When the anthology Popular Eugenics: National Efficiency and American Mass Culture in the 1930s was published in 2006, one contribution struck a discordant note. While the other essays typically targeted monstrosities such as sterilisation programmes and the Nazi "racial hygiene" exhibit that, surprisingly, and with quasi-official approval, toured the US until 1943, Stephen Fender showed how the Federal Writers' Project (FWP) - posthumously lauded as a social-democratic hothouse for literary talent - resorted to eugenic discourse in its representations of poor whites.
Fender's myth-busting has now been expanded to an entire monograph; whenever a tin-eared anthropologist interprets the everyday speech of "poor white trash" and distorts the archival record, Fender intervenes with instinctive scepticism, perhaps drawn from the proportion of his youth spent working alongside post-Second World War "Okies". During the Depression, this label stuck to the westbound migrants leaving Oklahoma and neighbouring states who were widely thought of as refugees from an expanding dust bowl. Nature, Class, and New Deal Literature sets out to interrogate and debunk the notion of the dust bowl itself by demonstrating how one of the key natural problems of the 1930s turned out to be what subsequent sociological parlance would call socially constructed. Soil erosion impacted unevenly on a large geographical region, but officialdom chose to characterise rural unemployment as a form of human erosion. As agricultural restructuring and bank-led farm foreclosures devastated already precarious communities of sharecropper farmers, some of the cultural workers employed by the Roosevelt administration portrayed nature as the main instigator of these drastic changes.
It became commonplace to recast 1930s rural economic problems as the products of an episodically hostile natural environment. This argument helped policymakers to sidestep the seemingly permanent poverty of Southern whites, which affronted the belief that US national identity was based on material self-improvement. Unfortunately, the humane and defensive impulse behind this trope of human erosion soon fuelled pseudoscientific theories of organic community and eugenic sentiments. Fender's critique implies that, faced with poor whites, the elitist undercurrents of New Deal thought proved inconsistent with, and corrosive of, its progressive aspirations.
Time and again, unfortunate choices - if not deliberate bad faith - play a role in maligning the "country poor". Archival material tells us that left-leaning managers of Resettlement Administration camps had a fastidious preoccupation with how, when and where their temporary guests would wash and fornicate; Farm Security Administration photographers incorporated their own victim-centric political baggage into writing simple photo captions; FWP attempts to transcribe ordinary speech seemed in thrall to the grotesque banter found in the fiction of Erskine Caldwell. John Steinbeck's underrated novel In Dubious Battle (1936) describes a fruit-workers' strike in California falling apart owing to human nature, despite being written against a backdrop of similar yet victorious multi-ethnic labour disputes. Difficulties also arose when dealing with the influence of Christian evangelicals on transit camp life because the other camp residents were treated as having no subjective agency of their own.
Interestingly, official treatment of folk music serves as an exception that confirms the broader target of Fender's polemic. Obliged to be "socially useful", government cultural projects set out to record what they saw as a disappearing way of life. Sometimes this led them to deliberately exclude, in the name of authenticity, the commercial music that entertained the Okies, who in turn modified popular songs during performance on the road and in the camps. New Deal public projects struggled to assimilate the white rural poor; Fender identifies this common failing in fiction, anthropology, documentary writing, photography and film. At its heart, managing the lives of impoverished Southern migrants was predicated on denying the possibility of them having a viable culture of their own.
Nature, Class, and New Deal Literature: The Country Poor in the Great Depression
By Stephen Fender. Routledge, 231pp, £80.00. ISBN 9780415896788. Published 25 August 2011