Bonnie and Clyde: Legends or Economics?
What accounts for the persistence of the legend of Bonnie and Clyde? For two not particularly distinguished criminals from a bygone era in American history, the staying power in the collective consciousness of Clyde Barrow and Bonnie Parker is nothing short of remarkable. In part, the media has played a substantial role, with the early 1967 Arthur Penn film having been succeeded in 2013 by a television miniseries about the duo and their gang. I hope to demonstrate through an examination of the historical source material that the reason for Bonnie and Clyde’s persistence is explainable in one single word: economics. What Bonnie and Clyde signify ...view middle of the document...
As Phillip Steele writes in his biographical study of the Barrow family (written in consultation with Clyde Barrow’s youngest sister) the Barrow family was able to find an economic windfall in Texas based on the sudden emergence of cars in American life:
Henry Barrow, with financial help from his daughter Nell, managed to acquire a small frame home for his family near the campground. Soon afterward, Clyde helped his father convert the front part of the home into a gas station and garage, while they kept the back apartment for their living area. Recognizing Clyde’s natural ability for repairing and servicing automobiles, Henry encouraged his son to help him develop a successful business. This offered Clyde his first opportunity to “own” his own business, and at the same time help his parents, brothers, and sisters establish roots and better survive the seemingly endless depression. (Steele 33-4)
The fact, then, that automobiles would become crucial to the livelihood of Clyde Barrow’s criminal activity later is not accidental: he was essentially part of the founding generation of American car mechanics. The difficulty here is that he was repairing and servicing vehicles in Texas, a period that would be particularly devastated by the economic crisis of the 1930s for a variety of reasons.
At the time that Bonnie Parker first met Clyde Barrow in early 1930, both had been badly affected by the Great Depression. Schneider notes that, although Bonnie Parker had previously found work as a waitress, by the time she met up with Barrow (at the age of nineteen) she was again, unsurprisingly, unemployed: “[Bonnie Parker] lost her job, and she came to my beauty shop looking for work, says Artie, who, unfortunately, doesn’t have any work to give her little brother’s girlfriend. ‘She was just another one of those Depression kids like Clyde.’ Bonnie is between jobs in an economy with unemployment at 20 percent and heading up.” (Schneider 119). Barrow’s circumstances were similarly a reflection of the overall economic climate of the country, but in particular the devastation that would sweep Texas and the surrounding regions as the Great Depression combined with the Dust Bowl to essentially collapse local economies. As Jeff Guinn writes in his study of the pair, after Barrow had lost his work in the family-owned service station, and not long after he had met Bonnie Parker,
[Barrow] began job hunting at a time when the state and local economies were at their lowest point yet. Particularly in the South and Southwest, 1931 had been financially devastating. Cotton prices dropped to four cents a pound. The year’s wheat crop set a record of 250 million bushels, but the twenty-five-cent sales price of each bushel was half of what it cost the farmer to grow it. Banks had no choice but to foreclose on farms, and then the government began its own stream of farm foreclosures for failure to pay taxes. An average of twenty thousand farms across America...