To illustrate the awful conditions of a large part of the American population during the Great Depression, I choose to deal with the American novel The Grapes of Wrath written by John Steinbeck and published in 1939.
The novel relates the journey of the Joad Family from the Plains of Oklahoma to California. It is a family of farmers who had been expropriated by a bank. Besides, their crops had been greatly damaged by the Dust Bowl.
I choose to focus on two feminine characters of the novel, Ma Joad and Rose of Sharon. Both embodies a lot of metaphorical meanings.
Often, woman have to take care of the family and hold it together. During the Great Depression, they kept this part which became more and more difficult. They were supposed to buy and provide foods for all the family. In this context of crisis, it became more and more difficult to do this. Indeed, the prices get higher and the wages get lower. Thus, Steinbeck tried and achieved to describe this very essential part of the woman. He stages Ma Joad, who is a real matriarch. She is described as a tall woman, tired by a lot of pregnancy but still vivacious. The lector encounters her in a kitchen when she is about to offer food to a stranger. In fact, this stranger is her son. Right from the start, she is depicted as a generous woman ready to give even if she had nothing. She is the one who welcomes people and help them. Besides, Ma Joad comforts people at several time such as his son Tom but also even the pastor. She stands for steadiness and strength all along the novel. Furthermore, it shows how difficult is woman’s life because they have to take care of the house and to work at the same time. The novel describes their continuous struggle for life. For instance, Ma goes to the store and has a argue with the grocer who is bound to the company. Indeed, prices of his items and food are more expansive. The company owns the shop. By this way, it gets back the wages. Steinbeck describes here a very cynical system of exploitation and how the worker is alienated to the company.
Although the character of Rose of Sharon, the lector follows her inner shift from a dreamy girl into a mature woman. At the beginning of the novel, she had just getting married to Connie and is pregnant. Joad is astonished to learnt his wedding and pregnancy because she used to be a childish girl. The first shift in her mentioned is the shift of her body dues to her pregnancy. All along the novel the lector follows her inner transformation from a teenage girl into a mature woman. Her pregnancy but also her confrontation to extreme poverty changes her very deeply.
The pattern of fertility is bound to her all along the novel. First, her name refers to the Song of Song : “I am the Rose of Sharon, the lily of the valley”. According to scholars it also could be translated as “the flowers of the field”. Thus, her name put her under the sign of fertility. Then, she is pregnant ant as a result a fertile woman. Her husband leaves her and she gives birth to a dead child, probably because of malnutrition. However and in a metaphorically way she becomes a mother at the end of the novel. Rose of Sharon embodies a universal motherhood. Indeed, she gives her breast to an hungry man about to die. In a way she gives a rebirth to this man much older than her which puts her as universal figure of mother. Besides it is sticking to notice the look between Ma Joad and Rose of Sharon at the end of the extract. They seems to closely understand each other and the lector can see a kind of transmission between them. Rose of Sharon is became a woman. The novel ends on her mysterious smile which conveys to the lector a strong emotion of hope. And all along the Grapes of Wrath hope is carrying by woman. The incipit of the novel is focused on a general and anonymous situation. And it is sticking to notice that the novel ends on Rose of Sharon, an incarnate character almost in a religious dimension. She could stand as a new Mary : she gives birth (metaphorically) in a place which looks like to a cowshed. And as Mary, she gives (re)birth to a man but above all she gives (re)birth to hope.
Dorothea Lange was born on may 25.th 1895. She studied photography at New-York city’s Columbia University (?) until the first World War. The stock market crashed in the fall of 1929 and plunged the country into a depression that lasted for a decade. Lange was drew to the ? of unemployed and homeless. Venturing outside her studio to take her first documentary photographs in 1934 of men in soup line which caption white angel bread line. Her photographic studies of the homeless and unemployed caught the attention of local photographers and eventually led her to employment with the Farm Security Administration. With the Farm Security Administration, she documented the conditions of ?, migrant workers and displaced farmers. Lange’s photographies humanized the impact of the depression in the lives of everyday Americans, breaking down the wall between viewer and reality. Her famous photography “Migrant Mother” is the most enduring images from this era. With her camera, Lange was able to bolster support for the establishment migrant camps in California. Though she died in October of 1965, her photographies continued to connect generations far removed from the depression’s devastation with all the humanity of those who lived it.
Video’s title : “Who was the woman in the famous Great Depression photography ?”, made by Simon Whistler on the channel entitled “Today I found”.
I choose to report some elements which are very relevant for this article and share a very concise sum up. I put aside which seems to far removed from my subject.
First, the journalist settles the context of the Great Depression in which this photography had been taken.
13% of the population could not find a work. He describes the consequences of the droughts, knew as Dust Bowl. Even if 75% of farmers remains in their farms, a large part abonned their farms. Approximately 2,5 millions people moved out of the Plains (in East America) and went to California.
The name of the woman immortalized by this photography of Dorothea Lange is Owens Thomson. In 1903 she is born in Oklahoma. In 1921, she encountered her first husband in Mississippi and moved near to Sacramento, California. Her husband died in 1931. They had five children and she was pregnant. She met an another man. They worked as itinerant farm labors. It is at this time that she met Dorothea Lange at a migrant camp where this photography had been taken. The family’s car was broken and had to be fix up. Thus they stopped near to this camp. Dorothea Lange thought she could find more photography’s subjects in this camp. She convinced them to pose for her.
This photography was published in newspaper. Owen and her family were ashamed according to her daughter. For a long time she hid that she was the woman on the photography. In 1979 she spoke for the first time on television. She tells that Dorothea Lange swore to her to never publish it and to sent her a copy. Owen thought that she may had forgotten.
