We Were So Much Nicer Then…
The story behind the iconic 1936 Dorothea Lange photograph Migrant Mother on your May 14 cover, announcing Sasha Abramsky’s excellent piece on the poor in America, speaks to the great problem that accompanies poverty—our blindness to what Michael Harrington called “the invisible land.” Lange’s work helped tremendously to make poverty visible, but what’s notable is Americans’ responsiveness to the problem. As Elizabeth Partridge tells the story in her biography of Lange, Restless Spirit, “With the photographs barely dry, [Lange] rushed to the city editor of the San Francisco News and told him rain had ruined the pea crop, stranding several thousand pea pickers. Tires, clothes, and even bedding had been sold just to buy a little food. The paper ran the story…using her photos.
“The article was picked up [by] newspapers across the country. The response…was instantaneous and powerful. Seeing the desperate, helpless mother unable to feed her children shocked Americans nationwide. They were appalled that the very people who provided food for American families were themselves starving. The federal government acted immediately, shipping twenty thousand pounds of food to the California fields.”
We were not so long ago a far more caring people than we are today.
Remembering Michael Harrington
Re “What Would Michael Harrington Say?” [May 14]: Normally, I despise articles claiming to speak for the dead regarding current circumstances. But Maurice Isserman’s was a pleasant surprise. Not only did he take the precaution of admitting that Harrington could have had a later-life ideological reversal; he was circumspect enough to ask Harrington’s sons their perspective on their father’s legacy and possible opinion. The result reminded me why I esteem Harrington so highly and also proposed a realistic response to the title question. I hope Isserman’s article, like Tom Hayden’s “Participatory Democracy: From Port Huron to Occupy Wall Street” [April 16], will be read by a younger generation who may not be as familiar with the history of the American progressive movement as they should be.
Maurice Isserman questions what the author of The Other America would make of our nation and world in the twenty-first century. Answering his own question after interviewing Harrington’s sons, Isserman posits that America’s paramount socialist of the conservative era would have retained his fundamental convictions and belief in “the left wing of the possible.”
I met the then ailing Michael Harrington in July 1988 at the Democratic National Convention in Atlanta. I recall that in his talk to a group of Jesse Jackson delegates, in which he surveyed the political scene with a sense of measured ire, Harrington seemed more discouraged than when I had heard him speak a few years earlier. Approaching him afterward, I told him of having read his book in high school and of how, at a reunion of my graduating class a month before, I had encountered a former classmate who had likewise found The Other America to be one of the sparks of his political awakening. Hearing the story, Harrington smiled. Then he inscribed my copy of his most famous book: “For Tom, With hope that our ideas will finally put an end to this outrage—Mike Hg-7/21/88.”
THOMAS M. GRACE