PRINT March 1974


Documentary Expression and Thirties America

William Stott, Documentary Expression and Thirties America (New York: Oxford University Press, 1973), 361 pages, 64 black-and-white illustrations.

William Stott’s new study is a strong and welcome antidote to the partial oblivion that still besets our consciousness of the thirties. Although not primarily concerned with the visual arts as such, the author’s analysis of the documentary mentality that affected a host of activities during the period—sociological studies of class and caste, radio news, “on the road”-style fiction or autobiography—will provide art historians with a “feel” of the times which should stimulate a wider range of questions to be asked of the visual arts “as such.”

A “document,” in the Depression era, was not a “dry” statistic or compilation of statistics, but a “human” fact or story that would “convey a living experience you won’t forget” (as Edward Steichen said about the work of the Farm Security Administration photographers). Documentary genres—press report of strike, radio news of flood, photos of the Dust Bowl—addressed themselves to “remediable situations,” and often battled for the redress of social wrongs . They could be politically effective: Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath (which originated as a Life photo journalism project) led to improvements in conditions for the migrant; Edward R. Murrow’s “This is London” broadcasts helped to quash Isolationist feeling in America and, specifically, to blunt the edge of anti British sentiment. Impatient with the printed message, and suspicious generally of the “rich man’s press,” people looked to the still and moving image and the radio report for information they could trust. The assembled facts had to be unremittingly “particularistic,” as Stott says admiringly of Murrow. And they had to discern and magnify the virtues of the common man: in thirties documentary, the aristocratic, Anglo-Saxon heroes of twenties reportage and fiction are scrapped in favor of heroes drawn from the people, and celebrated in all of their ethnic diversity. Stott acknowledges that social documentary, since it is governed by the need to be affecting and provocative, may sentimentalize—even badly sentimentalize—the subject at hand. In any event, it is not a random or encyclopedic enumeration of what is, but an artful reworking of the raw materials, “a genre as distinct as tragedy, epic, or satire.”

For audiences craving the particular and the believable, radio was the preferred medium. The human voice transmits less information than the printed page, but it is confidential, personal, warm—it can arouse emotion and even a fervid vicarious participation. In one celebrated case (the Orson Welles “War of the Worlds” broadcast) it demonstrated its power to arouse listeners to alarm, panic, even suicide—a claim that could hardly be made for printed headlines. In the hands of a master, its political ramifications were awesome: Roosevelt’s “Fireside Chats,” nourished by “on the spot” reports and flavored by personal observation and recollection, made the President, as H. G. Wells put it, “the most effective transmitting instrument possible.” Stott sympathetically contrasts FDR’s concrete approach to social problems to the theorizing of Left and Right, and divines in him a strong faith in the dignity of the individual. Referring to the President’s decision to send food to Greenland, ostensibly prompted by the view of photographs of the Eskimos and “the very interesting life they are living,” Stott asserts: “it would seem that people lived for Roosevelt and. that their existence, their just being, mattered more than anything one might make of them or that they might do.”

A word of caution at this point. Stott is evidently somewhat allergic to radical analyses of social structure, associating them, I think, with the malignant uses to which Marxist dialectic has been put in totalitarian countries. This, at any rate, is the implication I derive from these sentences:

To Roosevelt, people appear to have counted more than ideas. As a politician, he many times had to sacrifice men for reasons of expediency, but he seldom sacrificed them—as Hoover had, as many radicals stood ready to do—in the interest of ideals, however sacred, inviolable, necessary, efficient, or rational these appeared.

But the particular focus of Roosevelt’s humanitarian concerns was sharpened or dulled by his commitment to the “ideal” of national survival or supremacy: as Stott himself points out, food for the Eskimos was intimately related to the fortification of Greenland against a possible German invasion. And the President’s later confinement of Japanese-Americans was not tempered by an appreciation for “their just being.”

In his discussion of the WPA, Stott presents a useful summary of the Index of American Design project, in which commercial artists were trained, like Egyptologists, to make meticulous watercolor copies, not of a nobleman’s banquet, but of accordions, adzes, anchors, andirons, augers, and of waffle irons, washboards, watering cans, whirligigs, windlasses. “What was insisted upon,” Holger Cahill recollected, “was strict objectivity, accurate drawing, clarity of construction, exact proportions, and faithful recording of material, color, and texture so that each Index design might stand as surrogate for the object.” The Design Index project was a visual counterpart to the mammoth American Guide Series, which presented terse, specific information on cities and towns across the land, usually phrased to extoll forgotten heroes of the people, and to dismiss members of the Anglo-Saxon oligarchy. The egalitarian and participatory mood was so great that Aaron Copland entered (and won) a competition sponsored by the New Masses in 1934 for a “proletarian marching song” to accompany the annual May Day rally in Union Square, and to be based on a poem entitled “Into the Streets May 1!” And musicologists like John Lomax took their recording equipment to outdoor markets in Harlem, or into prison yards in the Deep South.

