Arthur Penn’s Bonnie and Clyde is a 1967 crime film about the most notorious gang of brigands the US had ever seen during the Depression. Clyde Barrow and Bonnie Parker meet when Bonnie observes Clyde trying to steal her mothers’ car. Instead of being scared or calling the police, Bonnie is intrigued by Clyde to the point where she decides to take up with him and become his partner in crime. I think that this relates directly to the period they were living in at the time. Life had become so stale that there seemed to be no other options. It was either continue to live a life that is so uneventful that you just decay until your death, or you choose to grab life by the reigns and make something out of it. Although not the most conventional choice, it seemed almost to be the only they had. Clyde has already become totally disenchanted by the world they live in due to a very rough child hood where he started ending up in prison at a very young age. Although Bonnie at first is a little blind to what is going on, Clyde educates her and once they unsuccessfully try to rob a bank with no money, Bonnie finally begins to understand that there is no hope for them.
Eventually as the duo becomes sure of what they are doing they begin to freely publicize their acts of crime. Although to some it may seem unusual, this duo actually had quite the growing fan base around the country. During a time when greedy corporations were crushing the regular hardworking American, people loved seeing a gang that was not daunted by all of this. It gave them hope. Finally there were people who were thriving off of hurting the very establishments that had put all of these people in this position to begin with. Bonnie and Clyde were unhappy with the situation they had found themselves in and like any good Americans, they were rolling up their sleeves and going to work to try and fix it. I think that is also in part is what contributed not only to their popularity but also why so many people joined their gang. Eventually they came to be known as the Barrow gang with many members including Clyde’s brother and sister-in-law as well as a few other men.
Finally I would like to talk about the importance a film like this has. I think a movie like this is important because it reminds people of what can happen when you put people into a corner. The graphic violence in the movie is quite apparent considering when someone got shot they usually got blown up to bits or brutally injured. This gratuitous violence although perhaps not pretty too look at said a lot of the mentality people had at this time. No one was ever really shocked by all of this violence. Now we have to remember that the movie is taking place during the Great Depression. I think the fact that people were resigned in the face of death to the point where murders and shootings peaked their interest but were never a shocking occurrence. I think that this movie has a lot to offer culturally because it talks about folk heroes. People who came from the bottom of society and out of desperation came to rob banks. I can only imagine the frenzy this caused during the Depression. I can also imagine the fear most businesses would have had. If two poor people could pickup and become feared bank robbers what does this say to all of the other disenchanted and poor people lurking in the corner?
What I find to be the most amazing thing of the American Guide Series is the fact that it does in fact encompass every state. However this plethora of knowledge is not limited to simple information about each state. You have personal and in depth accounts of peoples experiences in those very states. My personal was California: A Guide to the Golden State because being from this state, I was pleasantly surprised with the amount of local knowledge people had put into this guide. I think that this is due to the fact that the American Guide was actually a very conscious effort by the United States to try and boost the countries economy. They hoped that by publishing this booklet, it would encourage all Americans to go out, travel and by default stimulate the Depression era economy. By creating the guides, it served multiple economic purposes. It collected data about the American population during the Depression and then helped establish tourist attractions to stimulate growth and consumption. It provided jobs to the writers as well since they would venture out into the country and gather data while also trying to spread the word to travel in order to help these dying economies.
I think that another important aspect of this guidebook is the sense of nationalism it helped spread amongst Americans. Before the Depression I think that a lot of States looked at themselves only on that level instead of on a more nationalistic front. I think that being able to boast about how great a place is and showing all the amazing things there are to do helped further the image of a solidified front in terms of the country. I also think it raised morale for every state to contribute and be able to be a part of this amazing booklet. Each state was also responsible for its own guide and therefore each state wanted to do a great job in marketing themselves. Another interesting aspect is some of the guides that never came to fruition such as an eating guide called America Eats. This would have been interesting because it celebrated American eating traditions something, which Americans had not already established as a strong point, culturally.
