The Worst Hard Time

The Worst Hard Time

by

Timothy Egan

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Themes and Colors
Westward Expansion and the Settlement of the Southern Plains Theme Icon
Anglo Culture and Racism Theme Icon
Economic Hardship and Lessons of the Great Depression Theme Icon
The City vs. the Country Theme Icon
Environmental Devastation and the Dust Bowl Theme Icon
LitCharts assigns a color and icon to each theme in The Worst Hard Time, which you can use to track the themes throughout the work.
Anglo Culture and Racism Theme Icon

As a boy, Melt White was treated as though he did not belong. Children teased him for his dark skin, “which seemed too full of the sun.” When he finally learned about his Cherokee and Apache heritage, his aunt warned him to keep it a secret. Melt was a “cowboy” who was also “an Indian.” His internal strife was symbolic of the historical discord between Anglo Texans (that is, white Texans) and the tribes they displaced. Melt and his father, Bam White, attributed the Dust Bowl to misuse of the land, believing that God had not created it “to be plowed up.” It was, instead, “for Indians and buffalo.” “Anglos,” who had sought to exploit the land beyond what it could give to reap maximum profit, had not only destroyed the lives of the people who had first inhabited Texas, but had also nearly caused their own demise. Egan writes about how the values of Anglo culture were not only callous toward indigenous people and driven by profit, but also how those values were incompatible with the land and its natural capabilities.

The promise of Manifest Destiny drew scores of Anglos to the Great Plains, but many did not arrive with an attitude of respect and cooperation. Instead, they sought to impose their own values of commerce, racial separation, and agricultural exploitation—all of which, in combination, devastated both the land and its inhabitants. The Anglos who settled Texas came into conflict with the Comanche, themselves a migratory people who had originally come from eastern Wyoming. In the local newspaper, the Dalhart Texan, the new settlers had been hailed as “the highest type of Anglo Saxon ancestry,” though they were actually refugees. Others were European immigrants and Southerners whom speculators courted at ports of entry. Whatever their precise origins, all of the white Texan settlers were uniformly hated by the Comanche due to their united effort to drive its original people off of the land.

First, the Anglos killed the bison. Anglo hunters disregarded the Medicine Lodge Treaty of 1867, which had promised “hunting rights to much of the Great American Desert, the area south of the Arkansas River.” The land was mostly arid grasslands in the west where the tribes could hunt bison. Seeing a market in hides and horns in the East, the Anglo hunters “invaded the treaty land” and “killed bison by the millions.” It took ten years to eliminate them completely. The Comanche, Kiowa-Apache, and Kiowa tribes depended on bison for food and clothing and used their dried turds for heating fuel. With the bison gone, the Comanche were left to wander the prairie until they died. The Anglos had succeeded in seizing the land—but they then had to decide what to do with it.

With the Comanche gone, land sellers advertised it as virgin territory—a “wasteland” that, if plowed properly, “could be England or Missouri.” They offered 500,000 acres “for sale as farm homes” with “the land selling for thirteen dollars an acre.” Agents went to Kansas City twice a month, rounded up people to put on a train at no charge, and sent them to the Texas Panhandle to see what the land offered. What it offered was a dream of prosperity, fostered largely by imaginative advertising. The land would never be as lush as that in England or Missouri, but that did not matter. What mattered was that some of the day-trippers from Missouri believed that it could yield such potential.

Not everyone was welcome in the southern Great Plains, however. Aside from the indigenous people, who were regarded as an inconvenience to be eradicated quickly from the territory, black people were also unwanted in parts of the Southern Plains. In Dalhart, a sign at the edge of town—“Black Man Don’t Let the Sun Go Down on You Here”—served as a warning to black men who made the mistake of thinking that the offer of cheap land also extended to them. On the contrary, the Anglo settlers intended to maintain white supremacy in landownership and to ensure the dominance of the white Anglo culture that had overtaken the old Comanche territory.

Cowboys on the XIT ranch enjoyed good lives, “earning about thirty dollars a month fixing fences, riding herd, [and] eating chow at sunset.” Only one “black cow puncher” was employed on the ranch, a man whom “everybody called Nigger Jim Perry”—everybody, presumably, being the white men who usually worked the ranch and made a point of reminding Jim that they did not think he belonged.

