Donald Worster, Dust Bowl: The Southern Plains in the 1930s (1979)
Themes in U.S. History, 1914-1945
- Donald Worster's Dust Bowl, published in 1979, is considered a classic work of western
environmental history by one of the most prominent and profound environmental historians
working today. Building on the work of historical ecologists, like James Malin, and historians
of agriculture, Worster moved the field of studies of the environment from the American Studies
concerns of American views of nature (prominent in such works as Henry Nash Smith's Virgin
Land and Roderick Nash's The Wilderness in the American Mind) to more ecologically-centered
studies of human interactions with the environment. In Worster's studies--and in those of the
environmental historians who have followed in his footsteps, like William Cronon and Richard
White--the environment is an historical actor which both shapes and is shaped by human actions
upon it. Understanding human interactions with the southern Great Plains during the early
twentieth century and how those interactions resulted in one of the greatest human-made
ecological disasters in world history illustrates a broader story of the social, economic, political,
and cultural institutions which made up American society before World War II.
- Questions to Think About:
- 1) What is environmental history? How does it differ, in terms of its sources, questions asked, underlying ideas, and criticisms, from other sorts of more "traditional" histories?
- 2) How does Worster describe the environment of the southern Great Plains? Does he discuss the environment before human interaction with it? Does he compare Native American patterns of use with later, Euro-American use? What are his conclusions about the proper (ecologically sound) uses that the Great Plains lend themselves to?
- 3) In what ways, does Worster argue, do human institutions result from efforts to control and "make productive" the natural environment? What, in fact, is "natural"?
- 4) What is the underlying economic critique embedded in Worster's argument? Does he associate environmental degradation with a specific economic and political system? In what ways does Worster present the Dust Bowl and the Great Depression as originating from the same sources? Does he propose alternatives to the system which resulted in environmental and ecological disaster?
- 5) According to Worster, how did the New Deal approach the problems confronted by the residents of the southern Plains? Does he view the New Deal as successful or largely a failure in this respect? To what does he attribute that outcome?
- 6) Worster is concerned as much with presenting an accurate perspective of past events as with encouraging responsible behavior in the present day. The Great Plains are his home; he grew up there, and he currently lives there, teaching at the University of Kansas. What are the lessons within his study for those living in the region today?
Further resources for studying The Dust Bowl, The Great Plains in the 1930s, and Environmental History:
- The Discovery Channel's Dust Bowl site.
- The Smithsonian's Dust Bowl page.
- The National Archives' exhibit, A New Deal for the Arts.
- The Library of Congress's American Memory Project's Color Photographs from the Farm Security Administration and the Office of War Information site.
- Frank Gannet's letter to the Office of the Solicitor in the Justice Department accusing FDR of "packing" the Supreme Court.
- The American Society for Environmental History's H-ASEH page and The Association for the Study of Literature & Environment's ASLE page have lots of links to follow.
- You can look over Douglas Sackman's syllabus for a course in "Nature in California & the West from 1893 to the Present," offered at the University fo California-Irvine,
- The Library of Congress's American Memory Project has placed online a site regarding The Evolution of the Conservation Movement, 1850-1920.
- You could even email Donald Worster at the University of Kansas! But don't waste his time; we need him to concentrate on writing new books!
Further recommended readings:
- Richard Lowitt, The New Deal and the West (1981)
- Donald Swain, Federal Conservation Policy, 1921-1933 (1963)
- John Salmond, The CCC, 1933-1942 (1967)
- Erwin Hargrove and Paul Conkin, eds., TVA: Fifty Years of Grass-Roots Bureaucracy (1983)
Prepared by Professor Catherine Lavender for History 339 (Themes in U.S. History, 1914-1945), The Department of History, The College of Staten Island of The City University of New York. Send email to firstname.lastname@example.org
Fall Semester 1997. Last modified: Thursday 23 October 1997