Saturday, May 16, 2009

Margaret Bourke-White

On pages 367-368 of American Colossus, I discuss Say, Is This the USA, a collaboration between the photographer Margaret Bourke-White and the writer Erskine Caldwell. I call upon this remarkable book, which was first published in 1941, to show that grain elevators aren't simply symbols of wealth and abundance, but also symbols of misery, poverty and hunger amidst and despite abundance. "This America is a jungle of men living in the extremes of good and bad, heat and cold, wealth and poverty. . . . All these people, all this abundance, all these things, is this America we live in; but none of us knows what to do about it."

"In the midst of grain elevators bulging with food, man dies of hunger; and supplied with whirring looms, he goes without adequate covering against the icy blasts of winter; and surrounded by the products of the best minds of three thousand years, he is so poorly educated that he cannot explain the simplest natural phenomena." (The Salaried Man: The Story, in Two Episodes, of an Every-Day Person, Rand School of Social Science, 1920).

Unfortunately for admirers of Ms. Bourke-White's photographs, one of them (see above) has been mistitled "Smoke Stacks, Great Lakes region, Michigan, 1930." This famous photograph might well have been taken in the "Great Lakes region" in 1930, but it certainly shows grain silos, not smokestacks. Except for Detroit, no port-city in Michigan has ever been known for its grain elevators. It is far more likely that this photograph was taken in Minnesota or another state on the Great Plains.

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