You Have Seen Their Faces by Erskine Caldwell and Margaret Bourke White – A Review

You Have Seen Their Faces
Erskine Caldwell, text
Margaret Bourke White, photos
Modern Age Books, Inc NY,
1937 55 pg

You Have Seen Their Faces was a radical book in its time. Perhaps it would still be if time didn’t make it easy to say, good thing things aren’t like that now. The Great Depression started over 80 years ago, and distance between the images, the clothes not only out of fashion, but archaic, the Dorthea Lange-like scenes of run down shacks have long passed from the  landscape, and the chain gains that were common place of the south no longer exist. Still there is something in the book that is more than an earnest examination of the conditions and remedies of the depression in the south, something that resonates today. It is a book that tried, despite its flaws, to describe America not only as it tried to deal with economic hardships, but the color line to paraphrase W.E.B. Dubois.

In You Have Seen Their Faces Caldwell and White attempt to document the lives of share croppers and tenant farmers in the deep south. Although the Great Depression was the impetus for the work, Caldwell shows a broader interest in just the poor. He isn’t out to document just those who’ve been thrown off the land during hard times. He want’s to see what is the root cause. What is it that perpetuates the endless lives of poverty and toil without hope that afflicts both white and black farm workers.

Caldwell delivers his criticism over a series of chapters describing both the sharecropping and tenant farming system. In his hands they are nothing more than virtual slavery. For black farmers it is slavery in all but name. The farmers had to borrow from the plantation store to start the farm, naturally they would  become indebted, and if they tried to leave local law enforcement would force them back to the plantation for failure to pay. It was a system for black farmers that offered no hope of escape. For white tenant farmers there was almost as little hope. They were a little bit more free, but they always owed money and, according to Caldwell, were given worse land than black farmers to foment racial tension.

Charges such as those are what make the book strong stuff.  His best insight on race is the about the channeling of the poor white rage towards blacks who were poorer, but held up as a menace that had to be put down. And for all the repression the white farmers were just as poor. Juxtaposed with quotes from whites that are predictably concerned with justifying lynchings, beatings and the imposition of Jim Crow, his analysis is extremely harsh, and for the times, strong. One of that generation’s great failing was the covering over of racial problems, something that would have to wait until the 50s for the starting of any form of broader acknowledgement. Cadwell for sure, did not hesitate to describe the system.

Caldwell was a good observer and knew the conditions of the farmers well. For a modern reader, one of the thing that catches his eye is the destruction of the land. He describes how the tenant farmer is given a piece of hill to farm and at first he gets a descent crop, but after a few seasons the unprotected soil is washed away and nothing is left but sand and futility. Top soil was a big problem during the depression, as it is today. It is that kind of detail that makes the book resonate still.

The photos, as you can see from the two included here, are arresting, part of that depression era style that seemed to find the deepest crags in even the youngest faces. They are, for the most part, documentary in nature and do show the hard living that ages people prematurely. There are more than a few pictures of shacks that are papered with magazines or newspaper pages. In all the photos from the era and earlier, though, you have to be careful with assuming something is of the moment, a true spontaneous moment caught on film. And it is to the credit of the book the White describes her process (and every single camera she used), which in most cases is anything but spontaneous. Usually Caldwell would talk to the participants for a while, often an hour or more, and when she saw the image she was looking for she took it. There is a reality in the images, but it is consciously composed.

That composure leads the weaknesses of the book. The first, and most egregious, is the captions for the photos. As the authors clearly state at the beginning of the book they are not quotes from the participants, but “are intended to express the authors’ own conceptions of the sentiments of the individuals protrayed; they do not pretend to reproduce the actual sentiments of these persons.” The quote in the above photo isn’t too bad, but some are just dumb, and at worse paternalistic and playing on stereotypes. The ones of African Americans sitting by a river with the caption “Just watching the Mississippi roll by,” seems the most egregious.

