Witnesses to the Struggle: Imaging the 1930s California Labor Movement.
By Anne Loftis. Reno: University of Nevada Press, 1998. Photos, illustrations, bibliography, notes. xii + 239 pp. $29.95 cloth.
Reviewed by John Putman, Lecturer, Department of History, San Diego State University and doctoral candidate at the University of California, San Diego.
If asked to comment on what most stands out in their minds about the United States during the 1930s, most Americans would likely point to the warm and confident Franklin Delano Roosevelt, to the long breadlines filled with millions of unemployed citizens, or perhaps, to the ecologically devastating Dust Bowl. Fewer, however, would recognize that this era, marked by astounding unemployment rates, witnessed some of the most profound episodes of class consciousness and labor-capital conflict since the early decades of the industrial revolution. In Witnesses to the Struggle, Anne Loftis reminds us that California, despite its reputation as the dream capital of the nation, also teemed with class struggle. Ironically, she notes, this period also produced an explosion of creative works by California artists, writers, and social scientists who found inspiration in this social, political, and economic milieu. Witnesses to the Struggle explores the overlapping worlds of California laborers and the artists and writers who exposed to the entire nation the workers’ struggles. In particular, Loftis is interested in how and why the troubles of California workers, especially those who labored in the fields, sparked the imagination of writers and photographers like John Steinbeck, Carey McWilliams, and Dorothea Lange, and how these artistic figures interpreted and refracted the plight of labor to the outside world. These “artists” were more than “witnesses to the struggle” but largely responsible for burning these images — through word and pictures — into our collective minds, then and now.
Readers longing for insight into California labor relations, the history of major depression-era strikes, or working-class culture might be disappointed. This study is neither traditional labor history nor literary analysis. Loftis’ focus is on the writers, investigators, and photographers who brought these events and conditions to life. Since it is the work and interpretation of these observers that direct her study, agricultural, not industrial, workers take center stage. Despite the more well-known violent confrontation that took place on the San Francisco waterfront in 1934, it was the highly-exploited, vulnerable, yet resilient farm workers who captured the hearts and minds of Steinbeck, Lange, and others. What is remarkable, Loftis argues, is that though these various writers and artists did not see themselves as a group, “they gave a collective strength to the voice of dissent that in the past had been raised by lone individuals within the state.”
While many people are familiar with John Steinbeck’s story of the Joad family in his best-selling novel, The Grapes of Wrath, Loftis also introduces us to the important work of contemporary social scientists like Paul Taylor and Clark Kerr from the University of California, Berkeley. Their earlier investigations not only amply documented the terrible conditions agricultural laborers faced, but provided the fodder for the artistic interpretations that followed. Another strength of this study is the author’s exploration of the fertile and rich intellectual milieu of 1930s California. The Bohemian colony of Carmel-by-the-Sea served as a kind of radical sanctuary where the Taylors and Langes could rub elbows with, and be nourished by, longtime social critics like Lincoln Steffens. This unique environment shaped the thoughts of some of the writers almost as much as did their contact with agricultural laborers.
Charting new ground, as Loftis attempts in this unique study, almost always opens one to criticism. Regarding the substance of this work this reviewer finds little with which to quibble. Its organization, however, did seem to undermine its effectiveness at times. The rough chronological organization sometimes made it difficult to follow the evolution the writers and artists underwent during this period. John Steinbeck, for example, might have been easier to follow had the author not separated his early experiences in writing In Dubious Battle from his masterful work, The Grapes of Wrath.
The key role of the government in this history was one issue left underdeveloped. Nearly every writer, investigator, or photographer was supported by either the federal or state government in their endeavors. One wonders whether Steinbeck’s novel would have been the same had he not worked for the federal government’s Resettlement Administration during the 1930s, or whether we would see this period in the same way without Lange’s compelling images taken while working for the Farm Security Administration. Not only did Americans benefit from the New Deal and the enlarged government presence during the 1930s, but sixty years later, as Witnesses to the Struggle makes clear, we still reap its benefits every time we flip through the pages of The Grapes of Wrath or reflect on the feelings invoked by Lange’s famous photograph of the Migrant Woman.