By Jonathan Raban
Although shepherds and shepherdesses have been in short supply in the United States, versions of pastoral have flourished here. The cult of the Noble Red Man, or, as Mark Twain derisively labeled it, "The Fenimore Cooper Indian" (a type given to long speeches in mellifluous and extravagantly figurative English), is an obvious example. So is the heroizing of simple cowboys, farmers, and miners in the western stories of writers like Bret Harte, the movies of John Ford, and the art of Frederic Remington, Charles M. Russell, Maynard Dixon, and Thomas Hart Benton. Both Uncle Tom's Cabin and The Grapes of Wrath might be read as pastorals in Empson's sense. The chief loci of American pastoral have been the rural South and the Far West, while most of its practitioners have been sophisticated easterners for whom the South and West were destinations for bouts of adventurous travel. They went equipped with sketchpads and notebooks in which to record the picturesque manners and customs of their rustic, unlettered fellow countrymen.
It also emerged that Florence Thompson was not just a representative "Okie," as Lange had thought, but a Cherokee Indian, born on an Oklahoma reservation. So, in retrospect, Migrant Mother can be read as intertwining two "mythical cult-figures": that of the refugee sharecropper from the Dust Bowl (though Thompson had originally come to California with her first husband, a millworker, in 1924) and that of the Noble Red Man. There is a strikingly visible connection, however unnoticed by Lange, between her picture of Florence Thompson and Edward S. Curtis's elaborately staged sepia portraits of dignified Native American women in tribal regalia in his extensive collection The North American Indian (1900–1930), perhaps the single most ambitious—and contentious—work of American pastoral ever created by a visual artist.
So she caught a group of Indian horsemen, seen from behind, riding close together across a sweep of empty tableland; a line of Hopi women and a boy, clad in traditional blankets, climbing a rough-hewn staircase trail through the pale rock of the mesa; a man teaching his son how to shoot a bow and arrow; families outside their adobe huts; and somber, unsmiling portraits of Indians whose faces show the same weary resignation to their fate as the faces that Lange would later photograph on the breadlines and in migrant labor camps. It was among the Hopi and the Navajo that she picked up the basic grammar of documentary, with its romantic alliance between the artist and the wretched of the earth.
For more on the subject, see Migrant Mother Was Cherokee and Romantic Indians.
Below: Lange's mask-like photo of a Hopi Indian.