upstairs closet box

Say Is This The U.S.A. by Erskine CaldwellThere may be treasures in your attic or in some seldom-visited closet. You can never tell.

We stumbled upon quite a treasure the other day, something we did not know was there.

It was a large-format book, in a box of textbooks and other literature, probably from one of our children. Going through this box to help re-stock our Little Free Library, here was this older book with 86 stunning black-and-white photographs.

The book was titled Say Is This The U.S.A. and the authors were Novelist Erskine Caldwell (born in Moreland, Ga.) and Margaret Bourke-White, the famous photographer. My initial question was why they were working on this together.

Then I discovered something: the two were man and wife for a while, which surprised me. The book came from them setting out in 1939 on a 10,000 mile journey back and forth across the United States in search of “the impression and feel of America.” It’s a tremendous view of what our country was going through in those days!

They set off with no itinerary, and randomly picked people, often in small towns, out of phone books or just people they came across to talk to, and to photograph. Many of their stops were with mule traders or laborers. What they produced is a magnificent book, with these great and sometimes haunting black-and-white photographs, usually accompanying Caldwell’s stories, but sometimes the stories stood alone.

Caldwell sought to capture in a few words the situations, reservations, thoughts and feeling of the people of America, not the leaders of any community, but the down-to-earth farmers, or auto mechanics, or even people in jail. The United States at this time was coming out of the Depression, but facing what appeared a new menace in Germany. People were telling stories, or giving opinions about the world, which Caldwell brilliantly captured in his prose. His words were sometimes funny, other times sad, but always compelling.

Margaret Bourke-White’s effort in producing stunning photographs in those days seem monumental today, if nothing else because of the equipment she had to carry. Most of the cameras were huge compared to today’s slip-in-your-pocket cameras. Altogether, Bourke-White had five different cameras, most often the size of the old Speed-Graphic, with her choosing a camera according to the necessity of that photograph. Then, remember, this was in the days that all that film had to be developed and printed. While those old cameras could do beautiful work, it took long lengths of time to load individual film packs and carefully focus, with automatic focusing not in yet. You wonder what she could have done with today’s modern digital cameras, especially without having to go through developing the film.

The original book was priced at $8.95, though a sticker on the back of the book showed whoever bought it paid $3.98. A bargain! It’s a treasure we’ll keep.

North of the Danube by Erskine Caldwell You Have Seen Their Faces Paperback by Erskine CaldwellThen we learned that Caldwell and Bourke-White did two similar books, one in 1937 entitled You Have Seen the Faces, and a second one in 1939, North of the Danube, all three from Da Capo Press in New York. These books are still available, at used sites on the Internet, though at much higher prices.

For sure, I never knew when I was searching through an upstairs closet box of books that I would make such a good discovery. Makes me want to go looking around again.

And say, what’s in your closet you don’t know about?

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Editor's Note: This story first appeared at the Gwinnett Forum.
Elliott Brack

Elliott Brack

Elliott Brack is a native Georgian and veteran newspaperman. He published the weekly Wayne County Press for 12 years; was for 13 years the vice president and general manager of Gwinnett Daily News, and for 13 years was associate publisher of the Gwinnett section of The Atlanta Journal and Constitution. He now publishes, in retirement, Web sites on Gwinnett County, http://www.gwinnettforum.com, and Georgia news, http://www.georgiaclips.com.