I think it is very interesting to note the dualistic purposes of the American Guide series. It served to stimulate the economy of a country in dire need but it also helped establish a cultural and national sense of awareness that the country had not previously experienced. I also think that this project is so important because of the effort displayed by all parties in order to present their respective states as something great. Now with the internet being at our fingertips, all you have to do is type in the name of the State and you will have all available information about it. I think that there is so much more effort and interest in reading about someone who made the effort to go all over a state in a time where flying was not a means of transportation. The people who’s booklet we read, put all of themselves into it by talking to locals, trying regional cuisines and finally discovering what makes each state so different yet so uniquely special.
Although I personally have never journeyed through America I feel that our modern day cross country adventures would be the equivalent of Roland Wild’s piece on journeying through America. “ You want circumstances to make a decision for you” I think accurately embodies the general attitude of people during this time. It was no longer any of them who called the shots in their lives, they were being dominated by people they didn’t even know and were trying to survive off of work given to them by unknown people. In Wild’s piece, he demonstrates chasing your ambition and aspirations can bring upon unexpected challenges, regardless of how optimistic or handy one might be. Through the characters’ hardships and covered wagon life we learn that blind ambition is not enough. I think that this fall from grace that burst their reality hits hard with many of the authors we have read. Finally something happens in this world that impedes those to pursue their dreams. Most Depression era authors are fascinated with this. How can people still blindly follow any ambitions they once had with all of the hardships that are happening around them.
“Gradually these trivial matters, which had overshadowed our lives completely, became of less importance.” I think that the author comes to term with this fact while he is riding through a wagon observing the never-ending American landscape. Although having the possession of material things during this time is becoming harder and harder the author at one point is willing to relinquish it all. At the end of the day if your economic situation is always struggling and even making a small purchase comes at an insurmountable cost for you, you still have everything free that the Earth gives you. Therefore it is almost impossible for someone like the author to think of themselves as poor when in all reality they have an abundance of things. I also think that a way in which an author can measure his wealth is through his sense of wanderlust. You can how eager you are to do something by measuring how much of that you have already done. A covered-wagon journey is exciting because it proves that the author has a sense of fearlessness. I also think that something important to note is the fact that the author chose to ride like this instead of using public transportation or the bus. I think that a reason he might have done this is because those journeying on buses or trains had a sense of where they wanted to go while the author simply wanted to journey through the country, going from place to place like most hobos did.
Finally I would like to just compare what the author did to my life personally. I think that in life many of us go through these moments where we feel like we have been blindly following what society has imposed upon us. What is ever really our choice to go school? Before we dressed ourselves was it our choice what we wore? Did we choose if we had to wear anything at all? So many things in life come prepackaged. Everything is decided for you in some sort of a antiseptic manner where the joy of making decisions in life is taken away from you because everything seems preselected already! I really enjoyed this work because I felt like it went further than just dealing with the Depression. We have read so many accounts of people who were just trying to bounce back and deal with its effects. Finally we find someone that says regardless of the state of the world in which I live in, I think there is more to life than just waiting around. Take your destiny into your own hands and do something.
Finally we see an outlook on the Depression that isn’t so depressing! This is not to say that Nathanael West’s A Cool Million isn’t a scathing satire on the foolishly optimistic minds of other Depression authors. I just think that finally we see someone cope with the Depression in a way that isn’t giving in to total despair. Dealing with this anguish can be done in many ways and West chooses to unleash his sarcastic, unabashed and unfiltered thoughts the character Lemuel Pitkin. He is quite the unfortunate fellow who seems to always hurt himself through his blind gullibility. His inability to conform to normal American societal standards and attempt to blindly follow the American dream seems to make him a castaway amongst his fellow Americans. His failures all seem to stem from his inability to make anything of himself. He just blindly follows and the result never seems to be pretty. He looses his scalp, his leg, his thumb and his teeth all due to him being to gullible. Similarly his love interest Betty Prail encounters the same fate and ends up being raped, abused and sold into prostitution all due to her not being able to think for herself.
