11 November 2008

New Deal Murals and Populist Violence: Delhi, New York

[Ed. Note from Buster: Here's a guest post from lizzie b on the politics of New Deal murals, the first of a two-part series.]

My grandmother lives in a white-steepled village in the Catskills by the name of Delhi.* The local post office in town is a sturdy brick edifice just off the village green where I sometimes find myself dropping off packages or buying stamps for Grandma. The interior projects the sense of solemnity and authority you might expect of the sole federal government outpost for miles: soaring ceilings, hardwood moldings, gold-leaf lettering, and prominently-placed "Wanted" posters from the FBI.

And then, there's this:

A mob of people with sacks over their faces and horns mounted on their heads have gathered in the moonlight. They're brandishing knives and torches while hounds pace at the feet. Over at the service window, a customer chats with the elderly post-woman about casseroles. Above their heads, a riot brews.

Two questions occur to me: What is going on in this painting? And what is it doing in the post office?

The second question is a little easier. The mural, like the post office itself, was a product of the New Deal. Built at the tail end of the 1930s, the Delhi post office was a beneficiary of the Federal Art Project, an initiative that placed social realist murals in thousands of federal buildings across the country, predominantly in rural locales.** Announcing the project, FDR said that these works of art should be "...native, human, eager and alive... painted for the people of this country by their own kind in their own country, and painted about things they know and look at often and have touched and loved."

In other words: mobs with torches.

But this wasn't just any mob. The sign reading "Down with rent!" and a bit of local history provide the keys to the event depicted in the mural.*** Here's the backstory.

Until the late 1840s, thousands of farmers in New York paid ground rents on life leases to the descendants of colonial land barons in feudal arrangements that ensnared generation after generation. Rent consisted of labor as well as cash. Renters were not allowed to sublease or profit from improvements to properties. Those who fell behind in rent were kicked off the land.

It was all enough to make a man attach horns to his head, declare that he's an Indian and set about lighting fires. And this was a routine occurrence throughout the Hudson Valley and Catskill Mountains on and off for about thirty years, along with tarring and feathering, noisy intimidations, and riots.****

The "down-renters," as these protesters were called, didn't get much political traction until somebody got killed in 1846. That somebody was the sheriff of Delaware Country, of which humble Delhi is the seat. At this point, the governor declared a state of insurrection, the state militia took control of the county, and dozens of down-renters were corralled into hastily constructed log jails. After this episode, public opinion turned in favor of the down-renters and the State Constitution was amended to abolish perpetual leases. A great victory for the common man, indeed.

But what did the artist imagine this work would inspire as citizens glanced up at it while taking care of the quotidian business of paying bills and sending postcards to far-away friends and family? How has the presence of this ode to populist violence at the local post office shaped Delhi's collective identity? Are the local folk still animated by the spirit of insurrection, sticking it to the big land holders and striking fear in the hearts of their lackey enforcers?

I asked my grandmother, who has been wandering in and out of the post office for fifteen years. “A mural? In the post office? I never noticed one.”

Ah, but maybe there's some subliminal progressive consciousness-raising, right?

If so, it's not too widespread. Last Tuesday, Delaware Country went red for McCain.*****


* The name (pronounced such that it rhymes with "sell high," a fact that never fails to elicit snorts from Buster) dates to the 1780s. A powerful state legislator from the region was nicknamed "The Great Mogul." And where did the Great Mogul live?

** This particular mural was painted by Mary Earley (born in St. Louis in 1900, worked in New York, and died in 1992). By every account, women were rare among the ranks of paid New Deal artists.

*** For a summary of the Anti-Rent Wars, see Thomas Summerhill's entry in the Encyclopedia of U.S. Labor and Working-class History, Eric Arnesen, ed., CRC Press, 2006. [Ed. Note from Buster: These events may seem, to the historians in the house, to be remarkable American cousins to English "rough music," French "charivari," and German "Katzenmusik," among other peasant forms of voicing discontent, notably chronicled by the great English historian E.P. Thompson in Customs in Common.]

**** For more on the early American tradition of using "Indian" costumes during social protest (the most famous of which of course is the Boston Tea Party), see Philip Deloria's excellent Playing Indian, a history of white Americans through the decades acting out fantasies of what it means to be Indian.

***** Don't blame Grandma. She's a staunch Donahuе-ist.


Anonymous said...

Great post, and thanks for the cite to Plaing Indian which I hadn't heard of.

Anton Refregier


did a fine set of murals at the San Francisco Rincon Annex Post Office; he also did a set, now destroyed, at a restaurant called the Cookery, on 8th Street at University Place on the eastern edge of Greenwich Village.

kg said...

And some of those FAP murals did cause controversy, at least at the time of their creation:

lizzie b said...

KG, Thanks for the link. You've anticipated the direction my second FAP post is going!

Rootless, Thanks. The photos I found say that the post office annex is no longer used as a post office, but that the building has been restored and opened to the public -- do you know what it is being used for? Is it just a big mural-holder?

Anonymous said...

The long, narrow, high-ceilinged space that houses the murals, and which used to have the post office customer windows, is now pretty much just a mural-housing lobby; the rest of the building has been extensvely reconstructed and is now occupied by offices and retail stores.

