It was a tricky time.
Had the American nightmare, the Dust Bowl, been solely to blame for the poverty of the 1930’s; was it just a random act of Mother Nature with super nasty timing; was it an economic conspiracy?
“Bankers, perhaps,” a local said.
“Nope: over-farming,” an eastern sea-boarder retorted, ignorant but influential, “what’s the Dow Jones at today?”
And what did it matter why the Dust Bowl occurred? In retrospect, it is easy to look back and point fingers, as if dictating direction from a map—easy to blame the gods of the soil or the doughy white guys in New York City and the Capitol. But the fact of the matter is that the Dust Bowl was one of the most devastating landfall events that rendered thousands of Americans homeless, unemployed and split to the winds. Generations of family-run farms were foreclosed upon—claimed by the banks, or whomsoever, and the land was too dry to grow beyond that fact too.
The blackened winds blew east, where land was expensive and hard to come by, even if one had the money. The sky was like an onslaught of fragments, chipping paint from automobiles, the dust: covering window glass as far as New York City.
The west was the best, the farmers lacking farms thought.
There were intellectuals that monitored the escalating situation in the news, analyzing the: who, what, when, where, why and how, over wetted drinks. And then there were those that closed the gap and captured the experience of those experiencing adversity face to face, up close like a wrestler.
Largely known for her all-encompassing photograph “Migrant Mother”, from her shoot in Nipomo, San Luis Obispo County, California, 1936, Dorothea Lange put a face on the Great Depression. Her iconic photographs shot in austere locations zippered into print on LIFE magazine covers. She travelled extensively, and carried on with conscious-shocking shots well into the 1940s, capturing WWII in her usual, realist form.
But what was Lange actually doing during the Dust Bowl; what drove her away from her cushy portrait photography career in San Francisco to follow the off-beaten paths of impoverished Americans?
A call to arms, so to speak: a duty that superseded stability. Inasmuch as Lange would become financially stable while employed by the Federal Government-induced Farm Security Administration—advantageously throttling the program through her raw photo-documentaries (often misconstrued as propaganda for Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal policies)—in hindsight, she replied: “…what I had to do was take pictures and concentrate upon people, only people, all kinds of people, people who paid me and people who didn’t.”1
Lange initially took to hardcore travel into less than desirable locales with the perspective that the stories of the afflicted had must be told; and what better way but visually—and therefore literally—translated into human experience. As Anne Morrow Lindbergh wrote, “suffering…no matter how multiplied…is always individual.”2
Lange captured her subjects—and likewise their human condition—specifically within facial expressions, weathered wrinkles: deep like crevasses, personifying the idea of the Depression itself. When a face is linked to an on-going occurrence, humane humans will take notice. And notice was taken. No other photographer of the Depression era brought as much reality to kitchen and coffee tables across America as did Dorothea Lange’s “precarious” photographs.
In 1934 Lange was hired by the California Emergency Relief Administration to photo-document the culture of migratory agricultural workers. 3As a native of 21st Century California, I can vouch for the fact that Mexican migrant farm worker cultures still exist today, albeit under far better, fairer circumstances; but a genuine culture the same, and one that is continually shape-shifting. As a child, I remember the Mexicans—young and old— their bent, over-clothed bodies protected from the wrath of the sun, plucking strawberries in the fields, or on ladders snapping oranges or avocados from the branches of trees.
She moved slowly, deliberately, among the migrants who’d been struck down by adversity. But Dorothea didn’t photograph to show them as broken, busted, in need of handouts. She searched to portray their courage and strength, trying to find it in their postures, the ingenuity of their shelters, their willingness to work hard, and their valiant attempts to care for their children. 4
Lange, alongside her second husband and agricultural economist Paul Taylor, best summarized the “behind the scenes” works they had collaborated within the 1939 publication of An American Exodus: A Record of Human Erosion, which, incidentally, has become somewhat of a collector’s item. This book catalogued the rural poverty of over 300,000 international migrants—both in Lange’s photos and Taylor’s journalism—and is a stoic remembrance of the hardship of those migrants, and the media-driven good Samaritans that chronicled and broadcasted hard-working endurance and gritty determination to the rest of the public. Lange was on a mission not to expose the exploited, but rather, to expose the exploiters. For as many of us may have forgotten, if not applicable to our livelihood, farming is a cutthroat business, and far from the portrayal of familial recreation full of sweet tea sipped from straws on verandas.