The first thing I wanted to discuss upon was the most controversial topic of the book which is how foolish and gullible Lemuel Pitkin is. Although in the book many pan him and berate him for his stupidity, I personally admired his resolve to never compromise his beliefs. I think that in one aspect it shows that he in fact is capable of succeeding at something. I also think it reflects a very common attitude at the time which was to blindly follow what was told to you. For example the farmers were at the mercy of the ruthless landowners. They would follow them anywhere they went. When they were told to evacuate their lands, they blindly did it. I think that West mainly just wanted to say that you do not need to lie to yourself in order to cope with something. He proves this to us by doing the exact opposite. He writes a novel about all the terrible things that can happen to someone who follows blindly. By bringing all of these feelings to the surface he in his own is coping with the Depression. I also wanted to touch upon what happens to Pitkin after he dies in the book. Because his life does not find peace once he is dead. He then becomes exploited as a martyr. I think that since West was already writing such a scathing commentary, he figured he would deal a blow to those who blindly follow religion. He says to them that this is where blindly following a religion will lead you.
Finally I wanted to contrast this work to Voltaire’s Candide since I have read both. Both novels can trace their origins to important historical events that their authors witnessed. The Seven Years War in France and the very powerful earthquake in Portugal both moved Volatairevery deeply. He even included the earthquake in the novel itself. Both characters in both novels could be slightly mentally impaired. I think that this is important because the authors could be echoing the idea that following blindly is an act only someone who is very simpleminded would commit.
A topic that I did not have the chance to talk about in my previous post was the journey of migration of the Joad family. The way the family described California before they actually got there was very reminiscent of the bible and the exodus to the promise land. Another interesting similarity is the fact that in the beginning of their journey to the West the family counted twelve people, the same amount as the tribes of Israel. Casey for example becomes the spiritual guide and support of the farmers, something that can be paralleled to Moses. Similar to the Hebrews, the Joad is family is making its way to their promised land which is already occupied by other people. Tom for example kills a policeman that was bothering Casey and just like Moses he is forced to flee. I think one of the reasons that Steinbeck used so much biblical allusion is because he was trying to prove the point that perhaps we will not be able to recover from this Depression. I also think that in order to prove that the damage that has been done is permanent he highlights the fact that the mass exploitation of farmers has led them into misery and they have lost hope.
Another interesting topic is that of anonymous capitalism. Almost all of the farmlands in which the farmers work on belong to large banks or anonymous landowners. I think that in a certain way, Steinbeck uses them as a metaphor for the people who never had to proverbially roll up their sleeves and get dirty in life. They live in a bubble where the only logic that works for them is that of making more money. Therefore because of the dry spell most farms are going through, these owners are not afraid to kick the farmers out. In fact this is what leads so many to travel far and wide across the country looking for jobs. I think that for Steinbeck in this book the characters you encounter can be either groups in to the exploiters or the ones exploited. Some of the exploiters for example are banks, land owners in California, even mechanics on route 66 all try to take advantage of less fortunate farmers. Some of the most exploited people in the book are the many farming families such as the Joad’s, the Muley’s and the Wilsons. The most notable common thread amongst those who exploit is the fact that they profit from the misery of others. The farmers on the other hand are much more loyal to each other.
Finally I think Steinbeck wanted also to denounce how unfair the world is. It is almost as if because of the Depression, Steinbeck has now realized that the world is an unfair place and not everyone has an equal shot and making their goals happen. Sometimes there’s just a natural order to the world that you cannot escape. I think Steinbeck realized that some farmers no matter how resilient and tenacious they were, they would always be in poverty. Not because they deserved it obviously but simply because sometimes the situation is totally out of your hand. There is some obvious disenchantment with the world and Steinbeck is not afraid to vocalize his truth. All in all I think this is why this book is so successful. It denounces the injustices in this world and makes for a very compelling story. Steinbeck did a great job especially with all of his biblical allusions. I think that in giving the book so many religious undertones he highlighted that sometimes blindly following and believing is not enough.