Jim was relatively lucky to find work, though he knew that, if it were not for his being black, he would have been promoted to foreman. Still, most black men who arrived in the Texas Panhandle looking for an opportunity barely made it off the train before they were arrested for “vagrancy” and put to work for the state on a chain gang.

In Oklahoma, Governor William David “Alfalfa” Murray ran a campaign that “railed against what he called ‘The Three C’s—Corporations, Carpetbaggers, and Coons’” and “won by a huge margin.” He firmly believed in segregation, and thought that its maintenance was key in making Oklahoma a great state. He insisted that the only proper jobs for black people were “in the fields or factories.” According to Murray, black people were supposed to be virtually invisible in social life, and should make themselves as discreet as possible when talking to white people. Further, though Murray accepted that black people had “some virtues,” he universally detested Jewish people and disliked “the handful of Italians who had come to the High Plains,” believing that they were among the “low grade races” of Southern Europe. Murray’s overwhelming support in Oklahoma was largely due to a pre-Civil War political platform which reestablished notions of social and racial hierarchy.

The new civilization that Anglos formed, particularly in the Texas and Oklahoma Panhandles, did not differ much from that which they had formed back East. Many of the new settlers were former Southerners who had been run out of their old homes by Reconstruction after the Civil War. They envisioned the Southern Plains as a territory where they could start over and reestablish a culture of white supremacy. The callous displacement of the Comanche was the first step in clearing the land for settlement by whites. As an influx of European immigrants arrived by train, the Anglo settlers went about determining who was “white” and who was not—that is, who would prosper in the new territory and be enfranchised. Black people and Native American tribes were completely excluded from consideration. Thus, Egan shows that the Southern Plains were not truly a land where anyone could start over—they were instead a place where white Americans reasserted the values of racial dominance and greed that had long existed in the Union.

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Anglo Culture and Racism Quotes in The Worst Hard Time

Below you will find the important quotes in The Worst Hard Time related to the theme of Anglo Culture and Racism.
Introduction Quotes

On those days when the wind stops blowing across the face of the southern plains, the land falls into a silence that scares people in the way that a big house can haunt after the lights go out and no one else is there. It scares them because the land is too much, too empty, claustrophobic in its immensity. It scares them because they feel lost, with nothing to cling to, disoriented. Not a tree, anywhere. Not a slice of shade. Not a river dancing away, life in its blood [….] It scared Coronado, looking for cities of gold in 1541. It scared the Anglo traders who cut a trail from Independence to Santa Fe […] It even scared some of the Comanche as they chased bison over the grass. It scared the Germans from Russia and the Scots-Irish from Alabama—the Last Chancers, exiled twice over […]

Page Number: 1
Explanation and Analysis:

The other kids teased him about his skin, which seemed too full of the sun, even in winter. One Sunday, Melt asked visiting relatives how the family came to be. You shush, boy, he was told. Melt kept at it. Finally, an aunt told about the Apache and Cherokee in him. She said he should never tell anybody—keep it inside the family. “It’s a disgrace to be part Indian,” he says. “That’s what she said.”

Related Characters: Melt White
Page Number: 9
Explanation and Analysis:
Chapter 1 Quotes

The C-note was Uncle Dick’s heater, his blanket. As a child, Dick Coon’s family was often broke. The corrosive poverty hurt so much it defined the rest of his life. As long as Uncle Dick could touch his C-note, he had no fear in life. And he had certainly known fear. Dick Coon was fortunate to live through the Galveston hurricane of 1900, the worst single natural disaster in American history. He lost everything in Galveston but was never bitter. His life had been spared, while six thousand people lost theirs. Dick Coon didn’t plan on getting rich in Dalhart; didn’t even plan on staying in the High Plains. In 1902, he had been passing through Dalhart, making a train connection to Houston, when he fell under the spell of one of the syndicate’s real estate agents. He heard enough to buy his own piece of the old XIT […] but the real money was in town building.

Related Characters: “Uncle” Dick Coon
Related Symbols: XIT Ranch
Page Number: 30
Explanation and Analysis:
Chapter 2 Quotes

“The soil is the one indestructible, immutable asset that the nation possesses,” the Federal Bureau of Soils proclaimed as the grasslands were transformed. “It is the one resource that cannot be exhausted, that cannot be used up.”