It is that paternalism that weakens the book, diffuses its strength. Caldwell is writing an essay about the south, something he knows well, but he doesn’t have the voices of the south. He holds it distant, talks about it in the plural. Occasionally he comes in close to describe a farmer but he can’t stop from analyzing and ultimately offering a solution (something along the lines of farm support, which was introduced but in practice did not reach the people he was writing about).

Still the fundamental problems of the tenant farmer have been transferred to the migrant farmer and the shacks given to them. Agricultural slavery? Try the tomato industry in Florida (Tomatoland: How Modern Industrial Agriculture Destroyed Our Most Alluring Fruit). Times have changed, photos to color, but the  issues remain.

Lynd Ward – Six Novels in Wood Cuts, Vol I – A Review

Lynd Ward: Six Novels in Woodcuts (Library of America, Nos. 210 & 211)
Vol I: God’s Man, Madman’s Drum, Wild Pilgrimage
Lynd Ward
Library of America
2010, 839pg

I have written about Lynd Ward several times (Vertigo review, Wordless Books review) and will be doing again when I read volume II, and every time I read his works I am impressed by his graphic style. For me it is such a wonderful example of art deco and illustrative technique. I don’t get tired of thumbing through the pages. His stories, too, can be interesting even if they can push the city versus pastoral theme a little too much. Library of America has just released a two volume set the collects his six woodcut novels in a two beautiful editions which should insure they find a wider audience.

God’s Man, the first novel in the collection, is a faustian story of a painter who accepts a magical paint brush. The brush has helped the great painters of history from the Egyptians to the moderns. The painter takes it and begins to the live the life of a famous artist, only to find it is an empty life and he flees, as many of his characters do, to the country side where he finds peace, a wife, and happiness only to be summoned by the owner of the brush. It is a typical faustian story, and as with all versions of faust, it isn’t the selling of the soul that matters so much, but what the writer does with implications of the sale. For Ward, it is a mixed result. The art is certainly powerful, but the story seems a little simplistic. As he latter said in an essay at the back of the book, it was a kind of a coming of age novel for him and he realized he over emphasized the role of art. Moreover, for an artist the work seems to suggest art is the work of the devil. I don’t know if he meant it, but having the famous artists use the same brush gives the impression that art is horrible, even though he latter shows the artist happily painting in the country side. As a fable it lacks some of nuance of other faust stories, but the art work makes up for any deficiencies in story telling, and his scenes of the isolation in the great cities captures the feeling so well.

Madman’s Drum is a more ambitious work but also a somewhat confusing one. It tells a multigenerational story about a rich family as it dissipates through the generations in tragedies and injustices. All of these injustices stem from the sins of the father who was a slave trader. Over the years as members gain their dreams only to find them destroyed. At the same time there is an argument between a modern, scientific way of looking at the world and a more primitive and free way of seeing the world. The main character is shown throughout dedicating himself to books and science while all around him tragedy strikes. In one scene he throws away a crucifix only to have his mother trip on it and fall to her death. The primitive side is represented by the drum that the slaver brought back from Africa. It is always in the background ready for the family to use and as he suggests, save themselves. You can see Ward developing further the theme he first developed in God’s Man: the over reliance on the scientific and materialistic that leads to a soulless existence. Only returning away from it can one be free. Whether or not is a simplistic story, the notion that somehow African primitives had some secret to life turns African culture into a little more than a freak show. It is a book from a different era so his presentation of the idea while insensitive, doesn’t sink the book since it is such a small part. However, it is indicative of his like of oppositional stories.

