Book Review: Dust Bowl, USA: Depression America and the Ecological Imagination, 1929-1941 by Brad Lookingbill
During the 1930s, the American Midwest region witnessed one of its most acute agricultural droughts in the history of the nation. But this tragic event does not get as much attention as it deserves in history textbooks. The main reason for this is its coincidence with the Great Depression that precipitated in 1929 with the stock market crash and continued into the next decade. The sweep and magnitude of the Great Depression was such that it overwhelmed attention to an equally catastrophic drought unfolded in several states in the Midwest. Hence the main purpose of Brad Lookingbill is to fill a perceived deficiency in scholarship pertaining to this event.
Lookingbill does a satisfactory job of covering the basis causes and the most prominent consequences of the event. As for the causes, Lookingbill identifies expansive and exploitative farming techniques and strategies as a major cause. In particular, it is the technology of mass-production, innovations in irrigation and unprecedented conservation programs that gradually led to the drought situation. The impact of the drought was such that vast areas in the Midwest were converted into deserts, irredeemably deeming them unfit for crop cultivation and human habitation.
The pioneers and frontiers
Superstition was rife when the Dust Bowl phenomenon took place. Lookingbill treats the superstitions surrounding the event in detail and demystifies some of them. One popular perception at the time was that the drought was brought about by divine curse. Right wing politicians, amply aided by the clergy, propagated the view that the drought was the symbol of a fallen civilization. The citizens were criticized (quite unjustly) for their immoral acts that invoked the wrath of God. Lookingbill treats proponents of such rumors and falsities with deserved contempt.
One of the insights offered by Lookingbill is how the adversity of the great drought and desertification was used as material for art. Based on the themes of drought, economic despair, mass migrations, etc several important novels, paintings, country songs were produced. John Steinbeck’s great novel The Grapes of Wrath is a classic example that treated the effects of the Great Depression and the Dust Bowl at great length. Likewise, country music of the time reflected the pathos of the rural Midwest of the 1930s. To Lookingbill’s credit he does survey and refer novels, plays, periodicals, newspapers, government releases, personal and official correspondences relating to the period and offers a coherent analysis.
Much as the subject matter is about a public policy and civil planning failure, Lookingbill does not forget to highlight the heroic aspect. For example, though the Dust Bowl wreaked havoc to the lives and livelihoods to a sizeable population, there are those who survived it through their ingenuity and industry. The book pays due homage to examples of brave people who came through the crisis stronger than before. This is evidence of the book’s patriotic and nationalist strand, although the book doesn’t expressly promote a particular political ideology.
In conclusion, the book has several merits and only a few demerits. The simple and clear prose makes it accessible to even readers of moderate language proficiency. More than being merely a straight forward presentation of facts, the book excels in showcasing an informed discourse on the environment. Concepts such as natural equilibrium and the systematic causes behind environmental disasters are sought with the help of scientific knowledge. The research is generally robust and thorough. There are hardly instances of the author passing off his opinions as fact. If there is any bias to be witnessed at all, it is in omission rather than commission. In other words, the choice of topics and their theses are contrived in some cases. Even the broadest thesis undertaken by the book – to relate the economic crisis with the ecological distress – is not satisfactorily supported by the weight of arguments. Barring this drawback, the book offers value as a compendium of historical facts. The fact that the Dust Bowl crisis was not given equal scholarly attention as the Great Depression justifies the necessity of Lookingbill’s work. It is a useful addition to the public libraries and universities in the country.
Lookingbill, Brad. Dust Bowl USA: Depression America & Ecological Imagination, 1929-1941. Published by Ohio University Press in 2001. ISBN 978-0-8214-1375-3.