Dust Bowl Migrants in the American Imagination

Charles J. Shindo

Caroline Bancroft Prize

More than any other event of the 1930s, the migration of thousands of jobless and dispossessed Americans from the Dust Bowl states to the "promised land" of California evokes the hardships and despair of the Great Depression. In this innovative new study, Charles Shindo shows how the public memory of that migration has been dominated not by academic historians but by a handful of artists and would-be reformers.

“Others have touched upon this vital and engaging topic. Now, thanks to this fine study, the full story of the dialogue between the American people and the most conspicuous victims of the Great Depression stands revealed in all its power and importance.”

—Kevin Starr, author of Endangered Dreams: The Great Depression in California

“No other single work provides such deft analysis of and fresh insight into the works of Lange, Steinbeck, Ford, and Guthrie in relation to the Dust Bowl migration. It is a significant contribution to our understanding of the migrant experience.”

—R. Douglas Hurt, author of The Dust Bowl: An Agricultural and Social History

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Shindo examines the images of Dust Bowl migrants in photography, fiction, film, and song and marks off the various distances between these representations and the realities of migrant lives. He shows how photographer Dorothea Lange, novelist John Steinbeck, Hollywood filmmaker John Ford, and folksinger Woody Guthrie, as well as folklorists and government reformers, sympathized with the migrants' plight but also appropriated that experience to further their own aesthetic and ideological agendas.

The haunted look of Lange's "Migrant Mother" and other photos, the powerful story of the Joad family in Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath, Ford's poetic cinematic adaptation of that novel, and the gritty plainfolk lyrics of Guthrie's Dust Bowl Ballads have all combined to portray the migrants as the quintessential victims of the Great Depression. Shindo, however, contends that these artists failed to fully grasp the realities of "Okie" culture and seemed far more concerned with promoting views and agendas that the migrants themselves might have found inaccurate or unappealing.

Shindo's study shows us how art can dominate history in the popular mind and illuminates the ways in which artists blend aesthetics and politics to make a personal statement about the human condition. His book not only increases our understanding of a tragic era in American history but also expands the scope of current histories of the American West to include cultural representations and their importance.

About the Author

Charles J. Shindo, assistant professor of history at Louisiana State University, is the winner of the 1992 W. Turrentine Jackson Award of the Pacific Coast Branch of the American Historical Association.

Additional Titles in the Rural America Series