Related Symbols: Wheat
Page Number: 51
Explanation and Analysis:
Chapter 3 Quotes

Of the roughly two hundred million acres homesteaded on the Great Plains between 1880 and 1925, nearly half was considered marginal for farming[...] people who had descended from a beaten-down part of the world, people whose daddy had been a serf, a sharecropper, a tenant, and even slaves, castaways, rejects, white trash, and Mexicans could own a piece of earth. “Every man a landlord” meant something. Historians had been herded into thinking the American frontier was closed after the 1890 census, that western movement had effectively ended just before the close of the last century, that settlement had been tried and failed in the Great American Desert. But they overlooked the southern plains, the pass-through country. In the first thirty years of the twentieth century, it got a second look.

Page Number: 56
Explanation and Analysis:
Chapter 4 Quotes

In the German settlements on the High Plains, there was no more defiant celebration of group survival than a wedding. The rest of the year, the Anglos could make fun of their clothes, the sheriff could call them in for questioning, the merchants could refuse them entry into stores, the children could mock their accents, the farmers could laugh at their planting methods, and other immigrants could deride them as “Rooshians.” But the wedding day on this Sunday in September 1929 belonged to the Germans from Russia. Through an improbable journey of 166 years, they had bounced from southern Germany to the Volga River region of Russia to the Cherokee Outlet of Oklahoma. The Russlanddeutschen were not Russian nor were they fully German. Hardened by long exile, state cruelty, and official ridicule, they wanted only to be left alone. The treeless expanse of the southern plains was one of the few places in the United States that looked like home.

Page Number: 61
Explanation and Analysis:
Chapter 6 Quotes

Some people said Jews were to blame for the bad times—that they did not belong in this country, a place where the Texan had boasted that its citizens were “of the highest type of Anglo-Saxon ancestry.” In Nebraska, four thousand people gathered on the capitol steps, blaming the “Jewish system of banking” for the implosion of the economy. They held banners with rattlesnakes, labeled as Jews, coiled around the American farmer.

Related Characters: Levi Herzstein , Morris Herzstein
Page Number: 96
Explanation and Analysis:
Chapter 7 Quotes

When the native sod of the Great Plains was in place, it did not matter if people looked twice at a piece of ground. Wind blew twenty, thirty, forty miles an hour, as always. Droughts came and went. Prairie fires, many of them started deliberately by Indians or cowboys trying to scare nesters off, took a great gulp of grass in a few days. Hailstorms pounded the land. Blue northers froze it so hard it was like broken glass to walk on. Through all of the seasonal tempests, man was inconsequential. As long as the weave of grass was stitched to the land, the prairie would flourish […] The grass could look brown and dead, but beneath the surface, the roots held the soil in place; it was alive and dormant […] When a farmer tore out the sod and walked away […] It could not revert to grass, because the roots were gone. It was empty, dead, and transient.

Page Number: 112-113
Explanation and Analysis:
Chapter 14 Quotes

The sign at the edge of Dalhart— “Black Man Don’t Let the Sun Go Down on You Here”—was strictly enforced […] “Two Negroes Arrested”: the Dalhart Texan reported how the men, aged nineteen and twenty-three, had sniffed around the train station looking for food. They were cuffed, locked up in the county jail, and after a week brought out for arraignment before a justice of the peace, Hugh Edwards. The judge ordered the men to dance. The men hesitated; this was supposed to be a bond hearing. The railroad agent said these men were good for nothing but Negro toe-tapping […] The men started to dance, forced silly grins on their faces, reluctant. After the tap dance, the judge banged his gavel and ordered the men back to jail for another two months.

Related Characters: John McCarty
Page Number: 176-177
Explanation and Analysis:
Epilogue Quotes

The High Plains never fully recovered from the Dust Bowl […] After more than sixty-five years, some of the land is still sterile and drifting. But in the heart of the old Dust Bowl now are three national grasslands run by the Forest Service. The land is green in the spring and burns in the summer, as it did in the past, and antelope come through and graze, wandering among replanted buffalo grass and the old footings of farmsteads long abandoned. Some things are missing or fast disappearing: the prairie chicken, a bird that kept many a sodbuster alive in the dark days, is in decline […] The biggest of the restored areas is Comanche National Grassland, named for the Lords of the Plains […] The Indians never returned, despite New Deal attempts to buy rangeland for natives […] The Comanche live on a small reservation near Lawton, Oklahoma. They still consider the old bison hunting grounds between the Arkansas River and Rio Grande […] to be theirs by treaty.

Related Characters: Franklin Delano Roosevelt
Page Number: 309
Explanation and Analysis: