TIME natural disaster

How a Dust Storm Inspired a Mass Exodus and a Great Novel

Dust Storm
Arthur Rothstein—The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images Father & sons walking towards shack, pace slowed by dust storm, in the Great Plains in the 1930s

April 14, 1935: The worst dust storm in history descends on the Great Plains—exactly four years before 'The Grapes of Wrath' is published

The dust fell so thickly on this day, April 14, 80 years ago, that even Okies and Texans inured to dust storms thought the end of the world was upon them. The fast-moving, low-hanging black cloud caught them unprepared, trapping motorists in their cars and forcing those who were caught out in the open to drop to their knees and crawl blindly toward shelter, according to an account by the Oklahoma Climatological Survey. “Afternoon brightness [plunged] immediately into midnight darkness,” noted one National Weather Service observer.

It became known as the Black Sunday storm — the worst on record in the drought-stricken Great Plains. An Associated Press reporter and photographer who had tried to outrun the storm in a car were trapped for hours in the suffocating blackness. The next day, the reporter used the term “Dust Bowl” for the first time in print to describe the devastated region: “Three little words — achingly familiar on a western farmer’s tongue — rule life today in the dust bowl of the continent … ‘if it rains,’ ” he wrote.

Four years after Black Sunday, John Steinbeck marked the storm’s anniversary by publishing The Grapes of Wrath, the iconic tale of Oklahoma tenant farmers driven off their land and pushed into California in search of a new life. The fictional Joad family joined the real-life exodus of migrant farmers — roughly a quarter of a million of them, per TIME — who followed the same path out of desperation after the farms of the Great Plains were ruined by drought, overgrazing and unsustainable farming practices.

But in the promised land where Ma Joad dreamed of “a white house with oranges growin’ around,” they encountered hostility and living conditions not much better than in the dusty wasteland they’d left behind.

“Some of them camp in packing-box jungles and drink ditchwater; others are lucky enough to lodge in new government camps with modern plumbing and electric washing machines,” TIME observed in a 1940 article that compared the real-life migrant farmers to Steinbeck’s fictional ones. (Reviled as the penniless Okies were in California, TIME offered an ambivalent defense: “Strangely enough the incidence of venereal disease among the migrants is lower than among native Californians, and they have relatively little tuberculosis. Greatest plague: dietary diseases (scurvy and pellagra), resulting from lack of fresh meat and vegetables.”)

And while The Grapes of Wrath climbed to the top of the bestseller list, won the Pulitzer Prize, and became a “cornerstone of [Steinbeck’s] 1962 Nobel Prize,” according to the introduction to the Penguin Classics edition, TIME was similarly ambivalent about the merits of the book. In its review, TIME concludes:

The publishers believe it is “perhaps the greatest modern American novel, perhaps the greatest single creative work this country has ever produced.” It is not. But it is Steinbeck’s best novel… It is “great” in the way that Uncle Tom’s Cabin was great — because it is inspired propaganda, half tract, half human-interest story, emotionalizing a great theme.

Read the full review of The Grapes of Wrath, here in the TIME archives: Oakies

TIME White House

Here’s How Santa Claus Was Rewarded During World War II

Father Christmas riding in his sleigh, c 1940s.
Science & Society Picture Library / Getty Images An image of Santa Claus from the 1940s

The War Labor Board praised Father Christmas' 'kindly and jovial disposition'

President Franklin Roosevelt must have really loved Santa Claus.

On Oct. 3, 1942, in the midst of World War II and the tail-end of the greatest economic depression to hit the United States, FDR used Executive Order 9250 to establish an Office of Economic Stabilization and a police freezing wages and salaries around the country.

The new policy was meant to formalize federal policy as regards to “civilian purchasing power, prices, rents, wages, salaries, profits, rationing, subsidies, and all related matters” with a view to keeping inflation from spiraling during the war.

As a result, wages were effectively frozen and agricultural prices were settled. The Order’s reach was broad, extending to “all forms of direct or indirect remuneration to an employee or officer for work or personal services performed for an employer or corporation, including but not limited to, bonuses, additional compensation, gifts, commissions, fees, and any other remuneration in any form or medium whatsoever.”

