California on the Breadlines: Dorothea Lange, Paul Taylor, and the Making of a New Deal Narrative

California on the Breadlines: Dorothea Lange, Paul Taylor, and the Making of a New Deal Narrative

by Jan Goggans

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California on the Breadlines is the compelling account of how Dorothea Lange, the Great Depression’s most famous photographer, and Paul Taylor, her labor economist husband, forged a relationship that was private—they both divorced spouses to be together—collaborative, and richly productive. Lange and Taylor poured their considerable energies into the decade-long project of documenting the plight of California’s dispossessed, which in 1939 culminated in the publication of their landmark book, American Exodus: A Record of Human Erosion. Jan Goggans blends biography, literature, and history to retrace the paths that brought Lange and Taylor together. She shows how American Exodus set forth a new way of understanding those in crisis during the economic disaster in California and ultimately informed the way we think about the Great Depression itself.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780520945890
Publisher: University of California Press
Publication date: 07/20/2010
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 368
File size: 2 MB

About the Author

Jan Goggans is Assistant Professor of Literature at the University of California, Merced.

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California on the Breadlines

Dorothea Lange, Paul Taylor, and the Making of a New Deal Narrative

By Jan Goggans


Copyright © 2010 The Regents of the University of California
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-520-94589-0


From Belleau Wood to Berkeley

On June 24, 1919, at 4:30 P.M., the University of Wisconsin–Madison conducted a ceremony that set out to do double duty, both a formal tribute to "her Men of the Service and the Dedication of Lincoln Terrace." Sunny skies gave way to a trace of precipitation, and it remained cloudy afterward, with a gentle wind blowing from the northwest. The university's program began with the playing of "Semper Fidelis," followed by assembly of the men of service, the bugle's clear notes likely sustained solemnly by the breeze. A procession to "Stars and Stripes Forever" wound through the campus's Column of Honor and halted at the Lincoln Monument, where the band played "On, Wisconsin." The national anthem preceded an invocation by Bishop Samuel Fallows, class of 1859. Then the university president took the stage, leading the varsity toast and offering a welcome to alumni, soldiers, sailors, and marines. Wisconsin Governor Philipp extended an official welcome, and University Regent Colonel Gilbert Seaman's address, "Our Men in Action Overseas," followed, after which George Haight, class of 1899, delivered a speech entitled "The Alumni Tribute to our Men of the Service."

Finally, the youngest man on the program, Captain Paul S. Taylor, class of 1917, stepped up to the podium. He had arrived home from Europe only two months before. Facing those gathered before him, he gave a short address, beginning with thanks on behalf of all servicemen for the "generous tributes" they had received and informing his listeners that he wished to speak not of what he and other men had done in the war, but of what they could do as citizens of the present and future. He declared that in the war, soldiers had come to know one another "as never before." In such an idea, he transcended decades of regional strife that had in combat been significantly reduced, his words reinforcing the soldiers' experience of solidarity in the eyes of other nations. "We have seen ourselves in foreign countries, among foreign peoples," he stated, asserting that when servicemen became aware of how "others see us," they found "their strengths and weaknesses, and learn[ed] our own." Ultimately, he claimed, the soldiers came back with "a wider, clearer conception of world problems" and a greater awareness of their "responsibilities for their solution."

