The Course

The Dust Bowl: Environmental Disaster and the American Imagination

It is the worst man-made environmental disaster in American history. Between 1915 and 1930, farmers plowed up one of the greatest grasslands on planet Earth, an ecosystem that had lasted for millennia. When a prolonged drought hit the region, this ecosystem, stripped of its vegetative cover, grasses which had fed megafauna from wooly mammoths to bison to cattle, devolved into a desert of blowing sand and twenty-foot dunes. Mile-high storms blowing dust the consistency of flour raged every spring. People believed that Judgment Day was near; what else could explain such a nightmarish deathscape?

The story of this decade-long, slow-motion disaster captured the attention of the government scientists, poets, filmmakers, novelists, politicians, photographers, diarists, painters, reporters, and musicians. It has been the subject of truly excellent scholarship in history, geography, environmental studies, literature, and botany. In this research-based seminar we will explore the Dust Bowl as a critical site in determining the American response to environmental disaster. We will “read” several of these works, with an emphasis on contemporary accounts. To list a few examples: Alexandre Hogue’s painting Mother Earth Laid Bare, Pare Lorentz’s brilliant government documentary The Plow that Broke the Plains, the photographs of Dorothea Lange, the editorials of John McCarty, the major report of a special government agency on the Dust Bowl, fiction by Dorothy Scarborough, the poetry of Archibald MacLeish, and more. Through our study of this environmental disaster, we hope to better understand the politics surrounding contemporary issues of the environment.