But, as TIME reported that Christmas, exemptions did exist. And, as the War Labor Board ordered on Dec. 4, 1942, one of those exemptions was for a very special someone: “Bona fide Santa Clauses” were to be excluded from the wage-freezing order.

According to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, the average department-store Santa had made $20 a week in 1941, but in 1942 — if there were no pay ceiling — Santas could have bumped that up to $25. When the WLB ruled that Santas were exempted from the wage freeze, they were careful to note that the exemption “shall not be considered as a precedent, since the role of Santa Claus in a war-torn world is unique.” And not just anybody could claim to be Santa: A “bona fide” Santa Claus, TIME reported, should “wear a red robe, white whiskers, and other well-recognized accouterments befitting their station in life.”

MONEY stocks

Stocks Go Up. Stocks Go Down. Deal With It.

The best tool for addressing anxiety about the stock market is information. Unfortunately, that isn't always enough.

Like some of our investment advisory clients, I fear the market sometimes. The way I combat that fear is with information. Markets go up, markets go down. Here’s what’s normal. Here’s where we are.

Last month, in conversation with one of my more nervous clients — when I had finished my list of market facts and cycles, when I had emailed my short and long-term charts — she replied, “And I’m supposed to be content with that?”

Essentially, yes. That’s the answer most financial professionals would have, if they’re honest.

I suppose you may find it strange, but that’s the kind of challenge I’m up for. It’s a challenge to try to keep clients calm when markets are anything but calm.

In 2008, many of my friends who are financial advisers were deeply affected by the trauma that clients experienced as markets worldwide experienced the worst decline since the Great Depression. They remain affected by it. Trauma is not too big of a word.

Today, I don’t fear the downturn. I speak.

In a downturn, people’s attention is most focused on sliding markets. They may hear what you have to say, but they may not listen to your various messages: Markets are risky. They go up and down. If you don’t take market risk, you limit your potential for capturing the gains when they do come. If you do take market risk, you’ve got to be able to see that downturns are a part of the deal. Shall I get out my trusty charts now and show you just how common it is for markets to fluctuate?

Probably I’d bore you if I did. What you probably want to know is what’s a good strategy for dealing with a volatile market.

You could move some money out of equities, of course. Or we could layer into the portfolio some exchange-traded funds that continuously move out of the most volatile stocks and into the less volatile ones. Both these moves will limit returns, but will also make the trends less upsetting.

But even if we lessen the throbbing uncertainty, we cannot eliminate it.

No one has overcome market cycles yet, no matter what they promise. Cue the charts.

And here’s the flip side: For all the confidence the clients might have in us, we can’t tell them when the markets will tumble. We can’t tell them when to run for the hills. Because no one can.

I feel I have gone down this road to every end I can find, looking for the analytics, the portfolio theory, the guru, the portfolio construction expertise, the economic underpinning, the macro-down and the bottom-up way of selecting exactly what would be the best globally diversified portfolio. I’ve made my own deal with risk and return. But none of that work changes the simple fact markets do go down periodically. Personally, I am content with that.

But for that client, this is not a comfortable fact.

It’s humbling, really, to have a discussion in which you cannot provide something which is very much wanted.

But it’s a smart discussion to have.

The client told me that when the market goes up again, I have permission to say, “I told you so.”

The market is up nearly 10% since we had that conversation, so I might. But when times are good in the markets, it’s the same as when times are bad: Clients don’t listen.

———-

Harriet J. Brackey, CFP, is the co-chief investment officer of KR Financial Services, a South Florida registered investment advisory firm that manages more than $330 million. She does financial planning for clients and manages their portfolios. Before going into the financial services industry, she was an award-winning journalist who covered Wall Street. Her background includes stints at Business Week, USA Today, The Miami Herald and Nightly Business Report.

MONEY stocks

October Can Be Frightful for Stocks. But It Can Also Be Fruitful.

THE DARK KNIGHT RISES, Tom Hardy, 2012.
Ron Phillips—Warner Bros/Courtesy Everett Collection

By reputation, October is the scariest month on Wall Street. In reality, this month tends to be either very good or bad for the market. Which one will it be this time around?

This story was updated on Oct. 15, 2014

Is the Ghost of October Past haunting Wall Street again?

