Forgotten Men and Poor Folk: Downward Mobility and the Great Depression - DEGENERATION OF THE AMERICAN BREED - White Trash: The 400-Year Untold History of Class in America (2016)

White Trash: The 400-Year Untold History of Class in America (2016)

Part II



Forgotten Men and Poor Folk

Downward Mobility and the Great Depression

Shall then this man go hungry, here in lands

Blest by his honor, builded by his hands?

Do something for him: let him never be

Forgotten: let him have his daily bread:

He who has fed us, let him now be fed.

Let us remember his tragic lot—

Remember, or else be ourselves forgot!

—Edwin Markham, “The Forgotten Man” (1932)

In 1932, three years after the stock market crash that triggered the Great Depression, Warner Brothers released I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang, the gripping story of a World War I veteran transformed into a beast of burden while working on a southern chain gang. It is a strangely powerful film that celebrates the redemptive power of work. Through no fault of their own, 20 percent of the American labor force was out of work by 1932. Average men woke to find themselves as outcasts, without the emblems of American male identity: jobs, homes, the means to provide for their families. The film’s fugitive, James Allen, became a powerful symbol of the country’s decline. His story is that of a patriotic, ambitious, creative, suddenly jobless northerner who becomes, in turn, a tramp, a convict, and a fugitive. He is the Depression’s “Forgotten Man,” exiled from the labor force. His fate is sealed when he goes south. In the last scene of the film, Allen steps back into the shadows, all hope of reclaiming his former life gone, a man forced to admit that his only recourse is to steal in order to survive. So unsettling was the scene that it was almost cut from the film.1

I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang is a grim and devastating exposé of the degraded South. The story served as a confirmation of the New Deal’s conclusion that the southern economy was tragically out of step with the American dream. In 1938, six years after the film debuted, President Franklin Roosevelt declared, “The South presents right now the Nation’s No. 1 economic problem.” Will Alexander, the Tennessean who headed the Farm Security Administration (FSA), argued that southern tenancy robbed men of any chance to become self-reliant. His agency engaged in “rural rehabilitation”—using the same word that was applied to physically disabled soldiers or to worn-out lands. Destitute families had to be retrained and resettled (but not coerced) into programs. For Alexander, the problem was stark and simple: success could only be achieved when the prejudice against white trash was overcome. In other words, psychological reconditioning was as necessary as educational reform.2

Dependency had long defined the South. Since the 1870s, impoverished sharecroppers and convict laborers, white as well as black, had clung to the bottom rung of the social order. It may be hard for us to fathom, but the convict population was no better off than southern slaves had been. A prison official said it all: “One dies, get another.” Poor whites were inexpensive and expendable, and found their lot comparable to suffering African Americans when it came to the justice system. Nothing proves the point better than the fact that both black and white convicts were referred to as “niggers.”3

Harsh sentences were common for minor offenses among this class. Robert Burns, the New Jersey man whose memoir inspired the Hollywood film, faced six to ten years hard labor for a robbery that netted him $5.80. The South’s transportation infrastructure and expanded industrial base was built on the backs of chain gangs. States raked in tremendous revenues by leasing prisoners to private businesses. Historically, the majority of these laborers were black, but during the Depression more poor whites found themselves swept up in the system.4

Warner Brothers was said to be the most “pro-Roosevelt” studio in Tinseltown. Its top executives were committed to the bottom line, but they were not afraid of social justice issues. I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang told of the destruction of the human spirit, and how Allen’s fate was sealed the moment he was thrust into the chain-gang camp. Monotony stalks the prisoners who aren’t literally worked to death. They can do nothing without asking a guard’s permission, not even wipe the sweat from their brows. Nothing better captures the soul-killing process than when the camera pans across the shackled men loaded on a truck and then turns the lens toward a pack of mules. Both herds are mindless beasts of burden. The mule was at the same time meant as a reminder of the backward sharecropper.5

As a northerner, Allen feels as if he has been thrown into alien country. He refuses to let conditions break his will. He alone among the prisoners retains the desire to escape; in time he uses his brainpower to outwit the guards. To pull off his plan, he violates a cardinal rule of the white South by soliciting help from a black convict. It is Sebastian’s superior skill with the sledgehammer that bends Allen’s ankle bracelets. Reversing the pattern set by the Thirteenth Amendment, a southern black man sets a northern white man free. It is a poignant scene. The larger message was crystal clear: the South is backward because of its failure to incorporate black men into the free-market economy.

Yet the talent and labor of poor whites is wasted too. James Allen’s fellow white prisoners are dead on the inside. “To work out, or die out,” they are told. It is the only way out. They learn to appreciate the true meaning of liberty only by watching Allen achieve it. His daring escape is accomplished not by violence but by rational planning. It proves to be a temporary success, but at least he succeeds in offering his comrades a different vision of manhood.

Allen’s dream is to be an engineer. That aspiration represented the pride Americans felt in raising the Empire State Building, one of the decade’s consummate achievements. In 1932, the same year that the film was released, the photographer Lewis Hine published a book about his time with the “sky boys,” as the skilled men who balanced on the beams and built the iconic skyscraper were known. In Men at Work, now a classic, Hine vividly portrayed the courage and imagination of the workers who left their imprint on the urban landscape. “Cities do not build themselves,” he pronounced, “machines cannot make machines, unless back of them all are the brains and toil of men.” At the age of sixty, with an established reputation for reform, the cameraman believed that life was given power through labor. What distinguished humans from beasts was the capacity to solve problems, to create anew, and to apply cognitive energy to the labor process. The quote Hine selected as his epigraph was taken from the late philosopher William James’s “What Makes a Life Significant”: “Not in clanging fights and desperate marches only is heroism to be looked for, but on every bridge and building that is going up to-day, on freight trains, on vessels and lumber-rafts, in mines, among the firemen and the policemen, the demand for courage is incessant and the supply never fails.” Manual laborers deserved the same respect as heroes on the battlefield. If a new breed of human arose when it gave labor enhanced social meaning, then the South, with its dull refusal to appreciate the value of work, remained caught in a primitive state of mind.6