In discussing these and other examples of the opening up of the cloister of art and history to popular genres with their own long traditions and strong purposes, Stott refers to the fraternal, expansive mood of the time: “The thing that held American society together in the thirties was not documentary, though documentary gave it occasion to take hold. It was imagination with a strong fellow feeling; it was human sympathy.” But he then adds: “This is a delicate matter to talk about. One risks the glib sentimentality that pervades writing of the thirties.” The matter is “delicate,” of course, for other reasons as well. Some of that warm camaraderie disintegrated in the fissures and antagonisms that developed in the radical Left, endowing participant-survivors with long and unforgiving memories. McCarthyism, which called upon survivors to recant, or to present evidence against former associates, stimulated an allergic reaction against the thirties on the part of some former activists. Even today, scholarship continues to feel the chill: Daniel Aaron, author of Writers on the Left, was impeded in his efforts to compile writings that would accurately reflect the thirties mood by authors who refused republication rights to articles which they had disavowed. The projected republication of Art Front, an invaluable source of information about radical sentiment among artists in the period 1934–37, has evidently been suspended indefinitely for the same reasons.

In an interesting discussion of the respective merits of Margaret Bourke-White, Dorothea Lange, and Walker Evans, Stott presents his own criteria for the evaluation of the documentary book—that thirties specialty which blended word and image. This portion of Stott’s work is both the most intriguing, for art historians and critics, and the most debatable. The author comes down hard on the collaborative effort of Bourke-White and Erskine Caldwell, You Have Seen Their Faces, because the captions accompanying the photographs were made up after the fact by the authors, and both photos and text, he thinks, were designed to wring the last ounce of empathy from the audience. Bourke-White’s intentions are “blatant on every page,” says Stott; one sees “people at their most abject,” when “no dignity is left them.” The reader is left with the impression that it is the malevolent photographer who is stripping the subjects of dignity, and that the Dust Bowl can and should be exonerated. The Paul Taylor-Dorothea Lange collaboration, An American Exodus, is more esteemed by Stott, since the photo captions are authentic, not concocted, and their “dry, almost truculent tone” is “more credible and more seemly than the abject despair Caldwell and Bourke-White forced on their subjects.” Stott’s language is peculiar, and revealing: despair is “forced” upon the subjects not by the Depression but by the manipulating artists, and its expression is “unseemly.” Although Lange and Taylor avoid Bourke-White’s pitfall, Stott seems to balk at the pragmatic purpose of their book: they “tried to modify the future; and, more than the other documentary teams, they succeeded.” But the desire to “modify the future” is a lesser goal, Stott seems to believe, than that of discovering eternal verities. For this reason, he much prefers the James Agee-Walker Evans collaboration, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, where the artists dwell upon the “beauty” of their subjects, and understate the elements of pity which might lead to anything as banal as amelioration. I fully agree with Stott that Evans’ photographs are among the masterpieces of the documentary genre, or any other, and that Agee’s writing is luminous. But I am unhappy with the drift of Stott’s argument, by which he slowly induces the reader to assume a nearly mystical reverence for human life in the abstract, at the expense of that particularity and sense of reformist urgency that the thirties were all about, and that Agee and Evans were part of. His search for images that understate, or even refute, the elements of wretchedness in the human condition leads him to make the astonishing claim that a photograph omitted by Evans from both the 1941 and 1960 editions may be the “classic photograph” of the book (it is a group portrait of the “Gudger” family, and appears on Stott’s cover). It was omitted, Stott thinks, because it was too affirmative to suit thirties purposes: “This George Gudger needs no one’s pity: he is the master of the brood and relishes his fortune.” This is most strange, to see a historian praise a book particularly for a world-view—an optimistic, timeless one, detached from social concerns—which neither author possessed at the time.

We are later informed, in Stott’s conclusion, that the message of Agee and Evans was that “suffering, whatever its cause, could not be prevented and could be redeemed, if at all, only by redeeming consciousness.” The word “redeeming” joggles our eye back to a preceding sentence, in which the author asserts that “the destruction of the ideal of a Christian anti-Communism” since President Kennedy’s alleged proclamation of that “ideal” makes the climate right, today, for an appreciation of the timeless values of Let Us Now Praise Famous Men.

Stott’s book is an impressive example of the benefits of an interdisciplinary approach, and the author’s voracious curiosity should stimulate art historians to look outside their own preferred media and genres for information pertinent to those media and genres. One of the useful side-effects of the book may be our sharper consciousness that there is no such thing as the visual arts “as such”—each human effort is interlaced with another, and embedded in the fabric of its time. Considering the importance of Stott’s achievement, then, it is particularly disappointing—even “bitterly disappointing,” if I may borrow the language of the thirties—to see this gifted author reduce a work as subtle and individualistic as that of Agee and Evans to the level of a homily.

Carl Baldwin