By reputation, October is the market’s scariest month. Six years ago, October witnessed several knee-buckling plunges during the financial crisis — an 8% drop on the 9th, an even-bigger 9% fall on the 15th, followed by a 6% slide on the 22nd.

Go back further, to the Asian currency crisis, and the Dow plunged 554 points on Oct. 27, 1997. Go back further still, and there was Black Monday, when the S&P 500 fell 20% on Oct. 19, 1987. And don’t forget that the stock market crash that set off the Great Depression will commemorate its 85th birthday at the end of this month.

At first blush, this October seems to be trying to join this list.

On the last day of September, the Dow Jones industrial average had climbed as high as 17,145. Two weeks later, the benchmark index was more than than 800 points lower, thanks in part to fears over the slowing global economy, escalating Mideast violence, continuing Russian conflict, and quite possibly the spreading Ebola virus.

Yet October gets a bad rep, and some market observers think this could be a buying opportunity.

While October may be pockmarked with a minefield of securities devastation, history is also filled with examples of strong Octobers for the S&P 500, according to the Stock Trader’s Almanac. Among them: 1966 (up 5%), 1974 (16%), 1998 (8%), 2002 (9%), and 2011 (11%).

return

Plus, when you average out historical performance, this autumnal month isn’t so shabby.

In fact, if you look at each month’s returns from 1988 to last September, October turns out to the third best-performer on average, behind December and April. The S&P 500 has gained at least 3.8% in three of the last four Octobers, according to data from Morningstar.

Liz Ann Sonders, chief investment strategist for Charles Schwab, noted that while some investors might be taking profits after a sustained run up for stocks, “we don’t see anything that indicates a more sustained downturn is in store.”

In a note published online, she added:

“We are entering a traditionally positive period seasonally for stocks. According to ISI Research, since 1950, December and November have been the highest returning months of the year, on average. Additionally, according to Strategas Research Group — also since 1950, in midterm election years — October has been the best performing month, followed by November and December. The recent selling we’ve seen could just be setting up for a nice year-end run.”

So is Sonders right? Will this October turn out to be a treat for Wall Street? Or will it just be one big trick?

MONEY Markets

Why You Should Start Preparing for the Next Market Crash

End of the railroad tracks
Pete Ryan—Getty Images/National Geographic

Today’s valuations aren’t to be taken lightly – here’s what you can do.

Several phrases call to mind the dot-com boom and bust, but one of the most recognized started with a 70-year-old man in a bathtub. That man was writing a speech, and he came up with the term “irrational exuberance.” The speech was broadcast on C-SPAN, and stock markets around the world dropped a few percentage points the next day.

That suds-soaked soothsayer was Alan Greenspan. On Dec. 5, 1996, he delivered a speech he called “The Challenge of Central Banking in a Democratic Society.” He said, “But how do we know when irrational exuberance has unduly escalated asset values, which then become subject to unexpected and prolonged contractions as they have in Japan over the past decade?”

Greenspan didn’t say those famous two words (of the 4,322 he uttered) until he was more than three-quarters through his speech. But they’re the only words people remember.

The phrase gained further fame after Yale professor Robert Shiller wrote Irrational Exuberance, a book that explained how stocks were significantly overvalued. The book was published in 2000 in the same month that the bubble began to deflate. Shiller published a second edition in 2005, this time arguing that the housing market was historically off-the-charts overvalued. We all know how that turned out.

But I’m not talking about the history of “irrational exuberance” just for the joy of making you think about Greenspan taking a bath. I’m bringing it up now because Shiller is once again saying that stocks are overvalued.

What’s Next In This Series?: 1929, 2000, 2007…

Beyond his books and the Case-Shiller housing index that he co-created, Shiller is known for the cyclically adjusted price-to-earnings ratio, also known as the CAPE or the Shiller P/E. Rather than relying on just one year’s worth of earnings to measure a P/E, the CAPE uses an average of the past 10 years’ worth of earnings, adjusted for inflation.

So what does the CAPE say now? It’s at 26.3, according to an interview published Sept. 5 by British website This Is Money. “There’s only three major occasions in U.S. history back to 1881 when it was higher than that,” Shiller said. “One is 1929, the year of the crash. The other is 2000, which I call the peak of the millennium bubble, and it was also followed by a crash. And then 2007, which was also followed by a crash.”