If the Empire State Building, which opened in 1931, represented the highest testament to moral courage, then the tragedy that played out in Washington in the spring and summer of 1932 displayed America at its lowest ebb. Veterans of World War I formed a “Bonus Army,” some twenty thousand unemployed arriving with their hurting families and setting up a shantytown across the river from Capitol Hill. They demanded of Congress their bonus pay. “We were heroes in 1917, but we’re bums now,” said their spokesman in a plea before the House. The House passed the Pateman Bill that would issue the bonuses, but it failed in the Senate. President Herbert Hoover labeled the marchers criminals and called out the U.S. Army to disperse those that remained after the bill failed, using bayonets, tear gas, and tanks. “The most powerful government in the world shooting its starving veterans out of worthless huts,” was how John Henry Bartlett, former governor of New Hampshire, described the disturbing event in his eyewitness account.7

So this was how the image of the “Forgotten Man” was imprinted in the public mind, as I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang hit the theaters. Allen’s status as a bumming veteran associated him with the men of the Bonus Army. In the film, he discovers that he can’t pawn his war medal. The pawnbroker pulls out a box filled with such medals—by 1932, discarded junk, like the veterans themselves. The truth could hardly be denied. Class, as defined in terms of dignity, was increasingly insecure.

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The Depression was associated with waste. Wasted lives, wasted land, human waste. The stock market crash unleashed a nightmarish downside to the much-vaunted American dream, its unpredictable and unpreventable downward mobility. The traditional marks of poverty were now appearing everywhere. There were Hoovervilles not just in Washington but at the New York City dump. St. Louis had the largest shantytown, with twelve hundred men; Chicago’s makeshift community, on order of the mayor, was burned to the ground. The poor could no longer be considered outcasts, “untouchables,” or even hoboes.8

The lines separating the poor from the working and middle classes seemed more permeable. The poor were simply men and women without jobs, and those who still had gainful employment sensed that they were at risk of experiencing the same fate. This fear was captured in Edward Newhouse’s novel You Can’t Sleep Here (1934), about a New York City Hooverville. On weekends, Newhouse wrote, hundreds came to watch the men in the shantytown as if they were, collectively, a “monkey in a cage.” Instead of looking at them with disgust, “Sunday tourists” wondered if they might be next.9

Old clichés rang hollow. Upward mobility was not a destination to be reached, nor a ladder to be scaled by diligence and hard work. In an autobiographical novel about bumming, called Waiting for Nothing (1935), Tom Kromer put it best when he wrote that his journey in life went nowhere: “What is before is the same as that which is gone. My life is spent before it started.” Long admired for his competitive spirit, in the literature of the thirties the “rugged individualist” appeared ruthless and greedy. The towering giants of the business world were now “great little men.” An investment banker from New York scoffed, “The American Standard of Living—the proudest boast of several administrations [is] the subject of international gibe.” The “City upon a Hill” lay in ruins.10

Margaret Bourke-White used her camera to express the new critical outlook. Working for Life magazine, she shot a line of somber black men and women waiting for relief. They stood before a garish billboard that featured a ruddy-cheeked, smiling family of four driving down the road in a nice car—that’s who and what hung over these real victims of an Ohio Valley flood. Irony shouted at the magazine’s readers like the slogans that blared from the cartoonish billboard image of the idealized white, middle-class family: “World’s Highest Standard of Living”; “There’s No Way Like the American Way.” By the time this provocative photograph appeared in 1937, most Americans had already come to accept the uncomfortable truth about their national situation: equal opportunity was a grand illusion. In the very same issue of Life were photographs of black men in chain gangs, shoring up levees in Tennessee.11

Bourke-White did another, similar photo essay that year. This time her aim was to dispute the myth of the classless society. Visiting Muncie, Indiana, the city made famous in the 1929 study Middletown, the photographer questioned the idea of “typical Americans” that the community had supposedly come to represent. She angered the residents when she featured the insides of homes, contrasting a poor white hovel of “Shedtown” with the opulent parlor of one of the wealthiest families. Her critics charged that she was focused on the upper crust and “soaked bottom,” while ignoring the “middle filling” of the “community pie.” But that was her point. There was no single representative American way of life.12

The stock market’s “crash” and ensuing “Depression” invoked obvious metaphors of physical collapse. One highly cynical observer compared the bottoming out of Wall Street to a buried Egyptian tomb, “filled with the debris of delusions and false hopes.” Town and country supplied competing images of ruin: boarded-up stores and banks in ghost towns, city breadlines—both symbols of idleness. In rural settings, once-prosperous farms had either dried up or become buried in dust, and fertile fields were scarred by cavernous gullies. “Depression” was another word for what the eighteenth-century governor of Virginia called his impoverished neighbor North Carolina: a “sinkhole.”13

In the writings that suffused 1930s periodicals as well as government reports, economic failure was associated with the old notion of wasteland. When Roy Stryker was put in charge of the Historical Section of the Resettlement Administration in 1935, he hired a team of talented photographers to record images of barren land dotted with abandoned farms and long stretches of terrain destroyed by dust storms, floods, and gullies—all caused by destructive farming, irresponsible lumbering, and traditional mining techniques. In this literary and visual construction of reality on the ground, class identity was not just a slippery slope; it was closer in nature to the erratically formed, man-made furrows of the gully. People were seen in the numerous images of the FSA as scattered and anonymous, squatting along roads, worn, beaten, set adrift, washed up. The absence of active laborers conveyed its own unmistakable message—a Life story explained that it was hard to “see” depression because of “business not being done.” Documentary photographer Arthur Rothstein took a haunting picture of an Ohio farm community. Only a few buildings were visible, and there were no people present. His camera focused on a sign planted in the frozen mud, marking the identity of this unincorporated town. It read, “Utopia.”14

Arthur Rothstein’s powerful image of erosion and wasteland (1937). Here the Alabama land is scarred by massive gullies as a forlorn tenant farmer stands helplessly by his barn.

