‘Worst Hard Time,’ ORI book author Timothy Egan visits Oswego State

(Perry Kennedy | The Oswegonian)
(Perry Kennedy | The Oswegonian)

Timothy Egan, author, journalist, recipient of the Pulitzer Prize and opinion columnist for The New York Times, visited Oswego State on Wednesday to speak about his book, “The Worst Hard Time: The Untold Story of Those Who Survived the Great American Dust Bowl.”

“The Worst Hard Time,” winner of the 2006 National Book Award for nonfic- tion, chronicles the stories of Americans who stayed in the Dust Bowl during the Great Depression.

The book was selected for the 2013 Oswego Reading Initiative and has been used widely across campus in disciplines as diverse as economics, history and creative writing.

Egan spoke in the Campus Center auditorium for the creative writing department’s Living Writers Series at 3 p.m. to a select audience, mainly consisting of students in the Living Writers Series course and again at 7 p.m. in the Hewitt Union ballroom to a much wider audience.

As a majority of the students and faculty he was speaking to in his first talk were involved in creative writing, Egan geared his remarks toward his origins as a writer, his thoughts about writing and his writing process.

Egan said he had known he wanted to be a writer from a young age, but did not know what he wanted to do in writing until he discovered his passion for journalism.

“It’s a wonderful way to go into other people’s lives,” Egan said about reporting.

From journalism, a field in which Egan gained enough success to become a reporter and later a columnist for The New York Times, Egan moved into creative nonfiction, with a focus on history. Other than “The Worst Hard Time,” Egan has written “The Big Burn: Teddy Roosevelt and the Fire that Saved America” and “Short Nights of the Shadow Catcher: The Epic Life and Immortal Photographs of Edward Curtis.”

But Egan does not like to call himself a historian. He said his focus is on telling a story, any story, and telling it well.

“I write because I want to connect,” Egan said. “That’s what you write for, is to find an audience. If you can find an audience, the writer’s life is a wonderful life.”

At his later talk, Egan focused more on the content of “The Worst Hard Time”—the history of the Dust Bowl, the mistakes that caused it and its significance to our world today.

“What was it like to live in a time when the Earth turned on you?” Egan asked the audience at the opening of the talk. “A time when parents even gave up on their children because they couldn’t raise them? A time when dust pneumonia could take a life away?”

Egan said the most important thing he gained through his research was not just an appreciation for the tough, resilient people who lived through the greatest man-made ecological disaster of all time, but the understanding that the Dust Bowl is a parable for our relationship with the environment.

“When you push the land too hard, the land pushes back,” Egan said.

“The Worst Hard Time” is relevant for our age, Egan said, because of our current concerns about climate change. Egan continued to say that regardless of what politicians may want people to believe, the Dust Bowl is proof that man can change the Earth. He hopes that his readers will make that connection and be more cognizant of the ways in which history seems to be repeating itself.

Egan’s overall purpose in writing “The Worst Hard Time” was to tell a story that had not been told, before it could be lost forever.

“John Steinbeck wrote one take of the Dust Bowl in ‘The Grapes of Wrath,’” Egan said, “but that wasn’t the whole story.”

The story of the “Oakies” who left the Oklahoma Dust Bowl for California had been told by Steinbeck, Egan said, but the stories of those who stayed had never been told. And that was what Egan set out to do. Egan traveled all over “No Man’s Land” to collect the stories of the still-living Americans who endured the Dust Bowl.

“When I interviewed these people, I didn’t see 90-year-olds,” Egan said, “I saw 17-year-olds.”

As an author, Egan said he hopes his books will provide immortality for the people whose stories he’s told and for himself.

“I wanted something to outlive me,” Egan said.