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.

Most controversially, Shindo attacks the reputation of the migrant-labour camps and their managers. Even recent historians have retained a degree of respect for the motives and achievements of these men – especially Tom Collins, the idealistic ex-seminarian who was the founder manager of the first two FSA camps, one at each end of the San Joaquin Valley. Steinbeck’s friend, informant and the dedicatee of The Grapes of Wrath, Collins made the camps his life, working unbelievably hard to ensure decent conditions for the migrants, to offer them a degree of protection from sheriffs’ ‘deputies’ and other vigilantes (while remaining strictly neutral in labour disputes), and above all to encourage self-help by devolving the day-to-day running of the camps onto committees of campers elected by the migrants themselves. According to Shindo, however, both the democracy and the respect for the migrants’ dignity were a sham: the managers always had the last word, and treated their charges at best as amusing rustics, at worst as ignorant degenerates out of Tobacco Road. Nor did the Collins model produce unfailing harmony between migrants and managers. Ray Mork quarrelled with the campers at Indio in 1939, threatening to throw them out if they did not obey regulations. In 1941 Conrad Reibold, manager at Firebaugh, reported that participation in camp democracy was so half-hearted as to make positions on the camp council impossible to fill.

Shindo’s analysis delivers a few hits, but from an odd perspective. You could say that there was an element of condescension in Collins’s weekly reports back to Regional Headquarters, in that most of them ended with gobbets of what he called ‘migrant-wisdom’, rendered in phonetic spelling in a clumsy attempt to catch their accent. Shindo’s critique of Todd and Sonkin could, if anything, be pushed further: the folklorists certainly weighted their sample. When they began to record in July 1940, they got highly accomplished renderings of ‘Dream Boat’, ‘On the Beach at Bali-Bali’ and other popular songs of the time. ‘Very well done,’ their field notes report, but this was not exactly what they had come for. Gospel singing, some of very high quality, was also offered and politely declined. Finally, to their relief, a man came forward and said: ‘ “What you want is some real old Break-down stuff, ain’t it, Mister?” We assured him it was, and he promised to bring forth the next day.’

Their happiest discovery was old Mary Sullivan at the Shafter camp, whose ‘ballads came down to her through oral transmission from her mother’, as Todd explained. What he did not realise, and Shindo doesn’t mention, is that every one of the ‘ballads’ recorded on their field trips had already passed through the medium of sheet music, records and live performance. The main ‘transmission’ was via the ubiquitous – and, in those unregulated days, hugely powerful – radio broadcasts of country music to which the farmers of the South-West listened so avidly.

Country music had begun to evolve from ballads, building on traditional themes of loss, separation and alienation long before the Okies came to California. From the mid-Twenties onwards, Jimmie Rodgers and the Carter Family were recording songs about orphans, outlaws, disappointed love, homes left behind and nostalgically remembered – not to mention (though often forgotten) songs of hope and faith expressed in religious terms. Nicholas Dawidoff’s richly descriptive account of country music, built around well-researched biographies of its practitioners, shows how varied the form was, from the start, in theme, style and instrumentation. There never has been one kind of country music that was more authentic than others – or more popular or more commercial or more traditional or even more ‘white’ or ‘black’ in origin.

The evidence Shindo gives of tension between campers and managers is less persuasive: it consists of a few fugitive references to apathy on the one side, and officious authority on the other. All but one of his examples are drawn from 1941, when the camps were already winding down, having begun to lose their residents to better-paid employment in the defence industries around Los Angeles and San Francisco Bay. It is simply grotesque to bracket Ray Mork with Collins. Moving from Indio to the Shafter FSA camp in mid-1939, Mork spent most of the following year complaining to the FSA that regulations prevented him from kicking out campers who wouldn’t take their turn cleaning toilets. By contrast, Collins’s reports were full of the campers’ achievements: their gain in self-respect, their efforts to help themselves, the impressive results of their self-government. Were the camps democratic? No, in the sense that the migrants could not vote to close them down, nor spend a fortune building a new facility: ultimately it was the manager who had to be responsible to the Government and to the taxpayer. Yes, in everything that had to do with how the camps were run on a day-to-day basis. And there is no doubt that the officials of the FSA preferred Collins’s optimism to the punitive instincts of Ray Mork.