Eroded land on tenant’s farm, Walker County, Alabama (Arthur Rothstein, 1937), LC-USF34-025121, Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division, Washington, DC

Henry Wallace, FDR’s secretary of agriculture, argued that what had always made America unique was the constant “pressing upon social resources” and the general belief in a “limitless and inexhaustible soil.” But the soil was not limitless, and the frontier was officially closed by the government in 1934. Writers of all stripes, not just agricultural experts, lamented how valuable topsoil was washing down America’s rivers, the resulting waste made worse by levees. In this way, the Depression was an upheaval that portrayed class leveling with disordered images of land erosion. The washing away of topsoil and debris was relatedly seen in the washing away of different classes of people, churned up and let loose in mass migrations caused by economic disaster. In Dorothea Lange’s An American Exodus (1939), a photo-essay book, images capture the turning of the landscape into wasteland. The middle American Dust Bowl swept up clouds of soil, and dislodged humans were driven down the road “like particles of dust.”15

Poor whites remained at the forefront of the American consciousness in the thirties. The Bonus Army’s Hooverville was an urban manifestation of the old squatter’s shack. Tenant farmers in the southern states continued to reside in run-down cabins, a highly mobile, migratory labor force that was the very antithesis of self-sufficiency. After the drought and dust bowls that hit during the middle years of the decade, “Okies” and “Arkies” captured the media. Families in old jalopies crammed with everything they owned headed west to California; en route, they set up camps along major highways. They were visible on the roads in the Golden State, taking seasonal jobs as crop pickers. As migrant workers, they called themselves “Migs,” while others labeled them “rubber tramps” or “shantytowns on wheels.” In his “Talking Dust Bowl Blues,” the legendary folksinger Woody Guthrie expressed the mobile-home theme with the lyric “I swapped my farm for a Ford machine.” Like the refugees from Arkansas who poured into Missouri during the Civil War, the Migs formed a modern-day caravan of vagrants and nomads. John Steinbeck and John Ford made this cross-country trek famous, Steinbeck in his bestselling 1939 novel The Grapes of Wrath, and Ford in his dark and disquieting 1941 Hollywood film of the same name about the Joads’ pilgrimage.16

Another chaotic migration was the “Back to the Land” movement that led to numerous rural communes. Some of these had outspoken leaders. Ralph Borsodi, who set up a subsistence homestead on the outskirts of New York City, helped to organize a cooperative village near Dayton, Ohio. Similar ventures appeared in other states. The southern journalist Charles Morrow Wilson described these folks as “American peasants,” but they are perhaps better described as the heirs of James Oglethorpe’s eighteenth-century Georgia colonists. One such group from Tulsa established a community in the Ozark hills. They founded a corporation, much like the older joint-stock companies, and adopted a set of bylaws, in which each member was a shareholder and had a vote. They sold timber, raised hogs and chickens, repaired the lumbering shanties on the property, and set up a school.17

Unlike Arkansas tenant farmers and sharecroppers, the Tulsa colonists owned the land, albeit land of little value, which lowered them to the level of subsistence farmers. The common pattern in Arkansas was different. Here, nearly 63 percent of farmers worked as tenants. The Arkies were unlike the Tulsans, many of whom were educated, willing to work collectively, and devised a plan for the future. They might be slumming as white trash and living in shanties, but when the economy improved, the city folk would return to their former lives. For them the land was a “refuge,” not a permanent source of class identity.18

The “Back to the Land” movement had a marked influence on New Deal policy. So it made sense when Milburn Lincoln Wilson, a trained social scientist and expert in agriculture, became the first director of the Subsistence Homesteads Division in 1933. The government’s goal was to give tenants and sharecroppers the resources and skills to rise up the agricultural ladder and help city folk without jobs. Like the soil, the dispossessed had to be rehabilitated. Land, he insisted, was not just a source of profit, but was part of a “well integrated democracted [sic] community,” one that knit people together by attending to the resilience of families. In Wilson’s grand scheme, the homestead community was a laboratory, a demonstration of how government could ease the impact of a flagging economy and make it possible for low-income rural and urban families to become self-sufficient homeowners. The families involved were given long-term loans so that they could buy their homes. The program contributed better housing for the unemployed while acting to humanize living conditions for poor whites.19

At its most visionary, Wilson saw rehabilitation as the process of taking stranded coal miners in abandoned towns, displaced factory workers without jobs, and tenants trapped on unproductive land and helping them all adopt a new way of life. The modern homestead of his design was a source of a genuine democracy, producing “a sturdy rather than servile citizenry.” If ever there was a proactive policy for creating the yeoman republic of Thomas Jefferson’s imagination, this was it.

It was inevitable that poor southerners became a greater concern for the agency. Wilson directed attention to the South’s one-crop system and “rural slum areas” in the countryside, which guaranteed the pernicious cycle of poor white and black sharecroppers’ poverty from one generation to the next. Two-thirds of the nation’s tenant farmers were in the South, and two-thirds were white. These facts cannot be overstated. The agricultural distress of the Depression exposed the South’s long-standing dependence on submarginal land and submarginal farmers.20

In this way, the federal government drew national attention to the South’s oppressive class environment. The homestead became a symbol of class security, sustenance, and normalcy. In 1935, the Subsistence Homesteads Division produced a pamphlet that contrasted West Virginia coal miners’ dark and dismal shacks with bright new homesteads (portrayed through a published image of children playing outside on grass). A year later, the President’s Committee on Tenancy made the point clearer by comparing the rungs of the agricultural ladder to prison bars. Tenancy was a cage, class status a jail. Chains tied poor whites to rotten soil and locked them away in abysmal shacks that weren’t really homes at all. There was more than one chain gang in the South.21

Arthur Raper, one of the leading authorities on tenancy in the South, explained conditions in his 1936 study Preface to Peasantry. Most southern tenants were in debt to landlords, had little cash, no education; hookworm and pellagra still haunted them. Unlike the fugitive James Allen, they had no place to run. Rarely did poor whites stay on a single plantation for more than two or three years; in the winter months, they could be seen filling carts with their children and their junk and moving on. This annual phenomenon of southeastern tenant dispersion was already occurring before the mass western exodus of Okies and Arkies.22