The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck is the quintessential realist Depression novel of the late 30’s. Now regarded as a classic in American literature, Steinbeck’s novel is a rich metaphor about the Depression itself it, how it began and who was hurt the most by its effects. I wanted to start my analysis of the book by sharing the moral of Steinbeck’s story, which is how the greed of one can cause pain to many. As Steinbeck makes clear as the novel progresses, one is not simply born by chance, it is though a series of circumstances that things have to come to be how they are. Steinbeck employs the metaphor of a constant power struggle between roles in order to help the reader understand that the rich will do whatever it is necessary to preserve their wealth while the poor will always strive to achieve more. A prominent example of this is how Steinbeck tells the story of California: a geographic space that came to be because hungry landowners took the fertile lands from the Mexicans and exploited the natural resources. Fast forward to the rural flight of farmers coming to California during the Depression. This generation of landowners view the farmers the same way their ancestors viewed the native Indians when they first got there. Unwilling to let the cycle change, the landowners cling on the their property by creating a flawed system where the poor farmers have no choice but to continue working under their deplorable conditions.
Another important aspect of the book as it relates to the Travel Habit as a whole is the notion of how vital the familial nucleus is. During such a trying time the only thing that was guaranteed was being able to rely on your family. The Grapes of Wrath is a perfect example of how without each other the Joads would not have been able to survive the Depression. They were each others worst nightmare and caused a lot of anguish but without the family to go back to, these people would have been lost. This is a recurring theme we see with many of the people who started drifting around during the Depression. One could suggest that had these people had a home base to return to, vagabonding would not have come so naturally to them. During such a hard time, when it is so hard to lend support because there is no hope, family is what you can count on. Although they’re journey was not easy, without one another they never would have made it to California.
Although the family is essential to surviving, as previously mentioned it can also be the source of much pain. Especially when that pain stems from the selfishness of others. However we see the Joads soon realize that they will not find peace by simply relying on the men of the family to provide for the rest. The father, Pa, withdraws himself from the family following his failure after failure leaving the mother, Ma, to step up and lead. Pa is shocked at first and threatens to beat Ma but soon comes to terms with the fact that this family is going through a total revolution in gender roles with the women now at the head of the family. We are left with this impression even in the final scene where the daughter Rose of Sharon offers her breast to a man dying of starvation. She, the woman, now feels responsible for providing for a less fortunate man. I also think that this notion is something realized by the country as a whole. Following the Depression the role of women in our society changed drastically.
Let Us Now Praise Famous Men is a vital work in understanding how families in rural America were affected by the now infamous Dust Bowl of the Great Depression. One of the recurring themes we’ve explored already is the notion of duplicity. James Agee similar to Lauren Gilfillan agonized over his role as a spy in this impoverished community. Although now it is hard to imagine this being such a demanding task we have to remember that during this time, Agee did not have modern luxuries such as a telephone or a computer. He knew that once he infiltrated this small town he was going to have to commit to his mission until the end of his stay. Since he did not have contact with the outside world, this obviously reinforced his assimilation into this community however the down side of this is that sometimes you forget that this is all a charade. Lauren Gilfillan for example was discovered before she completed her mission and was labeled as “city girl” who didn’t truly understand the plight of the coal miners she was shadowing. Agee really struggles with this issue as the book progresses and wants to make appeals to the reader so that we not only share his agony but also understand how hard this duplicitous position can be on anyone.
I think another crucial aspect to this book is the formatting of it. Agee did not try to turn his experience into some informational survey of the Dust Bowl. He made visible efforts to create an amalgam that was not only accurately informed but also creatively inspired as well in order to make it more story-like. The chapters range from banal names like clothing to things like financial hardships. The author does this to exemplify the taxing nature of this project. Agee witnessed things like entire families living in shacks with nothing to their name. Their livelihood destroyed by infertile lands. I think that the title Agee chose also adds to the notion that these people he’s living with are in fact the most marginalized people in society. The title itself is ironic because he is referring to people who were neglected. In fact, so neglected that he was assigned to go report on the conditions there because many people in larger cities were unaware of the effects of the Depression in rural areas.
