Linda Gordon: Democratic Storyteller

Her recent books, including a biography of Dorothea Lange, reach new readers
Linda Gordon in the Pforzheimer Reading Room of the Schlesinger Library. She began using the library during her first academic job, at UMass Boston, and wrote four books relying on its resources. Photo by Jessica ScrantonLinda Gordon in the Pforzheimer Reading Room of the Schlesinger Library. She began using the library during her first academic job, at UMass Boston, and wrote four books relying on its resources. Photo by Jessica Scranton
By Pat Harrison

One of the most highly regarded historians of 20th century America, Linda Gordon BI ’84, RI ’14 has evolved from writing scholarly history books for a small but avid audience to producing general-interest history books for a wide readership. With her two most recent works, she gained new readers while retaining her academic authority. She became a democratic storyteller.

Gordon was raised in Portland, Oregon, by activist parents—her mother in the Democratic Party and her social-worker father as a member of the Oregon Commission on Aging. She earned her undergraduate degree from Swarthmore and her doctorate at Yale.

During her first academic job—at the University of Massachusetts Boston from 1968 to 1984—she began using Radcliffe’s Schlesinger Library, the only library in the Harvard system that’s open to the public. “There was this informal women’s history group,” Gordon says, “and we lived at the Schlesinger. There was nothing else to support us.”

Gordon relied on the Radcliffe library to research her history of birth control, Woman’s Body, Woman’s Right: A Social History of Birth Control in America—still considered the definitive book on the subject—and her study of the origins of welfare. “Those two books were really formed by the Schlesinger,” she says. The library was also a source of documents for two collections she edited on women’s history: America’s Working Women: A Documentary History, with Rosalyn Baxandall and Susan Reverby BI ’88, RI ’03 (Random House, 1976), and Dear Sisters: Dispatches from Women’s Liberation, with Rosalyn Baxandall (Basic Books, 2000).

Gordon says two libraries hold special meaning for her: the Schlesinger and the New York Public Library, where she was a fellow at the Cullman Center for Scholars and Writers. “These are libraries that anybody can walk into and use,” she says. “They are completely democratic, and I love that. I understand why some libraries have to limit access, but in a way I believe that libraries belong to the people and that everybody should have access.”

For 15 years—from 1984 to 1999—Gordon taught at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, where she held the Vilas Distinguished Research Professorship. In 1999 she began teaching at New York University, where she is a University Professor of the Humanities.

A Sharp Turn

In the 1990s, Gordon made a dramatic turn in her writing. The Great Arizona Orphan Abduction (Harvard University Press, 1999) is a riveting account of what happened when a train carrying 57 Irish toddlers arrived in Clifton-Morenci, Arizona, in 1904. After learning that the children—wards of the Foundling Hospital in New York City—would be living with Mexican families, a mob of Anglo vigilantes kidnapped the toddlers. The hospital sued to get the orphans back, and the case went all the way to the Supreme Court, which ruled in favor of the vigilantes. Gordon used the story to explore race, class, and gender, with the strongest emphasis on race.

“My contribution, if I made any,” she told the Radcliffe Quarterly in 2000, “was to get readers to see the structures that made Anglos feel that this kidnapping was a reasonable and honorable action. On the other hand, I wanted very much to avoid romanticizing the Mexicans as if they were some perfect people compared to the Anglos.” For her orphans book, Gordon received the Bancroft Prize from Columbia University for the best book in American history and the Beveridge Award for the best book on the history of the Western Hemisphere.

She followed up with another popular work, a hefty biography of the 20th-century photographer Dorothea Lange, well known for her Depression–era images, including Migrant Mother.

Although Gordon knew very little about photography when she began the project, she educated herself and wrote not only about Lange’s work but also about the photographers in her circle, such as Ansel Adams and Edward Weston. Dorothea Lange: A Life Beyond Limits (Norton, 2009) won even more prizes than her orphans book, including another Bancroft Prize. Only a handful of historians have won the Bancroft twice.

Asked about this shift in her work, Gordon says, “To tell you the truth, I was bored. I had spent so much time in the National Archives, looking at papers about government policy and pressure groups. I decided I wanted to tell a story.” It’s a passion that continues to inform her writing. Her Radcliffe Institute project—which explores social movements of the 20th century, including settlement houses, the Montgomery bus boycott, and New Deal public artists—will include biographical sketches of participants. And Gordon is thinking about writing another biography.

It’s All about the Writing

During her Radcliffe fellowship, Gordon has used her George Macaulay Trevelyan Lectures, which she delivered at Cambridge University in 2012, as the basis of her next book.

Most scholars who deliver Trevelyan Lectures, an endowed series named for a famous historian of England, publish them as separate pieces, but Gordon wanted to add to her lectures and integrate the pieces into a book.

She hadn’t included the Ku Klux Klan in her Cambridge lectures, but she spent the fall semester at Radcliffe writing a chapter about it. “I don’t want people to think that all social movements are wonderful,” she says. “And there’s no question that in the 1920s the Klan was the biggest social movement in the United States.”

