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12. Migrant

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Activities: Context Activities

The Great Depression and the Dust Bowl

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People Living in Miserable Poverty, Elm Grove, Oklahoma County, Oklahoma

[3343] Dorothea Lange, People Living in Miserable Poverty, Elm Grove, Oklahoma County, Oklahoma (1936), courtesy of the Library of Congress [LC-USF34-009695-E].
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The New York Stock Exchange collapse in October of 1929 marked the beginning of the Great Depression, which lasted until America entered World War II in the early 1940s. The longest and most severe economic depression in American history, the Great Depression caused untold economic hardship and great social upheaval throughout the United States and the world. From 1929 to 1932, stock prices fell dramatically in the United States, with many stocks losing over 80 percent of their value. Banks closed, unemployment skyrocketed, and factory and industrial production fell sharply. By 1932 nearly a third of the workforce in America was unable to find jobs. Many Americans lost their savings, their homes, and their livelihoods. Adding to the nation's difficulties, the ecological disaster of the Dust Bowl descended on the Midwest between 1935 and 1939. Constant drought and poor land management led to arid, lifeless growing conditions for struggling farmers and sharecroppers and ruined the little livelihood they had during the depression. Over 300,000 people were forced to leave the afflicted area and migrate to the West to look for employment. The advanced mechanization of industry, factory, and farm work also adversely affected some American workers during this period. Many work functions were taken over by machines, causing widespread worker displacement and relocation. The Great Depression, the Dust Bowl, and other factors caused a massive worker migration to alternate professions and alternate areas of the country. The Great Depression shaped the psyches of an entire generation; those who lived through the depression became acutely aware of the power of broad economic forces to impact individual lives.

The Great Depression helped Franklin Delano Roosevelt, a Democrat, unseat Herbert Hoover to win the presidency in 1932. Roosevelt quickly enacted major legislative initiatives to help Americans endure and recover from the economic downturn. Increased government regulations, extensive public-works projects, and other measures helped bolster public confidence that the economy would pull out of the depression. Roosevelt's "New Deal" included a broad range of legislation, such as the creation of the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC) to protect the savings of individuals, the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) to better regulate the stock market and other areas of investment, and the Federal Housing Administration (FHA) to better ensure the security of mortgages and home loans. The Roosevelt administration also created the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) to provide work relief and jobs to thousands of out-of-work men and the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) to assist with flood control and electricity generation. Nineteen thirty-three saw even more New Deal legislation, including an Agricultural Adjustment Act, a National Industrial Recovery Act, the Rural Electrification Administration, and a much-expanded public works effort, managed by the Public Works Administration. Under Roosevelt's guidance, the National Labor Relations Act and the Fair Labor Standards Act were passed. These two acts guaranteed the rights of workers to organize and bargain through unions and mandated maximum weekly work hours and minimum wages for many types of employees. The Social Security Act of 1935 helped guarantee unemployment insurance, created a retirement program for all American citizens, and instituted mechanisms to provide aid to dependent children. The unique combination of economic stagnation and disillusionment with big business and laissez-faire capitalism allowed Roosevelt to create and enact an impressive series of liberal reforms and social programs to assist a broad spectrum of the American public.

The effects of the depression were far-reaching on the arts in general and on literature in particular. The sense of loss, alienation, and fragmentation that developed after World War I increased. As the energy of the Roaring '20s dissipated, literature reflected new enervation and despair. For example, the lighthearted, optimistic tone of many of F. Scott Fitzgerald's earlier stories is absent from "Babylon Revisited" (1935). The depression also stifled the Harlem Renaissance. As economic resources to support African American writers, musicians, and artists dried up, African American writers and artists became increasingly disillusioned. Such works as Richard Wright's Native Son and Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man reflect this pessimistic outlook.

  1. Comprehension: What were the major effects of the Great Depression on the country?

  2. Comprehension: How did the Dust Bowl worsen conditions for many workers?

  3. Comprehension: What was the Roosevelt administration's response to the Great Depression?

  4. Context: Technology and mechanization helped reduce reliance on unskilled labor in many areas, and many people had to change professions or relocate. At the same time, as the literary works discussed in this unit show, migrant workers were often treated as easily replaceable pieces of equipment and forced to move from location to location. How do the authors in this unit allude to and implicitly or explicitly critique such treatment of humans? You might start with Bulosan's descriptions of Filipino migrants and compare them to the descriptions of Mexican Americans in Vira-montes's and Rivera's works.

  5. Exploration: Viktor Frankl's Man's Search for Meaning suggests that humor can be an important survival strategy. How does American literature develop humor as a strategy for dealing with oppression? Is there a tie between the works of Mark Twain or Flannery O'Connor and those of writers in this unit, such as Rudolfo Anaya or Tomas Rivera?

[2944] Anonymous, Aaron Douglas with Arthur Schomburg and the Song of Towers Mural (1934),
courtesy of the Arthur Schomburg Photograph Collection, Photographs and Prints Division, Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, The New York Public Library, Astor, Lenox, and Tilden Foundations.
Aaron Douglas was commissioned to paint murals for the New York Public Library under the Works Progress Administration. This mural represents the massive migration of African Americans from the South to the urban North during the early twentieth century.

[3334] Anonymous, The Trading Floor of the New York Stock Exchange Just After the Crash of 1929 (1929),
courtesy of the National Archives and Records Administration [1930-67B].
Photograph taken from above the stock exchange floor. The crash and ensuing depression brought many expatriate artists back to the United States and diverted the focus of some away from wealth and luxury.

[3343] Dorothea Lange, People Living in Miserable Poverty, Elm Grove, Oklahoma County, Oklahoma (1936),
courtesy of the Library of Congress [LC-USF34-009695-E].
In The Grapes of Wrath Steinbeck depicts the life of Oklahoma farmers during the Dust Bowl, when terrible droughts killed crops and pushed families like the Joads west to California seeking better land and a better life.

[4792] Arthur Rothstein, Farm Sale, Pettis County, Missouri (1939),
courtesy of the Library of Congress [LC-USF33-003448-M2].
Rothstein began his photography career while at Columbia University. After graduation, he became the first staff photographer for the Farm Security Administration. He is known mainly for his Dust Bowl images. By documenting the problems of the depression, he helped justify New Deal legislation. He went on to be a photographer for and director of Look magazine. As a child, author Tomas Rivera traveled throughout the Midwest with his parents, who were migrant farm laborers.

[4791] Arthur Rothstein, Erosion on a Missouri Farm (1936),
courtesy of the Library of Congress [LC-USF34-001875-E].
Historian Donald Worster's book Dust Bowl opened people's eyes to the human causes of the Dust Bowl of the 1930s. Now ranked among the greatest manmade ecological disasters, the Dust Bowl worsened the effects of the Great Depression.

[5158] Ben Shahn, Men Loafing in Crossville, Tennessee (1937),
courtesy of the Library of Congress [LC-USF33-OO6224-M4 DLC].
Unemployed men outside storefront in rural Tennessee during the Great Depression. Eventually, New Deal programs like the Civil Conservation Corps put many back to work on national projects such as road building and maintaining national parks.

[5935] Dorothea Lange, Depression (1935),
courtesy of the National Archives and Records Administration.
Unemployed man leaning against vacant storefront with "for lease" signs. Many lost their jobs and savings during the Great Depression. New Deal photographer Dorothea Lange captured images of the hardships during this time.

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