Before You Hit the “Sell” Button…

That sounds ominous, but know that Shiller’s research indicates that the CAPE is highly correlated to the stock market’s return over the next 20 years — not the next year. The ratio was very close to today’s figure when Greenspan mentioned “irrational exuberance” in 1996, and the market kept rising for more than three years. Plus, as Shiller pointed out in the interview with This Is Money, although the market eventually crashed after the three times the CAPE reached these levels, that’s not a large sample size, statistically speaking.

Still, today’s valuations are not to be taken lightly. At The Motley Fool we are known for our “buy and hold” investing approach — even sometimes saying that we plan to hold on to great companies “forever.” But we know that “forever and ever” isn’t realistic for everyone.

You’re probably investing today to pay for something in the future, whether it’s retirement, a vacation home, or a family legacy. That means you have to sell sometime. And if that sometime is soon — as in, the next few years if a significant market decline would imperil some important plans you have — now may be a good time. Rebalancing your portfolio and playing it safer is a reasonable strategy when the market is overvalued.

Shiller and I aren’t saying that the market can’t keep rising from here. After all, a historically high P/E could fall to a more normal level if profits rise (i.e., the E in P/E) rather than prices crash (a lower P). But the smart assumption is that returns will be be modest.

How Bad Will It Be For You?

When I create a financial plan, I assume an annual return of 6%. But even that may be too high, according to some experts who argue that today’s CAPE implies a future return of 1% to 5%. Returns will certainly be on the lower end of that scale after you throw some cash and bonds into the investment mix. At that point you’re looking at a portfolio that will struggle to simply keep up with inflation.

But it doesn’t have to be that bad for you. Remember, the CAPE estimates of implied return is for the overall market, which is dominated by large-cap stocks. A few smart tweaks to your portfolio can make all the difference. Throw in some small caps, international stocks (Shiller thinks the U.K. market could be a bargain because it’s below its long-term average CAPE), and prescient stock picks, and I think you can do a lot better. Then keep your spending in check and your savings high. And when you start to feel anxious, take a long, soothing bath. Just make sure Greenspan has hopped out beforehand.

TIME Economy

The Worst Stock Tip in History

Stock Market Crash
New York Daily News Archive / Getty Images Messengers from brokerage houses crowd around a newspaper in New York City on October 24, 1929.

Sept. 3, 1929: The market reaches its highest point before the Great Depression

At this time 85 years ago, Yale economist Irving Fisher was jubilant. “Stock prices have reached what looks like a permanently high plateau,” he rejoiced in the pages of the New York Times. That dry pronunciation would go on to be one of his most frequently quoted predictions — but only because history would record his declaration as one of the wrongest market readings of all time.

At the time he said it, in early October, he had good reason to believe he was right. On Sept. 3, 1929, the Dow Jones Industrial Average swelled to a record high of 381.17, reaching the end of an eight-year growth period during which its value ballooned by a factor of six. That was before the bubble began to burst in a series of “black days”: Black Thursday, October 24, when the market dropped by 11 percent, followed four days later by Black Monday, when it fell another 13 percent; and the next day, Black Tuesday, when it lost 12 percent more.

Fisher, consistently bullish, pronounced the slide only temporary.

In his defense, he was not the only optimist on Wall Street. After witnessing nearly a decade of growth, most economists, investors, and captains of industry believed that the market’s natural direction was up. The beginning of the crash struck them not as a sign of financial doom, but as an opportunity for bargains. Following the first of the black days, the New York Times was full of positive predictions: “I have no fear of another comparable decline,” said the president of the Equitable Trust Company.

Many of those optimists, including Fisher, went broke by mid-November, when the Dow had lost nearly half its pre-crash value. Fisher’s reputation likewise plummeted.

He went on to develop a new theory about what had triggered the crash: overly liberal credit policies that encouraged Americans to take on too much debt, as he himself had done in order to invest more heavily in stocks. By then, however, no one was listening. His theory didn’t gain traction until the 1950s, when, years after his death, Harvard economist Milton Friedman pronounced him “the greatest economist the United States has ever produced.” Fisher’s debt-deflation theory found its way into the spotlight again when overgenerous credit lines and huge debts prompted another U.S. market crash — this time in 2008.

Read Niall Ferguson’s comparison between 1929 and 2008 here in TIME’s archives: The End of Prosperity?

