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Tom Joad

November 9, 2008

John Ford’s powerful film Grapes of Wrath (1940) comes to mind in these days of financial crisis that many people want to compare to the Great Depression. Both the film and the Steinbeck novel have the virtue of “speaking truth to power” — describing in a crystal-clear way how the decisions of the powerful have battered the suffering poor. The themes of foreclosure, loss of home and land, and protracted unemployment and dirth are very evocative of conditions in 1935 — and they have a lot of resonance in many parts of the country today.

But in addition to the honesty of the portrayal of the human suffering associated with the Great Depression, the novel and film are also very clear in their reference to the potential power of poor people coming together in organizations to defend themselves against the forces that are crushing them. It’s not a revolutionary film, but it is forthright in depicting the possibility of resistance. And resistance needs to take the form of collective action rather than individual action — witness the powerful scene when the bulldozer shows up to level the Joad family’s farmhouse and push them off the land. Resistance is threatened; it is recognized to be futile; and the bulldozer passes right through the wooden farmhouse, leaving only splintered boards and crushed pieces of furniture in its wake.

Some of the most powerful documents of the social reality of the Great Depression can be found in the black and white photography commissioned by the Farm Security Administration (FSA). The Library of Congress has a breathtaking archive of hundreds of thousands of photos taken by photographers such as Dorothea Lange, Ben Shahn, and Walker Evans. There are almost 4,000 images from Dorothea Lange herself — including her iconic “Mother of Seven Children” that is probably the most recognizable image of the whole period. The collection is called “Documenting America,” and it should be required reading for understanding America’s twentieth-century history.

credit: Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, FSA-OWI Collection, fsa 8b31759

credit: Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, FSA-OWI Collection, fsa 8b29516

With millions of people on the road looking for work during the 1930s, hobos and hobo encampments were familiar sights. Here are two versions of the Hobo’s Lullaby, by Arlo Guthrie and Emmylou Harris. (Try viewing the images in the first video along with the soundtrack of the second video — Emmylou’s version of the song is stronger, and the images included in the first video are spectacular.)


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