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BY JERRY TALLMER | Ben Shahn stared down at me from the wall. Two deep-set, coal-black, piercing eyes floating in space above a clown’s nose, a ringmaster’s pursed lips
“Let me tell you how it was back in the day,” artist Shahn said. “We were all kept alive and kicking in those years — writers, painters, actors, dancers, all of us — thanks to Mr. Harry Hopkins.”
Back in the day! Harry Hopkins! I hadn’t much heard that name in forty, fifty, sixty years, Harry Lloyd Hopkins (1890-1946), who came out of the cornfields of Iowa and social work on New York City’s Lower East Side to become (in tandem with Eleanor Roosevelt) the soul and conscience of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal and of F.D.R. himself.
It was Harry Hopkins who, as director of the federal government’s huge Works Projects Administration, became in the pre-war early 1930s the single greatest employer of millions upon millions of Americans, not least the thousands of artists of all shapes and sizes and fields of endeavor who were kept from starvation, literally, by that same W.P.A.
In return, these artists and their arts rewarded that nation with a corollary, a raison d’être, an eternal flame, a beacon of where we’d been, we Americans, and where we might at best, at worst, be going,
“This new New Dealer in the White House today could use a little of that Harry Hopkins mojo, wouldn’t you say?” muttered the Ben Shahn up there in that litho on the wall.
“It’s okay to give out arts medals and have the recipients to dinner and all that, but what about the driving force of the work itself?
“This Obama could put that to better use, seems to me,” said Ben Shahn. “All that energy. Like the energy of these Occupiers. Maybe borrow all that enthusiasm to create something like the Federal Theatre Project’s Living Newspaper productions of those same 1930s.”
Ben Shahn (1888-1969), who arrived in Brooklyn from Lithuania at age 6, is a case in point of a huge talent nurtured by the New Deal. As one of Roy Stryker’s team of photographers for the Depression-era Farm Security Administration — Dorothea Lange was another such — Shahn would send back hard-edged images of the women, children and men of the rural South that foreshadowed masterpieces like James Agee and Walker Evans’s “Let Us Now Praise Famous Men.”
That Ben Shahn was to flower into graphic artist Ben Shahn whose paintings and drawings would cut across and preserve a visual encyclopedia of everything American from Sacco and Vanzetti (and the stone-faced murderers of Sacco and Vanzetti) to a stop-motion frozen moment of pure innocence — kids at variegated play in a large, crowded schoolyard.
If virtually every American graphic artist of consequence in the 20th century came to us via the W.P.A., the F.S.A., the FERA and other New Deal agencies, so — in spades — did the people of theater, including Arthur Miller and Elia Kazan. Again, an object lesson for what might be called, here in (almost) 2012, the Second New Deal.
“They hate me — and I welcome their hatred,” said an ebullient, ready-for-bear, pre-election F.D.R. in 1936, and the same degree of hatred is surely the case with a new cast of characters — once more in spades — yes, pun precisely intended — to this very day. He who scorns history is doomed to repeat it.
Thank you, Mr. Shahn, that will do for today, said the Stage Manager. Say hello for me to your artist daughter Abby, who used to live directly across from where I lived on Perry Street.
Even as a grown man writes those words, he vividly remembers, not for the first time or the fiftieth, the Living Newspaper productions like “One Third of a Nation” that he and the other kids were sent to by Miss Alice Stewart, their social studies teacher at Lincoln. And yes, that show and many others like it — brought forth by Hallie Flanagan’s Federal Theatre Project, as long as she was allowed to do it — played a distinct part in shaping the entire politics, attitude and thought processes of the rest of that writer’s life.
Oh hell, my life. — —
One of the talents kept alive by Harry Hopkins & Co. was a certain Orson Welles. I can see him now, a large beautiful brooding Brutus in his 1937 Mercury Theatre production of “Julius Caesar” as metaphor on Mussolini’s Fascist tyranny. And I can still see, in that show, Norman Lloyd squeaking in terror: “I’m not Cinna the conspirator, I’m Cinna the poet!” as the blackshirted mob closes in on him.
As for poets, the New Deal also spawned Pare Lorentz, whose 1938 “The River” — on the mighty Mississippi and its floods — is to this day as beautiful and powerful as anything by (I learn from Google) one of that film’s admirers named James Joyce.
From as far West as Idaho,
Down from the glacial peaks of the Rockies,
From as far East as New York,
Down from the turkey ridges of the Alleghenies ….
Up there on the wall, Ben Shahn winked one slow eye of approbation.