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.

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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 …

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