Milwaukee Chamber Theatre

Realities Behind the Fiction

Wednesday, February 08, 2012

by Jacque Troy, Education Director/Literary Manager

"There is no single work of art or literature that summarizes the deep concern with poverty in the 1930s. The work of documentary photographers like Walker Evans may come the closest, in part because the unvarnished humanity of their subjects seemed to transcend its historical moment." ~ Dancing in the Dark: A Cultural History of the Great Depression, by Morris Dickstein

When the stock market crashed in October of 1929, no one could have imagined the human suffering, or the governmental ingenuity to aid the American public, that would follow.  By March of 1930, one in every three American workers was without a job.  Due to what many characterized as negligence on the part of President Herbert Hoover, relief wouldn't commence until the election of Franklin Delano Roosevelt in November of 1932.  FDR had campaigned with the promise, "I pledge you, I pledge myself, to a new deal for the American people."  When he took office in March of 1933, the economic remedy he brought with him many jokingly referred to as "alphabet soup."

In what is historically known as FDR's "First Hundred Days," Congress passed a multitude of acts devised to quell widespread economic panic and put people back to work.  Early acts included the RRA, or Reforestation Relief Act, in March of 1933, which would pave the way for the CCC, Civilian Conservation Corps.  It put single young men from poor families to work in parks and national forests. Between 1933 and 1942, across Wisconsin, 25,000 young men's families received relief through their work in the CCC. Milwaukee County projects included Estabrook Park, Honey Creek Parkway, Sheridan Park and Whitnall Park.

Also in 1933, a burgeoning photographer named Walker Evans traveled to Havana during the political unrest in Cuba with a commission to provide illustrations for Carleton Beals' book The Crime of Cuba. There he encountered Ernest Hemingway.  Later critics of these photographs would note, "Even these images of a truly desperate poverty accord their subjects a distance and dignity that remains almost without parallel among photographic documents of human misery."

Continuing his efforts to put all Americans back to work, in April of 1935 FDR signed legislation creating the Works Progress Administration (WPA). Its name was changed in 1939 to the Works Projects Administration. The program employed more than 8.5 million individuals improving or creating highways, roads, bridges, and airports. In addition, the WPA put thousands of artists to work on various projects. One of the most successful and highly publicized WPA projects in Milwaukee provided light manufacturing work for unskilled workers. This project engaged workers in the manufacture of dolls, toys, draperies, furniture, book binding, weaving and textile printing under the supervision of designer-technicians.

At the same time, the Resettlement Administration (RA) was created to relocate those living on poor farmland and in city slums to new communities.  Despite his preference for self-determined artistic endeavors, from mid-1935 to early 1937 Walker Evans worked for a regular salary as a member of the so-called "historical unit" of the Farm Security Administration, formerly the RA. The talented core group of artists provided a photographic survey of rural America, primarily in the South.

During the late summer of 1936, Evans was on leave from the FSA to work for Fortune magazine with writer James Agee on a study of three sharecropping families from Hale County, Alabama. The project never appeared in Fortune, but it was finally published in 1941 as the book Let Us Now Praise Famous Men.

The RA officially changed its name and focus in July of 1937 to the Farm Security Administration (FSA).  FDR hoped the new act of Congress would "combat rural poverty largely by setting up cooperative communities for tenant farmers and other agricultural workers who landowners or Mother Nature had displaced."

In the following year, the Museum of Modern Art in New York City published American Photographs to accompany a retrospective exhibition of Evans' work. "The book's 87 pictures were made between 1929 and 1936 and selected by Evans. It is remarkable that more than a third of the photographs were taken during the brief but astonishingly productive 18 months when Evans was employed by the FSA."

Franklin Roosevelt was elected in November of 1940 to an unprecedented third term as president, undeniably affirming the nation's taste for his "alphabet soup."  In little over a year, following Japan's December 1941 bombing of Pearl Harbor, the U.S. entered the war in the Pacific and in Europe. The war effort jump-started U.S. industry and effectively ended the Great Depression.  Though the revitalization of the American economy was most welcome, unfortunately nearly all of FDR's innovative social and economic programming was treated like bad leftovers soon after.

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