Auden’s Documentary On America

From the annals of little known Auden facts: did you know there was a distinguished set of documentaries he helped write and produce, including one about America? Can you imagine anything like this happening today:

'U S' concentrates on the dark past of the modern Republic – the appropriation of Native American lands, the forced migration of slaves from west Africa and the condition of their descendants as a contemporary underclass. It is a serious, thought-provoking and confrontational piece, entirely free from shallow feel-good rhetoric. This willingness to examine social failings, reminiscent of the GPO's 1930s documentaries exposing housing problems and malnutrition, comes from a time when America was confident enough to be self-critical.

Here is part of Auden's verse commentary for the sequence entitled 'Devastation of our natural resources':

The marvellous machines we have made obey us,
And couldn't care less for the consequences:
Nothing good or evil can happen to them.
If we want it that way, they will lay waste the earth.
Loot the land and leave behind them
An irredeemable desolation.
Yes, we are free in our greed to let poisons
Befoul the streams till the fish die,
Discommodate cities, turn smiling fields
Into junk graveyards and garbage dumps,
Let noxious effluvia fill the air, polluting our lungs.

Lady Bird Johnson, wife of the president, saw the film during her visit to the HemisFair on 6 April 1968, two days after the assassination of Martin Luther King. Her husband remained at the White House during the ensuing period of widespread protests and rioting. She was predictably appalled and delivered her verdict through clenched teeth: 'very artistic, very stirring, but it lack[s] the element that is going on today to provide balance – the element of hope.' Auden had anticipated the inevitable reaction with relish: 'Now we've made a subversive film for the US government', he told the director.