Finally I wanted to spend my last paragraph on Evan’s pictures, taken in tandem while Agee was writing down everything he noticed while living in Alabama. Although Agee’s writing is poignant and gut wrenching to read, it is through Evans’ lens that we truly can visualize the pain these farmers went through. Another more positive aspect is that although these pictures are a visual representation of poverty during the Depression there is something oddly calming and beautiful about the faces seen in the pictures. Agee’s prose is dissonant in comparison to Evans’ pictures that are quiet and beautiful but still extremely powerful. I think this is due to the fact that both the author and the photographer had realized that the world they were trying to integrate was highly complex and had many layers. A simple resume accompanied with some pictures would not be enough to grasp what was truly happening during that time. Agee and Evans realized that the world they were trying to convey to people from the city was such a foreign concept that they would have to emphasize the change in fundamental notions, which determine our thoughts, behavior and reactions.
One of the most poignant threads all of these pictures have is the fact that in many cases they are portraits but with the subject looking away from the camera. Now something worth noting is the fact that the invention of the camera in a portable manner was new and therefore many photographers were still in the developing phases of they skills as “photographers of the depression”. It is important to note that these depression era photographers were the first of their kind. We could kind of equate them to modern day paparazzi. Just like their contemporary counterparts however it was an act of balance that they had to learn. You cannot simply approach people who have been going through the motions and expect them to provide you with a picture that is accurate enough to encapsulate the effects of the Depression. The portraits shown are a representation of a people’s struggle during one of the hardest times in this country. What these pictures symbolize are how the people of the United States survived the Great Depression. I’m sure once these pictures made it back to Washington they had the same lasting effect they still have to this day.
Something I wanted to touch on was the hollow or completely stern the expressions in most of the subjects faces. I think that this accurately divides the two most affected groups of the Depression. There were those who were defeated and continued on journeying through life and hoping for the best and then there were those who at one point or another gave up and were simply unable to continue. I also think that some of the most powerful pictures were taken during the mass exodus and the region of the dustbowl in the central United States. Dorothea Lange for example captured moments of family turmoil as kids and their parents were forced to sleep in tents or in boarding houses as they searched for a more permanent solution. This is what makes these photographs more than just photographs. They were an accurate representation of how life was like.
Finally another form of photo that I think did the Depression justice were the pictures of empty and unusable farmland. This, to me, was equally as powerful because it sheds some light as to what the cause for this mass move was. Seeing these big and dramatic fields of land now untouched by man is almost like a metaphor for how weak man had become. We were people who were able to conquer nature and manipulate it to our advantage. We learned of the valuable resources nature can provide us with and we made money off of that. It was almost like a cruel joke. Once nature decided to stop giving, we lost it. We still had not become totally self-sustainable. And what is the biggest problem when you try to make a living off of something that you can’t control? Like all good things, eventually it just had to stop giving. Leaving the American people displaced, disappointed and depressed.
I absolutely loved reading Boxcar Bertha. As mentioned in one of my previous blog posts, I think the female perspective during the time of the Great Depression is essential in understanding how things actually were back then. I think this is in part due to the fact that women are such keen observers. They were obviously not given the same important as men and this is why there are so many more male accounts of the Depression than there are female. However this does not stop the unquenchable thirst for a female perspective during this time. A man wrote Boxcar Bertha, a novel about a totally badass traveling female hobo! Why? Because during the authors travels’ he realized how impactful the stories of the women he met on the road were.
A main point I would like to focus on is the fact that regardless of all the dingy and dirty places our wandering woman found herself, it never took a turn for the sad. We have been doing so much reading about displaced families, hungry children and adults without work that sometimes we forget that there were people who were actually enjoying life on the road. They were looking for something else. The reassuring reminder that these places caused no anguish to her always accompanied Bertha’s stories of working in abortion clinics or visiting brothels. She firmly stated every time that these were ordinary businesses just like any other. She plowed through life’s journey with a total sense of optimism. This is due to the fact that she truly loved what she had been born into.
