Dust Bowl Migrants in the American Imagination

Charles J. Shindo, Author
Charles J. Shindo, Author University Press of Kansas $29.95 (272p) ISBN 978-0-7006-0810-2
Reviewed on: 12/30/1996
Release date: 01/01/1997
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Only a third of the one million migrants to California during the Great Depression fled the dust storms in the Midwest, and only half of those were farmers; yet the popular myth of the hungry, poor and dispossessed farmer who only wanted a piece of land to call his own continues to dominate. In this cultural history, Shindo, who teaches history at Louisiana State University, examines the impact of the myth and the reality of Dust Bowl migrants. The four major artists treated here are Dorothea Lange, whose photographs collected in Migrant Mother (1936) symbolized all Depression hopelessness; Woody Guthrie, whose Dust Bowl ballads were informed by his own experiences as an Okie migrant; John Steinbeck, whose novel The Grapes of Wrath (1939) generalized human suffering; and John Ford, who adapted that novel to film the next year. According to Shindo, all of these artists had social or political motives: Lange sees the potential desolation of mechanization, particularly agricultural mechanization; Guthrie's songs present the migrant as an American original resisting injustice. And Ford and Steinbeck, Shindo says, ultimately had two different ideas about The Grapes of Wrath: ""For Ford, the migrants found what they had lost--the Jeffersonian ideal; for Steinbeck, the migrants needed to learn a new ideal, one of shared humanity, the organic universe."" While Shindo does shed light on the migrant camps and federal attempts to regulate agricultural labor, this remains a book about how art transforms reality and especially how it created the abiding image of the Dust Bowl migrant as a victim of circumstance. (Feb.)
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