Wild Pilgrimage is his first story to really take on the Depression. God’s Man was published the week of the 1929 crash, and Madman’s Drum 1930, before the full effects of the Great Depression could be felt. But Wild Pilgrimage was published in 1932 during the darkest moments of the depression, and you can see his attention to current events with scenes of strike breakers, communist organization, lynchings  and homeless camps. Wild Pilgrimage is similar in that it sees the country side as a refuge, but unlike the other two books, it is not a paradise. It too has moments of darkness. The story follows a man as he leaves the city where factories are closing and labor is under attack. He passes through the country side and his senses are awakened by the country side. He finds work with a farmer and his wife, but when he hits on the wife he runs. He then comes upon a solitary man farming in the woods and he stays with him. Eventually though he commits himself to the injustices in the city and leaves the farm. I won’t say what happens, but it shows how the Great Depression had influenced his work that the end of the story takes place in the city. Wild Pilgrimage is also different in that it is a much more sexual story. Using dream sequences printed in a reddish tint you can see not only the terror that is industrial life, but his sexual desires as he looks at the farmer’s wife. Ward also explores a homo erotic element when the man stays with the solitary farmer, using suggestive imagery to depict the relationship. The figures are also eroticized, a mix of Tom of Finland and Ward’s Art Deco. The story isn’t as rich as Vertigo, but it is his most complex story to that point in his career and shows his development as a story teller. Although ultimately his character must become engaged in the events of the time, it is the emotional life he experiences before he returns to the city that makes the work the best of the volume. Avoiding the committed nature of many works from the era helps the book be more than a legacy of the depression.

In volume I you can see Ward’s steady maturity as a story teller, which served him well in Vertigo. However, one should not think these works cannot stand by themselves as beautiful illustrations and a legacy of the art of the 1930s.

Dancing in the Dark: A Cultural History of the Great Depression – A Review

Dancing in the Dark: A Cultural History of the Great Depression
Morris Dickstein
Norton, 2009, 598 pg

Morris Dickstein’s Dancing in the Dark is an impressive piece of scholarship that should last as one of the most important books on the subject for some time. I won’t say it is the most important book of its kind because there are a few gaps in the material but as a work of literary, film and cultural criticism it is a solid work. While one may be forgiven for thinking the books is primarily literary criticism since most of the first 200 pages are an overview of the literature of the period, one of the strengths of the book is his appraisal of the films of the 30s. No cultural history of the time could be without an investigation of film history and his understanding of how the films reflected the times is solid. In particular, when he crosses the genres of film and literature he makes some interesting cases.

He is sympathetic to Stienbeck (perhaps the most famous and most criticized depression writer) who he sees as a good writer of the times, someone who did not get caught up in the proletarian novel like Michael Gold in Jews Without Money, and instead was more interested in observing as a scientist. This led to his weakness as an artist, because he tended to write in terms of types, but it also allowed him in books like In Dubious Battle to see the labor leaders not as heroic martyrs with a degree of complexity. His take on the Grapes of Wrath is positive, calling it one of the better books of the decade, even though it has some silly slang (I remember the use of tom catting as particularly egregious) and he finds the ending too much. It is when he mixes the his film criticism with his literary that his take on the Grapes of Wrath takes its full power. For Dickstein, Grapes the book cannot be understood without the movie. It is the movie that makes the book iconic. The faithful reproduction of the book as a film amplifies the power of his lost eden and smoothes over the awkward moments. It is an interesting take, because it forces the book to be appreciated in terms of another work, and while many works need context to be understood, works typically can stand on there own at some point.

Dickstein sees several trends in the works of the times. One is a sense of mobility that expresses a freedom and a sense that things will get better. Whether in the dance films of Rodgers and Astaire or the Screwball Comedies with their irreverence, they are not so much an escape into the fantasy of being rich, but a moment of complete freedom. These he contrasts to the desperate works that marked the early years of the depression. Books such as Jews With Money where the proletarian characters have to fight their way out of the slum, or the gangster films which are a kind of nihilistic Horatio Alger story where the gangster, usually from an ethnic background, rises to the top with his own muscle and smarts, but falls, much as the American economy had. These stories show the failure of the American dream and show a people desperate and unmoored from the society they thought would hold them together. This image is reflected in countless books such as Tobacco Road and most powerfully, Miss Lonely Hearts, one of Dickstein’s primer works of the decade.

