Are we approaching a second Great Depression? The question is being asked more often. It’s an indication of pain and a projection of fear more than an accurate assessment. The question is still muted and quickly denied but it’s revealing that it’s surfaced.
Stories about the Great Depression and its effects on people are a particular interest of mine. Such is family memory and practices. The scars left by the Depression affect generations long separated from the direct experience.
One of the greatest treasure troves of memory is the collection of images from the Farm Security Administration and Office of War Information documentary photo project in the 1930s and into the early 40’s. I’ve put a handful of my favorite images from the Dust Bowl exodus here .
But it’s not a complete selection. The archive is rich and varied. It’s a hallmark of government-sponsored artistic support. In the midst of a global economic crisis, this collection serves as an example of the value of such an enterprise and it’s even more relevant. It should also be a stimulus for us to do likewise, to document our national life with the same depth and concern.
A PBS documentary produced last year told how the photographers collected the images and a Google search turns up a host of books and articles on the Dust Bowl many of which use images from the collection.
I’ve spent many hours rifling through the photos online and a few looking at hard copy files in Washington. The most efficient method is online. The most emotionally thrilling is holding hard copies of these iconic images.
The collection documents a range of ethnic groups and their life experiences and it’s rich with compelling images. I got interested many years ago researching the great migration of poor white agricultural families from the Plains states to California. So many from Oklahoma gave up their work on the land, or the land gave out on them, they made the move westward.
While the Dust Bowl was the commonly cited natural cause, the reality was much more complicated. Mechanized farming was also a significant factor in making the share cropping model obsolete. Tenant farmers were expendable when replaced by tractors. Small farms were also unsustainable.
The drought was the tipping point for those whose hold on economic security was already tenuous. Many rural families far from the affected counties were also thrown into the maelstrom. Steinbeck’s Joads were victims of the drought but they were also were part of a long established system that exploitated landless poor whites. The Grapes of Wrath points to the dislocation caused by mechanization as much as natural calamity.
Both of my grandfathers were forced off the land during this period. One was a sharecropper, the other a marginal farmer who also worked a team of horses in the Key West oilfield in central Oklahoma. The Works Progress Administration saved them economically, but the emotional adjustment of leaving the land was a wound that neither recovered from.
Both came to town and constructed sidewalks and paved roads in WPA jobs. They would point with pride to their work years later, but each reflected sadly on what they gave up when they “left the land.”
One grandfather would tear up when as a youth I would ask him to tell me about the old days. The other would become sullen and withdrawn. On those occasions when they would open up they both got most of their energy talking about their horses or other tidbits of life on the land.
It was a time when families broke apart. I had uncles who rode the rails to California and Washington state looking for work. If they came back, and some didn’t, they were different. The world had changed.
By the time I was old enough to think about what my elders had experienced and consider their stories, the Depression was more than twenty years past. Never the less, the wounds were fresh enough that I got loads of advice about working hard, getting an education and saving. I was admonished to conserve some things and hold onto others long past their useful life because “it might come in handy some day.” We saved baling wire, wood screws and bent nails like you wouldn’t believe.
And I’d like to say that my grandfathers were resilient and overcame. But I’m afraid it’s not that simple. The sadness of both in their latter years leaves me with a different feeling. They survived. But at the cost of a way of life. They fought the Depression and the Depression won.
Many of the images in the FSA/OWI collection capture this resilience and pathos. Here are a few of the books and articles I’ve found interesting:
A Paean to Forebearance (the Rough Draft), Christine Haughney. A New York Times article that offers the background of the writing of the novel Let Us Now Praise Famous Men by James Agee.
Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, a narrative overview of James Agee’s book and Walker Evans photos of sharecroppers in Alabama in the Great Depression.
Let Us Now Praise Walker Evans, a short documentary that depicts images from an exhibition of photographs by Walker Evans during his years at the Farm Security Administration.
The Worst Hard Time, Timothy Egan
Dust Bowl: The Southern Plains in the 1930s, Donald Worster
A Boyhood in the Dust Bowl, 1926-1934, Robert Allen Rutland
Children of the Dust Bowl, Jerry Stanley
Red Dirt, Growing Up Okie, Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz
Hard Times, Studs Turkel
Down & Out in the Great Depression: Letters from the Forgotten Man, Edited by Robert S. McElvaine
The Great Depression, Robert S. McElvaine
American Photography and the American Dream, James Guimond
Hard Times in Sharp Focus Again, Meg Smith (An online introductory essay to the FSA/OSI photo collection, Library of Congress
John Steinbeck: The Grapes of Wrath, an online anthology including photos of the Dust Bowl migration built around the classic novel.