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Dust Changes America

Margaret Bourke-White
Excerpted from the May 22, 1935 Issue

Vitamin K they call it—the dust which sifts under the door sills, and stings in the eyes, and seasons every spoonful of food. The dust storms have distinct personalities, rising in formation like rolling clouds, creeping up silently like formless fog, approaching violently like a tornado. Where has it come from? It provides topics of endless speculation. Red, it is the topsoil from Oklahoma; brown, it is the fertile earth of western Kansas; the good grazing land of Texas and New Mexico sweeps by as a murky yellow haze. Or, tracing it locally, “My uncle will be along pretty soon,” they say; “I just saw his farm go by.”

The storm comes up in a terrifying way. Yellow clouds roll. The wind blows such a gale that it is all my helper can do to hold my camera to the ground. The sand whips into my lens. I repeatedly wipe it away trying to snatch an exposure before it becomes completely coated again. The light becomes yellower, the wind colder. Soon there is no photographic light, and we hurry for shelter to the nearest farmhouse.

The migrations of the farmer have begun. We passed them on the road, all their household goods piled on wagons, one lucky family on a truck. Lucky, because they had been able to keep their truck when the mortgage was foreclosed. All they owned in the world was packed on it; the children sat on a pile of bureaus topped with mattresses, and the sides of the truck were strapped up with bed springs. The entire family looked like a Ku Klux Klan meeting, their faces done up in masks to protect them from the whirling sand.

And this same dust that coats the lungs and threatens death to cattle and men alike, that ruins the stock of the storekeeper lying unsold on his shelves, that creeps into the gear shifts of automobiles, that sifts through the refrigerator into the butter, that makes housekeeping, and gradually life itself, unbearable, this swirling drifting dust is changing the agricultural map of the United States. It piles ever higher on the floors and beds of a steadily increasing number of deserted farmhouses. A half-buried plowshare, a wheat binder ruffled over with sand, the skeleton of a horse near a dirt-filled water hole are stark evidence of the meager life, the wasted savings, the years of toil that the farmer is leaving behind him.

Margaret Bourke-White (1904–1971) was the first woman to work as a photographer for Life magazine. Her book of pictures from the Dust Bowl, You Have Seen Their Faces, was published in 1937. 

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Big Parade—1936

John Dos Passos
October 3, 1936

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Art on Relief

Margaret Marshall
Excerpted from the September 5, 1936 Issue

Art, for the average American, is a framed reproduction, hung too high and slightly askew, of a Maxfield Parrish heroine swinging in a blue-green-pink landscape which it is to be hoped nature will never be forced to emulate. If our average American had the right great-grandmother still living in the right original home he might have found out that the average American has not always lived in an artistic vacuum either of taste or of participation. Our ancestors not only lived in finely proportioned houses, however simple, and surrounded themselves with furniture of extraordinarily good design and quality; they also had portraits on their parlor walls which were often not mere likenesses but art in the best sense, and murals in their front halls painted with fresh colors and bold designs that so-called moderns might justly envy.

Between the early flowering of the decorative arts and our present relative poverty a capitalist industrial age has intervened. Art rapidly became the privilege of the rich. The general public was cut off from its heritage; the artist, through being forced to compete in a narrow market on the hunt for sensations, was denied his natural growth. For all social purposes art went underground while mass production spread a film of “standardization” over the face of the land.

But just as there is ample evidence that there still exists a rich regional diversity of extraordinary vitality, so it becomes increasingly apparent that artistic taste, talent, and tradition are still live forces in ordinary American life. The evidence is to be found in the record of the Federal Art Project, which has stirred up an amount of interest and activity in art entirely out of proportion to the brief months of its existence. The Works Progress Administration in the name of relief has had an amazing return of good art on its investment in the artistic resources of the American people.

The project, being federal in its set-up and allowing for much local autonomy, is forwarding the literal decentralization of art. By creating a widespread interest in art it is expanding a market which has been hitherto concentrated in large centers, mainly New York. By the same token it is drastically changing the character of that market from snob to popular. In still another sense it is helping to make art and the artist an integral part of society.

In hundreds of institutions the average American is now having a taste of art, of indigenous American art, and he is obviously liking it. Certainly such drawings will tend to bring to life the dead walls and dull hours of many a classroom. They will also further the primary aim of the Federal Art Project—to destroy the false concept of art as a luxury and put it in its natural place as a free and democratic expression of the life of a society.

Margaret Marshall (1900–1974) joined the editorial staff of The Nation in 1928 as assistant to Freda Kirchwey; she was literary editor from 1937 to 1953. By most accounts, her back-of-the-book section was more aggressively anti-Stalinist than the rest of the magazine, a tension many assumed was behind her departure. 

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The Pacifist’s Dilemma

Norman Thomas
Excerpted from the January 16, 1937 Issue

Rarely, if ever, has the struggle for peace been so complicated, or have the lovers of peace been more sharply divided. They are caught in the confusion of a world more keenly aware than ever before of the suicidal costs of world war, yet more inclined to accept it as inevitable.

The whole issue has been immensely complicated by the triumph of fascism in Italy and more especially, in Germany. Fascism glorifies both militarism and war. It is as surely a menace to the peace as to the liberty of mankind. One may be against both war and fascism, and yet I find in every dispatch from Spain grim proof that practically, under conditions all too likely to occur again and again, resolute and effective opposition to fascism means war. Is it any wonder that in this kind of world consistency among peace lovers is not a common virtue?

