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Disaster and Government Response

The Great Depression, the Dust Bowl, and the New Deal

Extension Activities

1: Literature Connection: The Grapes of Wrath

Related works of literature, such as Grapes of Wrath and other texts, are sometimes used in social studies, U.S. history, English language arts, or American literature courses. The following excerpt can be read aloud to the students, and then supplemented and examined with the subsequent activity:

Excerpt from The Grapes of Wrath (Chapter 5), originally published 1939 (Note: this excerpt will be enough for this activity, but for deeper integration of literature, you are encouraged to read the entire section from the book.)

And The squatting men looked down again. What do you want us to do? We can’t take less share of the crop – we’re half starved now. The kids are hungry all the time. We go not clothes, torn an’ ragged. If all the neighbors weren’t the same, we’d be ashamed to go to meeting. And at last the owner men came to the point. The tenant system won’t work, any more. One man on a tractor can take the place of fourteen families. Pay him a wage and take all the crop. We have to do it. We don’t like to do it. But the monster’s sick. Something’s happened to the monster. But you’ll kill the land with cotton.

We know. We’ve got to take the cotton quick before the land dies. Then we’ll see the land. Lots of families in the East would like to own a piece of land. The tenant men looked up alarmed. But what’ll happen to us? How’ll we eat? You’ll have to get off the land. The plows’ll go through the dooryard. And now the squatting men stood up angrily. Grampa took up the land, and he had to kill the Indians and drive them away. And Pa was born here, and he killed weeds and snakes. Then a bad year came and he had to borrow a little money. An’ we was born here. There in the door – our children born here. And Pa had to borrow money. The bank owned the land then, but we stayed and we got a little bit of what we raised.

We know that – all that. It’s not us, it’s the bank. A bank isn’t like a man. Or an owner with fifty thousand acres, he isn’t like a man either. That’s the monster.

Link to longer Grapes of Wrath excerpt, from chapter 5:
http://www-rohan.sdsu.edu/faculty/dunnweb/rprnts.grapesofwrath.html

Following the reading, talk with students about the background of Grapes of Wrath. Why did Steinbeck write it? What was the plot? Ask students to engage with one or more of the following tasks:

  • The excerpt discusses “the monster”: What is the monster? What is the monster today?
  • Find a picture in the collection that echoes a theme that you identified in this excerpt. How did you identify that theme? Why does the photograph represent that theme?

2: Social Studies Connection: Photos, Greenbelts, and Suburbs

Maren Stange’s book Symbols of Ideal Life: Social Documentary Photography in America 1890–1950, states that many of the Farm Security Administration (FSA) photographs showed people who were ”shorn of social and cultural vigor and interest, not only by framing and composition but also by text, caption, and graphic arrangements” (Stange, 1992, p. 129). These people became “symbols of life” in the urban centers, the drought-stricken plains, the fledgling greenbelt towns, and in other regions of the country that were either suffering during the Depression or being assisted by the federal government. The Resettlement Administration (RA) began the efforts to relocate struggling urban and rural families to communities and farms that were developed by the federal government. The RA was folded into the Farm Security Administration after about a year. The focus on urban resettlement was shrunk to the Greenbelt towns, and the FSA turned its focus on rural farmers — mainly in the West. Moving farmers into existing communities was met with resistance because resources were short across the nation. Any influx of new people was seen as a drain on already scarce resources. Additionally, the creation by the government of new towns that would be populated with working poor families was perceived by many as being un-American and a distinct move from capitalism to socialism.

With this as background information, have students think about the planned communities that mushroomed after 1945: Levittown, Pennsylvania, and—even more carefully planned along the lines of the greenbelt towns—Reston, Virginia, and Columbia, Maryland. These were created to help with a population “boom” as World War II ended, and land developers saw an opportunity to create a new place to live: the suburbs.

Have students consider the “pros” and “cons” of suburban living.

  • What are the advantages of having a town developed by the government and of having a suburb developed by a contractor?
  • Why do most towns and cities form in the first place? What are students’ conclusions about the creation and development of town and cities?
  • What place, if any, does the government have in creating a town today?

3: Social Studies Connection: How Photos Were Selected

As mentioned in the introductions of earlier activities, the photographers hired by the FSA were often given scripts and directions to photograph particular groups of people in an effort to correct misconceptions and sway public opinion. The photographers took many photographs that were not shown to the public because they sent a message that was different than was deemed as important. The complexities of social structures had an effect on the selection process. Images were cropped and adjusted. The United States was still largely segregated along racial lines. Historians suggest that 30% to 40% of the images taken by the famous photographer Dorothea Lange were of African Americans, but very few were ever shown to the public.

Gender, and assumptions about family structures and family roles, were also important issues being considered during this period. Photographers paid close attention to how men and women were portrayed and how they were portrayed together. In some cases, men were cut out of family or domestic photographs: a single woman would appeal to middle class viewers, while the presence of an able-bodied man would not create the empathy or compassion that was hoped to be developed by the photographs.

Have students consider why this was the case. Would it be similar or different today?

Additionally, the effects of the Depression were different in rural and urban settings, as well as in the different regions of the United States. The tensions around racial, geographic, gender, and lifestyle lines helped direct the imagery produced by the government-employed photographers. Add to this the emerging use of color photography, and it is easy to imagine the complex decisions that were made when selecting the photographs that would be distributed to the public to help describe the troubles facing the poor, unemployed American in the cities, on the farms, in the West, the East, and the South. If the students can imagine the tensions “pulling” at someone making decisions about which photographs to select, have them consider what criteria they would have created for the selection process. Have them also consider how they could represent all of the citizens in the United States. Encourage them to come up with criteria appropriate for use today, and not to impose their criteria on the people in the 1930s. This should also create a discussion about a theme suggested by the National Council for the Social Studies: “Time, Continuity, and Change.” How have the criteria for selecting photos about people in the United States facing challenges stayed the same since the 1930s? How are they different?

Grade Level

High School

Classroom Connections

Earth and Space Science
English Language Arts
Geography
Literature
U.S. History

Curriculum Snapshot

  • 1930s Dust Bowl and the Greenbelt Plan of Roosevelt’s New Deal

Video Connection

Lives

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