Monday, April 21, 2008


Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, a study of Depression-era tenant farmers, was a much-praised book with text by James Agee and photographs by Walker Evans. Agee and Evans, hired by the federal government's "New Deal" programs, spent a couple of months living with three different sharecropping families in the South. Evans captured their struggles against deep poverty in his stark photography, and Agee combined detailed research with a poet's pen. One of the most powerful things about the book is its portrayal of desperately poor people as proud, noble, and strong. It is a complicated thing to tread the line between paternalistic pity and the recognition of dignity in the face of great hardship.

* * *

Perhaps the most famous photograph of the Depression era was taken by Dorothea Lange.

This photograph shows Florence Owens Thompson and her children in February or March of 1936 in Nipomo, California. Lange was concluding a month of photographing migratory farm labor for the Resettlement Administration (part of FDR's New Deal). In 1960, the photographer recalled her experience:

I saw and approached the hungry and desperate mother, as if drawn by a magnet. I do not remember how I explained my presence or my camera to her, but I do remember she asked me no questions. I made five exposures, working closer and closer from the same direction. I did not ask her name or her history. She told me her age, that she was thirty-two. She said that they had been living on frozen vegetables from the surrounding fields, and birds that the children killed. She had just sold the tires from her car to buy food. There she sat in that lean-to tent with her children huddled around her, and seemed to know that my pictures might help her, and so she helped me. There was a sort of equality about it. (From: Popular Photography, Feb. 1960).

There are a handful of other portraits of this "Migrant Mother," including this one, one of my favorites. Here, the mother seems so self-reliant:

You can learn more about Florence Owens Thompson and her family at this site.

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Lange took many other very powerful photographs during the depression. Her work, paid for by the federal government, helped those who held political office see what was happening to the nation.

* * *

I recently read a wonderful introduction to the Great Depression: Victoria Sherrow's Hardship and Hope, written for readers in the seventh grade and up. It is a great place to start even if you're an adult, if you want a very succinct readable account.

In some ways following in the footsteps of such giants as Agee, Walker, and Lange, the author of this short book seeks to show that the survivors of the tragedy of the Depression years were strong and dignified.

She also points out some positive aspects of the lean years: families and communities had to rely on each other and on their own creativity. People relied on telling stories, singing songs, playing sports themselves, or playing cards. Children created rolling toys from scrap lumber and discarded roller-skate wheels or dolls from cardboard and old cut-up magazines. A few marbles, a dime, or an orange could be an appreciated birthday gift. How many children would be satisfied that way today?

The book ends on a relatively happy note suggesting that much of what caused the Great Depression would be unlikely to happen today. One of her concluding remarks is that "the distribution of wealth has changed in America although there are still enormous gaps between rich and poor. No longer is 40 percent of the nation's wealth held by only 5 percent of all Americans."

* * *

Her confident statement surprised me. After an improvement in the wealth distribution numbers after World War II, the country had a fairly sharp increase in wealth inequality dating back to 1975 or 1976.

By 1998:

The top one percent owned 38 percent of all wealth.

The top five percent owned 59 percent,

and the top 20% owned 80% of the country's wealth.

And in 1997, ONE MAN (Bill Gates) was worth more alone than the combined assets of the bottom 40 million Americans (roughly the bottom 15% at the time).

In other words, there is substantially more inequality now (or at least in 1998) than there was at the time of the Great Depression.


Anonymous said...

I have seen those photos in person and they are so very moving.
Thanks for the reality check sister!

Lanea said...

It's so true, and so frightening. I was just binging on Agee again myself--seems so fitting.

Anonymous said...

Love to read your blog; thank you for the wisdom.


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