The Drought And The Dole


Time and more than a few cloudbursts were needed for the groundwater supplies that fed wells and springs and grass roots to build up again. As the geographer and conservationist J. Russell Smith warned in the spring of 1931, prospects for the farmer were not bright: “His hay field is without grass. His wheat is in bad order. His haymows are emptier than ever before at this time of year, his flocks and herds are reduced. His mortgages are bigger; his notes at the bank are more pressing; his credit is lower, to say nothing of low prices caused by the slump.” Smith’s gloomy forecast was borne out. To cite one statistic of this total environmental collapse: gross farm income, which had been $9.4 billion in the drought year of 1030, would fall to $6.9 billion in 1931, a loss of two and a half billion dollars. To put that another way, the average American farmer would net just $342 for a whole year’s work.

Arkansas had a fortunate summer on the whole; its disasters for once were only the normal personal ones of the Depression. Crops were better than usual, and in a special Thanksgiving message in November the President could speak of courage and energy surmounting hardship, and of the blessings of Almighty Providence. He compared this day to the first Thanksgiving, when the Plymouth Colony had celebrated a harvest after months of near-famine. That was the closest he ever came to admitting that the drought had really caused near-famine. England, Arkansas, was mostly forgotten by that time; surprisingly there had been no immediate rush to follow H. C. Coney’s example. Maybe people were too demoralized; maybe their sense of isolation was too acute for collective action. That sense of isolation had struck Russell Owen with haunting impact: “Not an isolation of distance or of time or inaccessibility, but one which is expressed in a breakdown of commerce and trade. When a man on a mortgaged and barren farm has no money he cannot order anything; when his food gives out, he cannot get more.… He is lost in a world of plenty. Civilization has failed him except as it gives him charity.”


But the England incident did find its way into the Depression mythology, largely via a story that young Whittaker Chambers published in the March, 1931, issue of the Communist New Masses . The story was called, in the prescribed clarion manner of proletarian fiction, “You Can Make Out Their Voices,” and soon became one of the radical classics of the i93o’s. His was the Arkansas of a revolutionary dreamworld. The voice of the bourgeois villain issues “from the small slit of his lips,” and his daughter has “big breasts, glasses and a gold incisor.” (For some reason the other bad lady in the story, a Red Cross worker, also wears glasses: she is the one who exclaims, “We ought to spread some bags of flour on the counter. There’s nothing like it for psychological effect.”) The farmer-hero turns out to be a home-grown agrarian Communist, who directs the looting of Red Cross headquarters and then leads his band of embattled farmers into the hills to await the inevitable coming of the capitalist militia. But first he sends away his two sons- “East, to the comrades.”

Lincoln Steffens told Chambers that his story was a model of proletarian art, the eminent Soviet authority on American literature A. Elistratova praised it, and Hallie Flannagan, director of the Vassar College experimental theatre, produced it as a play there. But the final judgment belongs to the party critic who wrote that “Can You Hear Their Voices?” —the name had been changed along the way—“eclipses anything that can be written about it.”

The real H. C. Coney would have been miscast in the leading role. Early in the spring of 1931 a reporter found him living in his shack on the outskirts of England. Little had changed for him. The house needed a paint job, and the roof leaked; inside, old newspapers were pasted on the walls to keep out the wind. On the mantelpiece the reporter saw an atlas, a Bible, and a cheap print of the Last Supper, partly covered by an old cylinder gasket. Coney told him that the farmers had grown “more sociable-like” since the invasion of England: “I think that three winters like this one would see them organized.” But he was mainly concerned with getting a government loan. The regional office at Memphis, Tennessee, had approved his request for $195 to tide him over until his cotton crop matured, but he had to wait for final certification as to his general character by a county committee. The local authorities cancelled the advance. They had not forgotten him.