The pacifism which makes mere abstention from war the supreme command will not deliver mankind from new cycles of war and new dark ages of oppression. It is unrealistic and mad to say that it does not matter who wins in Spain if only the guns are stilled. It matters profoundly not only for Spain but for mankind that the fascist aggression of which Franco is the nominal and brutal leader be defeated. Persons who believe this must support the gallant resistance of the workers and other loyalists.

Not a method of keeping out of war but the establishment of a warless world must be our goal.

Norman Thomas (1884–1968) was associate editor of The Nation in the early 1920s and a frequent contributor for more than three decades. He later ran for president as a Socialist multiple times, earning The Nation’s endorsement, over Franklin Roosevelt, in 1932. 

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Dubious Battle in California

John Steinbeck
September 12, 1936

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Red Totalitarianism: A Reply to Sidney Hook

Freda Kirchwey
June 17, 1939

In its May 27, 1939, issue, The Nation printed a letter from the Committee for Cultural Freedom, an anticommunist group led by John Dewey and Sidney Hook, which stated: “Unless totalitarianism is combated wherever and in whatever form it manifests itself, it will spread in America.” In an editorial, “Red Totalitarianism,” Freda Kirchwey rejected the implied equation of communism with fascism; while some of their tactics were “invariably provocative and often destructive,” Kirchwey wrote that “the Communists perform necessary functions in the confused struggle of our time.” Three weeks later, Hook replied with a letter to the editor, and Kirchwey answered as follows:

To a person who sees life in clear blacks and whites the issue is doubtless a simple one: decent people don’t associate with criminals and gangsters or try to extenuate their crimes. One cannot but envy the man who is able to dispatch his social problems so easily. But to me, as to many other non-Communists and unattached liberals, the issue is a confused and troubling one. The Communists display the qualities of most fanatics, qualities that stem as directly from Cotton Mather as from Karl Marx. They are intolerant and ruthless, often unscrupulous, often violent and lacking in political judgment. They are also zealous, brave, and willing to put up with hardship and abuse. The Communist Party and its press have “assassinated”—or tried to—many a character, including that of The Nation. But they have also fought for decent conditions for workers and the unemployed, for equality of rights for Negroes, for relief and aid to the victims of the civil war in Spain. They have stood consistently for justice and nonaggression in international relations—as, indeed, has the Soviet government as well. Neither can one forget that Communists and Communist sympathizers from the United States fought in Spain in numbers out of all proportion to their numbers here; and, it might be added, they fought side by side with Socialists and Anarchists and democrats of all shades, even while political strife between all these factions poisoned the air behind the lines.

The Spanish struggle taught many lessons, of which perhaps the most important was this one: It is not necessary for liberal lambs and Communist lions to lie down together. Enough if they will move ahead toward their common objectives without wasting time and strength in an attempt to exterminate each other along the way. The job of making this country unsafe for fascism calls for tremendous constructive effort as well as defensive strength. If Communists and non-Communists and even anti-Communists could forget their mutual recriminations and concentrate on the major task of our generation, there would be better hope of its successful accomplishment.

Freda Kirchwey (1893–1976) joined the staff of The Nation in 1918; her first job was to aggregate articles from the foreign press for the International Relations Supplement. She later became managing editor and then editor from 1937 to 1955. Especially active in the 1920s in organizing discussions of feminism and “the new morality” in sexual relations, Kirchwey also championed antifascism, which led to her lifelong support for Spanish republicans, and the creation of Israel, for which she, and The Nation, lobbied both the Truman administration and the United Nations. 

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Abstract Mud

Clement Greenberg
Excerpted from the November 27, 1943 Issue

There are both surprise and fulfillment in Jackson Pollock’s not so abstract abstractions. He is the first painter I know of to have got something positive from the muddiness of color that so profoundly characterizes a great deal of American painting. It is the equivalent, even if in a negative, helpless way, of that American chiaroscuro which dominated Melville, Hawthorne, Poe. The mud abounds in Pollock’s larger works, and these, though the least consummated, are his most original and ambitious. Being young and full of energy, he takes orders he can’t fill. In the large, audacious “Guardians of the Secret” he struggles between two slabs of inscribed mud (Pollock almost always inscribes his purer colors); and space tautens but does not burst into a picture; nor is the mud quite transmuted. Both this painting and “Male and Female” (Pollock’s titles are pretentious) zigzag between the intensity of the easel picture and the blandness of the mural. The smaller works are much more conclusive: the smallest one of all, “Conflict,” and “Wounded Animal,” with its chalky incrustation, are among the strongest abstract paintings I have yet seen by an American. Here Pollock’s force has just the right amount of space to expand in; whereas in larger format he spends himself in too many directions at once. Pollock has gone through the influences of Miró, Picasso, Mexican painting, and what not, and has come out on the other side at the age of thirty-one, painting mostly with his own brush. In his search for style he is liable to relapse into an influence, but if the times are propitious, it won’t be for long.

As The Nation’s art critic from 1942 to 1949, Clement Greenberg (1909–1994) was an early and influential supporter of the Abstract Expressionists. 

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For the Jews—Life or Death?

I.F. Stone
June 10, 1944