The Faces of Depression-Era Hunger

By Natasha O’Neill

Migrant agricultural worker’s family. Seven hungry children. Mother aged thirty-two. Father is native Californian. Nipomo, California. Photographer: Dorothea Lange. Courtesy of Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Washington, D.C. 20540 USA


Charity organisations seeking donations to alleviate hunger routinely employ images of the faces of hungry children in an attempt to stir sympathy in their audience. Depression-era artists who wanted to mobilise support for hungry Americans also favoured images of staring, mute children. As Martha Nussbaum observes in Political Emotions, people are far more likely to extend compassion to those they see as victims of circumstances outside their control than to those they view as responsible for their bad situation.[1]

In Depression-era America, children not only constituted the group most vulnerable to starvation but also served as a symbol of innocence: while Americans could argue that the Southwestern farmers seeking refuge in California were guilty of contributing to the conditions that led to the Dust Bowl, their children could hardly be deemed responsible. Photographers such as Margaret Bourke-White and Dorothea Lange captured iconic photographs of hungry migrant children. Likewise, the novelist John Steinbeck understood the affective power of hungry children’s faces. After witnessing migrant starvation in California first hand, Steinbeck felt compelled to write a novel that he hoped would rally public opinion against the big growers who were keeping the migrant workers from practising collective bargaining. Originally, he wrote the story in the form of a satire (L’Affaire Lettuceberg), but later decided that it created ‘more hatred than understanding’ and threw his only copy into the fireplace.[2] Starting over, Steinbeck decided that he needed to cultivate an emotional response in his readership that could sustain his charitable aims. The resultant novel was The Grapes of Wrath (1939), and among its most emotionally charged images were hungry children staring silently at food.

As in the documentary photographs of the era, Steinbeck’s hungry children stare stoically but do not speak. In one scene, a crowd of children watch a tractor driver eating his lunch before bulldozing their homes:

Curious children crowded close, ragged children who ate their fried dough as they watched. They watched hungrily the unwrapping of the sandwiches, and their hunger-sharpened noses smelled the pickle, cheese, and Spam. They didn’t speak to the driver. They watched his hand as it carried food to his mouth. They did not watch him chewing; their eyes followed the hand that held the sandwich.[3]

Why does Steinbeck depict these children suffering through their hunger in silence? One explanation might be that the children’s hungry faces alone function as a moral call to the other that pulls the reader toward feeling responsibility for them. Unaccompanied by language, the children’s muteness implies that the immorality of children’s hunger does not require arguments or reasons for support. Likewise, the children’s silence suggests that Steinbeck thought his readership would be more likely to help people who did not demand it. Part of Steinbeck’s project to galvanise public support for the migrants depended on presenting them as dignified members of the deserving poor. In The Grapes of Wrath, hunger does not turn the Dust Bowl migrants into brutish criminals or coerce them into violence, but instead serves as a catalyst for identity-formation and as a gateway for expanding social consciousness. The protagonist Tom Joad embodies this trajectory, as his experience of hunger transforms him from a convicted felon into a labour organiser. Towards the novel’s end he gives a famously stirring speech, in which he vows, ‘Wherever there’s a fight so hungry people can eat, I’ll be there’.[4]

Among his peers, Steinbeck was not alone in glorifying hunger – surprisingly, Depression-era literature set in the United States routinely elevates hunger as a prerequisite for ethical living. Taking on both physical and metaphoric meanings, hunger propels characters on journeys of self-discovery that eventually mushroom outwards toward broader social issues, such as racial and class inequality and the possibility of collective activism. In the case of Tom Joad, hunger creates the conditions for him to exercise his freedom rather than extinguishes them. During the Depression, America teetered on the precipice of economic collapse and hunger appeared to erode Americans’ ability to consistently make choices that were in line with their ethical belief system – decisions that would affirm their sense of self. The solution put forward by many of the nation’s artists was to recast hunger as a stage in the American Dream – a temporary adversity in the country’s progress that would subsequently help to shape the nation’s presupposed moral evolution.

Migrant agricultural worker's family. Seven hungry children. Mother aged thirty-two. Father is native Californian. Nipomo, California. Photographer: Dorothy Lange. Courtesy of Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Washington, D.C. 20540 USA
Migrant agricultural worker’s family. Seven hungry children. Mother aged thirty-two. Father is native Californian. Nipomo, California. Photographer: Dorothy Lange. Courtesy of Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Washington, D.C. 20540 USA

