Reforming Nature

This is part of a series of blog posts highlighting objects and archival documents from Social Climates: Power and the Environment in the Archives, an exhibition currently on view in the Kempner Gallery at Columbia’s RBML. Drawing on a wide array of RBML collections and materials, Social Climates explores the interconnections between culture, history, politics, and the natural world. 

The following is adapted from the Social Climates exhibit essay text by Thai Jones, Curator of American History and Amand Martin Hardin, graduate student in History.

“Grand Coulee Dam.” John Vachon. Photograph, 1930s. Pare Lorentz papers, RBML. 

 In 1935, Congress passed the Rivers and Harbors Act, which authorized the construction of the Grand Coulee Dam on the Columbia River. Prior to this, many Westerners lived without power or running water. President Franklin Roosevelt made large water and power projects a major political platform, and under the New Deal his administration constructed dams to provide cheap electricity, store water for domestic and use and commercial farming, and control floods. The projects also provided numerous jobs for those left unemployed during the Great Depression.

But the construction of these dams came with environmental and social consequences. The Grand Coulee Dam created Lake Roosevelt, which flooded the Columbia and Spokane Rivers. Lake Roosevelt blocked salmon runs and submerged traditional hunting sites, burial grounds, and sacred cultural gathering places of the Spokane Tribe. The Tribe was only compensated $4,700 for these irreparable losses.

“230,000 Volt Transmission Line.” John Vachon. Photograph, 1930s. Pare Lorentz papers, RBML. 

John Vachon’s photograph offers an ambiguous image of the electrification of the American West. A cowboy – the mythological hero of the frontier – gazes up at an electric transmission line towering above the natural landscape. The image combines a nostalgic image of a fading and outdated Western era with a vision of progress that celebrates the coming of a more modern society.

Grapes of Wrath. Steinbeck, John. Book, 1939. Pulitzer Prizes Collection, RBML. 

Few writers captured the wrenching torments of the Dust Bowl and Great Depression as effectively as John Steinbeck, whose Grapes of Wrath was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 1940. In this letter to filmmaker Pare Lorentz, Steinbeck describes conditions in the agricultural heartland of California, where desperate workers struggled for starvation wages, amidst the constant threat of starvation, blacklisting, and violence.

Social Climates runs through September 30, 2022 in Kempner Gallery at Columbia’s RBML, 6th Floor Butler.