The Nation's Bioregion: The South in Pare Lorentz's the River

By Knepper, Steven E. | Southern Quarterly, Fall 2017 | Go to article overview

The Nation's Bioregion: The South in Pare Lorentz's the River


Knepper, Steven E., Southern Quarterly


Pare Lorentz's 1938 documentary film The River depicts the Great Depression as both an economic and an ecological disaster. It dramatizes how deforestation in the Upper Midwest and soil mining in the Cotton South contributed to devastating floods along the southern Mississippi. Produced under the auspices of the Resettlement Administration, the film sought to build support for New Deal initiatives. But its ambitions cannot be reduced to this narrow political purpose. With a Whitmanesque script by Lorentz and a sonorous score by Virgil Thomson, The River presents itself as an epic of national solidarity. It calls for specific conservation efforts but also for a new standard of progress that uses social and ecological health-rather than economic production alone-as its measure.

Distributed by Paramount, the film was a success with critics and at the box office. It garnered positive reviews in major publications such as the New York Times, the St. Louis Dispatch, and the Christian Science Monitor (MacCann 75-76). It had extended runs in Chicago, Washington, New York, and Boston. Many theaters reported audience applause at the end of showings (Snyder 67-79). Carl Sandburg and James Joyce praised the film, and its script was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize for poetry (Barsam 399). Critics have seen it as a breakthrough in documentary filmmaking. Richard Barsam, for instance, calls The River a "masterpiece" and claims, "Pare Lorentz was the person most responsible for the growth and development of American nonfiction filmmaking in the United States during the 1930s" (151).

But the film is also important for how it imagines the South in a time of crisis. Jack Temple Kirby claims that The River was "arguably the best-known, most widely seen portrait of the South during the 1930s [. . .]" (240-41). The portrait is not of a perverse and backward region mired in its own self-inflicted problems, but of a region bearing the brunt of a national disaster. Lorentz's film argues that the nation as a whole benefited economically from the South's soil mining, and that the flooding that devastated the region was exacerbated by deforestation further up the Mississippi River. Lorentz thus attempts to establish national responsibility for Southern poverty and to build national solidarity behind attempts to address it.

The twenties and thirties were a time of conflicting interpretations of the Southern countryside and its poverty. Depression began early for the Cotton South-parts of Mississippi, Georgia, Alabama, Arkansas, the Carolinas, and Louisiana-with cash crop markets plummeting in 1914, 1920, and 1929. A severe drought affected the region in 1930. Sharecropping and tenancy were prevalent, with the 1930 census recording 1,796,698 renters, share tenants, and sharecroppers throughout the South (Mertz). Years of monocrop cultivation had taken their toll on the land, leading to sterility and erosion in older fields. Gullies gouged the landscape. The boll weevil menaced both crops and croppers' psyches.

This crisis gained increasing national attention throughout the twenties and into the thirties. It was often seen as something that the South, with its archaic sharecropping system, had inflicted upon itself. To some critics it was a symptom, like the region's disturbing racial violence or fundamentalist religion, of general backwardness. H.L. Mencken's 1917 essay "The Sahara of the Bozarts" offers an important early version of this critique.

Still, other influential interpretations of the Southern countryside were on offer. In 1930 twelve conservative Southerners, including the Vanderbilt-affiliated poets John Crowe Ransom, Allen Tate, and Donald Davidson, published I'll Take My Stand, a defense of the "Agrarian" South against the "Industrial" North. Despite trenchant critiques of industrialism, I'll Take My Stand largely downplayed or sidestepped the ills of racism and the sharecropping system. Excoriated for this by reviewers, the Agrarians in later writings advocated for a move from the sharecropping system to widespread ownership of diversified farms, a goal that led them to support some New Deal reforms. …

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