The entire tenant system operated by coercion and dependence. Landowners did not want their tenants to improve, because then they would have less control over them. A hungry worker was the best worker, or so many southern cotton growers believed. No one—neither tenants nor their landlords—had any problem making children and women work in the fields. For all the above reasons, then, education remained crucial to the subsistence homestead program. Prospective clients required not only guidance in modern agricultural practices, but also schools, churches, and training in the methods of home food production. Wilson introduced a psychological element often lacking in traditional forms of charity. For poor whites, this meant they had to overcome the feeling that they were “just trash,” a breed lacking the capacity for change. The homestead program would prove above all that poor whites were completely normal people.23

Wilson’s fellow Iowan, Henry Wallace, had a similar outlook. Inferior heredity had nothing to do with rural poverty. Secretary of Agriculture Wallace predicted that if at birth one hundred thousand poor white children were taken from their “tumble-down cabins” and another hundred thousand were taken from the wealthiest families, and both groups were given the same food, education, housing, and cultural experiences, by the time they reached adulthood there would be no difference in mental and moral traits. “Superior ability” was not “the exclusive possession of any one race or any one class,” he said. Reacting to Adolf Hitler’s Aryan fantasy, Wallace predicted that even a “master breeder” might over generations raise a group of people with the same skin, hair, or eye color, but he would just as likely produce a group of “blond morons.”24

Both Wilson and Wallace dismissed the notion that class (or even race) was biologically preordained. Wallace stressed the importance of understanding class insecurity. Over time, he warned, economic benefits accrued to the stronger, shrewder people in society, and if unrestrained by government, conditions would lead to “economic autocracy” and “political despotism.” Sounding a lot like the critics in our present who deplore the concentration of wealth among the top 1 percent of Americans, Wallace in 1936 argued that liberty was impossible if “36 thousand families at the top of the economic pyramid get as much income as 12 million families at the bottom.”25

The Depression revealed that liberty for some—for the select, the privileged—was not liberty for all. In a remarkable article of 1933, titled “The New Deal and the Constitution,” a popular writer named John Corbin questioned the claims of Americans to an exclusive quality of freedom. He posed a rhetorical question: “Can a nation call itself free if it finds itself periodically on the verge of bankruptcy and starvation in the face of the fact that it possesses all the materials of the good life?” He meant that freedom was compromised when a nation allowed the majority of its people to suffer devastating poverty and enduring economic insecurity. Regulation, regional planning, and readjustment (the last a favorite New Deal term) were needed to correct market abuses, control the exploitation of natural resources, and adjust class imbalance, and to do so, in President Roosevelt’s phrase, “not to destroy individualism but to protect it.” Wilson, Wallace, and Corbin all agreed that the old laissez-faire doctrines could no longer be sustained, and that the frontier thesis—which presumed that western migration had alleviated poverty—no longer worked. For Wilson, the “great disorganizing force of the depression” was “a great, magic dark hand.” Unlike Adam Smith’s invisible hand of the free market, Wilson’s dark hand represented the dangers of an unregulated economy: downward mobility and the ruin of countless lives.26

If for poor rural tenants and sharecroppers class was an inescapable cage or a prison, it was equally a source of what Henry Wallace labeled “human erosion.” Human erosion was the reason for soil erosion, and not the other way around, he contended. Tenant farming was a perfect example of this process: the tenants had little reason to care for the soil as they attempted to eke out a living from it, while the landowners remained unwilling to invest in soil conservation. The willingness of Americans to tolerate waste was the real cause of human erosion. It reflected the larger social problem of devaluing human labor and human worth.27

Wallace had positive things to say about rural Americans, who produced more children than their urban counterparts, and played a crucial role in building up society. “The land produces the life-stream of the nation,” he explained, referring to “young people bred on the farms.” In unmistakable language, Wallace urged the whole country to be “concerned that its breeding stock is taken care of, that the nation does not deteriorate at the source of its life-blood.” This was the warning sign John Ford sought to get across in the film version of The Grapes of Wrath, when Ma Joad says, “Rich fellas … their kids ain’t no good and die out, but we keep a-comin’… . We’ll go on forever, Pa, cos we’re the people.” The city folk needed “the people,” needed their fecundity. It was as though Jefferson and Franklin were talking to Wallace, Steinbeck, and Ford, still promoting the old English idea that national strength was bound up with demographic growth.28

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Unfortunately, the Subsistence Homesteads Division ran into serious difficulties. First, the funding it received was meager; second, it took time for bureaucracy to approve and build communities. On top of everything else, the Homesteads Division faced a legal challenge that threatened the entire program with termination. President Roosevelt, as a result, issued an executive order creating an entirely new agency, the Resettlement Administration (RA), in 1935. Rexford G. Tugwell, a former economics professor at Columbia, was chosen to head the new agency. A charismatic figure with a sharp mind, he had a profound influence on the New Deal’s overall approach to poverty.29

Unlike previous programs, the RA had a clear mandate to help the rural poor. It purchased submarginal land, resettled tenants, extended relief to drought victims, arranged with local doctors cooperative medical care for farmers, restored ruined lands, and supervised camps for migrant workers, especially in California. One of its central goals was to provide loans for farm improvements, and to help tenants obtain better living conditions and learn how to become farm owners—services that greatly expanded the ongoing program that was building experimental communities. The Resettlement Administration, and its replacement, the Farm Security Administration (1937), established regional headquarters; by 1941, it had project managers in every state. What Tugwell began in 1935 carried over to his successor, Will Alexander, who as the son of an Ozark farmer was the first southerner to be put in charge of a New Deal rural poverty agency. Both the RA and FSA were politically savvy agencies, consciously orchestrating publicity campaigns. At the forefront of their effort was Roy Stryker’s photographic unit, which distributed optimal images to major news outlets.30

