THE AMERICAN WEST (mostly): Fact and Fiction (mostly fiction)

"NOBODY GETS TO BE A COWBOY FOREVER." -- Chet Rollins (Jack Palance) in MONTE WALSH (NG, 1970)

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Sunday, July 12, 2015

YOU HAVE SEEN THEIR FACES by Erskine Caldwell and Margaret Bourke-White

The sharecropping system was born of the plantation system, and the new was anything but an improvement over the old. The old produced numerous families of wealth who developed a culture that was questionable. The new concentrated wealth in the hands of a few families who are determined that no culture shall exist. -- Erskine Caldwell, You Have Seen Their Faces (Viking Press, 1937)

The idea for this book originated with Erskine Caldwell, who wanted "to show that the fiction I was writing was authentically based on contemporary life in the South." Needing a photographer to accompany him on a tour of the South to document through words and pictures the lives of southern tenant farmers, his agent suggested Margaret Bourke-White, already famous for her photos that had appeared in Fortune and Life.

During the summer of 1936 and early 1937, the two traveled from South Carolina to Arkansas interviewing and photographing poor white and black tenant farmers and their families.

Historian Alan Trachtenberg writes in the introduction of my copy of the book that when it was first published that it "struck viewers as a new kind of book, one in which pictures appeared on an equal basis with words" and that through Caldwell's prose and Bourke-White's images it can be viewed as "a long-lost moment of artistic protest against economic injustice and suffering" and that "whatever shortcomings new readers may find in the book, its evidence of a passion for justice joined with a passion for artistic communication makes an irresistible claim on our respect." As such, it was very much considered to be radical for its time.

Readers then and now have been confused by Caldwell's fiction. While he claimed to sympathize with the poor sharecroppers and their families, he nevertheless seemed to be poking fun at them in his novels. Readers searching for stories about the suffering of the noble poor during the Great Depression had to look elsewhere. The poor in Caldwell's novels were anything but noble.

So, what was his personal opinion of poor sharecroppers? And who did he really blame for their poverty and their ignorance?

The answer to those questions may not be clear in his novels, but he makes it crystal clear in this book. It was the landowners, he wrote, "who are to be held responsible, and in the end to be called upon to answer for the degeneration of men as well as the rape of the soil in the South."

Conversely, the sharecroppers, the people who shared in the risk, but not the control, "are the wasted human beings whose blood made the cotton leaves green and the blossoms red. To the cost of raising cotton add the value of lives."

Many of the Bourke-White photos that appear in the book can be viewed at the link below along with some that appeared in Agee and Evans' Let Us Now Praise Famous Men:

Erskine Caldwell
Margaret Bourke-White

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