dust bowl

A semiarid tract of land from which wind has blown the surface soil exposed by frequent plowing or overgrazing is known as a dust bowl. During periods of drought, these lands, rendered infertile, give rise to dust storms. The term came into popular usage in the 1930s, after parts of the southern Plains were stricken with severe drought, specifically during three very dry years, the worst of it coming in 1934 and 1935. Fields were abandoned and strong winds raised huge clouds of sterile dust, which then settled into drifts. The resultant Dust Bowl became a primary symbol of the Great Depression. This area—the panhandles of Oklahoma and Texas, eastern Colorado, western Kansas, southwestern Nebraska, and the corner of northeastern New Mexico—emerged as the very figure of a desolate rural landscape marked by human isolation and poverty. The marginalization included even the small bands of criminals that preyed on banks in the area during this time. Led by the likes of John Dillinger and Pretty Boy Floyd, these gangsters were called “dustbowl desperados,” in contrast to the more organized and urbanized gangs, headed by men like Al Capone in Chicago. More than any other writer, John Steinbeck deserves credit for the nearly mythic stature the Dust Bowl took on in the American imagination. In The Grapes of Wrath, his celebrated 1939 novel about Oklahoma farmers driven off their land by soil erosion, Steinbeck gives us many memorable descriptions of the afflicted landscape, as in this passage from the book’s opening pages: “Little by little the sky was darkened by the mixing dust, and the wind fell over the earth, loosened the dust, and carried it away. The wind grew stronger. The rain crust broke and the dust lifted up out of the fields and drove gray plumes into the air like sluggish smoke.”

Jeffery Renard Allen