called, blighted the urban landscape. Farmers, who had begun to suffer earlier in the twenties, saw the total collapse of the marketplace and the ruin of crops and livestock. Forced migration and widespread starvation stalked the land.
The roads of the West and Southwest teem with hungry hitchhikers. The campfires of the homeless are seen along every railroad track. I saw men, women, and children walking over hard roads. Most of them were tenant farmers who had lost their all in the late slump in wheat and cotton. Between Clarksville and Russellville, Arkansas, I picked up a family. The woman was hugging a dead chicken under a ragged coat. When I asked her where she procured the fowl, first she told me she had found it dead in the road, and then added in grim humor, "They promised me a chicken in the pot, and now I got mine." (Ameringer, cited in Perdue, 1974: 53)
It was within this context that the administration of Franklin Delano Roosevelt came to power. The programs of the New Deal were subsequently conceived and implemented to restore the economic order. It was also during the Great Depression, when the very core of society faced disintegration, that Talcott Parsons developed and published his first major work, The Structure of Social Action (1937) (Perdue, 1986, pp. 112-114).