Not having read or seen many of the works it is hard to gauge some of his claims. But the works I do know I found his take to be insightful and nuanced, even if I didn’t agree with it completely, such as his take on parts of the Grapes of Wrath and the USA Trilogy. His take, for example, on Citizen Kane goes beyond the technical or the political controversies that occurred when it was first released. Instead, he sees it, along with Meet John Doe, as an examination of a dark populism, the kind that led to the rise of Hitler, and began to concern artists as World War II approached. Citizen Kane, Meet John Doe, and Nathaniel West’s Day of the Locust, all reflect the end of an idealized dream of the people working together for a better society. It is a quite a change from the initial desperation and despair that led to the rise of the belief in the common man. The belief didn’t die just from a few men, but the works of art began to reflect a fuller picture, one where hope can be channeled into dark desires.

While Dancing in the Dark is an impressive bit of scholarship, it suffers in a few areas, in part I think, because to be as expansive as I would like it would be at least twice the size. First, he tends to concentrate on the best of the era, even if you might not think a particular book is good, it is the best of its class. In literature that isn’t such a problem, but in film I would like to have seen more than a passing reference to the silly films like those of Shirley Temple that were so popular. Another area that is missing, and is often missing in studies of the era, is a discussion of radio. Except for the usual Father Coughlin reference, radio doesn’t seem to exist. The lack of coverage of radio is indicative of the large lack of other cultural products of the area, from magazines to comics. I would like to see more of these ephemeral items. He does talk about musical theater, but I get the impression that is because he likes musicals. Musicals were certainly an important art form of the era and he has some insights, but I couldn’t help but feel he included them because he loves them.

Those criticisms aside, Dancing in the Dark is an excellent book and filled with fascinating insights to the era. It should, as it has done for me, make anyone who reads it want to see the movies and read the books he brings to life with his descriptions.

Vertigo – A Graphic Novel In Woodcuts by Lynd Ward – A Review

Vertigo: A Novel in Woodcuts
Lynd Ward
Dover, 320 pg

Lyn Ward’s Vertigo is a beautiful work of wood block artistry and wordless story telling, and is hailed by many as his master work not only because of its sheer size (over 200 wood block) but its ambition. Set during the Great Depression it tells the interlocking stories of three characters simply named the Girl, the Boy, and an Elderly Gentleman, each one feeling the affects of the turbulent and uncertain times. Although it may seem rooted in its time, the art work is compelling and expressive, capturing movement, isolation and the vastness of the urban world.

The book begins with the story of the Girl. She is an aspiring violinist with a boy friend who she hopes to marry. Lynd builds the early part of her story as a march towards progress where her boyfriend grabs the brass ring on the carousel. Yet two panels later a storm opens up on the people at the amusement park, signaling the coming Depression. From then on everything in her life turns dark: her boyfriend goes away to work and doesn’t write back; her father is laid off and in desperation attempts to shoot himself, but only manages to blind him; and she is left jobless. It is a bleak world and the light and hopeful drawings that showed the girl’s face full of energy and promise, now recedes to the shadows where the hopelessness intrudes. Lynd uses his drawings to show the changes in her fortunes through his ability to control negative space, the black sections of the drawings. He doesn’t just fill the drawing with light, but highlights the features of his characters to show these changes in mood.

In the second story Ward presents an Elderly Gentleman. He is a lonely and frail man, emphasized early on with a drawing of him standing naked in front of a mirror, the folds of his skin hanging loosely. As a physical being he is almost powerless, and as the story continues it is obvious he is dying. Yet despite the physical weakness, he is a powerful man, one who runs a large corporation and will stop at nothing to make it profitable, whether that is breaking up unions, cutting wages, or paying thugs to attach workers who won’t go along with him. In his desire for profits he lays off the Girl’s father, thus, setting off the spiral of misery in their lives. The Elderly Gentleman, though, is a proud contributor to society, paying for memorials to World War I, buying art, giving to the poor on Thanksgiving. Yet all of this for not and he lives a pitiful life. Ward emphasizes the solitariness with the faces of the character who surround the man. Each one is stark, angular, almost statue like, and always hovering over him as if they are waiting for his death. There is no emotion here, just mechanics of living.

