Ethnographic Pilgrimages in Depression-Era America

By Shiffman, Dan | Mosaic (Winnipeg), December 2003 | Go to article overview

Ethnographic Pilgrimages in Depression-Era America


Shiffman, Dan, Mosaic (Winnipeg)


Many writers in the United States during the 1930s, feeling that fiction no longer adequately conveyed the devastating impact of the Depression, turned to what Edmund Wilson termed "straight reporting" (n.pag.); with great earnestness they aspired to get reality right. James Agee, Erskine Caldwell, Sherwood Anderson, Louis Adamic, Theodore Dreiser, Wilson, and others who took to America's highways, country roads, and city streets "worshiped at the altar of social fact" (Russell 18). As literary pilgrims, they held a common faith in the transforming power of direct observation and appealed to citizens of the United States to confront the lives of urban immigrants, frustrated labour activists, sharecroppers, and small town folk, and to regard their simple houses, their claustrophobic flats and thwarted dreams. Constance Coiner has characterized these writers as the descendants of an earlier generation of Progressive muckrakers (27-29). Many of the more widely known reporters lacked a specific ideological orientation, however. Indeed, as David Peeler has argued, "Having feared that nothing could be done, they came to hope that nothing needed to be done" (278). In other words, these documentarians were sceptical that a particular political formula could lead the country out of the Depression, but they were all ultimately idealists in their conviction that cross-cultural understanding and social reform were motivated by a sense of the obvious, the compelling facts of ordinary existence.

It is easy to question whether the "straight reporting" texts of the 1930s presented even relatively undistorted portraits of disenfranchised Americans and whether they brought middle-class readers any closer to understanding people living on the margins of American life. These documentary journeys, it might be argued, allow middle-class readers the satisfaction that they have acknowledged "how the other half lives" but with no responsibility to do anything about it. Similarly, such texts can be viewed as acts of cultural appropriation. The quaint or heroic or "genuine" lives of the destitute are acquired as trophies of readers' cultural sensitivity. Or, the documentary texts can be said to engender a vague universal embrace, a specious "essential humanity" that erases class, race, and gender differences.

While recognizing and affirming that ethnographers are creative writers who shape reality toward certain ends, anthropologists including Clifford

Geertz, Renato Rosaldo, Michael Taussig, and James Clifford have explored what might be described as goodfaith subjectivity. These writers espouse a multi-sited ethnography that eschews a single, fixed explanatory method. They also refuse to take the constructed nature of social reality merely as a given but instead explore the processes of this construction, and, especially in the case of Rosaldo, consider the emotional responses of the ethnographer as integral to "fieldwork." In Works and Lives: The Anthropologist as Author, Geertz, who is not ready to surrender the disciplinary status of the ethnographer, outlines methods to temper the grossest distortions of subjectivity. These methods include "ethnographic ventriloquism," the attempt to speak not about, but from within, a culture; positivism, which faithfully renders the details and experiences of another culture, a technique in which the writer aspires to be an "honest broker"; a dispersed or heteroglossic authorship in which the ethnographer's voice is shared with the voices of his subject "in some direct, equal and independent way" (145). According to Geertz, the most popular method of managing subjectivity is self-inspection, an attempt to minimize distortions by demonstrating awareness of one's own prejudices.

None of these strategies can evade the intractable reality that perception is embodied, nor can they circumvent the central, orchestrating role of the ethnographer. Nevertheless, distinctions can be made between texts that manipulate and contrive ethnography and those that engender heightened understanding of cultures and individuals. …

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