Why historians no longer believe in the New Deal account of the ‘Dust Bowl’

Stephen Fender

  • Dust-bowl Migrants in the American Imagination by Charles Shindo
    Kansas, 252 pp, £22.50, January 1997, ISBN 0 7006 0810 9
  • In the Country of Country by Nicholas Dawidoff
    Faber, 365 pp, £12.99, June 1997, ISBN 0 571 19174 6

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.

That’s the story. Historians now think it is largely untrue. To start with, the migration was not a single phenomenon prompted by a cataclysmic natural event. Farmers in the American South-West generally (not just in Oklahoma) had been getting poorer ever since markets for their produce began to decline after World War One. Rumours of new opportunities and a temperate climate, later reinforced by the draw of the movies, had been attracting South-Western migrants to California since the second decade of the century. More arrived there between 1910 and 1930 than during the whole of the Depression. In the Forties Californian war industries like shipbuilding and aircraft manufacture pulled in nearly twice as many as those supposedly blown off their farms by the Dust Bowl. Nor was ‘Dust Bowl’ the appropriate phrase. For people in Texas, Arkansas and Oklahoma the drought and economic depression of the mid-Thirties were real enough, but the legendary dust storms afflicted mainly Kansas and Colorado: they brushed past Oklahoma and Texas and missed Arkansas by four hundred miles.

Farm labourers’ wages in California were then the highest in the world, and demand for native-born farm workers increased as the Depression turned local feeling and legislation against Mexican immigrants. Unlike the Mexicans, however, these new arrivals couldn’t ‘hibernate’ during the off-season in the barrios of Los Angeles or back in Mexico itself, out of sight of the farm-owners, and more to the point, off the relief rolls financed by the California taxpayer. So the real issue – how to benefit from a ready supply of skilled workers without having to pay for them off season – had more to do with politics than with destitution in the wake of a natural catastrophe. This was the problem that State and Federal Governments tackled with their camps, providing farm workers with basic housing and sanitary facilities year round. But the continuity that served the migrants so well made the farm-owners edgy. If idle hands were kept together all winter, what would prevent ‘agitators’ from coming in to organise them, to help them plan next season’s lightning strike against a crop that had to be picked within a week, or rot at the foot of the tree?

How did the popular history of the Okies come to depart from the facts as historians have now begun to uncover them? As Charles Shindo sees it, the answer lies in the political mismatch between the migrants and those who tried to explain and publicise their predicament in an attempt to remedy it: that is, everyone from the managers of the Farm Security Administration camps to writers, artists and intellectuals, like John Steinbeck, the FSA photographers Dorothea Lange and Arthur Rothstein, folklorists working for the Library of Congress, the economist Paul Taylor, the sociologist Carey McWilliams, and even Woodie Guthrie, who provided the words and music. The migrants were ‘plain-folks’, patriotic Americans, individualistic, distrustful of big government and big solutions to their problems, Shindo says, while the artists, intellectuals and bureaucrats who supported the New Deal were collectivist in their sympathies, favoured big government and nursed a progressive belief in a better future.

The progressives, Shindo argues, saw the migrants as victims, as refugees needing to be helped back into society. Dorothea Lange, for instance, constructed her images of alienation around the faces of uprooted farm workers, without stopping to ask who they were, how they felt. Her Migrant Mother sitting in a flimsy lean-to nursing her baby became the central icon of the Depression, yet all that Lange knew of her subject was that she was a migrant pea-picker living through a wet winter near Nipomo, California. Even this turned out to be wrong. Steinbeck, ‘philosophically’ convinced of the perfectibility of man, considered the migrants ‘backward and uneducated’, and in The Grapes of Wrath ‘supported reforms inconsistent with the migrants’ own desires’. Similarly, the folklorists Charles Todd and Robert Sonkin, sent west under the aegis of Alan Lomax and the Library of Congress to record what might be left of the migrants’ musical lore, paid no attention to what the Okies – by now into commercialised country and western music – wanted to hear, play and sing. The collectors were looking for an imagined folk tradition embodying an essential American character.

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