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American Pastoral

Published in 1935 in the middle of the Depression, William Empson’s Some Versions of Pastoral casts a hard modern light on sixteenth- and seventeenth-century poems about shepherds and shepherdesses with classical names like Corydon and Phyllida. Pastoral, Empson wrote, was a “puzzling form” and a “queer business” in which highly educated and well-heeled poets from the city idealized the lives of the poorest people in the land. It implied “a beautiful relation between the rich and poor” by making “simple people express strong feelings…in learned and fashionable language.” From 1935 onward, no one would read Spenser’s The Shepheardes Calendar or follow Shakespeare’s complicated double plots without being aware of the class tensions and ambiguities between the cultivated author and his low-born subjects.

Library of Congress
‘Migrant Mother,’ Nipomo, California, 1936; photographs by Dorothea Lange. Her original caption for this photograph was ‘Destitute peapickers in California; a 32 year old mother of seven children. February 1936.’

Although shepherds and shepherdesses have been in short supply in the United States, versions of pastoral have flourished here. The cult of the Noble Red Man, or, as Mark Twain derisively labeled it, “The Fenimore Cooper Indian” (a type given to long speeches in mellifluous and extravagantly figurative English), is an obvious example. So is the heroizing of simple cowboys, farmers, and miners in the western stories of writers like Bret Harte, the movies of John Ford, and the art of Frederic Remington, Charles M. Russell, Maynard Dixon, and Thomas Hart Benton. Both Uncle Tom’s Cabin and The Grapes of Wrath might be read as pastorals in Empson’s sense. The chief loci of American pastoral have been the rural South and the Far West, while most of its practitioners have been sophisticated easterners for whom the South and West were destinations for bouts of adventurous travel. They went equipped with sketchpads and notebooks in which to record the picturesque manners and customs of their rustic, unlettered fellow countrymen.

Empson noted the connection between traditional pastoral and Soviet propaganda, with its elevation of the worker to a “mythical cult-figure,” and something similar was going on during the New Deal when the Resettlement Administration (which later morphed into the Farm Security Administration) dispatched such figures from Manhattan’s Upper Bohemia as Walker Evans and Marion Post to photograph rural poverty in the southern states. Like a Tudor court poet contemplating a shepherd, the owner of the camera was rich beyond the dreams of the people in the viewfinder, whose images were used by the government both to justify its Keynesian economic policy and to raise private funds for the relief of dispossessed flood victims, sharecroppers, and migrant farm workers. Some, though not all, of the photographers were, like Evans, conscious artists; their federal patrons, like Roy Stryker, head of the information division of the FSA, were unabashed propagandists who judged each picture by its immediate affective power and took a severely practical approach to human tragedy.

Of all the many thousands of photographs that came out of this government-sponsored enterprise, none was more instantly affecting or has remained more famous than Dorothea Lange’s Migrant Mother. Taken in February 1936 at a pea pickers’ camp near Nipomo, seventy miles northwest of Santa Barbara, it was published in the San Francisco News the following month, when it resulted in $200,000 in donations from appalled readers. In 1998, it became a 32¢ stamp in the Celebrate the Century series, with the caption “America Survives the Depression.” For a long while now, I’ve tried to observe a self-imposed veto on the overworked words “icon” and “iconic,” but in the exceptional case of Migrant Mother it’s sorely tempting to lift it.

The picture defines the form of pastoral as Empson meant it, and the closer one studies it, the more one’s made aware of just what a queer and puzzling business it is. A woman from the abyssal depths of the lower classes is plucked from obscurity by a female artist from the upper classes and endowed by her with extraordinary nobility and eloquence. It’s not the woman’s plight one sees at first so much as her arresting handsomeness: her prominent, rather patrician nose; her full lips, firmly set; the long and slender fingers of her right hand; the enigmatic depth of feeling in her eyes.

Even after many viewings, it takes several moments for the rest of the picture to sink in: the pervasive dirt, the clothing gone to shreds and holes, the seams and furrows of worry on the woman’s face and forehead, the skin eruptions around her lips and chin, the swaddled, filthy baby on her lap. As one can see from the other five pictures in the six-shot series, Lange posed two elder children, making them avert their faces from the camera and bury them in the shadows behind their mother, at once focusing our undistracted attention on her face and imprisoning her in her own maternity. It’s a portrait in which squalor and dignity are in fierce contention, but both one’s first and last impressions are of the woman’s resilience, pride, and damaged beauty.

Against all odds, she’s less a figure of pathos than of survival, as the inscription on the postage stamp accurately described her. In 1960, Lange said of the woman that she “seemed to know that my pictures might help her, and so she helped me. There was a sort of equality about it”—a nice instance of Empson’s “beautiful relation between the rich and poor”—which was not at all how her subject remembered the occasion.

