The Dust Bowl (Magill's Literary Annual 1980)
Paul Bonnifield’s The Dust Bowl is a bold reappraisal of the history of a region generally viewed as one of the most severely depressed parts of the United States during the 1930’s. Notwithstanding unrelenting bouts of catastrophic weather, soil erosion, and the migration of more than 350,000 area residents, Bonnifield contends that the Depression of the 1930’s was no more seriously felt in the dust bowl of the Southwest Plains States than in other more urban regions of the nation. The author even suggests that times were actually better in the dust bowl than in other areas. His account is based on newspaper articles, government reports, and interviews with residents with whom he is deeply sympathetic. Ironically, Bonnifield concludes that government programs traditionally credited with forestalling complete economic and social collapse actually contributed to agricultural decline and hindered locally conceived approaches to recovery.
Bonnifield’s study begins with a survey of the history of the “heartland” of the dust bowl since the late nineteenth century. He defines the dust bowl geographically as the area encompassing the Northern Texas Panhandle, Northeastern New Mexico, Southeastern Colorado, Southeastern Kansas, and the Oklahoma Panhandle. He portrays the harsh life of the region’s pioneers or “Sooners,” so named for their rush to claim land prior to official government sale. Despite initial hard times experienced by the Sooners of 1890, abundant rainfall, railroad construction, and extensive oil and gas exploration ushered in an era of prosperity during the first two decades of the twentieth century, dubbed the “good years” by Bonnifield. However, in view of the disastrous events of the 1930’s, Bonnifield astutely compares the ultimate fate of many of the Sooners and their descendants with the experience of their predecessors, the native Americans.
In Bonnifield’s opinion, the agricultural practices of the Sooners of 1890 and their children were partially responsible for the economic disaster and social dislocation of the Depression era in the dust bowl. During the “good years” of the early twentieth century, the heartland of the dust bowl steadily developed as a wheat-growing area. Spurred on by the opening of an international market during World War I the region’s agriculture expanded even more rapidly as a result of technological innovation of the 1920’s. The introduction of a revolutionary new plow and the extensive cultivation of specialized wheat and sorghum feed crops such as maize, kafir, and feterita, however, left dust bowl farmers ill-prepared to cope with meteorological calamities and economic hard times of the mid-1930’s. Extreme pulverization of farm soil by new implements and misplaced conservation emphasis on water erosion instead of wind erosion left the region easy prey to severe storms known as “rollers” (windstorms) and “snusters” (snow and dust storms), which occurred with terrifying frequency during the 1930’s. According to Bonnifield, the introduction of the technically advanced Angel One-Way Plow contributed to the economic malaise by permanently displacing many small independent farmers, tenant farmers, and agricultural workers from the labor force.
Human suffering left in the wake of technological advancements of the 1920’s was far surpassed by outright devastation caused by the extreme weather of the 1930’s. Bonnifield claims that the heartland of the dust bowl was relatively unscathed by the economic hardship suffered by the rest of the country from the Stock Market Crash of 1929...
(The entire section is 1474 words.)
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