[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.