This week, I stumbled across an amazing photographic essay of the Great Depression from the English department at the University of Illinois. If you’re at all interested in this era of American history, you should take a minute and pour over these photographs. They are incredibly poignant, and I think that whoever compiled them did a good job of showing the complexity of the Depression and how it touched every aspect of American life, instead of just focusing on one or two tropes, like the Migrant Mother or urban unemployment.
This was one of my favorite photographs from the essay, taken by Dorothea Lange, the same photographer who shot the famous Migrant Mother portrait:
I love how simple and symbolic this photo is. It reminds me a lot of the beginning chapters of The Grapes of Wrath, when the Joad family first sets out from Oklahoma with the false hope that they will find plenty of work and land in California.
Looking over the essay, it also became pretty apparent to me why I’m so interested in the Great Depression. The way I see it, when that stock market crashed on Black Tuesday, it was the metaphorical flat-lining of the American Dream. Everything young America was promising itself went bankrupt along with Wall Street. If the Dream says that everyone can be rich if you only work hard, how do you reconcile thirty billion dollars vanishing into thin air and millionaires becoming paupers in less than a day’s time? If the Dream says that all men are created equal, how do you reconcile an economy so hostile that it rakes the coals of racism and prejudice red-hot, turning all men in the unemployment line into enemies? If the Dream says that personal independence is our greatest treasure, how do you reconcile entire families struggling to survive in 10-sq. foot migrant tents and groups of strangers forming hobo camps rather than face the night alone?
In the face of extreme hardship and under the threat of starvation, America was forced to do in the 1930’s what jaded Americans like me are stumbling all over ourselves trying to remember how to do today.
There was no “intentional community.” There was a line drawn in the sand and the choices were to treat your neighbor like family, or treat them like an enemy.
There was no “green movement.” There was an economical crisis so bad that it was sinful to waste and insanity not to try to find ways to make things grow and resources last.
There was no “rewilding” or “primitiviism.” There was a crippled agricultural system that kept people in painful awareness of just how dependent they are on nature, and how vital that relationship is to maintain.
Now don’t get me wrong, I’m not trying to romanticize the Depression or applaud the tragedy of thousands of people becoming impoverished and hungry. I’m just saying that the death of the American Dream was a suicide–it died in pursuit of itself, and it was only at its funeral that people were able look around at each other and be humble enough to make the choices that we wrestle so much with in our comfort and prosperity: the choice to be compassionate, the choice to be vulnerable, the choice to sacrifice.
We have much to learn from the Migrant Mother.