Tugwell went on the lecture circuit, did radio shows, and wrote articles. In the New York Times, he outlined the RA’s program in terms of the four “R’s”—retirement of bad land, relocation of rural poor, resettlement of the unemployed in suburban communities, and rehabilitation of farm families. In his activism, though, Tugwell was not really a Jeffersonian. In his worldview, the farm was not some sacred space for cultivating virtue; it was more often an unrewarding struggle with “vicious, ill-tempered soil.” As a result, farmers suffered from overwork, bad housing, and an “ugly, brooding monotony.” Instead of healthy yeomen, Jefferson’s theory had produced generations of “human wastage”; wishing for universal home ownership was but a foolish dream.31

Tugwell was nothing if not controversial. Understanding that most tenants could not vote because of poll taxes, he made their elimination one of the requirements for states to get homestead loans. Changing the South required shifting the balance of power—his agency would enable poor whites to challenge the status quo. While cynical politicians continued to dismiss them as “lazy, shiftless, no-account,” Tugwell sought to make them into a politically visible constituency. Here was a proactive federal agency.32

The opposition to his programs came from vested interests, specifically large-scale agribusiness and southerners resistant to any attention to (or attempts to subvert) the class order. Representing this crowd was Senator Harry F. Byrd of Virginia, who mouthed the conventional wisdom that “simple mountain people” didn’t deserve electricity, refrigerators, or even indoor privies. Simple meant primitive, a people incapable of aspiring to a creditable way of life.33

To a range of critics, Tugwell was a “parlor pink” (i.e., a liberal with communist leanings). Republicans mocked him by using lines from a popular song of 1933, “Did You Ever See a Dream Walking?” Tugwell was “a dream walking,” all airy philosophy. The government’s liberal darling could be seen “winking at Marx” and at the same time “kissing the foot of Madison” for having given him the idea of a super-flexible Constitution. Somehow, in combining these two disparate historical personae, Tugwell was wearing a “Russian wig under a Founder’s hat.” Another journalist noted that “Tugwellism” was less about the man than about the times, that is, a contest about class politics and who could claim to represent poor whites. On the surface, this forty-three-year-old Ivy Leaguer, with a cool, “carefully-studied informality of appearance,” projected an air of haughtiness and seemed to regard humanity as something for “experimentation.” To Tugwell’s critics, then, nothing about him suggested a bona fide understanding of rural America.34

Tugwell, however, refused to engage in a theatrical debate over what it meant to be a “man of the people.” America already had a long history of politicians pretending to identify with the earnest plowman. In the South, it was more than a pastime—it was everything. The erudite Brain Truster, though raised on a dairy farm in upstate New York, couldn’t claim to be of hillbilly stock, nor did he sport farmers’ red suspenders like one of the New Deal’s loudest critics, Georgia governor Eugene Talmadge. He was not a rustic clown like Huey Long, who captivated audiences. He didn’t have a folksy nickname either, like South Carolina senator “Cotton Ed” Smith, who went on the warpath against Tugwell’s appointment as undersecretary of agriculture even before Roosevelt named him as head of the Resettlement Administration. Before his confirmation hearing, Tugwell’s friends had advised him to “affect a homely democratic manner, to suggest the dear old farm.” He refused to do so.35

In 1936, a young Washington journalist named Blair Bolles accused Tugwell of a series of crimes against America. Writing for H. L. Mencken’s American Mercury, he shared the renowned editor’s choleric rage for harebrained uplifters. Bolles claimed that the poor who were under the agency’s supervision were willing to “crawl” into the “impersonal lap” of government dependency. They were all deluded and undeserving—the litany will sound familiar: “hillbilly clay-eaters,” “hoe-wielders” (backward tenant farmers looking for a handout), “urban poor who see success in green pastures,” and, last but not least, “desert-dwelling Indians.” Each of these was presumed a breed of men with nowhere to go.36

Again and again, enemies of the New Deal railed against the royalist bureaucrat “Rex” Tugwell. He continued to infuriate opposing congressmen by dismissing their logic and defending government patronage with the line “nothing is too good for these people.” Tugwell had no patience for the illusion of democracy, or the pretense of being a man of the people, or the empty rhetoric of equal opportunity. An urbane “voice in the wilderness,” he boldly challenged the credibility of the old, illusive belief that America’s class boundaries were porous and that hard work was all it took to succeed.37

Tugwell’s class argument was simple. He summed up his views in a 1934 speech in Kansas City when he said that the old standby refrain of “rugged individualism” really meant “the regimentation of the many for the benefit of the few.” The New Deal’s mission was to make individualism available to those ordinarily deprived of it, freeing the many from their virtual imprisonment at the hands of the few. Like Thomas Jefferson, and like Henry Wallace, Tugwell believed that concentration of power at the top destroyed democracy. But like James Madison, the founder he most admired, he remained confident that the state could act as a neutral arbiter among contending interests—bound, in this emergency, to intercede so as to prevent a hardening of class distinctions.38

Tugwell felt that the extension of loans to farmers was the most successful part of the Resettlement Administration, and most Americans agreed: a Gallup poll of 1936 found that 83 percent of respondents heartily endorsed the program. But the experimental communities, nearly two-thirds of which were in the South, did not do at all well. Though not under the supervision of the Resettlement Administration, Arthurdale, in the abandoned coal-mining region of Reedsville, West Virginia, was one notable lightning rod. Constantly in the news because it was the pet project of Eleanor Roosevelt, this experimental community was accused of wasting money and Works Progress Administration man-hours. A reporter for the Saturday Evening Post argued that the community was not even functioning as an organ of relief because the screening process was geared toward accepting only those applicants whose success seemed assured, rather than bringing in the folks who most needed government assistance. In the end, Congress ensured the failure of Arthurdale by refusing to support a factory that would have produced furniture for the U.S. Post Office while providing the community with a steady source of employment.39

