Stephen Fender

Stephen Fender taught American Studies at Sussex for many years and is an honorary professor of English at UCL. His books include The Great American Speech: Words and Monuments and Sea Changes: British Emigration and American Literature.

In the middle of the Depression, Roosevelt’s Works Progress Administration (WPA) set out to increase American purchasing power by getting the unemployed back to work. For the most part they planted forests, graded roads and developed outdoorsy holiday resorts, but the WPA also recruited 40,000 writers, theatrical workers, musicians and artists, most of them on relief, to work on four...

When people remember the Great American Depression they think of the Oklahoma farmsteads, of topsoil loosened by drought and blown off the land in massive storms that darkened the skies for days at a time. The ‘Okies’ headed west in their overloaded jalopies along the 1400 miles of Route 66 to Central Valley, California, but only a minority found work, and even that was temporary, poorly paid and back-breaking. Many migrants were forced to live along roadsides and on waste ground, washing and going to the toilet in ditches. Some found a tent or rough shack on a farm, where they were bullied and paid in scrip negotiable only at the company store. The lucky few found places in government-run camps, but the Government could not manufacture paying work out of thin air, and they had to move on, following the harvests of various crops through a cycle of place and season.

When Dad Came Out Here

Stephen Fender, 12 December 1996

‘I am not a travel writer,’ Jonathan Raban said in a recent interview. ‘For me, “travel writer” means someone who samples other people’s holidays – you talk about the food, the hotel, throw in a bit of local colour. If I thought that was the business I was in, I’d slit my throat.’ Bad Land, Raban’s new book about Montana, examines the present remains and historical origins of the last great wave of American western settlement, the migration of homesteaders to eastern Montana in the first decade of this century. Once flourishing, their farms are now in ruins: ‘fenceposts, trailing a few whiskers of wire – the body of a Studebaker … stripped of its wheels and engine … a harrow deep in the grass … houses, cars, machinery … fading rapidly off the land’. In one collapsing house Raban found a sheaf of manuscript pages showing debts mounting from a few dollars payable to the Bureau of Land Management, Sears Roebuck and Kyle’s Radiator Shop, to horrific arrears on bank loans – the debts totalled well over $5000. When they pulled out, the failed homesteaders simply left their household goods behind – the Frigidaire, the parlour furniture, the ironing-board – but they took great pains to make a bonfire of their family photographs.’

Not Making it

Stephen Fender, 24 October 1991

From 1940 the poor black sharecroppers of the Southern United States began to go north in large numbers. The movement seemed to resemble the great emigrations that had created America in the first place. Anxious to escape deteriorating conditions at home, the migrants were also attracted by opportunities far away. They wanted to better themselves, to extend their possibilities, and they were willing to uproot themselves in order to do so.

Marginal Man

Stephen Fender, 7 December 1989

There are two stories to tell about Paul Robeson – one sad and the other tragic. Both could be constructed from the ample data in this heavy, ill-focused, yet informative concatenation of computerised database, research grant and exclusive access to the subject’s papers. In the first a young Negro of high intelligence, great physical strength and grace, musically talented and gifted with a resonant bass voice, is induced by a dominant white culture to fill various roles – social, professional and indeed dramatic – formulated for blacks to perform. As long as he kept his place, he was rewarded with riches and fame, even public adoration. When he began to break out of his racial stereotype – and further, to challenge the political assumptions on which that culture was founded – he was abused, spied on, hauled before accusatory tribunals, virtually denied a livelihood, for a while even confined to his native country.’

Deconstructing America

Sheldon Rothblatt, 23 July 1992

The topic of national self-regard falls under the general historical heading of ‘exceptionalism’ – where claims are made as to the unique quality of national experience, or...

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Anxiety of Influx

Tony Tanner, 18 February 1982

Of course Empire took its way westward, what other way was there but into those virgin sunsets to penetrate and to foul? Pynchon: Gravity’s Rainbow Near the end of The Great Gatsby Nick...

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