Encyclopedia of the Great Plains

David J. Wishart, Editor


During the 1930s a number of literary texts illustrated drought, dusters, and economic depression through powerful stories and contributed to aesthetic movements for social realism and cultural regionalism.

John Steinbeck's 1939 novel, The Grapes of Wrath, inspired the nation with its tale of a tenant-farm family, the Joads, who lost their home in eastern Oklahoma and searched for a more promising land in California. The novel accentuated human dignity and courage against a mechanistic, exploitative social system. In 1937 Frederick Manfred wrote the first draft of his novel The Golden Bowl, which was published in 1944. He portrayed a spirited resistance to fate in the Northern Plains by focusing on Maury Grant, a wandering protagonist who returned to the Dust Bowl and started the cycle of conquest again. After embracing his fate, he and the Thors, a mythic family holding onto a dying land, refused to abandon their homestead.

Set within Kansas during the late nineteenth century, John Ise's Sod and Stubble: The Story of a Kansas Homestead (1936) recounts a familial story of remarkable heroism against drought, grasshoppers, fires, dust storms, and economic depression. Women homesteaders in the Dakotas are featured in Edith Kohl's mixed autobiography and novel, The Land of the Burnt Thigh (1938).

Lawrence Svobida, a western Kansas farmer turned author, recounted a cautionary tale in his 1940 autobiography, An Empire of Dust. Though his wheat farm failed to survive the dust storms and adverse climate, Svobida worked incessantly to win a harvest and to keep the land from blowing away. The story underscores frustration and pride, but it ends in failure.

Paul Sears, a botanist at the University of Oklahoma, authored the most significant ecological text of the decade. Alarmed by the violent dust storms raging across the continent, in Deserts on the March (1935) he explained how the rapid conquest of North America had upset the balance of nature. If the nation was headed down such a slippery slope, Sears argued, then the assumptions of frontier progress required reexamination.

Kenneth Porter's prose and poetry, which lament the failures embodied in a dust cloud over Kansas, appeared in a number of magazines in the 1930s. After the Dust Bowl conditions faded from the landscape, Lois Phillips Hudson's The Bones of Plenty (1962) and Reapers of the Dust (1964) reinvented empty land, solid inhabitants, and frontier myths for subsequent generations. Ann Marie Low's Dust Bowl Diary (1984) recalls the difficulties of farm life in North Dakota.

Dust bowl literature thus illuminates the human fight against extreme temperatures, soil erosion, agricultural maladjustment, and swirling winds. While the crisis exposed the nation to a range of anxieties, literature was a vehicle that could bring the Dust Bowl into the experiences of readers outside the region. Limning a powerful landscape in national memory, Dust Bowl literature invented an enduring iconography for the Great Plains.

See also FILM: The Grapes of Wrath / MUSIC: Guthrie, Woody / PHYSICAL ENVIRONMENT: Dust Bowl.

Brad Lookingbill Columbia College

Lookingbill, Brad. "The Living and the Dead Land: The Great Plains Environment and the Literature of Depression America." Heritage of the Great Plains 29 (1996): 38– 48.

Quantic, Diane Dufva. The Nature of the Place: A Study of Great Plains Fiction. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1995.

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