TIME Maya Angelou

Maya Angelou’s Arkansas: Dignity and Poverty in the Depression

African American Young cotton picker, Arkansas, circa 1935
Buyenlarge/Getty Images A young African American Young cotton picker in Arkansas during the Depression.

A Depression-era photo from Arkansas puts into extraordinary relief the life Maya Angelou led, and the distance she traveled in her time

Born in St. Louis, Mo., on April 28, 1928, the author Maya Angelou grew up in Stamps, Ark., witnessing the racial disharmony that defined the Jim Crow American South of her youth. There she cultivated the dignity and her own brand of quiet strength that would mark her writing and her activism for the rest of her life.

The picture above, of a young African-American cotton picker in an Arkansas field in the mid-1930s, is the sort of tableau that Angelou would certainly have encountered throughout her time in the South: namely, a child in rags, put to hard work at a tender age. The idea that this might well have been Maya Angelou’s fate — and that it was the fate of countless others — puts into stark relief the life she led, and the distance she traveled.

 

TIME

Behind the Picture: ‘The American Way’ and the Flood of ’37

In 1937 LIFE published a photograph that, for generations, has been the image of the Great Depression: an economic cataclysm distilled in one frame. But the story behind the picture tells a different, and more fascinating, tale.

Like popular songs and fashions, some photographs have the power to define eras. A fatally wounded Robert Kennedy on the floor of a hotel kitchen, a terrified busboy by his side; a sailor kissing a nurse in Times Square in August 1945; a wounded American Marine reaching out to a stricken comrade on a mud-covered hill in Vietnam in 1966. These and other scenes are seared into our collective visual consciousness. And yet, all memories—whether an individual’s, or a nation’s—can be sketchy, fluid things, and not all landmark photos are exactly what they seem.

Case in point: For countless people who lived through the Great Depression, and millions more who know of the pre-war years only through movies, photos and history books, one image has long seemed to not only capture, but to encapsulate, the period. Margaret Bourke-White’s 1937 picture of African American men, women and children huddled in line before a billboard—on which a car bearing a beaming white family (and their dog!) appears to drive confidently into the future beneath the ultimately ironic slogan, “World’s Highest Standard of Living”—that picture has, for generations, been a defining Great Depression photo, somehow distilling in one frame the anguish that flowed from the economic cataclysm of the Twenties and Thirties.

There’s just one catch: Bourke-White’s now-classic photograph, while it was certainly shot during the Great Depression, was in fact originally only one of many pictures she made while covering a far more particular, localized catastrophe: namely, the devastating Ohio River flood of 1937, which claimed close to 400 lives and left roughly one million people homeless across five states in the winter of that terrible year.

Bourke-White’s picture led off a feature in the Feb. 15, 1937, issue of LIFE magazine that focused on how the flood waters ravaged Louisville, Ky., a city, LIFE wrote, that “will henceforth rank with Johnstown in 1889 and Dayton in 1913 among the worst-flooded cities in American history.” LIFE published a half-dozen Bourke-White photos from Louisville in that issue, and while the “American Way” billboard image was, even then, clearly the strongest of the bunch, it’s worth recalling that it was, after all, made during one specific assignment, covering one specific disaster. That it has grown in subsequent decades into an iconic image that epitomizes an entire age perhaps says as much about Bourke-White’s artistry, and LIFE magazine’s influence, as it does about the (understandable) human tendency to look for meaning—or connection, or solace—in what’s before our eyes.

Here, LIFE.com offers some of the photographs Bourke-White made, and that LIFE published, in the aftermath of the Great Ohio River Flood of 1937, as well as a number of equally powerful pictures from the same assignment—photos that never made it into the magazine, but nevertheless commemorate both a great photojournalist and the dignity of people enduring what must have felt, at the time, like an age of unending troubles.


Ben Cosgrove is the Editor of LIFE.com


 

TIME photo essay

Bridging Eras: Photographer Sam Comen's Travels Through Lost Hills

Photographer Sam Comen wanted to find a new way to explore the American historical narrative, so he turned to the small town of Lost Hills, Calif. to illustrate the duality of the immigrant-American experience.