That solution, which would become a permanent ideology to which he dedicated his life, was collectivity, cooperation, and interdependence: "We have learned how dependent we are upon each other—the man at the front upon the army behind the lines, upon the camps in the States which trained and sent overseas the replacements and reinforcements which staved off defeat and brought final victory, upon the Navy which carried them over, and the dependence of the country upon all of us, and of all of us upon the country." To emphasize his belief in the important message behind that interdependence, he expanded it from the soldiers to those at home, claiming that morale remained high only because "our fellow countrymen and women were determined to make our efforts victorious." He widened this vision to the global scale, pointing out that "only when we completely acknowledged the interdependence of the Allies, one upon the other, and placed Marshall Foch in Supreme Command, did the tide of battle turn in our favor." Such a lesson, he maintained, would take the country and the world forward, leading to a "new world order which is only beginning to be established." In that new world, he urged that all must remember the crucial lesson of the war: "that man is dependent upon man, group upon group, and nation upon nation." To conclude, Taylor urged his listeners to think of the returning soldier not as a hero but as something more important—"as a man, broadened in knowledge and viewpoint, deepened by experience, humanized by intimate association with his brother-man, with stronger convictions of right and justice—a man come back with a strong resolution to be a factor in the guidance of this nation, not for what he can get from it, but for what he can contribute to increasing its peace, honor, and well-being."

Taylor's remarkable speech received a standing ovation from the crowd, and his fiancée, Katharine Whiteside, remembered "how deeply moved everyone was" at the closing line. Then, before the ceremony ended, the university awarded honor medals to those who had survived, and read the Gold Star roll, a long and tragic list of those who had not. One hundred and twenty-five men were on the Gold Star roll that day, and the newly returned captain Taylor knew, intimately, of the kinds of deaths it tallied. His Purple Heart testified to the massacre he had survived at Bouresches-Belleau Wood. When the Germans broke through the French-British front, the French soldiers retreated, leaving the American Marines holding the line. Taylor's battalion, the 78th Company of Marines, arrived around June 5 and received orders the next day to attack and take Bouresches. In letters to his mother, Taylor described shelling and gassing, men being shot by snipers and taken to the dressing station, marines attacking by "running top speed through a hail of machine gun bullets." While he watched some fall, others were trying to crawl away from the bullets, and then, "an interval and another wave rushes across that same bullet-swept area, [and] this time there are even more sheaves of bullets spraying them."

The marines lost the town to the Germans, and the fighting continued. By June 10, confined to a foxhole he shared with his captain, weakened by lack of food and movement, Taylor was unable to talk or eat. He was sent to the first aid station, and when he returned, he found his company being moved back from the front. The Germans attacked two days later, and Taylor's description is vivid and detailed, describing a bombardment of "big stuff, little stuff, gas shells, shrapnel, high explosives, etc.... The woods are torn to pieces." In order to lead his men in the growing darkness, he took off his mask, an action that would end up affecting him permanently. They plunged through the woods, stumbling "over everything, fallen men included," the smell of gas "pungent" and "[c]ries for aid all around." Only after he had secured his men in a safe place did Taylor begin to feel the effects of the gas, and by the time he was at the hospital, he was blind. Ultimately, the battle at Belleau Wood claimed 5,711 official casualties out of a 7,200-man brigade. In Taylor's unit, there was a 90 percent mortality rate, "overwhelmingly from gas, mostly 'mustard' with some phosgene."

Taylor's sight returned, and after the war he moved west and enrolled at the University of California, partially for the health of his lungs, which had also suffered from the gas. He took his M.A. and then brought out his fiancée; marriage followed, then a doctoral degree and a faculty position at the university. In the years afterward, he would learn to put into practice the ideas the war had taught him were most crucial not simply to the quality of life in general, but to every human life: community, interdependence, honor, and integrity. It is this simple but crucial coalescence of the individual experience with the social principle that most distinguishes the work he did in California. He began studying communities of migrant Mexican fieldworkers, first in California and then, for a year, in Mexico. From there, he turned to the self-help cooperatives that had begun to spring up in the state in response to the Great Depression. When conditions in California worsened, the Division of Rural Rehabilitation of the State Emergency Relief Administration asked him to study the growing migrant population. It was an invitation that fit naturally with both his academic experience and his personal philosophy; indeed, his studies of how disenfranchised people learn to structure effective communities inspired work by graduate students. Anthropologist Walter Goldschmidt, who worked with Taylor, would go on to publish groundbreaking work on Arvin and Dinuba, two rural communities in the Central Valley; Clark Kerr, who would go on to become president of the University of California, left Stanford to study self-help cooperatives under Taylor's guidance. Taylor thus had much in common with Rexford Tugwell, the "unconventional economist" who, as head of the Farm Security Administration (FSA), would have such an impact on Taylor's work with Dorothea Lange; indeed, he had much in common with the entire "think tank" of young, liberal Democrats whom Roosevelt enlisted to put the New Deal into effect. Under their guidance, the notion of social justice would grow to encompass a number of specific interests, including agriculture and labor, all creating, in FDR's words, "a genuine period of good feeling sustained by a sense of purposeful progress."

