When people ask me what I do, I often say that I’m a homesteader. But it never works. People either don’t understand the word, or, if they do, they’re notably suspicious of my claim and inevitably change the subject.
But Jack Whinery, shown here with his wife and children in a Library of Congress photo I recently discovered, was sure enough a homesteader, the genuinely-poor, Depression-era kind we know of via Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath.
Has a poor homesteader’s family ever presented itself more beautifully then Jack Whinery’s? I don’t believe so. But neither do I believe that Jack would have fully agreed that he and his family were poor. Look at the man for a moment: at his jaw, his eyes, his face, his physical strength, his innate intelligence. Look at the way he holds his son. Look at his clean clothes. Notice how his person centers both the room and the photo. These are not the characteristics we generally attribute to the poor.
And Jake’s wife: I am not convinced that she is as poor-weary as she appears. True, she has had five kids and she is still tending to these kids, and true she is raising them in inconvenient conditions. But I am certain the face she presents here can (and does) smile. The brightness of her kids’ faces proves it, for kids with bright faces necessarily have mothers that smile.
As for the family as a whole consider their intimacy, how their manner of gathering here is surprisingly natural for such an unnatural setting, and consider how willingly (if cautiously) they seem to share their lives. The Whinery family is undoubtedly a functional family, a family that talks together, eats together, works together, plays together. This is a family that will stay together. This is a family that, while poor individually, is rich collectively.
The juxtaposition of the wife/mother and the calendar girl in red is a central part of the photo’s power. To understand this, notice the closeness of the two faces; notice, too, the similarity in physical appearance of the two faces. It is a incongruous match up, to be sure, but that’s the point. Because the irony instigated by the pairing, the enormous gulf between the women that it reveals, is what moves us—fact is stood against fiction, “how it is” is placed against “how it could have been”—and so the photo’s drama is felt and understood.
Clearly, Jack Whinery and his wife could have been “successful” in the American sense of the word: She could have been a calendar girl, he a suit on Wall Street. The energy they project (individually and as a family) make this obvious. What is not obvious, however, is whether Jake and his wife would have wanted that kind of success, whether they would have chosen that life direction if they had had the opportunity.
What seems to have been long lost from the collective American psyche is the fact that a small minority of Americans will always (and happily) operate from unorthodox definitions of “success.” That is why I so admire Jack Whinery and his wife. For in spite of their humble situation, they appear content. In fact, if you pardon their nervousness, they could be said to flourish. If we could see beyond the walls of their home, I believe we would learn additional reasons for this: We would see their large garden, their farm animals and outbuildings and good fences, a few flowers, maybe an old truck. Things would be orderly, things would work. If we were to show up one day unannounced at the Whinery homestead, Jake and his wife would be pleased to meet us. They would be proud to show us around, and they would wish us to appreciate all that we saw. The Whinery kids, jumping up and down and acting silly, would likely lead the way. There would be lots of laughter. Jake’s wife would step away at some point, and when she returned she would offer us tumblers full of good cold water.
Photo is by Russell Lee. To view similar photos follow the link below: