Excerpt: 'Furious Improvisation' Though the economy remained stagnant during the Great Depression, the arts scene flourished thanks to the Works Progress Administration. Susan Quinn's account of the period offers "goosebump-raising anecdotes," says book critic Maureen Corrigan.
NPR logo Excerpt: 'Furious Improvisation'

Excerpt: 'Furious Improvisation'

'Furious Improvisation'
Furious Improvisation: How the WPA and a Cast of Thousands Made High Art out of Desperate Times
By Susan Quinn
Hardcover, 336 pages
Walker & Company
List Price: $25.99


One day in January of 1931, a white tenant farmer named H.C. Coney who lived near the little town of England, Arkansas, reached the limit of his patience. He and his wife and children struggled in the best of times, in a cabin with newspaper on the walls and a wood stove for heat. But the drought of 1930, coinciding with the greatest depression in the nation's history, had devastated the farms of the South. Without a harvest of corn or cotton, the situation had grown desperate. Coney couldn't even find anyone to buy his truck for the deflated price of $25, and there weren't enough clothes among all the family members, as he later told a reporter, "to wad a shotgun proper." The stingy ration of lard, flour and beans, given out to drought victims by the Red Cross, kept the family constantly on the edge of starvation. Then, on January 3, 1931, a neighbor lady told Coney that her children hadn't eaten in two days. That sent him into action.

Coney and his wife jumped into his truck and drove to the nearby home of a landowner named L.L. Bell, the local chairman of the Red Cross. There Coney found a crowd of hungry neighbors, all demanding food. The chairman refused aid because the office had run out of forms and couldn't proceed without them. (Red Cross officials worried about "imposters" hoarding supplies). Coney yelled to some of the crowd to jump on his truck and drive to the nearby town of England, where the stores were, to demand food and, if necessary, to take it. By the time they reached England, a crowd of some 500 white and black farmers had gathered, shouting "we're not going to let our children starve," and "we want food and we want it now."

The Lonoke County drought chairman, a prominent lawyer and plantation owner named G.E. Morris, stood up before the crowd and promised that he would get them food if they would just be patient. Morris made frantic phone calls to Red Cross authorities in Little Rock, which finally resulted in the distribution of $2.75 worth of rations, meant to last for two weeks, for each of 500 families in need. It wouldn't have taken much to provoke a violent showdown, Coney said afterward, but "they doled out the feed and we all idled back here without nobody gettin' hurt." Thus ended the "England riot."

Reactions to the January 3 incident in England, Arkansas, varied wildly. The New York Times called it an "invasion of armed and hungry farmers and their wives." The Red Cross spokesman minimized the incident, insisting that the trouble was caused by "about 40 men from one section of the county, causing only temporary excitement but no damage to property or persons." Some in Congress denounced the farmers as Communist instigators, a charge which even Red Cross county chairman Morris denied. "I knew the crowd to whom I spoke," Morris said. "All of them were poor, illiterate Americans, having made share crops around England for years. They never heard that Russia had a revolution." Will Rogers, humorist and lecturer, put it more succinctly during a tour of the drought region:

"In this little town where I am going tomorrow there ain't no reds," he said. "A red can't live there because he can't eat, and therefore he can't holler."

Communists had nothing to do with the desperate actions of the hungry farmers in England, Arkansas. But the discontent of farmers in the South, and the impotence of the federal government in the face of it, created opportunities for Communist organizers. Not long after the England event, the Communist party distributed leaflets in the drought area charging that "the Red Cross, headed by Hoover, is deliberately starving toiling people to death." In March, a young party member named Whittaker Chambers used the event as the basis for a short story in the leftist monthly New Masses called "Can You Make Out Their Voices?" And that story, in turn, became the basis of a play written and staged by the fiery and energetic director of experimental theater at Vassar College, a woman named Hallie Flanagan. Flanagan, along with co-writer Margaret Clifford, called their play Can You Hear Their Voices?, and turned it into a less preachy and more powerful evocation of the desperate plight of farmers.

The main character of their play, Ed Wardell, is a self-professed Communist, and some of his neighbors resist him as a troublemaker. But as their cows die and their families grow hungrier, many come around to his point of view. The climactic moment comes when a young mother, unable to find milk for her baby, smothers it in a blanket rather than see it "tortured to death by inches." When they can stand it no longer, Wardell and his supporters sweep into town in their flivvers and stop in the middle of the street. The men with their guns and the women with their babies storm the Red Cross relief office, the stores and the landowner's barn for food and milk. To increase the impact of the play on their middle-class Vassar audience, Flanagan and Clifford introduced a parallel story, involving a very rich Congressman Bageheot and his daughter Harriet, who is about to come out at a debutante party costing $250,000. Harriet Bageheot is a social butterfly, but not without some awareness of what is going on in world. She finds her parents' plans for her coming out party excessive. "Look here, Father," she says at breakfast, "doesn't it seem a little incongruous to be giving parties with the country in the state it is? With people standing in bread lines and dying of hunger?"

