Hillbilly Highway

It was a fruitful trip to Oklahoma. I stopped off in Ft. Smith, Arkansas, to pick up a rare book of Horace Bristol’s Korea photographs, published in Japan as a sort of guidebook/souvenir for American soldiers on their way to Korea. It was the abridged third printing from 1951, originally published in 1948. I’ll do a more complete entry on it later. Right now, I’m still on the hillbilly highway.

The photograph on the right is Bristol’s photograph of Grandpa Joad, the original one. I’m waiting for the Chronicle books monograph which should have the complete series of Grapes of Wrath photos. I saw them in a gallery in 1992, and haven’t seen them since. My excitement for the book project is growing.

I found out that my grandfather, the alcoholic miscreant that my father never had a kind word for, went to California in 1938. And I found that his first name was Jestus. From what I’ve heard, he wasn’t really a funny guy.

My father and mother, along with two of my father’s brothers, went to California for the first time in 1944. They didn’t find work, so they went back to Oklahoma.

Dad then went to Detroit with one of his brothers, and mom followed him on the train. He got a job in a cement factory for a while, but his brother wrecked his car, his brother’s girlfriend lost her mind and had to be institutionalized, and they headed back to California in 1945 or 46. The details are hazy.

What was amazingly clear though was my dad’s memory of Caldwell’s Tobacco Road. Though he read the book fifty years ago, he still remembered the major plot points. It blew me away. My older brother has read it too, and contributed his reason for reading it: the song of the same name by The Nashville Teens from 1962, and the fact that it has dirty parts. It was the subject of a big obscenity case which is used as a teaching example in first amendment law.

After I got back, I uncovered another book with a liberal social agenda illustrated with FSA photographs, Home Town by Sherwood Anderson from 1940, which used the same photo editor as 12 Million Black Voices by Richard Wright. I also discovered a series of books published by the FSA at the same time under the rubric of “social research.” The context deepens, and my bank account is getting much shallower. It seems that most of these books were subtly modified when they were reprinted, shifting them in a more “politically correct” direction. It seems important to locate as many first editions as I can.

The more I compare my family’s history with the Dorothea Lange / Paul Taylor book, the more I respect it. I’m beginning to think that it was the fairest and most impartial book to come from this crucial time. The book has had minimal critical response, as a book that is— Lange’s photographs have received all the attention. But as a book, it is quite impressive. I can’t wait until the rest of the material I’ve ordered starts rolling in!