Date of this Version
Great Plains Quarterly Vol. 1, No. 1, Winter 1981, pp. 70-72.
The Dust Bowl of the 1930s provides an excellent case study of American reactions to a major ecological crisis. By examining carefully how the nation and the region responded to this phenomenon, we could learn valuable lessons to aid in understanding current and future ecological crises. Thus it is of more than antiquarian interest to evaluate these two recent books on the Dust Bowl and the associated events now almost half a century behind us.
Although both authors examine the same area, events, and personalities, their treatment and conclusions are decidedly different. Both focus on the southern plains and devote chapters to description of the landforms, weather, and climate. Both agree that the hardest-hit areas, the heart of the Dust Bowl, included such places as Baca County, Colorado, Morton County, Kansas, and Cimarron County in the Oklahoma Panhandle. Both discuss the early settlement of the southern plains and the droughts there in the 1890s and 1930s; the Great Depression and the planning and programs of the New Deal; major dust storms; dust pneumonia; how the Dust Bowl got its name; and Black Sunday, April 14, 1934, which anyone living in the area at that time remembers, as later generations remember what they were doing at the time of the New York Blackout or the John F. Kennedy assassination. Both mention personalities indelibly associated with the place and times, such as Woody Guthrie, FDR, Harry Hopkins, Rexford Tugwell, Hugh Hammond Bennett, and Howard H. Finnell. Both attest to the steadfast endurance of the people of the plains. The two books are about the same size and length and both contain many fine photographs of dramatic dust storms, drought effects, and dry-farming practices. That is about as far as the similarities go.
Paul Bonnifield, in his forward, asserts that "ultimately the story of the heartland of the dust bowl is the chronicle of hardworking, stouthearted folks who withstood the onslaught of nature at its worst, while living through a devastating depression and facing government idealism." He regards the outcome as a victory for the plains people, "a victory that helps to feed a hungry world and heat our homes."
Donald Worster, in contrast, argues that both the Depression and the Dust Bowl were products of fundamental weaknesses in the traditional culture of America. The Depression was due to a crisis in capitalism and the Dust Bowl was part of the same crisis, brought about "because the expansionary energy of the United States had finally encountered a volatile, marginal land, destroying the delicate ecological balance that had evolved there." Worster does not regard the outcome as a victory. Despite its high standard of living and great productivity in good years, the plains still retain the old economic uncertainties of business farming and, in recent dust storms, the familiar evidence of ecological maladaption. Worster sums up the agriculture that America offers the world as "producing an incredible bounty in good seasons, using staggering quantities of machines and fossil' fuels to do so, exuding confidence in man's technological mastery over the earth, running along the thin edge of disaster." While it would be nice to believe that Bonnifield is correct and Worster wrong, there is no doubt that Worster does a superior job of marshalling his evidence.
Bonnifield's book is based on information gathered in the southern plains, mainly from local newspapers, museums, and libraries, and from interviews with local residents. He recounts a bewildering array of individual dust storms, floods, tornadoes, hailstorms, and invasions by grasshoppers and worms as he skips from place to place, but there is little sense of broader weather patterns or a synthesis of the whole. His tables are not systematic. Wheat yields by counties in southeastern Kansas, 1933-39, annual postal receipts at Spearman, Texas, in 1929 and '30, bank assets at Texhoma, 1930-39, and land prices in Morton County, Kansas, 1936-39, provide the type of evidence used to generalize for the entire region. Bonnifield does not assess the response to the droughts of the 1950s and 1970s.