Nor were the migrants and the progressives divided by political philosophy. Shindo offers very little in support of his contention that the Okies were ‘plain-folks’ Americans, alienated from the ‘urban liberalism’ of the people trying to help them. It’s hard to explain his mistake: perhaps it comes from Merle Haggard’s 1969 song ‘Okie from Muskogee’. During the Nixon era the political dialogue may have been between plain folks content to play football and drink white lightning and ‘those hippies in San Francisco’, growing their hair long, smoking dope and burning their draft cards. But in the Thirties the American flag was not something liberals tore down and plain folks allowed to float serenely over the courthouse. It was the symbol of government trying to help, of the public enterprise in which both progressives and migrants were involved – and as such, the Okies’ defence against the farm-owners and their vigilantes.

If the bureaucrats of the New Deal and the novelists, artists and intellectuals of the Thirties did misunderstand the migrants’ situation it was because they saw it as far worse than it was, portending dire consequences for the rest of America. Lange’s migrant mother shelters from the rain in a tiny lean-to. Two of her children lean their heads on her neck and look away, as if grieving or starving, while she offers her last remaining sustenance to a suckling infant. No father is in frame. But if Lange had asked, she would have discovered that the woman was a full-blooded Cherokee, an organiser for the Cannery and Agricultural Union, with two older boys, who had gone off with their father to get a radiator leak repaired on their Hudson. It wasn’t raining. ‘We wouldn’t have left Mama and the girls in just a lean-to if it were really raining,’ her oldest son said recently. ‘We would have pitched our big tent.’ Far from being marooned among the pea-pickers of Nipomo, the family took off the next morning for the lettuce fields around Watsonville.

What about Rothstein’s Fleeing a Dust Storm, in which a father and two small boys struggle heads lowered against the blast, the smaller child lagging behind, trying to rub the dust out of his eyes? Again, there is only one parent in the shot: the family is evidently disintegrating. So is the house behind them, a miserable hut of miscellaneous logs and tarpaper. But the art historian James Curtis has shown that the reality was much less desperate. There was no dust storm: Rothstein couldn’t have shot the picture if there had been, and besides, the horizon is clearly visible. The building was a disused shack, not the family house, which can be seen in another picture: it is a substantial, pitched-roof structure of milled lumber. Rothstein told the little boy to fall behind and rub his eyes. The farmer and his family did not migrate to California, but stayed on and with considerable government help turned the farm’s fortunes around.

Shindo is wrong, by about 180 degrees, to characterise Steinbeck as believing in the perfectibility of man. Steinbeck’s difficulty with the material he ‘researched’ in order to write In Dubious Battle and The Grapes of Wrath was his apparent blindness to good news. He was so drunk on the dregs of California naturalism that he was ‘philosophically’ constrained to represent the Okies on a downward trajectory. Take the strikes. In both novels they are always doomed: the organisers motivated by ideological abstractions; the strikers hapless picket-fodder. The battle is dubious in the novel of that name because the strike, sparked off by an accident, is whipped up by a travelling agitator from San Francisco, and is so chaotically organised that the strikers run out of food and funds within a few days. By contrast, the actual strike on the Tagus peach and cotton ranch in August 1933, which was Steinbeck’s model for the book (and the setting for the Hooper Ranch strike in The Grapes of Wrath), resulted in outright victory for the strikers within a few days. It was indeed organised by an official from the Cannery and Agricultural Workers’ Union – Pat Chambers – but he listened carefully to the workers and planned the strike meticulously.

The Grapes of Wrath is richer in detail, more humane, less philosophically arid and generally more interesting than its predecessor, not least because by then Steinbeck’s chief informant was the hopeful Tom Collins, at that time manager at Arvin camp. Yet Collins’s faith in the migrants’ future failed to mitigate the pessimistic action of the novel, which finds the Joads and their friends stripped away one by one until the family is reduced in every sense, and forced by floods to move into a draughty barn. And this despite Chapter 22, in which the Joads happen onto the Weed Patch (Arvin) FSA camp, encountering, for the first time, it seems, the delights of local democracy, flush toilets and hot showers.

For this section Steinbeck used copies of Collins’s weekly reports, with the result that the Joad family’s bad luck is suspended for a while. The action reverts to norm soon enough, however, when they fail to find work and are forced to move on, their fortunes resuming their downward spiral. Of course they don’t want to leave: ‘ “This here hot water an’ toilets – ” Pa began.’ To which Ma responds: ‘Well, we can’t eat no toilets.’ And yet close inspection of the reports used by Steinbeck reveals that no family was forced to leave the camp at that time. January and February were the worst months for agricultural employment, yet Collins’s reports list men employed in cutting vines, burning brush, pruning and spraying the local vineyards, ditch cleaning and picking olives. No one was reported destitute; those without savings or family to help them were referred to the state relief agency.

