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 epochal 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 for later generations of interested readers is a response (howsoever criminal) on the part of ordinary people to the Great Depression that defined America during the Presidency of Herbert Hoover. Although certain other aspects of their short career -- particularly their reliance on automobiles to commit their crimes, in a decade when automobiles were a more or less new national phenomenon -- may play a role in maintaining the fame of Bonnie and Clyde long after their deaths, it is as a symbol of economic revolt, particularly in an era when the overall economy must have seemed perpetrated by criminals who operated on a much grander scale than these Texas youths, that their story finds its ultimate resonance.
It is worth noting that the economic circumstances of both Clyde Barrow and Bonnie Parker were not extraordinarily deprived. They both came from what would be best understood as lower-middle-class backgrounds. Although America was widely understood as having an economic boom in the immediate aftermath of World War One, the prosperity would prove to be short-lived. But it is worth noting that one aspect of the brief boom -- the sudden ubiquity of the automobile -- was responsible for what little financial position Clyde Barrow's family was able to maintain. As Phillip Steele writes in his biographical study of the Barrow family (written in consultation with Clyde Barrow's youngest sister) the Barrow paterfamilias was able to find an economic niche 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 methodology 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 of those Depression kids like Clyde." Bonnie is between jobs in an economy with unemployment at 20% 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 failed each month. Destitute families abandoned the country for cities that had no jobs or shelter to offer them. Like every major city in the region, Dallas was inundated with new desperate residents. (Guinn 83)
This is crucial to understand within the context of American history overall, as the agrarian lifestyle, with its modest profits but proud self-sufficiency, had always been held up as something of an American ideal. The economic panics and setbacks of the last decades of the nineteenth century in America had previously dealt a sharp blow to America's more rural states, but in those decades there had been an organized political response in the form of Populism. But a political response seemed almost beside the point in the desperation of the Great Depression -- in this climate, banks must have seemed like the real enemy of the people. Thus, the fact that Bonnie and Clyde turned to robbery might be seen as a small-scale expression of revolt -- a kind of desperate nihilism on the part of a generation that would never see sunnier economic prospects.
John Neal Phillips observes that the other members of Bonnie and Clyde's gang were similarly disillusioned due to the economic prospects of this era. In assessing the career of Clyde Barrow's criminal associate Ralph Fults, Phillips is keen to contextualize the getaway-car driver as part of the overall time period in which he grew up:
Fults came of age during the 1920s. Despite the popular image of flappers, jazz, and prosperity, the decade was one of contrasts, marred by riots, depression, and dire poverty. Scandals in baseball and in the administration of President Warren G. Harding, racial intolerance and the expansion of the Ku Klux Klan, coupled with the revelation that Treasury Secretary Andrew Mellon had doled out $3.5 billion in corporate tax breaks during his tenure through three administrations, helped shape a generation of cynical, uneasy youths. (Phillips 10)
This is significant insofar as the massive financial crimes committed at the top of the economic ladder were of such a vaster magnitude than the small-scale (if bloody) actions of Bonnie and Clyde and their gang. Likewise Blanche Barrow -- Clyde's sister in law and one of the few gang members to survive their bloody final confrontation with law enforcement -- emphasized in her memoir that she gladly would have taken gainful employment if any had been available:
No matter how poor Buck and I may be or how hard we would have to work I was happy just to have our freedom. I would have been willing to do any kind of honest work, anything to be free and with Buck. That was all that mattered to me. But Buck never wanted me to work and would not think of letting me while he was free. He seemed to feel that he would always be with me, to protect me from any harm or hard work….But I have been capable of working and making a good honest living for my disabled father and myself since I was fifteen years old. So that never worried me. (Barrow 23).
This is crucial for understanding the way in which the cycle of crime, and also gender roles, each played a significant part in how the Bonnie and Clyde story unfolded. For a start, Blanche emphasizes here that she would gladly have taken respectable work if any had been available. But more crucially she suggests that her husband Buck, Clyde's older brother, was insistent upon keeping her unemployed as a way of demonstrating his own status as a male breadwinner. Additionally the existing penal system ensured that when Clyde or Buck Barrow emerged from prison for their early their status as convicted felons made it certain that they would not find a more productive role in the economy. In this context Buck Barrow's somewhat retrograde social notions sound more acceptable: to be able to support a wife was crucial to his dignity. Although the violence of the Barrow gang may have been shocking, the motives were in fact well in line with the American mainstream.
In some sense, then, the enduring interest in Bonnie and Clyde…