Her father's reply is that it would be selfish not to spend. "The thing to do is to keep money in circulation."

In her final scene, at the debutante ball, Harriet rises drunkenly to speak. The crowd, thinking she's going to announce her engagement, shouts out "Who's the lucky man?"

"No there's nothing tender about this," she says. "I want to tell you something important. I want to tell you about the drought."

The crowd responds. "Hurrah! The drought! Is there a drought?"

"There's a drought," Harriet insists. "In the United States—In the South. It's a terrible thing—It's killing the crops—It's making people hungry—It's making people thirsty—And you know what it is to be thirsty, my children."

But Harriet continues, "We're the educated classes. We're the strength of the nation! What're we going to do about it? What're we going to do about the drought?"

Harriet's friends say nothing. Finally, the orchestra ends the awkward silence, striking up the tune "Just a Gigolo." The final scene takes place in the drought-stricken South. Ed Wardell and his wife, fearing retribution from government troops for the attack on the food supply, send their two young sons away to keep them from trouble. "Try to remember all you've seen here," Ed Wardell tells his sons. "Remember that every man...ought to have a right to work and eat. Every man ought to have a right to think things out for himself."

The Vassar production of Can You Hear Their Voices?, in May of 1931, came just a few months after an historic debate in Washington about how to deal with the growing desperation of people on farms and in cities throughout the country. On one side were President Herbert Hoover and his allies, who insisted that private charity could handle the problem. Hoover looked to the past for reinforcement, quoting President Grover Cleveland's dictum that "though the people support the government, the government should not support the people." Government loans, which promoted self-help, were all right, but direct aid to hungry people was dangerous. The "dole," Hoover darkly insisted, would lead to an "abyss of reliance in future upon government charity."

Hoover had powerful allies in Congress. "Isn't it better," asked Senator Hiram Bingham of Connecticut, "to follow the regular American procedure and give the people a chance to feel the joy of giving voluntarily?" If federal aid were given, argued House Republican floor leader James Q. Tilson, the "principled...will cripple themselves...in an attempt to repay it, and the idle and shiftless...will live off the Federal Government as long as the opportunity exists." Besides, Tilson insisted, the drought was a temporary setback which "a sturdy class of Americans possessing...an indomitable will" could overcome in a matter of months.

On the other side of the debate were those who believed the federal government had an obligation to its citizens in time of need. In the words of Senator Alben Barkley, "the people have the right to relief from the treasury which they have helped to fill." These Democrats and insurgent Republicans argued that the situation required extraordinary measures. "We have just gone through the most devastating drought in history," Senator T.H. Caraway of Arkansas told his colleagues, "and are in the throes of the greatest depression since the Civil War."

The position of Hoover and his allies led them to absurd extremes. They were willing to support a bill which gave millions in farm loans for purchasing seed and food for livestock, while vetoing a measure that would feed farmers. As one senator observed during the proceedings, "you cannot rehabilitate farms with dead farmers."

The national chairman of the Red Cross, Judge John Barton Payne, was perhaps the most outspoken opponent of federal grants, insisting that the $10 million he could raise from private individuals would be more than adequate to meet the problem. When the Congress temporarily allocated $25 million to the Red Cross for hunger relief, Judge Payne refused to take it. "Leave us alone," he told Congress. But the insistence on private aid, with an emphasis on self-help, was a cruel joke in the face of starvation. Photographs of gaunt and tattered farmers holding Red Cross seed kits for kitchen gardens dramatized the Red Cross's failure to come to grips with the problem. The Red Cross was run by the elite—in the South that meant the planters—and their charity was top-down and inadequate, as the "England riot" demonstrated. The charity they gave kept everyone, the poor white sharecroppers and their even poorer black counterparts, in their place.

Can You Hear Their Voices implied, that the country was ripe for revolution. No one would ever know, General Hugh S. Johnson said later, "how close we were to collapse and revolution. We could have got a dictator a lot easier than Germany got Hitler." Even Congressman Hamilton Fish, Jr. of New York, a patrician of the old school, argued in 1932 that major changes were necessary. "I am trying to provide security for human beings which they are not getting." he said. "If we don't give it under the existing system, the people will change the system. Make no mistake about that."

Apparently Franklin Delano Roosevelt sensed this too. After his huge victory against the out-of-touch Herbert Hoover in November of 1932, Roosevelt returned to his childhood home in Hyde Park, New York, to work out his plans for rescuing the country from the worst Depression in its entire history. A visitor to Hyde Park told him that he could go down as the greatest American president if he succeeded, and the worst American president if he failed. "If I fail," Roosevelt answered, "I shall be the last one."