In the 1930s, in the depths of the Great Depression, Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s Farm Security Administration commissioned photographers like Dorothea Lange, Walker Evans and Arthur Rothstein to document the struggles of countless rural families as they pursued “the American way of life.” Some photographers, Lange in particular, were drawn to the world of migrant laborers in America’s west.

“Those photographers were able to capture a sense of being,” Los Angeles-born photographer Sam Comen told TIME, describing the greatest FSA photographers’ images and their impact on the great American narrative. “Those were the photographs that fed me as a photographer, and I wanted to find a new way to explore a similar American historical narrative.”

This search took him to Lost Hills, a town of fewer than 3,500 people in Southern California located in the same dusty (although transformed) landscape that the field worker communities documented by Lange and company once called home.

“Lost Hills was too much to ignore,” Comen said, describing his reaction to his first visit to the town. “In the same locale where migrant workers had demonstrated that classic frontier spirit and pursued the infamous American dream, the same story was being replayed today.”

That American story is one of struggle and success, of stasis and metamorphosis, of the American immigrant experience and what might well be called the New American Dream. For Comen, Lost Hills is notable because it is typical: a dusty town in the American west, home to ordinary men and women: from immigrants and long-time residents to farm laborers and oil workers.

The project was conceived in the year’s following Comen’s graduation from Northwestern University. Having spent his academic years working at the Daily Northwestern, the Communications and English dual major was moved to document contemporary America’s trials after hearing President Obama employ recession-era rhetoric while discussing the strained American economy in 2009.

Comen wondered if scenes similar to those that played out during the Great Depression were being repeated in today’s strained economy.

But Lost Hills also had something of a mythic character, Comen acknowledged. For example, the celebrated (and, by some, reviled) Mexican-American civil and labor rights activist, Cesar Chavez, organized protests within an hour’s drive of Lost Hills, while the characters in John Steinbeck’s classic novel, The Grapes of Wrath, struggled for jobs, land and dignity in the same hardscrabble landscape captured on film by FSA photographers.

Visually, Comen decided to eschew the traditional approach to documentary photography in his Lost Hills work, choosing instead to artificially light the environment, capturing a documentary topic with the bright color palette and pop-lighting often seen in commercial photography.

Hoping to catch his viewers off-guard, Comen said that his his stylistic choice served as much to break down assumptions — about photography, history and the new American narrative — as to illustrate the duality of the immigrant-American experience.

Similar to American pioneers who chose to migrate west in the 20th century, today’s residents of Lost Hills arrived from far-flung territories eager to construct a life of their own. Unlike the classic American tale, however, these characters are painted as outsiders living within: immigrants —often reduced to “undocumented” or “illegals” by suggestion alone— who have decided to live in American while preserving the cultures they carried with them.

This struggle to find a balance between competing modes of life can be seen most clearly in the photo of 23-year-old Jose, a successful, hard-working young Mexican immigrant employed by a local oil field. Like countless immigrants to the U.S., Jose works to support his extended family. In many ways, Comen said, he embodies the traditional American frontier, or pioneering, spirit. But Jose spends his days off training for equestrian and lariat events — activities deeply associated with his native country. Within the new life he hopes to build, there is an abiding respect for — and a yearning to preserve — his Mexican heritage.

“This image is emblematic about what’s going on in Lost Hills,” Comen told TIME, noting the competing identities of Lost Hills residents make them vulnerable —that they might be, in his words, “denied their place in the American historical record.”

In light of these challenges, Comen hopes that Lost Hills, as a document, can incorporate Mexican and Chicano workers’ voices into the national debate over America —its economy, its mythology, and its history.

“Lost Hills is about more than illuminating life in the town itself,” Comen said. “It’s a metaphor for today’s American experience.”

 


Sam Comen is a photographer based in Los Angeles.

Adam McCauley is a writer and photographer based in New York.


TIME Out There

‘American Photographs’ by Walker Evans

The 75th anniversary edition of Walker Evans' American Photographs, published by the Museum of Modern Art, reinforces the power and mastery of the legendary photographer's work.

Like the work of most great artists, the best of Walker Evans’ pictures are marvels of contradiction. Or, rather, they acquire their power through the contradictions they deftly reconcile. One especially striking example: a photograph from 1930 (slide 11 in this gallery) comprised of elements so incongruous that, taken together, they really should not bear scrutiny for more than a few moments before the viewer, shrugging indifferently, moves on.

