When news of the stock market crash of 1929 arrived in the Southern Plains, people did not think much of it. Stock trading was an activity far removed the simpler, rural life of the High Plains. People associated the workings of Wall Street with “city slickers.” When the rural folks went to the movies, they saw newsreels of the breadlines in major cities and images of apple vendors on every street corner. They may have sympathized with those images, but they could not identify with them—not just yet. The plains people subsisted off of the land and trusted it to provide them with all that they needed. Even “in the first year of the epic drought,” they were sure that the land would replenish itself shortly. Most never considered leaving to go to the city or to California, as such a move would be “a journey into the unknown.” Furthermore, the businesses that ruled cities—banks and railroad companies—were widely regarded by rural-dwellers as enemies, particularly after the onset of the Great Depression. Those who survived the Dust Bowl lived in another world—one with a set of customs and rituals that tied them deeply to a land they later felt had betrayed them. Meanwhile, life in the cities was no better. The decade offered people the choice between waiting for food in breadlines or waiting for infertile land to yield a crop. In The Worst Hard Time, Egan uses the opposition between city and country—and the impossibility of making a choice between the two—to underscore the absolute hopelessness of the decade.
The division between rural folks and city dwellers was very apparent in the 1932 election, which unseated the Republican Party from the White House and resulted in Herbert Hoover’s unfavorable legacy. Hoover’s response to the Great Depression seemed to favor the factory and business owners who, many believed, had helped to cause the economic collapse. Supplying the wealthy with more money to do more of the same was unacceptable to the majority of the electorate. Hoover seemed to represent the moneyed interests of those in the cities—urbanites who were presumably out of step with the majority of the country—while Franklin Delano Roosevelt spoke to the “common” voter in small towns and on farms.
Franklin Delano Roosevelt was a member of one of the United States’ oldest and wealthiest families. His fifth cousin, Theodore Roosevelt, had also been a president. However, during his campaign, Roosevelt championed the farmers who made up half of the population and, despite his own wealth, empathized with their loss of purchasing power. Roosevelt’s message to the “forgotten man” helped him overcome his reputation as a “dilettante” and “a man without heft.” He easily carried Oklahoma in the election, despite the popularity of its governor, Alfalfa Bill Murray—a man as exemplary of the High Plains as Roosevelt was of moneyed New York.
Roosevelt’s harrowing experience of being “felled by double pneumonia in 1918, which nearly killed him,” and his contraction of “polio in 1921, which left him partially paralyzed” for the rest of his life, helped him understand devastation. He understood the farmer’s agony over the cruelties of nature and knew how easily good fortune could turn. Governor Murray’s persistent message of white supremacy, though still supported by many white Oklahomans, seemed less immediately relevant and less personal than what they heard from Roosevelt.
By 1934, most big cities were no cleaner or clearer than the arid, dusty tracks of land in the southern plains. People’s lungs were full of air pollution from car exhausts, as well as the emissions from “thousands of small shops, factories, bakeries, and apartments.” The skies were also now darkened by gusts of dust from the former grasslands—“a monstrous visitor.” The nation’s vastness had tricked people on the East Coast into thinking that the “blowing homesteads” they saw in weekly newsreels were “a world away.” The environmental disaster that was the Dust Bowl proved that the city was not so distant from the country, and that the heartland’s problems could also impact the Eastern seaboard. People were not as distant from each other as they had thought.
Typically, dust measurements in the New York air came in at “227 particles per square millimeter.” On May 11, it “measured 619 particles per square millimeter.” At NBC radio studios, custodians had to change air filters hourly. A professor at New York University “calculated that on the seventeenth floor of the Flatiron Building on Fifth Avenue, the thickness of the dust was about forty tons per cubic mile,” which would have meant that the entire city was “under the weight of 1,320 tons” of dust. Though the dust storms did not cause the same level of inconvenience to New Yorkers that it caused Texans and Oklahomans, it gave Manhattanites a literal taste of the dirt that had infiltrated every aspect of prairie life.
New York was not the only city to be overcome by dust. The storm also visited Chicago, Philadelphia, Boston, and Washington, DC. It dumped a film of dust onto the National Mall and some “seeped into the White House, where President Roosevelt was discussing plans for drought relief.” The experience of being overwhelmed by dust did not make all city dwellers sympathetic. Some even seemed to blame prairie folk for the problem, and used their annoyance as an excuse to put down those who lived differently. They wondered why those in the plains “could not do something to hold their soil down.” One commenter “suggested laying asphalt on the prairie,” while another suggested shipping “junked cars to the southern plains, where they would be used as weights to hold the ground in place.”
Suggestions from urbanites on what to do about the Dust Bowl ranged from senseless to outrageous, revealing that people in the cities knew little about how those in the prairies lived. Many seemed to forget that, if the grasslands were too dry to produce crops, the entire nation would starve. Though the Great Depression had made food scarce and the dust storms threatened to make the matter worse, some people saw little connection between their lives and what occurred on the prairie. However, witnessing the dust for themselves forced people as far away as New York to recognize that something had to be done about the problem in the Texas Panhandle, though no one knew what, if anything, could be done. Egan’s anecdotes of coastal naivete do not only expose ignorance, they also reveal the futility of the situation. People on the plains were as powerless in the face of the storms (or the economic collapse of the cities) as those on the coasts were. The Dust Bowl ended up being a great equalizer, demonstrating that no one—neither in the city nor in the country—had conquered their environment. We were all vulnerable to the power of the natural world.