Arthurdale cast a long shadow. The bad publicity it received colored the reception of other planned communities, as the FSA director testified before Congress in 1943. But the deeper problem of Arthurdale was rooted in its emphasis on home ownership. Even successful communities such as those outside Birmingham and Jasper, Alabama, failed in their mission to help the poorest, ultimately retaining only middle-class residents. Without subsidies, poorer families were not a worthy credit risk. A resident of Palmerdale who worked at the Birmingham News-Age Herald explained that he actually had two jobs instead of one: he worked at the newspaper from 9 p.m. until early morning, and then went home to care for his fields. True, he freed his family from debt and fed his four children with canned goods, but the homestead model only served to double the labor of families like his, rather than to ease their burdens.40

The publicity generated by the RA and FSA contributed to unrealistic expectations and time-mangled appearances. Some photographs of Palmerdale, and Penderlea in North Carolina, showed sharp-looking homes, ornamented with children on bicycles; another showed a man in overalls pushing an antiquated plow—an apt scene in an 1840s daguerreotype, perhaps, but out of place in depicting a modern home. Barely hanging on to his symbolic existence, the yeoman had become a quaint (and contrived) artifact of a once-pristine American life.41

Penderlea Homesteads in North Carolina was showcased as the government’s solution to tenancy. The residents were not wealthy, but they were happy amid “pleasant, congenial, and beautiful surroundings.” But perfect homes did not make perfect communities. Sabotage emerged from within the ranks of residents. Cliques formed in Penderlea, leading some to refuse to participate in community activities and to ridicule those who tried to do things “by the book.” Tensions flared as residents failed—or refused—to adjust to a middle-class environment: detailed records had to be kept, parliamentary rules had to be used at meetings, and household conveniences that wives had never seen before were included in the residences. Bureaucratic missteps explained some of these troubles, but it was the artificially imposed class structure that most disturbed the peace. Middle-class behavior was not easy to teach.42

An iconic image of Penderlea Homesteads (1936), which oddly juxtaposes a modern home and a mule-drawn plow.

Homestead, Penderlea, North Carolina (1936): LC-USF33-000717-M2, Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division, Washington, DC

It took more than a village. Cooperative farming was no part of southern practice, and especially among small (or tenant) farmers. Tugwell understood the problem. Americans in general were not hostile to planned communities, which explains the popularity of Tugwell’s favorite projects. The “Greenbelt towns” of Maryland (just outside Washington, DC), Milwaukee, and Cincinnati attracted an amazing twelve million visitors in 1936-37. Here, federal housing revolutionized methods of prefabrication, laying a strong foundation for the growth of suburbia in the aftermath of World War II. However, the federal government could not bridge the North-South divide when it came to standards of public rural housing; southern projects were administered by southerners who were loath to spend on amenities—such as indoor plumbing. Will Alexander, the Missourian who replaced Tugwell at the RA, and then took over at the FSA, remarked on the persistence of southern backwardness: “If we could house all our low-income farm families with the same standards Danes use for their hogs, we would be a long step ahead.” Southern politicians shortchanged rural Americans in another crucial way: they made sure that the New Deal’s signature Social Security program excluded farm laborers.43

Tugwell’s tenure at the RA was short—just one year—but his influence lingered. The most definitive government statement on problems facing poor farmers, Farm Tenancy: Report of the President’s Committee (1937), showed his hand as well as that of Wilson and Wallace. No less important, the report reflected the insights of “southern regionalists” Arthur Raper and Howard Odum.44

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More than anyone else, Howard Odum worked to change the meaning of the South and the character of “poor folk,” as prominent government officials of the New Deal came to understand them. He was both a sociologist and a psychologist by training. Hired at the University of North Carolina in 1920, he headed the Department of Sociology while simultaneously serving as the first director of the School of Public Welfare. A Georgian by birth, Odum studied the classics at Emory before earning his doctorate in psychology at Clark University (a faculty made famous after Sigmund Freud’s landmark visit); he then acquired his Ph.D. in sociology at Columbia University. A man of tireless energy, Odum published twenty-five books and nearly two hundred articles, founding the journal Social Forces as a forum for new approaches to studies of the South. In his spare time, he was a breeder of cattle.45

He began his close relationship with the federal government when President Hoover named him to the Research Commission on Social Trends. But it was in 1936 that Professor Odum issued his most comprehensive study, Southern Regions of the United States, a text of more than six hundred pages that became the New Deal’s major resource for regional planning. One of his students, journalist Gerald W. Johnson, translated the massive study into a readable and popular book, momentously titled The Wasted Land. Another star student, Arthur Raper, wrote the definitive work on southern farm tenancy, and served as a principal researcher for the Division of Farm Population and Rural Welfare within the Bureau of Agricultural Economics. Odum collaborated with Roy Stryker of the FSA’s photographic unit in overseeing a three-year sociological project of thirteen counties in North Carolina and Virginia.46

The real strength of Odum’s work came from the amount of information he amassed. He was able to prove that the South had surrendered ninety-seven million acres to erosion (an area larger than the two Carolinas and Georgia); it had squandered the chances of millions of people by tolerating poverty and illiteracy; and it had ignored human potential by refusing to provide technological training, or even basic services, to its people. The overwhelming power of Odum’s data undercut (what Odum himself called) Gone with the Wind nostalgia—the collective self-image elite southerners had cultivated. Here was one southerner who wanted to see some “sincere, courageous telling of the truth about the South.” He was “tired of the defense complex,” he said, and the unending ridicule, complacency, ignorance, and, above all, the poverty. The greatest virtue of Southern Regions was its quantitative weight and its objective outlook. As the southern historian Broadus Mitchell insisted at the same time, “The South does not need defense, but exposition.”47