Gordon is a slow writer, she says, but she’s made great headway this year with assistance from her two Radcliffe Research Partners, Cansu Colakoglu ’16 and Alasdair Nicholson ’16. They have conducted research for Gordon’s chapter on New Deal public art, especially the post office murals that were painted in all states. The students are looking at images of the murals online and examining regional differences among them.

Gordon also delivered a well-attended lecture at the Institute this spring, “Visual Democracy: The Photography of Dorothea Lange,” available online in full.

Nancy F. Cott, then the Carl and Lily Pforzheimer Foundation Director of the Schlesinger Library and the Jonathan Trumbull Professor of American History at Harvard, introduced Gordon’s lecture.

“The breadth of Linda Gordon’s interests and publications has been extraordinary, and the results of her scholarship have been transformative,” Cott said. “She has offered brilliant enlightenment and encouragement to students and colleagues over many years, in a stream of works marked by originality, historical insight, intellectual acuity, and compelling relevance.”

Next year Gordon will return to the teaching she loves at NYU, where she will continue to encourage her students to avoid jargon and look for stories to tell and people to portray in the histories they write.

Of her own work, she says, “I want to write in such a way that any reasonably intelligent person with a high school education can understand me.”


For Gordon’s chapter on New Deal public art, she and her undergraduate Radcliffe Research Partners, Cansu Colakoglu ’16 and Alasdair Nicholson ’16, studied regional differences among the post office murals that artists painted throughout the country.

Fort Lee Main Post Office, NJ: Henry Schanakenberg, Washington at Fort Lee, 1941, oil on canvas.Fort Lee Main Post Office, NJ: Henry Schanakenberg, Washington at Fort Lee, 1941, oil on canvas.

Claremore, OK: Randall Davey, Will Rogers Roping, 1939, tempera.Claremore, OK: Randall Davey, Will Rogers Roping, 1939, tempera.

Fort Lee Main Post Office, NJ: Henry Schanakenberg, The Hikers by the River, 1941, oil on canvas.Fort Lee Main Post Office, NJ: Henry Schanakenberg, The Hikers by the River, 1941, oil on canvas.

PUBLIC ART OF THE 1930s

By Linda Gordon

I am not the first to recognize the similarities between American Depression–era public art and socialist realism in the Soviet Union, or the similarities between Nazi art and Soviet art. Several critics—notably refugees from totalitarian regimes—have argued that the 1930s produced a uniquely totalitarian art. But I find this too simple. However critical one might be of the Roosevelt New Deal regime, and however much we must acknowledge the presence of fascist movements in the United States during the 1930s, we cannot consider the United States totalitarian.

My hypothesis is that the style known as social realism or socialist realism reflects cultural, political, and economic bases common to the United States, Germany, and the USSR, and that each country’s 1930s nationalism incorporated these values.

I have identified eight visual tropes—or conventions—in this public art:

  • “Realism,” which in this case means representational
  • Honoring and heroizing “common people”
  • Monumentality
  • Mass pageantry
  • Identifying the “soul” of the nation with rural people
  • Racial whiteness
  • Conventional gender ideals
  • State-building

There were of course differences in public art among the three countries. Nazi and Soviet politicization of art was more doctrinaire and took the form of a binary: you were for the regime or you were a traitor. Leaders of both countries divided art into Aryan/German or Jewish on the one hand and bourgeois or socialist on the other. We can see this in the level and form of coercion applied. The Nazis simply prohibited formalist art, along with anything produced by Jews or gays. Germany subordinated all art to Goebbels’s Ministry of Popular Enlightenment and Propaganda. Already in 1937, Hitler was threatening to send those who made such “trash” to concentration camps.

The Soviet Union made it impossible to earn money as an unapproved artist and difficult even to get materials by creating a state monopoly on canvas, paper, paints, plaster, bronze, and marble. The Soviet Communist Party created the agency known as Agitprop, the Committee for Agitation and Propaganda, to supervise and enforce correctness. But the Party never eliminated entirely the influence of the brilliant avant-garde design of the early revolutionary years.

The absence of a similar political apparatus in the United States does not mean that there was no coercion. Two forces constrained American art during the 1930s.

One was the federal arts program that paid thousands of artists whose usual sources of income—commissions, sales, and teaching jobs—had disappeared owing to the Depression. This program discouraged unapproved images, such as those showing people of color or women in unconventional roles, along with nonrepresentational styles.

The other form of coercion was of course the market. When you depend on selling your work or teaching, you must produce what others approve and will pay for. I do not mean to suggest that the economic coercion of a capitalist economy is equivalent to persecution or active attempts to prevent artists from making art. But many US artists gladly accepted the censorship of their art in return for wages.

In all three countries, it may well be that the most powerful coercion was social pressure and the artists’ own nationalistic enthusiasm.

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2014