The literary penman William Faulkner, whose popular novels As I lay Dying and Absalom, Absalom!, both published in the 1930s, was once asked by a budding author from Mississippi what a writer should write about. Faulkner replied that “if you are going to write, write about human nature. That’s the only thing that doesn’t date.” 5 And although he wasn’t from Mississippi, that’s exactly what John Steinbeck set out to do. As most well-rounded writers tend to keep a firm grasp on, Steinbeck nurtured relationships with insightful individuals; people that had seen things he hadn’t, and that had already become submersed in many cultural aspects of humanity that Steinbeck was chomping at the bit to write about. He befriended Susan Gregory, a Monterey, California High School Teacher, who offered many anecdotes regarding the local paisanos (migrant farmworkers of Californio, Indian and Mexican descent), a culture in which she had become a kind of pseudo-Mother Superior. 6 It was during this time that Steinbeck gained the inspiration for his first successful novella Tortilla Flat (1935), to which he dedicated: To Susan Gregory of Monterey. Undoubtedly, without Gregory, Tortilla Flat would have not been written; but without Steinbeck’s creative writing approach, the nihilistic story would not have reached and opened so many eyes. “Despite [the story] ending with the insinuation that Tortilla Flat will melt into nonexistence, Steinbeck has given [the paisanos] candles that continue to burn and smiles that are deathless.” 7
Steinbeck never travelled to Oklahoma to shadow the migratory farmworkers headed west, but had made several road trips along Route 66 in 1937. One of his stops was a “Hooverville” near Bakersfield, California where he met a young man claiming to be a fugitive. This man would later become the inspiration behind Steinbeck’s main character Tom Joad in The Grapes of Wrath (1939).
Interestingly, Steinbeck dedicates the groundbreaking novel to both his wife Carol, who “willed it,” and to Tom [Collins], “who lived it.” Similarly to Susan Gregory, Tom Collins played a crucial role in planting the vines for the eventual fruition of Grapes. Like Dorothea Lange, Collins was an FSA employee, and in 1935, was the camp manager of the first government-funded migrant camps. These campsites would slowly begin to freckle the central valley of California as more and more farmworkers travelled west, where the promise of work was becoming more and more accepted as illusion. Collins absorbed all the nuances of the culture-shocked migrants, and was a wealth of primary knowledge for John Steinbeck, who shared Collins’ compassion for the impoverished people and wanted to record everything he heard within the medium of fiction. 8
It could be argued that Dorothea Lange and John Steinbeck did more to spread recognition of the seriousness of the Dust Bowl—and the disjointed cultures of farm workers forced into existence—than any mission completed by the FSA. Through their investigatory research and art forms, they formed a trail that would later be re-blazed by American farm worker rights activists (and ultimately Presidential Medal of Freedom recipients) Dolores Huerta and Cesar Chavez.
1. The Woman’s Eye, edited and with an introduction by Anne Tucker. Alfred A. Knopf, New York, 1973. p. 61.
3. Ibid. p. 63
4. Partridge, Elizabeth. Dorothea Lange: Grab a Hunk of Lightening. San Francisco: Chronicle Books LLC, 2013
5. The Fiction Writers Handbook, Burnett. p. 47
6. Thompson, John. “Secret History No. 11: Susan Gregory.” Coast Weekly [Seaside, CA] 29 Mar. 1990: 30. Copeland, Dennis and Edna E. Kimbro. “Susan Gregory’s ‘Tortilla Flat’.” Noticias del Puerto de Monterey: 51.3 (Fall 2002)
7. Bethea, Arthur F. 2008. “Steinbeck’s Tortilla Flat.” Explicator 66, no. 3: 133-137. Academic Search Complete, EBSCOhost.
8. Benson, Jackson J. “’To Tom, Who Lived It: John Steinbeck and the Man from Weedpatch.” Journal of Modern Literature 5, no. 2: 151. Academic Search Complete, EBSCOhost (accessed April 14th, 2014).