The primary target of Odum’s research was sectionalism’s destructive legacy. Mitchell interpreted Odum in such a way as to say that there was no longer a justification for using Yankee oppression for the South’s refusal to change. To Odum, there were “many Souths”; what was needed now was a regional vision. As a cattle breeder, he compared the sectional dictate to “cultural inbreeding,” and to the “stagnation” that came from resisting the “cross-fertilization of ideas” and by refusing to engage with those beyond one’s state. When he looked at the Tennessee Valley Authority, he saw unmistakably the most successful of New Deal projects in regional planning; the TVA had harnessed the power of seven monumental dams, coordinating among seven states and employing nearly ten thousand people in an area that previously had suffered under tremendous poverty. Odum said he hoped the TVA “would constitute the 49th State.” The straitjacket of states’ rights had suffocated southern progress long enough.48

Odum was right about the TVA. It was a shining example of positive planning. Its dams alone were marvels of engineering, elegant and modern architectural wonders. Intelligent management resulted in soil conservation; flood, malaria, and pollution control; reforestation; and improved fertilization—all sensible land-use strategies. The TVA led to well-designed communities that supported libraries and health and recreation facilities—everything that Wilson had prescribed for the homestead villages. There were training centers in agriculture, marketing, automotive and electrical repair, mechanical work and metalwork; there were classes in engineering and mathematics at nearby colleges, plus unprecedented opportunities for adult education. A bookmobile carried libraries to workers and their families.49

Odum knew it would be extremely difficult to dislodge cultural prejudices. In 1938, he sent questionnaires to distinguished academics across the country, asking each to define what “poor white” meant to him. Where and when did they first hear the term? he wanted to know. Were there state and regional differences in how the term was used? Where did they think the term originated? What were its distinctive features? What other terms were prevalent that carried similar meaning?50

The responses revealed how slippery the label “poor white” could be. While several sociologists said outright that the term was “fuzzy,” a loose example of name-calling, most of Odum’s known forty-six respondents listed as many negative attributes associated with poor whites as came to mind. The most popular adjective was “shiftless.” It was connected to a string of synonyms: purposeless, hand to mouth, lazy, unambitious, no account, no desire to improve themselves, inertia. All these descriptions conflated the unwillingness to work with some innate character flaw.51

“Shiftless” was not a new word. Chronicling his southern tour in the 1850s, Frederick Law Olmsted had used it to categorize slothful slaveowners and slaves alike. It was a favorite word among New Englanders in describing bad farmers, and was a common reproach toward tavernkeepers and other immoral characters who congregated in dens with lowly laborers. By Theodore Roosevelt’s time it was the word of choice in legislation that punished deserting husbands; “shiftlessness” was a major symptom in the eugenicist’s diagnosis of the degenerate. And it was of course second nature to vagrants and hoboes. W. J. Cash, in The Mind of the South (1941), portrayed a shiftless poor white sitting under a tree, holding a jug and surrounded by his hounds, while his wife and children were out working the fields with a kind of “lackadaisical digging.”52

Social proximity to blacks was the second most popular explanation for their association with shiftlessness. In 1929, with his appearance in the movie Hearts in Dixie, the very visible African American actor known as Stepin Fetchit began a film career in which he popularized for an entire generation the crude stereotype of laziness suggested by his on-screen name. In his response to Odum on poor whites, Ira de A. Reid, a black scholar at Atlanta University, recalled that when he was growing up, “race etiquette” required that he never address a “poor white” with that name, unless he expected to be called “nigger” in return. For Reid, “white trash,” “poor whites,” and “niggers” all conveyed the same social stigma.53

Many of Odum’s respondents claimed that the designation “po’ white trash” derived from black vernacular. According to a Mississippian, when whites of the upper or middle class used it, they qualified it with “as blacks would say.” Odum’s respondents noted that poor whites lived near poor black neighborhoods, and it was virtually impossible to distinguish their dwellings. To some middle-class whites, the slight elevation in status of poor whites over poor blacks was but an empty courtesy. From outside the South, in Cincinnati, one sociologist wrote Odum that mountain whites were called “briar hoppers” and subject to de facto segregation just as urban blacks were. (“Briar hoppers” was a variation on the old English slur of “bogtrotters,” aimed at the Irish.)54

To Odum’s respondents, the twentieth century had had little effect. Poor whites were still adjudged a breed apart, an ill-defined class halfway between white and black. Under no circumstances did they ever socialize with, let alone marry, respectable whites. To another of Odum’s correspondents they were like a mule to a horse or a hound to a dog; whereas dogs were “respectable,” hounds were “ornery.” As dyed-in-the-wool racists said of all blacks, it was said of white trash that, like the leopard, he could not change his spots.55

How could educated Americans have denied the effect of such persistent prejudice in distorting the southern class system? The reason is actually rather obvious: a fear of unleashing genuine class upheaval—which even the liberal elite were loath to do—led significant numbers to blame the poor for their own failure. Odum saw differently, and was instrumental in reframing the meaning of rural poverty. He argued that poor whites had a culture—what he called “folkways.” He did not think that they had to remain hapless pawns. Nor did their upward path mean merely imitating the middle class; they could shape a viable existence by drawing on their own folk values, rather than striving to be a lesser version of the white-collar class. The solution for poor folk rested on giving them access to education, allowing them to become self-sufficient. This demanded restructuring the South’s resource management. The region had to develop a more diverse and technologically advanced economy and agricultural system, which in turn would require a more highly skilled population of workers. But transforming every man and woman would be a long uphill battle, of course. One of Odum’s respondents put it bluntly: “No one knows what to do with him.” As long as he appeared stuck, he would remain no less a feature of the static South than the gully and the mule.56

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It would take the Tennessean James Agee to probe the meaning of “poor white” on a truly meaningful level. In his powerfully drawn, enduringly evocative Let Us Now Praise Famous Men (1941), Agee attempted to toss the source of the white trash fetish back onto the middle class. The unusual book included the chaste still life-style photographs of Walker Evans, and addressed what Odum’s slow-to-change cohort refused to do: interrogate how an interpreter imposed his values on the subject. There could be no such thing as objective journalism.