But through Evans’ uncanny visual alchemy, that particular photograph’s disparate graphic elements—family photos; a half-hidden American flag; dried flowers; a truly hideous plant growing with almost unseemly vitality from a battered wooden bucket—appear not only to belong together, but to need one another in order to make sense.

MOMA

As seemingly chaotic and even unappealing as the image might feel at first glance, those wildly variant aspects of the photo—the flag, the plant, the faces—somehow cohere into something far more than the sum of their parts. Despite its initially jarring message, “Interior Detail of Portuguese House” does not, in fact, spurn scrutiny—it commands, and rewards, scrutiny. And what’s more amazing is that, after a time, the photograph appears to be gazing back. It is the viewer, and not the picture, that is the subject of an unblinking inquiry—and it’s unsettling.

But if Evans’ pictures are evidence of a rare facility for both creating and resolving contradictions, his career might be seen as his masterpiece. A fierce, determined artist, Walker Evans was for decades on staff at Time Inc.—a salaried editor at, of all places, Fortune magazine from the 1940s until the mid-1960s. That the man behind one of the seminal photographic efforts of the 20th century—the 1938 masterwork, American Photographs—went to the office each day, like any other nine-to-fiver, might astonish those photography buffs who have always, understandably, imagined Evans as nothing if not an irresistible creative force.

And yet, here again, Evans’ intrinsic contradictions—managed as Rodin might handle a lump of clay, or Koufax a curveball—are ultimately resolved in the photographs, singly and collectively, that he produced. He is both iconoclast and working stiff; company man and virtuoso.

This year marks the 75th anniversary edition of American Photographs, reissued by the Museum of Modern Art in an edition that recaptures, for the first time since its original release, what might be called the book’s radical purity. (The book itself, as a physical object, is a pleasure to hold; the duotone plates are gorgeous and crisp, and the size of this edition—an at-once solid and easily handled 7.75″ x 8.75″ hardcover—does justice to the serious, unfussy, thrilling nature of the work inside.)

As in the first edition, Evans’ pictures in the MoMa release appear only on the right-hand side as one turns each page, the utterly blank page on the left—without even a caption to distract the eye—adjuring one to look, to really look, at each picture, one after the other. And as the pages (slowly, slowly) turn, Evans’ accomplishment grows more evident, more impressive, more engaging.

The standard line on Evans is that no one—with a camera or a paintbrush—had ever captured America in quite the clear-eyed, unsentimental, honest way that he did. But that patently true declaration still fails to encompass the scale and the sustained excellence of his achievement. In American Photographs, in images made during the Great Depression in places as divergent as Pennsylvania, Alabama, New York City and Havana, Cuba, Evans did not hold a mirror up to his country and his time: no mirror ever made, after all, could so clearly reflect what he saw, and what he wanted others to see.

Instead, each and every one of Evans’ pictures provides a window—or an unadorned window frame—from which even the glass has been removed, and through which we witness a scene of such clarity and immediacy that our own contemporary surroundings, if only for a moment, seem somehow less freighted with history. Less grounded. Less real.

The details of a house in Maine (slide 17)—the surprisingly jaunty, seemingly tilted windows; the elegant shapes, graceful patterns and, above all, the textures that give the structure its personality—are not merely the handiwork of people who obviously cared about their hard work; the details of the house are reminders of, and tributes to, the enduring value of hard work and the attention to craft.

The stance, the clothing and the unreadable expression on the face of a lean, dapper citizen of Havana in 1932 (slide 9) are not merely separate elements of a snapshot: like the details of a portrait by an Old Master, they combine to suggest a time, a place and an attitude (defiant, dignified) that have survived the passing decades intact—even if, by now, the man himself must be long dead.

These pictures, and the other pictures in American Photographs, are intensely daring precisely because the man who made them worked so hard to hide—to efface—the effort that went into creating them. Each image stands on its own, while at the same time each picture references the photograph that comes before, and the photograph that follows. It is a straightforward book that stirs complex emotions. It is a treasure.

‘Walker Evans: American Photographs (Seventy-Fifth Anniversary Edition)’ is available through the Museum of Modern Art.

Ben Cosgrove is the editor of LIFE.com.

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