Federal Writers' Project - Life Histories/2013/Fall/Oscar Vaughn
This page is connected with English 105 at University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill - Federal Writers' Project - Life Histories
Oscar Vaughn was a bootlegger who lived with his wife in Hendersonville, North Carolina through the early twentieth century. His involvement in the commerce of illegal homemade liquor demonstrates what it meant to live as an impoverished man during the Great Depression.
Throughout most of his life, Oscar Vaughn attempted to earn money as a farmer, though he was never successful. Thus, he had to resort to creating and selling his own liquor. When the Great Depression was at its worst, Vaughn’s wife brought in extra income by caring for their neighbors’ children while he earned money through bootlegging whiskey until he was caught and imprisoned. Vaughn’s life in prison was miserable, at best. During every mealtime, the prison guard would serve him food that seemed to be fit for animals. According to Vaughn, the guard would purposely kick the food tray toward the middle of the cell because he knew how much Vaughn disliked its smell. After bearing such torture, Vaughn swore he would return to farming as soon as he was released from prison so that he would never have to come back and taste the food. Once he was released from prison, Vaughn held true to his word. He attempted to farm, though his efforts were once again futile; he injured himself on his first day at work. Vaughn’s injury was so serious that he was bedridden for several days, relying on his wife to take care of him and earn enough money to keep them both alive. By the time he had recovered, he decided to regress once again to bootlegging. Vaughn was caught again in December of 1938 and returned to prison, though he felt no remorse. He did not want to be a bootlegger; it was a nearly fruitless profession, but he was desperately poor and saw no other options. Vaughn thusly justified his actions as moral. In fact, Vaughn accused wealthier people of being hypocritical because they also made their own liquor to secretly drink in trying times; the only difference between them and him was that he sold his moonshine.
Oscar Vaughn’s involvement in the trade of moonshine embodied the struggles of many Americans to make ends meet while adhering to society’s standards during the Great Depression. Farming became an unfeasible profession for the thousands of families who had been affected by inflated crop prices following the First World War, creating a significantly larger demand for continually diminishing employment. Thus, people like Vaughn were forced to create their own work to survive. Since the Great Depression came shortly after Prohibition, creating and selling moonshine was still a popular – yet punishable – crime. People like Vaughn took advantage of an illegal line of work because it did not require that they compete for employment. An added advantage of selling moonshine was the straightforward business model: one historian explained that “the ‘moonshiner’ sought to avoid the payment of the Federal tax on manufactured distilled spirits.” The incomes of people in Vaughn’s profession were safe from the hands of government or any employer; moonshiners worked for themselves. Vaughn could hardly afford food and shelter; he surely could not sacrifice a portion of his income for taxation. His profession represents the intense struggle faced by many impoverished families affected by financial crisis.
Shifting Gender Roles in the American Home
Traditional gender roles disintegrated as poverty worsened during the Great Depression. While men were expected to provide sustenance for their families in early-twentieth-century America, experts observe that “many women had no choice but to work,” some of them “providing the sole source of support for themselves or their families.” Vaughn’s wife was no exception; she had to work to ensure that the couple made enough money to survive, especially after Vaughn injured himself farming. The Vaughn family’s domestic situation demonstrates that women’s roles became increasingly prominent and influential in the American home because necessity required that women become more involved in order to help sustain the family. Whether or not society agreed with such a change, it had little say in the matter; Vaughn never commented on his wife’s role in their home because he likely understood that he had no choice but to let her work, especially since he knew of no better way to earn money. Impoverished families in the 1930s had little intention of affecting the role of women in American society; rather, such change grew out of necessity, as shown through the assistance of Oscar Vaughn’s wife.
Federal Writers’ Project
Oscar Vaughn’s interview was conducted by Frank Massimino in December of 1938 on behalf of the Federal Writers’ Project, a government project set in place by the Roosevelt Administration as part of the New Deal. The Federal Writers’ Project was instituted to ensure the employment of American writers while better understanding the lives of those whom the Great Depression affected most. While Massimino was one of many professional writers who participated in the program, he cannot necessarily be considered a reliable source. According to one expert, “the federal writers often have a somewhat blurred historical perspective . . . This is to some extent a product of the FWP's attempt to present . . . a panoramic view of the nation.” The writers employed by the Federal Writers’ Project were not required to have any knowledge of or experience in fields that related to the connection between the Great Depression and worsening poverty. As such, writers focused on literary quality, even if doing so meant leaving inconsistencies between their published work and the reality of their subjects’ lives. Massimino’s introduction to Vaughn’s story is an eerie description of his demeanor as he sits in his unlit living room, silently sipping on his own liquor. This description sets an almost dreary atmosphere, seemingly as an attempt to portray Vaughn in a particular light. Whether or not Massimino did this to dramatize the proceeding story is uncertain, but the narrative’s introduction nonetheless has potential to instill a certain bias in the reader before Vaughn tells his story.
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