Agee opened the book by wondering out loud how a Harvard-educated, middle-class man like himself could write about poor whites without turning them into objects of pity or disgust. He did not want to be a mere gawker. How could he “pry intimately into the lives of an undefended and appallingly damaged group of human beings, an ignorant and helpless rural family, for the purpose of parading the nakedness, disadvantage and humiliation of these lives before another group of human beings, in the name of science, of ‘honest journalism’”? Was it possible to convey the “cruel radiance of what is”? Probably not.57

So Agee experimented with different strategies, offering detailed descriptions of material objects: shoes, overalls, the sparse arrangement of furnishings in the cropper’s home. With a meticulous attention to detail, he tried in words to imitate the camera’s “ice-cold” vision. In another of his departures from conventional reporting, he interspersed what he imagined were the unspoken thoughts of the poor tenant with the uncensored insults he had heard from the landlord. Inside the mind of the cropper, he voiced disbelief: how did he get “trapped,” how did he become “beyond help, beyond hope”? He gave his subjects real feelings, descriptive laments. The landlord’s cruelty comes through his laughter over Agee’s enjoyment of the tenants’ “home cooking.” The landlord curses a poor cropper as a “dirty son-of-a-bitch” who had bragged that he hadn’t bought his family a bar of soap in five years. A woman in one of the tenant families was, in the landlord’s words, the “worst whore” in this part of this country—second only to her mother. The whole bunch were, to the owner, “the lowest trash you can find.”58

There was a method to Agee’s madness. In this strangely introspective, deeply disturbing narrative, the author tries to force readers to look beyond conventional ways of seeing the poor. Instead of blaming them, he asks his audience to acknowledge their own complicity. The poor are not dull or slow-witted, he insists; they have merely internalized a kind of “anesthesia,” which numbs them against the “shame and insult of discomforts, insecurities, and inferiorities.” The southern middle class deserves the greater portion of shame, and especially those who excused their own callous indifference with the line, “They are ‘used’ to it.”59

Despite its subsequent literary success, Agee’s unsettling text reached few readers in 1941. For its part, Odum’s work came under attack for speaking above (rather than to) the poor tenant farmer. One of Odum’s most outspoken critics was the Vanderbilt University English professor and poet Donald Davidson, who was also hostile to the TVA, which he saw as evidence of northern meddling. As one of the contributors to I’ll Take My Stand, Davidson defended the old agrarian ideal of the South. He dared to praise the Ku Klux Klan for defeating the “detestable” northern missionaries of the Freedmen’s Bureau, and his only regret was that the KKK could not prevent the rise of the “more subtle utopians” of the New South (by which he meant Odum and his University of North Carolina crowd). The scholarly “southern regionalists” could never unify the South, Davidson declared. Odum’s “indices” could not be translated into the “language of the ‘ignorant man.’” What remained was an apparent paradox: Was it only the sectional demagogue who would ever be able to co-opt the poor in the South? Even if an Agee or an Odum momentarily captured the “cruel radiance of what is,” wasn’t it obvious that the poor whites they wished to free weren’t listening? That was what Davidson believed.60

Somewhere between the writing styles of Agee and Odum was a new kind of southern writer. Jonathan Daniels’s A Southerner Discovers the South (1938) not only made the bestseller list, but also won over Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt. Here was a North Carolina journalist with an eye for irony. He avoided the density of Odum’s encyclopedic study, and he steered clear of the sleepy pastoralism of the southern agrarian. With nary a hint of defensiveness, he traveled thousands of miles through the South and let the people he met talk for themselves.61

Daniels found evidence that disproved Davidson’s critique of Howard Odum when he happened on a small-town lawyer who owned and cherished all of the sociologist’s books. He visited the famous Providence Canyon, a 150-foot-deep Georgia gully, which became a strange monument to soil erosion and a natural wonder. He attacked the South’s prison mentality, the idea that generation after generation of manual laborers should accept their exploitation as natural. At Cannon Mills, in North Carolina, he noted the cyclone fences that turned mills into virtual prisons. Across the street from one massive factory was a playground. The unintended lesson was to “teach the children that property is afraid of the people—their people.”62

He offered varied portraits of poor whites, defending “restlessness” and refusing to call it shiftlessness. Daniels liked what he saw in Norris, Tennessee, a planned town that was part of the TVA. It was not the photoelectric cell lighting and heating of the big school building that impressed him so much as the “collision of children” inside the school—the “hill children of the big, poor families” alongside the children of engineers. Here was a clear-cut experiment in class desegregation. If only this was America, he thought.63

As Ma Joad from The Grapes of Wrath had put it, Daniels repeated for his southern audience: the poor are always coming. He praised the TVA for discovering that ordinary southern whites were receptive to training if given a fair chance. Some, he acknowledged, were “underfed,” some “feeble-minded, perverted, insane.” But they could not represent the whole poor population—or the future. It was not only pellagra or illiteracy that stood in the way of their rise; there was also the fear of the wealthier classes that poor whites, like blacks, might not be willing to stay in their place. Daniels refuted the “slander” that had been perpetuated by the educated classes, and he made sure his readers took heed: “The Southern Negro is not an incurably ignorant ape. The Southern white masses are not biologically degenerate.”64

Daniels was unwavering in his belief that Jeffersonian democracy had long since died, only to be replaced by demagogues on the order of Huey Long, who, following on the heels of generations of southern patricians, plundered the people at will. He took up Odum’s cautionary advice, insisting that all planning for southern revival had to start at the bottom if it was to effect anything approaching real change. “Maybe still one Reb can beat ten Yankees,” wrote Daniels. But “it is irrelevant.” Rebel pride had blinded all classes. “The tyrants and the plutocrats and the poor all need teaching. One of them no more than the others.” Odum, Agee, and Daniels all wanted to see the South rescued from its ideological trap. They were not cynical; they were hopeful. They recognized that simple solutions—a smattering of prettified homesteads—were no cure. Something grander, on the scale of the TVA, represented the only chance to shake up the existing consensus and rearrange class structure.65

In the 1930s, the forgotten man and woman became a powerful symbol of economic struggle all across America. A good number of voices paid special attention to poor whites who haunted the South. The problem was not: “No one knows what to do with him.” It was this: “No one wants to see him as he really is: one of us, an American.”