Synopses & Reviews
An in-depth look at the historical truth behind the popular myths.
Athens, OhioùThe ecological trauma of the Dust Bowl remains embedded in AmericaÆs subconscious. In DUST BOWL, USA, to be published on May 31, 2001, by Ohio University Press, Brad D. Lookingbill examines the journalism, photographs, books, films, and songs that conveyed to a mass audience romantic and tragic stories of the ôdirty thirties.ö
ôIt is my conviction that we recognize in the past the dreams of our own buried lives,ö writes Lookingbill, who was inspired to research and write the book by the hard work and hardships of his grandfather, an Oklahoma panhandle farmer, who lost a son to dust pneumonia.
Lookingbill shows how Dust Bowl stories became mythic narratives, which defined and forever stamped an era with an aesthetic of suffering. While literary utopias depict a perfect society, the Dust Bowl stories present a dystopiaùliterally a ôbad place,ö a locus of agony. A dystopia recognizes a collapse of human design. Accounts of the 1930s dystopia made use of the saga of the American frontier, but in a new scenario that pitted the latest technology, irrigation innovations, and conservation programs against dust, drought, and desertification.
Even before environmental problems became severe, newspapers on the Great Plains were warning of a drought crisis as early as 1930. Nationally, recognition grew quickly of the dangers of unprecedented wind erosion. By 1934, The New York Times Magazine reported, ôA pallor has blanched the face of the parched earth.ö That same year, Commonweal blamed the disaster on past destruction of woodlands. Journalist Ernie Pyle wrote in 1936 of seeing ôthe saddest land I have ever seen,ö a ôwithering land of miseryö as he traveled from the Dakotas to Kansas. Poet Archibald MacLeish, writing in Fortune, described ôdead quarter sections with the hardpan clean as weathered lime and the four-room flimsy ranch houses two feet deep in sand.ö
By 1937 Dorothea LangÆs photographs of worn-out farmland, dusty small towns, and Oklahoma sharecroppers bound for California defined the misery of the Dust Bowl and have achieved iconic status. The power of art in defining the Dust Bowl is exemplified in John SteinbeckÆs classic 1939 novel The Grapes of Wrath, which electrified the nation in its depiction of the plight of refugees from the Dust Bowl.
Woody Guthrie evolved into a visionary folk singer as he chronicled the Dust Bowl in song and extolled the virtues of common working people beset by the ravages of nature and a corrupt business world. A boom in country music gave Guthrie a mass audience for his folk ballads and hard-luck stories on KFVD in Los Angeles.
Like Steinbeck and Guthrie, Lawrence Svobida in his 1940 book An Empire of Dust blamed more than a natural drought for the catastrophe of the Dust Bowl. He indicted industrial farming, saying extensive plowing had removed too much of the protective, deep-rooted grasses in the ecologically fragile region. Starvation and disease, and homesteads buried in silt, were directly the result of seeking short-term profits, concluded Svobida, a former wheat farmer himself.
ôAt the end of his tale of woe, there was no place of grace in a troubled country once known as the national breadbasket,ö says Lookingbill. ôThe self-destruction left behind a population of fools going adrift and committing suicide.ö
DUST BOWL, USA brings a multidisciplinary approach to a range of texts to present historical truth in a new light. The book also contains one of the most comprehensive bibliographies ever published on the Dust Bowl.
ôLanguage, in effect, haunts the ecological imagination,ö observes Lookingbill. ôStories about dystopias will not fade away; the metropolitan psyche must come to terms with them. Americans ignore the myths at their own peril.
ôSagas will not hold water on the Great Plains, but they do teach us how we shall live there. We have learned about our own cosmic dance of creation and destruction, and that we are not separate from the environment but evolve with it.ö
Includes bibliographical references (p. ) and index.