Yet it was in the shambled battlefield that Paul Taylor saw his first glimpse of the new world order he sought to express in his speech that day. And significantly, it was the Great War that Taylor would cite in his oral history as being the thing he could not forget, something "burned into one's memory." Like many soldiers, he sought to put that early experience into some kind of ideology. War, its great losses and heroic tragedies, is often represented as a watershed event that changes a life permanently. For Taylor, it did change his life, moving him in a new direction academically and professionally, relocating him, and, in that relocation, awakening him to new ways of thinking. He told oral historian Suzanne Reiss that the war taught him "to bear a responsibility for the lives of others." The Great Depression and its effect on California farm workers provided for him the conditions to put that ideology into practice.

Academically a labor economist and social scientist, morally a Progressive reformer in the Populist tradition, Taylor believed that his work, a combination of social science reporting and what he termed "nonstatistical notes from the field," could effectively awaken the sleeping moral conscience of a state and a nation, changing their hostility toward California's migrant agricultural workers. It was both the starting point and the goal of his research; he argued tirelessly, never losing hold of his belief in the innate goodness of the American people, a goodness that had been plunged, through whatever circumstances, into social despair and disparagement, yet could be literally re-formed into the "lost" Jeffersonian ideal—a communal and cooperative agriculture that Taylor evoked in his vision of "man ... dependent upon man, group upon group, and nation upon nation." In writing, Taylor followed a recognizable literary pattern, structuring the devastation of the Great Depression as a "fall" from which every individual could be raised, "humanized by intimate association with his brother-man, with stronger convictions of right and justice—a man come back with a strong resolution to be a factor in the guidance of this nation, not for what he can get from it, but for what he can contribute to increasing its peace, honor, and well-being."

In that belief he was joined by a group of thinkers who emerged from World War I believing that catastrophic devastation could create the hope of a new world order and for whom the Crash, and the economic, political, and social conditions that followed, became the mechanism by which to achieve it. A diverse group—artists, filmmakers, authors, photographers—became, in David Peeler's term, "social artists." All struggled to resurrect from the fallen society not simply hope, but a vision of something better, based on what had been there before. Diverse in their influences and methods, they relied on the same ideology and terminology, a "new world order," to articulate the future they insisted should and could rise from the devastation of the Great Depression.


The woman with whom Taylor crafted that vision was, in May 1918 (the same year and month that the battle at Belleau Wood broke out), arriving somewhat circuitously to life in California. After apprenticing in various New York City photography studios, twenty-two-year-old Dorothea Lange had reason to feel confident in her skills, for she had been a diligent student. She had taken classes at Columbia from Clarence White, the famed "soft-focus" photographer and friend of modernist innovator and photographer Alfred Stieglitz. She learned from working in the formal portrait studios of a number of New York photographers: Arnold Genthe, a man named only Kazanjian, and, right before her departure, Charles H. Davis, a photographer whose once-successful portrait studio business ("he did all the Metropolitan Opera singers," Lange remembered) had taken a downturn. Working over a saloon, she recalled, "he had this whole floor where he had—with a good deal of style—his laboratory, and all his drapes, and all his leftover grandeur." It is not clear exactly what Lange's job was, for she says of that winter only that she was "sort of a pet" of Davis's. But from him, she learned a handful of technical tricks, including Davis's stylized notion of how to "pose the model"—with the head, the fingers, even the knees placed in certain ways, "all posed," she remembered later, "and then he would induce the atmosphere, and then he'd photograph." Just as she had been with Clarence White, with Davis she was a "sponge," studying the trade, certainly, but also soaking up the entire idea of photography, learning everything that went into the business of photography and into the making of photographs. After her internship she had more ideas than any one photographer could put to good use, and she and her best friend left the East Coast, thinking they would go around the world. Perhaps she felt that with so much, she could not possibly fail; perhaps her decision to leave was a means of refining and distilling the knowledge, finding out what worked for her. As Lange herself said, "I guess it was just the time that comes in most young people's lives where they just, for some reason or other, know they have to go. I wanted to go away as far as I could go. Not that I was bitterly unhappy at home, or where I was, or doing what I was doing. But it was a matter of really testing yourself out. Could you or couldn't you."