Another American novel from the Depression-era, Pearl S. Buck’s The Good Earth (1931), challenges the idea put forth in other Depression-era works that hunger can broaden people’s compassion for the downtrodden. While the novel’s portrayal of hunger was no doubt meant to connect emotionally with 1930s Americans who saw themselves as victims of natural disaster and other forces they could not control, its depiction reflects a notably different experience and ideology. Set in pre-modern China, Wang Lung and his neighbors face famine, a more extreme form of hunger that transforms Buck’s Chinese landscape into an apocalyptic wasteland: not only is traditional food non-existent, the countryside is eerily bereft of animals, the bark from the trees has been stripped, and much of the grass on the hillsides has been pulled. The enduring consequence of hunger in The Good Earth is not collective activism, but diminished capacity, as represented by the protagonist Wang Lung’s developmentally disabled daughter with whom he cannot communicate. While in the imaginary of Depression-era literature set in America hunger causes the body and the mind to take inverse trajectories – as the body shrinks, social consciousness expands – in The Good Earth, Buck explores a converse hypothesis: the characters’ shrinking bodies mirror their shrinking consciousness. Never is this made more explicit than in the case of Wang Lung’s daughter, who is cognitively impaired as a consequence of prolonged starvation:

In his bosom lay the slight, skeleton-like body of his girl child, and he looked down into the delicate bony face, and into the sharp, sad eyes that watched him unceasingly from his breast.[5]

Unable to speak, the girl, unnamed in the narrative, can only stare placidly. Buck intentionally renders her pitiful to inspire sympathy, but the young girl’s mute hunger also embodies the novel’s understanding of hunger as a force that disrupts moral progress.

Indeed, in an early passage, when Wang Lung’s uncle (the novel’s villain) tells the other villagers that Wang Lung is hoarding food, they raid his house. The narrator describes the reaction of Wang Lung’s friend Ching, who is among the raiders:

He would have spoken some good word of shame, for he was an honest man and only his crying child had forced him to evil. But in his bosom was a handful of beans he had snatched when the store was found and was fearful lest he must return them, if he spoke at all.[6]

Readers are likely to feel sorry for Ching because hunger forces him to sacrifice ethical convictions that are bound up with his sense of self in order to survive. Significantly, however, the strategy through which Buck elicits sympathy for the hungry depends on a very different dynamic from that used by Steinbeck, who attempts to generate empathy for the Dust Bowl migrants by showing them denying themselves food to maintain their moral values, even in the face of extreme hunger. In one of the interstitial chapters in The Grapes of Wrath, the narrator describes the body language of two small, hungry boys who enter a diner with their father: staring at the candy behind the counter, they stuff their tightly balled fists into their pockets. In this case, the diner owner, who serves as a proxy for the reader, feels sorry for the children precisely because they do not sacrifice their integrity to their hunger. Unlike Ching, their sense of self remains intact despite their gnawing stomachs.

While Buck narrates the loss of moral scruples, and therefore identity, that results from hunger, Steinbeck refuses to render the loss of moral fibre part of his migrant story in California. Indeed, to do so would be to de-humanise the subjects for whom he wants his readership to feel compassion. Unlike Steinbeck, Buck does not shy away from showing hungry characters stealing in an effort to end their hunger. She even portrays characters participating in cannibalism in order to survive. Her novel shows how acute hunger eventually ensnares everyone in a web of moral compromises. As the narrator observes, ‘Hunger will make a thief of any man’.[7] Buck’s representations of hunger reflect her own rhetorical aims, which were not so much concerned with spurring readers to charitably alleviate the hunger of the Chinese, but rather to provide an account of their hunger that would promote cross-cultural understanding in a time of American hunger. However, by showing the Chinese resort to moral depravity in the face of hunger, she also may have unwittingly stoked the flames of American exceptionalism in her readers, who found themselves steeped in images of heroic Americans suffering from hunger while maintaining their honour.

For American readers invested in the American Dream, stories of valueless hunger that fail to signify some further meaning would have been intolerable if cast in an American context, which helps to explain why we do not see such narratives in Depression-era literature set in the United States. However, through the Orientalist mode of setting her story of agrarian hunger in pre-modern China, Buck opened up an imaginative space in which Depression-era American readers could grapple with (and externalise) the more bleak consequences of hunger, such as the dissolution of identity, in a context that was less threatening because it was less close to home. Although both Steinbeck and Buck incorporate images of mute, starving children in their novels to solicit compassion from their audiences, they do so for very different ends and with very different results.

Natasha O’Neill is an independent scholar and a member of the Society for the History of Emotions. She completed her doctorate in English at the University of California, Santa Barbara. Her dissertation explored the intersections of race and hunger in Depression-era American literature.


[1] Martha C. Nussbaum, Political Emotions: Why Love Matters for Justice (Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2013).

[2] Jackson Benson, The True Adventures of John Steinbeck (New York: Viking Press, 1984).

[3] John Steinbeck, The Grapes of Wrath (New York: The Viking Press, 1939), p. 39.

[4] Steinbeck, The Grapes of Wrath, p. 419.

[5] Pearl Buck, The Good Earth (New York: Washington Square Press, 1958), p. 79.

[6] Buck, The Good Earth, p. 74.

[7] Buck, The Good Earth, p. 140.

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