And a Time for Hope: Americans in the Great Depression

By James R. McGovern | Go to book overview

6

Rural Worlds Confirmed

In the public mind, no group better symbolizes the nadir of Americans in the Great Depression than the Okies who migrated to California. We associate poignant images with these poor wanderers from the central Southwest who trekked to California to escape poverty only to suffer seemingly repeated indignities there and even greater exploitation. Two extremely talented, creative artists contributed importantly to these images: Dorothea Lange and John Steinbeck. With the assistance of a movie director, John Ford, and folk singer Woody Guthrie and others, they succeeded until very recent times in turning the "Okie Odyssey" of the 1930s into an ideological as well as sentimental journey that substituted for reality. 1

Although Lange's numerous photographs of the migrants to California are generally moving, none is more eloquent or attains such notice as "Migrant Mother." Photographed in February 1936, three years before publication of Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath would seem to endorse her essential image, "Migrant Mother" ("Migrant Madonna") was an extraordinarily moving document—a lonely, frail, sunburnt mother, pictured in a ragged half-tent with a forlorn pensive look; her three children clinging dependently to her—no work, food, or husband in sight. Lange's photographs of the Okies were so appealing that the public mistook them for the more significant contextual life of her subjects; her camera could not record their essential optimism, toughness, support in family and community, limited expectations, or confident belief in self-reliance, all typical of rural people. It was these characterological qualities that made them more resilient than her pictures of rootless poverty suggest. Although middle-class intellectuals like Lange showed a great capacity to empathize with poor folks living on the edge, they seem less well endowed to depict an abiding per

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