How to account for this relentless glooming down? No doubt Steinbeck, Lange, Rothstein and others felt that the best way to help the situation was by ‘telling it scary’: the progressives were responding to the perceived emergency not only as artists or scholars, but also as journalists using whatever media they could to get the story out. For newspapers, newsreels and the new illustrated news magazines like Life causes and effects had to be focused as a single, catastrophic event. Everyone who wrote about the phenomenon, took pictures or sang songs about it, both fed the sense of emergency and put it to use.

Lange’s photographs tell a simple story about the loss of everything in life which most of us take for granted: a family intact, the children safe, clean and well dressed; secure shelter with running water and a substantial kitchen; social and physical mobility. That’s why so many of them show little boys sitting in buckets and covered with flies, flimsy shacks covered in tarpaper, cars broken down or attached to tents, two bindlestiffs walking down a road that runs straight to the horizon, alongside a bill-board saying ‘Next Time Try the Train.’ These images can be interpreted as revealing Lange’s own class anxiety – even to the childhood polio that left her permanently lame – but they worked brilliantly, going straight to the hearts of people who had the money and influence to change things, or at least who could vote and pay taxes.

For all that, there is something dysfunctional about the interpreters’ pessimism. Shindo is right to say that the New Dealers and their propagandists were making a mistake in portraying the migrants as victims, but why did they do this? When Lange teamed up with her second husband, the agricultural economist Paul Taylor, to produce An American Exodus: A Record of Human Erosion (1939), they offered not just an illustrated document of their ‘field work’ over the past five years, but the authoritative context for the Okie migration which lay, Taylor explained, in the fact that ‘the roots of Oklahomans in the land are shallow.’ They had been settled there for only two generations, and mainly as tenant farmers, not landowners. Now they found themselves displaced even from that shallow planting. With ‘their tap-root to the land severed, they search with their fellows where new roots may be sunk.’ Taylor himself had initially come to the University of California for his health, yet no question was raised about the length of his tap-root in the Berkeley earth. Of course not: this transplantation happens all the time in the professional and commercial middle class. But the Okies’ culture was apparently too frail to survive it.

The mistake made by the progressives was to assume that because the migrants had been uprooted physically, they must have been culturally uprooted, too. What they did have – their music, their evangelical religion, their geographical and social mobility – looked to the equally restless American middle classes to be nothing more than desperate responses to overwhelming poverty. As such, these habits were widely pitied, when not deprecated, as marks of degeneration. At no point did anyone consider that they might constitute something approaching a ‘tradition’. If the Okies had a culture, it can have been nothing more than – to borrow a phrase from a brilliant essay by Lawrence Levine – ‘the culture of poverty’.

This misapprehension can even be seen in the progressives’ self-appointed mission to correct the Okies’ cooking. Collins took to visiting the Arvin campers unannounced Justin time for dinner. Without fail, the migrants would make him welcome, however pinched their circumstances, and he would reciprocate with tactful suggestions on how to improve their diet and culinary hygiene. In 1937 the California State Department of Public Health sent a commission to investigate living conditions in the camps. ‘The typical diet of migratory families,’ wrote Laura Bolt, its dietician, ‘consisted of hot baking powder biscuits, poorly baked, a skillet of gravy as the table centrepiece, surrounded by plates of boiled beans and fried potatoes, surplus fat to be mopped up with the biscuits’. In other words, the traditional English Sunday joint, minus the meat. Is this the culture of poverty? Or is it culture in poverty, a tradition maintained despite adverse circumstances? Miss Bolt went on to lament the use of ‘mustard, lambsquarter, dandelion, sour dock, mouse’s ear, field lettuce and poak greens. When asked why they eat these greens, the reply is “Well, our grandfathers before us ‘et’ ’em and they jist must be somethin’ healthy in ’em.” ’ No poverty of culture here, as it happens; so the tradition has to become comic.

If the New Dealers, the artists, intellectuals and writers could not believe in the Okies’ culture, perhaps it was because they fell so often into metaphors drawn from nature. Words like ‘erosion’ and ‘uprooting’, not to mention Steinbeck’s biological model for the behaviour of mankind in the mass, make it clear that the problem is conceived as one of inevitable decline, against which neither tradition nor the most strenuous efforts of individual enterprise can ever prevail. Why nature kept creeping in to account for things happening in economic, social and, above all, political domains is another story altogether. Answer that, and you will also explain why the Great Depression has been represented and remembered, not in terms of the steelworker laid off or the failing shopkeeper, but in images of agricultural distress, of farmers perpetually on the move.