After traveling no further than California, she set up a studio in San Francisco, its main clientele socialites and western money. Marriage to Maynard Dixon, the painter, followed in 1922; then two sons, Dan and John, and then, suddenly, the Crash. The advent of the Great Depression and the absolute shattering of the lives in front of her drove her, literally, out of the studio and into the streets to photograph the human wreckage. The pull was highly urban; her initial photographs were all of displaced workers, strikers, people whose unemployment forced them into idle roaming of the city's streets. The most famous of these, "White Angel Breadline," she took in 1933, when, in her own words, "the discrepancy between what I was working on in the printing frames [in the studio] and what was going on in the street was more than I could assimilate."

Knowing that she had, in the photograph, captured a moment "when time stands still," one that "encompassed the thing generally," Lange titled the photograph after the rich woman, called "White Angel," who had set up a breadline, and the line itself. Lange's choice of topic and title focused on one of the more remarkable symbols of the Great Depression, the breadline. Seen in some ways as a vast agent of democratization, the breadline suggested a shared experience. The fear of hunger, the need for assistance, the difficulty and determination it took to stand in the long lines—all seemed to speak to the common ground on which former millionaires might stand with shoe-shine boys, the two ends of the economic spectrum reduced, but somehow ennobled, by the Crash.

In addition, breadlines spoke to the reality of what the New Deal itself had to address most immediately: food. Even John Steinbeck noted in a letter about a flood in Visalia that "there are about five thousand families starving to death over there, not just hungry but actually starving." Thus, the great political shift that moved the government directly into the lives of citizens in ways unknown in the previous decade may have entered through the kitchen door. The interiors of people's lives, formerly unregulated and certainly not documented, opened for an involved president who was, as one woman said, "the head of the household since he gives me the money." The movement from the kitchen to the breadline, as Lange's photograph structures it, puts the soup kitchen in the role of a maternal and providing figure. Yet, as Meridel Le Sueur was reporting that same year, the breadline was not democratic, and its providing kitchen was not maternal. Indeed, Le Sueur's article "Women on the Breadlines" sets out to demonstrate that despite its title, there were no women on the breadlines. For that very reason Le Sueur was criticized roundly for her "defeatism" by the communist editors of the journal that published it. Implicitly, Le Sueur's stance suggested that narratives about the breadlines needed modification when it was women who stood on them. Without social presence, or power, women were absent from the breadlines and the headlines.


Excerpted from California on the Breadlines by Jan Goggans. Copyright © 2010 The Regents of the University of California. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents


List of Illustrations, xi,
Acknowledgments, xiii,
Prologue: Uncommon Ground, 1,
1. From Belleau Wood to Berkeley, 7,
2. The Magnet of the West, 37,
3. Labor on the Land, 75,
4. Far West Factories, 109,
5. A New Social Order, 153,
6. Women on the Breadlines, 183,
7. An American Exodus, 231,
Conclusion: Can the Subaltern Speak?, 261,
Notes, 269,
Index, 321,

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