Plowed Under: Food Policy Protests and Performance in New Deal America by Ann Folino White (review)
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Plowed Under: Food Policy Protests and Performance in New Deal America. By Ann Folino White. (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2014. Pp. 322. $75.00 cloth; $30.00 paper)

“All the world’s a stage,” William Shakespeare once wrote, “and all the men and women merely players.” In Plowed Under, Ann Folino White embraces this truism of performance to provide a fresh and important look at New Deal America and the public protests that arose over one of the most controversial programs of the Roosevelt administration: the Agricultural Adjustment Act (AAA). Adroitly intertwining theater studies and history, White reveals the “theater of food” that stood at the center of public discussion on the AAA and the sophisticated, theatrical strategies employed by both government officials and citizens in their respective claims on the program. These cultural performances, White posits, advances a broader conceptualization of the political and social history of the New Deal, highlighting the producer ethic of citizenship that helped bridge the divides of race and gender among protesters and underpinned their moral argument of a citizen’s right to food amid economic crisis. With some faults, White’s effort succeeds in remapping the cultural and social landscape of food politics during the New Deal and in the process unearths new paths of research for scholars on the era.

Drawing from an array of sources, such as contemporary photographs, newspaper accounts, correspondences, government documents, and other archival material, White examines public performance around the AAA through five case studies, all of which offer unique perspectives on the program and its entanglement with the era’s worsening economic depression. The book begins with a lucid analysis of the United States Department of Agriculture exhibit at the 1933 World’s Fair in Chicago and the promise of plenty the exhibit promoted for America in its exaltation of industrial agriculture and scientific management. For visitors in Chicago, the newly minted AAA was trumpeted as just the latest step in this march of progress. White then juxtaposes the government’s public promotion of the AAA [End Page 122] with three case studies of public protest that targeted the program in the following years: the 1933 Wisconsin dairymen’s strike; the 1935 meat boycott of Polish housewives in Hamtramck, Michigan; and the 1939 demonstration of Missouri sharecroppers. Like her discussion of the USDA exhibit, White provides a rich and astute analysis of the demonstrations that not only highlights the theatrical strategies of the protesters but, more important, lays bare the cultural symbolism of citizenship and the producer ethic that infused their public performances. In the cases of Polish housewives and African American sharecroppers, White shows how such symbolism helped bridge the social divides of race and gender. The book fittingly concludes with the 1936 production of Triple-A Plowed Under, a play by the Federal Theatre Project that critiqued the social and economic implications of the AAA. At root, the play argued for the government to end the suffering of America by regulating the nation’s amoral, capitalist economy and restore each citizen’s opportunity to make their own destiny—an argument that centered on a citizen’s moral right to food.

Plowed Under presents a fresh look at the cultural and social history of the New Deal, more specifically one of the era’s most debated programs. The differing perspectives White examines in response to the AAA sheds important light on the public’s evolving interpretation of Roosevelt’s policies and the theatrical strategies that underpinned their public response. While histories of the era have afforded little attention to such protests, or have only included them within specific veins of research, White skillfully interweaves these diverse perspectives to document the shared anxiety that different segments of the population harbored during the agricultural crisis, and how these anxieties were strategically expressed—both culturally and theatrically—on the ground.

These contributions notwithstanding, the book will raise some critiques from New Deal historians, especially in regard to its lack of context. White does not fully discuss the supply management mechanisms of the AAA, how it stemmed from the belief that the economic woes of agriculture had partly led to the Great Depression, [End...