We also have the Coit Tower murals, a couple of Rivera walls (one at the SF Art Insitute, one at SF City College), and a thriving mural scene in the Mission District, not archived but alive and changing; the densest concentration is on a narrow, one-block street called Balmy Alley. Worth a visit, he hinted broadly to all who might read this.

Buster said...

Alive and changing, yes. And also, sporadically and unsystematically archived!


It's both graffiti and murals from a collection of locales, including SF's Mission. You can watch things evolve over time.

McFly said...

Love the photo of the mural! The juxtaposition of the sleepy post office and hooded rioters is good and downright creepy. Is there any record of how Mary Earley came to choose the down-rent war for her subject? I'm wondering if it was a well-remembered event among Delhi residents at that time or more a piece of lost local history that she had to work to uncover.

Buster said...

Those who know me know that I can't stand an unfollowed lead. Here's a little further information on Mary Earley.

In addition to the mural at Dell-High, she also did a mural for Middleburg, NY called "Dance of the Hop Pickers," according to this list of New Deal public art in NY State.

More information on her might be available in her artist folder at the Smithsonian, though the listing is unclear; it could just be a flyer or something.

But, then again, maybe it's worth the effort to find out more about Earley, says the New York Times, in a 2002 review of a show at Vassar:

The surprise here is ''Houses by the Track,'' a small, haunting 1937 oil by Mary Earley (1900-92), which shows two sagging clapboards -- one red, one white -- beneath a darkening sky. They are surrounded by oddly thick, pale fence posts with barren trees and telephone poles resembling crosses in the background. It's Golgotha in America.

Looks to me, McFly, like Earley liked things creepy. And I kinda like that.

McFly said...

Thanks for the follow-up, Buster. The image of "Golgotha in America" seems a kindred spirit of sorts to today's post featuring the found poems of "Chinese Scramble" and "Ham for 225." I'll have to look for more of Earley's work.

lizzie b said...

Rootless, I have seen the murals at Coit Tower -- during my first visit to the West Coast, as a dewy-eyed 18-year-old -- and was instantly in love with them. My first in-person exposure to the style, I think.
What's interesting about Coit and the Rincon P.O. is that they make the most explicitly, and pointed to their contemporary audience, political statements of the FAP projects I've seen (violent scenes of labor history, books by Marx, etc.). Not surprising, but still.

McFly, Glad you like the spooky post office in Delhi. That's exactly how I think of it.
I have no idea how well-known the anti-rent war was in Earley's time. In doing research for this post, I learned that the Delaware County Historical Society (which I've never visited) has an extensive display on the topic, and the events are mentioned in the Moon Handbook to New York State. As for contemporary general awareness, I've never heard of the events mentioned by my relatives, but that's not indicative of much...they don't often discuss 175-y.o. events of local history...weirdos.

Here's a pic of Earley's mural in Middleburgh (northeast of Delhi, southwest of Schenectady):

Finally, further research reveals that women, while perhaps rare among the WPA artists (an agency that sponsored free-standing art and crafts works but did *not* produce public murals), women indeed do pop up regularly among the post-office muralists.

Anonymous said...

Lizzie B, is Dell-High in the "Burned Over District"? Is there any overlap in time or personnel or outlook betwen the Western NY State revivalist movement and the Rent Wars?

Buster, you probably know there's a "Dell-High" Calfornia, too:


lizzie b said...

That's interesting, Rootless. The Anti-Rent Wars and the evangelical "burning over" of central and western New York state were happening at roughly the same time, but there's no geographic overlap.

Delhi is in the Catskills, which is east and a little south of the heart of the B.O.D. And the heart of the Anti-Rent Wars were actually east of Delhi, in the Hudson Valley.

The Catskills and the Hudson Valley had been part of New Netherland; hence the Dutch-era land leases. The rest of the upper New York was largely "wildnerness" (no farms or civil divisions) when the Erie Canal came through in 1825 bringing a rush of working people into central and western New York, where there was little established religion or state-controlled mores.
From this wild and experimental environment sprang Shakers, Mormons, Oneidans (who practiced "group marriage"), Spriritualists (see below), and Christian evangelicals of every stripe. And then, the fires kept right on burning, and became the flames of female suffrage and abolition.

By contrast, the areas of former New Netherland had been colonized for several hundred years by that point, and power structures were firmly in place.

Or at least that's my interpretation of what was going on.

Incidentally, your comment came just after I talked on the phone with my aunt (not the aforementioned aunt) about her recent trip to speak with a psychic at Lily Dale, a still thriving (or at least living) community of Spiritualists, founded during the burned-over time.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the clarification, Lizzie B. I actually worked in the Hudson Valley; for most of 1969 I was a freight brakeman on the (now defunct) Penn Central, running between Weehawken NJ (opposite midtown Manhattan) and Selkirk, outside Albany. A spectacular route--Storm King, West Point, and we had a branch line from Kingston westward through the Wallkill River Valley to Port Jervis--but I was vague about the regional history. Well, I still am, but less vague, thanks to you. But I learned the local pronunciation of Coxsackie ("Cook-SOCK-y") and Cohoes ("Ca-HOOZE.")