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Time Exposures

ISSUE:  Summer 1938

Land of the Free. By Archibald MacLeish. New York: Harcourt, Brace j and Company. $3.00. The River. By Pare Lorentz. New York: Stackpole Sons. $2.00.

Though originally stationed at opposite sides in the field of communication, poetry and photography have recently been slowly edging toward each other. The poets have been experimenting with devices to simulate the sharp clear outlines of the photograph, and the camera has often employed angles, juxtapositions, and light-and-shadow effects to depart from its traditional realism. But actual fusion of the arts has been slow to come about. When it first occurred, I don’t know; but I recall that five years ago I greatly enjoyed a book called “Skyscraper,” a sequence of pictures representing the growth of our metropolitan landmarks, supplied with poetic commentary by Elsa Naum-burg and others. It was so stimulating that I expected it to have numerous successors. I was mistaken.

For the extraordinary camera-narratives by Pare Lorentz and Archibald MacLeish, published almost simultaneously, quite another stimulus seems to be responsible—the documentary sound film. Pare Lorentz’s “The River” borrows all of its text and most of its photographs from the motion picture of the same name, which the author produced for the Farm Security Administration. Archibald MacLeish’s “Land of the Free” is in part, I surmise, the result of Mr. MacLeish’s connection with the editing and exhibiting of two films about the Spanish War. His pictures, too, are chiefly selected from the files of the Farm Security Administration, though Margaret Bourke-White and other camera experts contribute a few.

Since in each case the pictures were arranged into a narrative before the text was composed, a certain amount of redundancy could easily have weakened the poetry. Both writers, however, have wisely eschewed echoing in words what the eloquent pictures tell. Aware that poetry is not confined by space and time, as is photography, each has given his book a far-reaching application, keeping an eye on the pictures while directing the text to the broader scene implied and to the underlying meaning. “Land of the Free” embraces the entire United States, and Mr. Lorentz’s study is far from regional—the Mississippi basin extends from Montana to Pennsylvania, from Minnesota to Louisiana. It is, as Mark Twain said, “the Body of the Nation.”

The same theme is developed in the two books: the plight of a people who have put their faith in the land, whose only livelihood and liberty issue from ownership of the land, yet who are deprived of it by erosion and flood and mismanagement and selfishness. Mr. MacLeish concentrates on what goes on in the minds of the people who sit disconsolately in their wagons and model-T’s, before their about-to-tumble shacks and their refuse-surrounded tents, staring at their scrawny children and maimed fields, muttering “We don’t know” and “We aren’t sure” and “We’re wondering.” Until now, they have taken land and liberty for granted. “There was always some place else a man could head for.” But now the pines of Massachusetts lie behind them, the forests of Michigan are “dead stumps in the drifting sand,” the rivers and the grass are behind them.

We wonder whether the dream of American liberty Was two hundred years of pine and hardwood And three generations of the grass And the generations are up: the years over

We don’t know

Mr. Lorentz’s first concern is with the land itself: a South worn out by war and cotton-worship; a North where trees are sliced off and the soil is tired.

For fifty years we dug for cotton and moved West when the land gave out.

For fifty years we plowed for corn, and moved on when the land gave out.

Corn and wheat; wheat and cotton—we planted and plowed

with no thought of the future— And four hundred million tons of top soil, Four hundred million tons of our most valuable natural

resource have been washed into the Gulf of Mexico

every year.

Then his emphasis shifts to the people. “And poor land makes poor people.” Here is a generation “facing a life of dirt and poverty, disease and drudgery. . . . And in the greatest river valley in the world.”

The writers’ conclusions differ materially. Mr. Lorentz is hopeful for the success of government projects for flood control and navigation, water power and soil conservation, and planned communities for the people. After playing wantonly with the continent for fifty years, we are turning at last to intelligent control. Though Mr. MacLeish leaves federal planning out of account, he intimates that, by uniting their minds and their voices, the people can find a new kind of liberty, one which is independent of the land. He portrays the uprooted American people as being conscious of this possibility, but not quite confident that it can be realized.

This portrait of a still-wondering people has been attacked by Mr. Lorentz in his review of “Land of the Free” in The Saturday Review of Literature. “Certainly there is more than wonder in these women pop-eyed with poverty. Certainly there is more than interrogation in the faces of the men standing in the streets waiting for rain.” But is there? Certainly the question-mark is ingrained in the eyes and on the cracked lips of the men in Mr. MacLeish’s photographs. Nor is there any discrepancy between Mr. MacLeish’s interpretation and those of many other writers about present-day America, such as John Dos Passos, Muriel Rukeyser, and Ernest Hemingway. Even where images of a better future are born, frustration and perplexity do not immediately die.

A new experience is in store for the reader of these heart-stirring albums of America. Mr. MacLeish’s has the advantages of more cumulative power, more beautiful printing, and some unforgettable, if less fact-furnishing, poetry. But neglecting to acquire both of them, for those who can afford to, amounts to criminal self-privation.


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