In the final story of the Boy, Ward draws the story of a young man who is out of work during the height of the depression, traveling across the country looking for work. The boy goes from hopeful fiance to a man desperate enough to contemplate a mugging. Ward takes the opportunity with the Bo to leave the city, and here is art has a bit of the Thomas Heart Benton quality, with a liquid sense of movement. The Boy, although proud, is ultimately reduced to giving his blood to the Elderly Gentleman so he can take the Girl back the the amusement park. The last seen of the book is the two of them on the descent of a roller coaster, her face buried in his chest, his eyes wide with fear. The final image is a clear indication that the future is still uncertain and at best things may only get worse. While the book is without hope, it reflects its moment, 1937, when the Depression had already lasted for seven years.

Vertigo is a masterpiece of wood cut art, a true stylistic achievement. The story that within the book is also quite strong and his use of image to tell a dialog free story is impressive. He is able to capture a wide range of emotion and feeling in the story. His take on the depression is squarely amongst the disposed, and is similar in theme to other works from the time by writers such as Steinbeck, Odets, Di Donato, and to some degree Dos Pasos.  In some ways the book seems more interesting, in part because the emotions of the characters are physical, not mental states. One doesn’t have to read old metaphors, one can see the faces of the characters. Moreover, the images reflect the photos of the time, something that is frozen in time. The politics and motivations of the characters, though, can seem awkward at best in so of the works I mentioned, especially Di Donato who had characters as mono dimensional as Snidely Whiplash.

My only quibble with the book and Ward is I wish the images were larger. Some are no more than two inches square. He packs a wealth of detail in them, but I wanted more. (The book does come with a good introduction by David Beronä). Otherwise, Ward’s Vertigo is a Graphic Novel any fan of the genre should read. It is also a book anyone interested in  American in the 30’s should read.

Posters For The People: The Art of The WPA

Posters for the People: The Art of the WPA is a beautiful book from Social Arts which collects hundreds of Works Progress Administration (WPA) posters in one volume. The posters range from work place safety to public health campaigns to war information and show the wide range of ideas and initiatives the government used to tackle the Great Depression. Contrasting the initiatives and the scope of government implicit in the initiatives to today’s government, the government had not only desired a larger reach, but had a some what paternalistic stance or an uncritical belief if progress. However, it is clear the government was willing to try many different approaches to dealing with the depression and one can marvel at the range of ideas.

The art of the posters is a large part of the value of the book. The WPA employed out of work artists and they attempted to add their skills to the effort to end the depression. Seldom are the posters simple instructions using only text, but a mix of graphic styles using techniques from commercial art and fine art to create illustrations that range from the abstract to to the pictorial. In many of the posters there is a clear understanding of the power of the image and little text to clutter the message. Often the posters play on national themes and use the imagery of national icons to give one a sense of pride. The strongest posters are those that make an image iconic and use few words to describe it.

Below are a sample of some of the most interesting photos. These are from the Library of Congress collection which has hundreds of posters in its collection. The book also has a web site, www.postersforthepeople.com.

Elephant
Elephant
R.U.R. (Rossum's Universal Robots)
R.U.R. (Rossum's Universal Robots)
John is not really dull - he may only need his eyes examined.
John is not really dull - he may only need his eyes examined.
Who uses the word Tenement any more?
Who uses the word Tenement any more?
Dedication ceremonies--Ida B. Wells Homes, a development that would be sonomous with the failure of urban development
Dedication ceremonies--Ida B. Wells Homes, a development that would be sonomous with the failure of urban development
Outwitted by community sanitation
Outwitted by community sanitation
Stamp 'Em Out - Propaganda at its best
Stamp 'Em Out - Propaganda at its best
Photographs, second annual exhibition, Sioux City Camera Club
Photographs, second annual exhibition, Sioux City Camera Club
The Dinosaurs had syphilis too?
The Dinosaurs had syphilis too?