Another point I wanted to talk about was the various communes and make shift societies Bertha found herself in. I think these various utopias scattered through the country are a metaphor that reflected the state of the country during that time. Everyone seemed to have a differing opinion on how to solve the issue of the Depression and where this problem originated. It was so fractured and there was so much blame being passed around that it was hard to find a plausible solution. A recurring theme that seemed to haunt many of the wanderers was the committing to marriage. Bertha’s mom for example went to jail because she had her out of wedlock. I think that this idea of people being unable to fully commit to something was also a big problem. We have already talked about the American dream turning into American complacency or delusion and this is another extension of it. This complacency to simply do whatever is expected of you simply because it is a societal norm. This is why we notice many sociological changes happen during the Depression. One could say that the Depression was when women truly started to take on the same roles as men such as working instead of staying home.
Tom Kromer’s Waiting for Nothing provided a harsh but true description of what being homeless in America during the Depression was like. Although Kromer deals with emotionally heavy themes such as suicide, prostitution and homelessness, one of the most poignant morals his autobiography provides, is that of pursuing delusion instead of dreams. Not every American dream can be achieved, this is not due to lack of effort, something clearly demonstrated by the author taking on odd job after odd job in order to survive. It is the fact that sometimes the opportunity never presents itself. One of the most impactful aspects of this book is its autobiographical origins meaning that this not only an eye witness account of the Depression but instead a real testimony as to how one became a “hobo” during that time. A powerful rhetorical device that the author employs to strengthen his personal account of the Depression is the use tough-guy jargon. Notable examples include “it cost two bits” and “a stiff has got to live” both highlighting how much more this casual way of writing enhances the authenticity of the story. To me personally, the most important theme I came away with was how you can only pursue the American Dream if given the chance to dream. Many people growing up during the Depression never made it that far. Due to lack of opportunity these people ended up becoming what so many reporters during this era were seeking, only the ones who did end up homeless did not seek this fate out.
Another aspect that is so crucial in developing the author’s story is the setting. It takes place in all of the imaginable places a “hobo” could find himself in. Notable places include abandoned houses, boxcars on trains and flop-houses. Something which I found valuable to add, is the fact that although some reporters during this time tried to integrate into the lives of the lower echelon, none truly succeeded in ultimate assimilation. What makes this story more powerful is that this is all the author has known his whole life. He did not go out to try and seek this, this has been a reality he has lived his whole life. The dichotomy between someone who has only experience this aspect of life and that of a person who seeks to witness a true account of someone living said reality is quite stark. No wonder most accounts of Depression era reporters reference disgruntled townspeople. How can you appreciate someone who has lived a life of opportunity, who then suddenly wants to analyze you and how you have come to be? The answer is simple: these people did not come to be, they have always just been, whether good, bad or awful.
Finally I wanted to talk about a powerful metaphor referenced in the book which is that of the three kinds of human beings that exist in this world: the predator, the cattle or the slaughter and finally the scavenger or the romer. These three categories of animals are also emblematic of the three kinds of people that lived during the Depression. Obviously the author most clearly relates himself to a scavenging animal such as the rat who continues to live solely by getting by and nothing else. A very significant aspect of this metaphor is that it does not allow for any growth or progression. This can also be a metaphor for the fact that there is no salvation because all this time, those hurt by the Depression were simply waiting to be saved from a cycle that never ends and never progresses.
The traditional gender role assumed that women were members of families with a male breadwinner at its head, but that description did not always match reality. Women who were widowed or divorced, or whose husbands had deserted them, struggled to keep their families afloat; single women had to fend for themselves. These women were truly on the margins, practically invisible. The iconic image of the Depression is “The Forgotten Man”: the newly poor, downwardly mobile, unemployed worker, often standing in a breadline or selling apples on a street corner. Women who found themselves in similar dire straits rarely turned up in public spaces like breadlines or street corners; instead they often tried to cope quietly on their own.
When talking about women as a group, it is always important to ask “which women?” Women experienced the Depression differently based on their age, marital status, geographical location, race and ethnicity, and many other factors. For example, the 1930s urban housewife had access to electricity and running water, while her rural equivalent usually struggled with the burdens of housework without such modern conveniences. Farm families also struggled with declining agricultural prices, foreclosures, and in the Midwest, a terrible drought that contributed to the Dust Bowl migrations of that decade.