Dorothea Lange did not make profits because she worked for administration. As a result, US government owns the rights to the picture. It is the public domain.
To finish, I shall add that her photographies often illustrate the novel of The Grapes of Wrath, as in French editions such as Folio.
One song embodies the Great Depression in American popular culture. It is entitled “Brother can you spare me a dime ?”, wrote in 1932 by Yip Harburg on a music of Jay Gorner. Bing Crosby, as many others, sang it.
The song stages a man, probably unemployed. He is the narrator or in literary terms “the cantor” of the song. He tells his story to a particular person called “brother”. He addresses to him a request “can you spare me a dime ?”. He tells his story in order to justify why he is begging for money.
He is unemployed, not because he does not want to find a job or does not have the skills for work, but because there is no job for him. In American mentalities, a work defines a man and integrated him in a community. It’s a shame to be unemployed person. For this reasons, the narrator takes time to explain why he doesn’t have work. He addresses to a man called “brother”. It creates a link of brotherhood between them, and may refers to a religious vocabulary. This man is also a metaphor of the public, he embodies it. But there is a double reception : the public can recognize him also into the narrator itself.
I shall give a little analysis of the three verses. My line of analysis will follow the structure of the song itself which is built around an opposition between good old days and current days and as a result conveys a strong impress of disillusion.
The first verse depicts his past life as a worker. Indeed the narrator mention what he had done such as building or railroad. The use of past tenses conveys the impression that it is over but also, by repetition, it also sounds as an illusion. This impress is increased by the use of the pronoun “they”. It is anonymous, and could refers to people who have power and wealth. It is an entity which stands for people who rules the country. It might be the government or the powerful companies, or even both of them. The end of the verse falls as an accusation : it seems that “they” had often lie to him, as it is put by the use of past tenses and the verb “use” : “they used to tell me I was building a dream with peace and glory ahead”. The accusation is even more striking on the last sentence, which is a brutal back to reality : “Why should I be standing in line just waiting for bread ?”.
On the second verse, he reminds us all he had done for him country. It refers to a lot of symbol of the modernity and prosperity of the United States such as the railroad, “the tower up to the sun”. The narrator explains here by this verse that he is a part of the mass who built by his strength the United States of America. The repetition of “now it’s done” increases the feeling of bitterness. By this narrator, the song gives a voice to this anonymous voice and express its disillusion. Moreover, the singer embodies physically by his body and soundly by his voice too this disillusion. The narrator explains that he is useless nowadays and the country let him down whereas he built up the economical succeed. This dimension is even more obvious in the third verse which is focus on war.
The third verse refers to World War I and its veteran. The narrator risked his life whereas he was very young. He described himself as “the kid with the drum”. This verse is also a strong accusation to the government. It may refers to the Bonus Army, a crowd of veterans gathered in front of the White House in 1932. They asked the immediate cash payment of their bonus.
This song is an expression of a mass feeling of abandon and disillusion which crossed over the American population at that time. By putting the light on an individual story this song expresses a very strong emotion which is still nowadays and at that time had produced a large effect of identification.
The 1920’s was a decade of economic prosperity but on the same time of inequality.
In 1929, there was a crack and the crisis started. But already before, 5% of the American held 1/3 of the wealth of the country. Quickly it appeared that consummation of people could not follow the rhythm of production, it led to a crisis of surproduction such as in the automobile industry. It was even more dramatic in agriculture : the surproduction drove to a fall of prices which led to poverty a large part of the American farmers, particularly in the East of the country.
Besides this economic matters, because the workers were not organized in unions they were without social protection and had no minimum wages. The conditions of working in factories had no change since the beginning of the century. It remained very dangerous and accidents happened very often. The surproduction led to an increase unemployment which increased the fall of consummation. Indeed, a large part of the population could not consume, and thus the surproduction remained. Consummation was the foundation of American economy which became less and less steady.
Otherwise, financial activities became more and more wonky because of deregulated systems of loan create to buy common stock. In concrete terms, common stocks were bought for real only in a half part, the left half was financed by the credit guaranteed by the action itself.
It is the crack of October 1929 which had revealed the weakness of the system. During this day, it was the fall of all the stocks market. It is still known as “the Black Tuesday” and nowadays it embodies the idea of crisis itself as write Isaac Johsua in his book La crise de 1929 et l’émergeance américaine *1. It was a huge psychological shock for all citizens : all the actions you could own became only pieces of paper and cost nothing.
The president Herbert Hoover did not understand the impact of this day. His lack of reaction was one of the reason of his defeat at the presidential election of 1933 in front of Delano Roosevelt. Indeed, he lacked of reaction and thought that the American economy was steady enough to face to the crisis. But, 5 000 banks were put in bankrupt and have to close their doors. As a result, a lot of people who had saved money in those banks were ruined and had to leave their owns and house. Moreover, ¼ of the population were unemployed and it increased because of the bankruptcy in lot companies. A lot of farmers have been expropriated by banks because of their debts but also because of very bad crops dues to the Dust Bowl. They were 2,5 million whom had to fled to cities, especially in California. The mass of hobo increased. By derision, slums were called “Hooverville”. The Great Depression settled.
To illustrate this dramatic situation, I choose to focus on artistic works produced at that times or depicted this era. First, I shall analysis a song entitled “Brother can you spare me a dime ?” which stages a man telling his disillusion. Then, I shall focus on the novel The Grapes of Wrath, written by John Steinbeck. It sets a family during the Great Depression and depicts a collective reaction behind the crisis. To finish, I shall deal with the works of Dorothea Lange who photographed hobos and their conditions of living during the Great Depression.
*1, Isaac Johsua, La crise de 1929 et l’émergeance américaine, PUF, Paris, 1999 pour l’édition consultée.