This week’s cover story by Sasha Abramsky, “Dust Bowl Blues,” explores the severe drought that has afflicted the American Southwest for the past few years, devastating crops, communities, and climates. “Just like in the days of the Dust Bowl,” Abramsky writes, “a way of life is under threat here, as are the livelihoods of millions of people.”
In the summer of 1937, with the original Dust Bowl and the second wave of the Great Depression in full effect, The Nation published four features, once each month, by the radical cartoonist and painter William Gropper, who, using Works Progress Administration funds, went on a tour around the country to document the resilience with which ordinary people were facing those twin man-made disasters. Gropper’s simple, evocative sketches and crisp paragraphs have the same effect as more famous artifacts of creative reportage from the American West of the late 1930s, like John Steinbeck’s novels or Woody Guthrie’s songs: that of making the reader or listener feel dusty just by reading or listening.
His first Nation dispatch that summer, “Gropper Visits Youngstown” (July 3, 1937), derived from the same visit to the Ohio city that produced his most famous painting, Youngstown Strike—recording the tumultuous scene at a major labor walkout led by the Congress of Industrial Organizations. But it is his August page, “The Dust Bowl,” that provides a remarkably poignant and sympathetic account of what the Southwest was like in those years:
When the wind blows, you get a blow of nice hot dust in your nose, eyes, and throat. The landscape is simple—sky and sand for miles. At night you can get some sleep with a wet cloth over your face, or if you’re prepared with a mask you can manage to get by until you get used to it. In Elkhart, Kansas, I saw a farmer plowing. No sooner did he pass with the plow than the dust blew over and covered up the earth as if nothing had happened. I asked him if he got any crops, and he said, “No.” “Then why plow?” And he said, “Been doin’ it fer years; it’s a habit now,” and went on with his plowing.
Another blurb tells a story that any American reader, thanks to Steinbeck and Guthrie, can relate to—though Gropper, because he is using a weekly magazine and not a novel or a song, manages it with perhaps more immediacy:
More than once on the road I’ve seen families packing their belongings in old Fords and leaving the old homestead. Many of them, I’ve been told, are migrating to California—not because they want to, but because they have been evicted.