This is why Lorena Hicock’s contributions as Chief Investigator of the FERA were so important. Her documentation of what was going in the United States was crucial because it dealt with a perspective that was not always heard at that time, that of a woman. Holding a position of power such as hers made Hicock realize that there were many women who lived in absolute poverty and could do nothing about it. She visited a miner’s town and talks about it in One Third of a Nation. It is after witnessing these atrocities that she pushes the construction of federal housing projects. Hicock along with many other female reporters of that time embody the true American Spirit of wanting to find out what the situation was like around the country.
Even after the Depression things did not change for women. The aid that had been championed by so many people never quite made its way to those who needed it most. Women still struggled to be treated as equal citizens when trying to qualify for new things like federal programs. One-quarter of National Recovery Administration codes set lower minimum wages for women than men performing the same jobs, and New Deal agencies like the Civil Works Administration and Civilian Conservation Corps gave jobs almost exclusively to men. Furthermore, social security benefits were structured around a traditional model of a male breadwinner and dependent female housewife, which disadvantaged women who didn’t fit that profile and implied that women deserved economic rights only in relation to men.
It took long after the Depression for women to have more equal rights in terms of the workforce and some would argue that even today women aren’t equal. The Depression left “an invisible scar” on those who lived through it, including the nation’s women. Forced to take on even more important roles in their homes and families, women played unappreciated roles in helping the country through the Great Depression. These hard times worked to reinforce traditional gender roles, not subvert them.
What really struck me about Sherwood Anderson’s Puzzled in America was the distinct dichotomy between cynicism and belief. Although many Americans were cynical about the economic state of the country during this time, Anderson is clear in reminding us that their belief is not lost. He touches upon his surprise in Revolt in South Dakota when he visits a small rural town: “ The men at the men’s meeting at the church were cheerful fellows. They didn’t seem too much discouraged”. (p34) This optimistic perspective is something that has now become synonymous with being an American. The American dream is a perfect example of this. America is a place full of opportunity where you proverbially “roll up your sleeves and get to work”. This sense of optimism is and has always been linked to America being the land of opportunity. This is the place you go when you want to fulfill your dreams.
This is could in part explain Anderson’s shock when discovering how optimistic this small town of people was. Although they were in a drought and most of the soil had dried up, the townsfolk were not downtrodden. Anderson was coming from a more privileged and artistic background and when assigned to tour America and see the effects of the Depression, he truly did expect to see this depression. After all it is logical to assume that since these people have lost their primary source of income indefinitely, they would in fact be a little depressed. However this is not what the American people were known for. They remained optimistic and believed that through hard work and determination they would be able to dig themselves out of this situation.
It seems to me that most of the cynicism we encountered due to the depression did in fact stem from the more developed, coastal regions of the country. For example Nathan Asch in The Road discusses how he prefers to travel the country by bus rather than train because the latter was too formal. Everyone dressed very formal on trains and Asch feared that when talking to strangers they put on airs and were not relaxed. He would not be able to assess the general attitude of Americans through traveling on trains. He would much rather travel by bus because it is a literal journey and everyone riding on the bus is on their own distinct journey as well.
Because these writers were tasked with seeing what was really happening through out the country during the Depression, they left expecting to see miserable people all suffering due to the poor economic condition that the country was in. In a certain sense I understand where they were coming from since this is what they were assigned to do and therefore what they were expecting to see. However they forgot that these Americans that find themselves in the middle of the country working for every penny that they have are not the ones to be defeated easily. In fact, it was quite the contrary.
The American people never lost hope and when it called for them to leave their homes in search of better opportunities, they did so. The idea that what the writers expected to find depressed, defeated people seemed more like a preconceived notion in their minds. The reality was that although Americans were not as optimistic as usual, they did not give up. They persisted in their American dream elsewhere if need be and continued to roll up their sleeves and go to work in hoped of a better future.