Say, Is This The USA? by Erskine Caldwell and Margaret Bourke-White

This book is the third collaboration between husband and wife team Margaret Bourke-White and Erskine Caldwell whose 1937 book You Have Seen Their Faces was a passionate indictment of the economic and social conditions prevailing in the Southern States.  Say, Is This The USA? was published in 1941 and is a partial survey of a country on the brink of war that is narrated through both textual and visual ‘snapshots’ with very little depth, that serves to promote the message that the US has emerged from the hard times of the 30s and is now united in defence of American values and freedoms.

Although the book does allude to economic and social problems, the overall tone of both the text and images are upbeat and positive, in constrast to American documentary photography in the 1930s. The scars of the economic cataclysm that wreaked such untold damage to individuals during the Depression era are present within the book, but they are glossed over in the face of the oncoming global war. Differences and problems are acknowledged but these are incorporated into the melting-pot rhetoric and instead become examples of the unique strength of American democracy in contrast to competing ideologies. As usual, in the face of an external threat internal dissent is suppressed in the name of national unity and patriotism and this is what this book is designed to do.

The authors devote a large portion of the book towards the clichés of small-town social harmony and hot-apple-pie-that-mom-used-to-make that is an enduring part of the American myth. Even the constant reference to the railroad in a time when the car had already gained ascendancy seems to hark back to a simpler frontier-taming era as seen in the Hollywood Western of popular culture. Embodying the values of rugged individualism that are potentially threatened by totalitarian enemies the images and text portray a nation of small, but largely prosperous towns, filled with patriotic and peace loving Americans who although they don’t want to fight, are prepared to do so if their way of life is in danger. Americans are most definitely wearing the white hats (or are part of the cavalry) while the enemies of democracy are either marauding indians or black-hatted cattle rustlers.

The photographs consist of a mixture of both landscapes and portraits which do not show any signs of despair or misery; everybody and everything is manicured, clean, freshly pressed and presented as the embodiment of  American success. The last section of the book is devoted to industry with images of a busily humming capitalist economy that has overcome the shock of the Depression decade and proved that the American dream is not only alive, but thriving.

The only potential disruption to this overarching theme is when the book looks at racial difference and segregation in the Southern States, but here the images and text are negated by the deluge of patriotism that pervades the book. Instead of a passionate cry for a transformation of the social and economic system that kept so many locked into slavery in all but name, the narrative calls for a greater coming together and mutual understanding on the past of both white and black that they are part of a single American nation. Yet racial difference and stereotypes are reinforced through Bourke-White’s 5 photographs tha depict black people that provide contrast to the well-dressed, middle-class whites that appear throughout the rest of the book. Two of these images show black education in relatively poor but not destitute surroundings and another is of a young black boy who glares back at the viewer. The last two are of adult black men in jail, one of which shows a smug looking warden turning the key of a cell as a black man grasps the bars. The message is clear; the young black boy who stares at the camera is destined to join them in jail when he grows up. There is an implied acceptance of this state of affairs in the way this is presented.

The final picture is of the Statue of Liberty, shot from below, standing guard against the foreign menace that threatened the core democratic Enlightenment values that America believes itself to uniquely embody. Bourke-White and Caldwell’s patriotic rhetoric captured the zeitgeist of the time, preparing a bruised democracy for inevitable participation in a war that would ultimately lead to American political and cultural dominance that persists to this day.

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