Carnegie Mellon University

Solidarity, Sympathy, Contempt: The Mythology of Rural Poverty in the Great Depression

Author: Charles Cunningham
Degree: Ph.D. in Literary and Cultural Studies, Carnegie Mellon University, 2001

This dissertation examines the mythology - in the sense Roland Barthes defined - of rural poverty in Great Depression America, from Tobacco Road in the early thirties, to The Grapes of Wrath at the end of the decade.  Focusing primarily on mainstream texts such as magazines, popular fiction, and film, I analyze how representations of the rural poor commented upon and explained both the agricultural crisis of the period and, implicitly, the origins of poverty itself. 

I argue that most of these representations - though usually sympathetic - tended to rely on analytical assumptions that blamed the poor themselves for their condition.  In the process, the results of the poverty-producing character of capitalism were displayed, while the causes were effectively obscured.  I analyze this ideological struggle in Gramscian Marxist terms, arguing that the "consent" of the middling classes - the somewhat more prosperous working and middle-class people - was crucial to capitalist hegemony.  If the middling types saw themselves as either distantly sympathetic or contemptuous of the poor - rather than feeling a more radical solidarity - then the threat to capitalism was minimized.

From a Marxist perspective it is not surprising that mainstream media - the culture industry - did not typically produce criticisms of capitalism, but the Great Depression was not a typical moment in history.  Extraordinary impoverishment, dislocation, unemployment, and underemployment reached deeply into the working and middle classes, and thus could not be readily explained away. 

The economic crisis prompted both an ideological crisis for capitalism and fertile conditions for anti-capitalist politics.  There was an active and relatively large leftist movement in the period that worked for alternatives to capitalism and challenged assumptions about private property and individualism.  Moreover, the standard explanations for poverty - that it was the result of laziness or inherent inferiority in the poor - were unconvincing in the midst of mass impoverishment.  Rural poverty in particular was a site of struggle because the destitution of farmers contradicted the myth of Jeffersonian yeoman democracy, a traditional feature of American exceptionalism; if even farmers could not feed themselves, then the whole social order seemed unstable.  The depth of the crisis also threatened white supremacy, a bulwark of capitalist ideology, because the color of their skin did not prevent large numbers of rural whites from becoming just as poor as poor as their African-American neighbors. 

The project begins with an analysis of Tobacco Road, the best-selling novel by Erskine Caldwell that was adapted into the most popular stage play of its time, breaking the Broadway record for longevity and playing thousands of times across the country in touring companies.  I argue that Tobacco Road had a radical reputation due to Caldwell's leftist sympathies, but was inflected by the logic of eugenics.  Chapter Two examines the ways in which the Southern tenant farmer or sharecropper became famous in the mid-thirties.  Analyzing key newspaper series, one written by Caldwell, and two of the "sharecropper" novels, I show that the predominantly sympathetic accounts of the farm tenant problem implicitly argued against solidarity between readers and poor working-class subjects. 

Chapter Three examines the visual iconization of rural poverty in the popular photo magazines Life and Look, focusing on the "sharecropper" and "Okie" mythologies.  While the magazines' editorial politics appeared to differ from one another significantly, shared assumptions about race and individualism rendered their analyses of poverty effectively the same.  Chapter Four looks more closely at the "Okie" migration, and at John Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath in particular.  I argue that the exclusion of non-whites from the narrative - and the Okie myth - rests paradoxically alongside the novel's detailed critique of capital accumulation and its call for solidarity across traditional boundaries of class status.