In 1958 the hitherto nameless woman surfaced as Florence Thompson, author of an angry letter, written in amateur legalese, to the magazine U.S. Camera, which had recently republished Migrant Mother:

…It was called to My attention…request you Recall all the un-Sold Magazines…should the picture appear in Any magazine again I and my Three Daughters shall be Forced to Protect our rights…Remove the magazine from Circulation Without Due Permission…

Years later, Thompson’s grandson, Roger Sprague, who maintains a Web site called migrantgrandson.com, described what he believed to be her version of the encounter with Lange:

Then a shiny new car (it was only two years old) pulled into the entrance, stopped some twenty yards in front of Florence and a well-dressed woman got out with a large camera. She started taking Florence’s picture. With each picture the woman would step closer. Florence thought to herself, “Pay no mind. The woman thinks I’m quaint, and wants to take my picture.” The woman took the last picture not four feet away then spoke to Florence: “Hello, I’m Dorothea Lange, I work for the Farm Security Administration documenting the plight of the migrant worker. The photos will never be published, I promise.”

Some of these details ring false, and Sprague has his own interest in promoting a counternarrative, but the essence of the passage, with its insistence on the gulf of class and wealth between photographer and subject, sounds broadly right. “The woman thinks I’m quaint” might be the resentful observation of every goatherd, shepherd, and leech-gatherer faced with a well-heeled poet or documentarian on his or her turf.

It also emerged that Florence Thompson was not just a representative “Okie,” as Lange had thought, but a Cherokee Indian, born on an Oklahoma reservation. So, in retrospect, Migrant Mother can be read as intertwining two “mythical cult-figures”: that of the refugee sharecropper from the Dust Bowl (though Thompson had originally come to California with her first husband, a millworker, in 1924) and that of the Noble Red Man. There is a strikingly visible connection, however unnoticed by Lange, between her picture of Florence Thompson and Edward S. Curtis’s elaborately staged sepia portraits of dignified Native American women in tribal regalia in his extensive collection The North American Indian (1900–1930), perhaps the single most ambitious—and contentious—work of American pastoral ever created by a visual artist.

Library of Congress
Gordonton, Person County, North Carolina, July 9, 1939. Lange wrote in her caption for this photograph, ‘Country store on dirt road. Sunday afternoon…. Note the kerosene pump on the right and gasoline pump on the left. Brother of store owner stands in doorway.’

Both Linda Gordon’s Dorothea Lange and Anne Whiston Spirn’s Daring to Look hew to the line that Lange suddenly became a documentary photographer in 1932, when she stepped out of her portrait studio at 540 Sutter Street in San Francisco’s fashionable Union Square and took her Rolleiflex out onto the streets of the Mission District, three miles away, where she began to photograph men on the ever-lengthening breadlines in the last year of Hoover’s presidency. But this is to underplay the importance of the pictures she took from 1920 onward when she accompanied her first husband, Maynard Dixon, on his months-long painting trips to Arizona and New Mexico.

Lange was twenty-four when they married in March 1920, Dixon twenty years older. She was still a relative newcomer to San Francisco, having arrived there from New York in 1918; marrying Dixon, she also embraced his nostalgic and curmudgeonly vision of the Old West. A born westerner, from Fresno, California, he stubbornly portrayed the region as it had been before it was “ruined” by railroads, highways, cities, Hollywood, and tourism. In his paintings, the horse was still the primary means of power and transportation in a land of sunbleached rock and sand, enormous skies, cholla, and saguaro cacti, with adobe as its only architecture and Indians and cowboys its only rightful inhabitants. Although Lange had already established herself as an up-and-coming portrait photographer in San Francisco, her pictures on these trips to the desert were so faithful to her husband’s vision of the West that one might easily mistake many of them for Maynard Dixon paintings in black-and-white.

So she caught a group of Indian horsemen, seen from behind, riding close together across a sweep of empty tableland; a line of Hopi women and a boy, clad in traditional blankets, climbing a rough-hewn staircase trail through the pale rock of the mesa; a man teaching his son how to shoot a bow and arrow; families outside their adobe huts; and somber, unsmiling portraits of Indians whose faces show the same weary resignation to their fate as the faces that Lange would later photograph on the breadlines and in migrant labor camps. It was among the Hopi and the Navajo that she picked up the basic grammar of documentary, with its romantic alliance between the artist and the wretched of the earth.

One photograph stands out from her travels in the Southwest: a radically cropped print of the face of a Hopi man, in which much darkroom cookery clearly went into achieving Lange’s desired effect. At first sight, it looks like a grotesque ebony mask, its features splashed with silver as if by moonlight. Its skin is deeply creased, its eyes inscrutable black sockets. In its sculptural immobility, it appears as likely to be the face of a corpse as of a living being.

Seeing the finished picture, no one would guess the raw material from which Lange made the image as she focused her enlarger in the dark. There’s an uncropped photo of the same man, obviously shot within a minute or two of this one, to be seen in the Oakland Museum of California’s vast online archive of Lange’s work, in which he’s wearing a striped shirt and a bead necklace strung with Christian crosses, and has his hair tied with a knotted scarf around his forehead. His face looks humorous and easygoing; he seems amused to be having his picture taken.

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