In all this flurry of the 1930s as the post-decadence decade of rebellion from the City, as progenitor of everything wrong with the economic and social condition: Grapes of Wrath, It Happened One Night, etc. It is given a personal representation and such and such a representation must be departed from, a John L. Sullivan who must explore the wider and richer world out there. Yet, at the time time, the overall drapery of the Great Depression brought with it a desire to retrofit the American narrative over whatever small thing could accommodate, the film of pure escapist escape, a casting of endless modernist shade, something like the 1940 George Cukor film, The Philadelphia Story.
The film’s conceit, of course, is ready at first breath to admit this: its James Stewart-played hero is an earnest journalist, not unlike the voices we’ve read this semester who busy themselves trawling through the mud of Americana. But Mr. Stewart’s expedition isn’t aimed toward the miserable and below, rather the neck is craned upward: toward the wealthy socialite played by Katharine Hepburn readying herself to marry an aspiring political figure ascending upward from, in her word, “the so-called lower class”.
Yet the movie’s social bite has Hepburn’s character rejecting this man of the lower classes for, of course, her ex-husband, played by Cary Grant, a man she cannot stand but is of her social class, thusly someone she can be socially comfortable with. Her fiancé consternates with his paranoia, his own constant insecurity about his own social position. Or, as the more likable Jimmy Stewart famously puts it: “I’m testing the air. I like it but it doesn’t like me.” At its heart, The Philadelphia Story presents tangents of the escapist fantasy: a realization of the world presented in the gossip columns of the time that, at the same time, ultimately rejects their attempts (through her abandoned leftist fiancé) to include themselves into a world that doesn’t, fundamentally, like them.
Emotionally, we can imagine the dissonance between the world of the rich on display in the film and its prospective audience is something like that between Tom Kromer’s protagonist in Waiting for Nothing, leering into the window of the well-stocked restaurant only to see the fat and wealthy eyes glaring, with anger in their eyes, back at him. Only here, naturally, the perspective is reversed: we’re snooping in, under the guise of Jimmy Stewart’s Spy magazine plumage. Katharine Hepburn and Cary Grant, even playing the most hoity-toity of the wealthy cannot be unlikable when they implore us that they are not. “What have classes to do with it? What do they matter except for the people in them?,” Hepburn dogs at Stewart’s wry everyman populisms, as if rejecting the entire conceit of the Marxian society was nothing more than dirt off her shoulder, a Enlightenment liberalism.
What she wants, of course, is to not be judged. She wants to marry the man-of-the-people, played by the least well-known of the cast (of course), so she can absorb herself and her world of privilege into the world of the masses, not unlike the designs of, say, Sybil in the Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man. But, as the Andrew Gross harps on in “Patriotism as Brand-Name Identification,” the object of any socially constructed tool, be it a WPA tour guide or a movie, is to put things in their place. In the midst of economic upheaval, fear of the Communist and Fascist at all corners trying to reorganize society, the film assures us that all things will go as they most naturally should. Who else, at end, to marry the lovely Katharine Hepburn then her equal, Mr. Cary Grant?
“As such,” writes Harry Hopkins in the forward to the WPA travel guide to Erie, Pennsylvania, “it holds the mirror to still another section of present day America.” Still another, ostensibly, in line with a narrative that Andrew Gross identifies as nothing less than the transformation of “local cultural into a tourist attraction, and the tourist attraction into a symbol of national loyalty” (1). Reading this right after James Agee’s distillation of the tourist mythos into retroactive nationalist ethos, we wonder at the tonal dichotomy that Gross draws: between the “forms of representation” at the government that appropriates them (2).
“Erie has long needed a compact, comprehensive guide book that would not only be of assistance to the thousands of annual tourists, but also of value to residents desirous of knowing more about their city and county” – Charlie R. Barber, Mayor of the City proper boasts, emphasis mine.
The double usage of the guide, the proclamation of its manufacture as a public good and not merely to “direct drivers through the landscape, from attraction to attraction,” (4). The many prefaces, from the Mayor, from a State director, etc. hint toward an officialness that the Gross article labels “the regulatory structure of the New Deal,” (4) and the history proper that the guide presents is one of gummy impressive feeling fun facts (i.e: “A branch of the United States Bank of Pennsylvania was established at Erie in 1837 and sold $200,000 worth of stock in one day”).
At the Guide makes its way toward its narrative of the everyday, the prose becomes unapologetically exuberant: “Erie’s educational system is excellent. Graduates from Erie high schools are admitted to leading colleges…” Is this audience for these kinds of bald proclamations really tourists, especially the kind of wealthy trailer travelers coming to see “America from the ground up,” as Roland Wild writes or, back to Gross’ narrative: “the nostalgic structure of consumer culture which celebrates what it destroys” (9)? Gross chalks up the effusive self-love of the travel guide to narrative control, to a central rehash of space but, perhaps, the audience for these guides might have been closer to home?
“The industry that launched Erie on the road to industrial importance…” begins one particularly asinine line in twenty or so pages dedicated to celebrating the city’s mighty history. A chapter dedicated to the “Tales and Legends” begins with the ripping tale of intertribal feuds “before the coming of the white man.” In some sense, we can read these as appropriations of local custom, culture, etc. Selling it out to the automotive explorer, with his rusty 1920s Ford motor and a sea of small houses every which where, which Gross would have us allliugned with the new capitalist enterprises, an apolitical consortium conspiring with the WPA to turn America’s beloved green soil in to hard green cash. But the larger question that the WPA guide brings up is: what exactly is there to be taken, what value are the un-visited fields, the un-appropriated story?
If anything, the WPA guide offers a interesting way to recycle historical narrative into something of value, something to bolster the hearts and minds of a people whose very economic system has clattered to a stop. If anything, the nostalgia for a time where these historical narratives existed apart from their approbation is only possible retroactively, which is to say: only by creating the commodity history can we appreciate its existence and connect it to the larger systems at work, always at work, etc.
James Agee keenly places the new world of the roadside into its historo-poltical context: “the twenties made him rich…and he found the automobile not merely good but better and better” (44). Excess capital was now a middle-classman’s sport, post-subsistence, he could now become restive, indulge in the fantasy of the mobile box. Even the miniature cabin succeeds next to the decorous hotel; the box is king.
“Nobody with a good car needs to be justified,” Flannery O’Connor would write some decades later. This is the power being bought by slightly wealthy and liberal barons alike. Roland Wild, citizen of the later, is haunted by designs to abandon his many mansioned Euro-spelunking for the confines of that very moving box. The world he fantasizes is just as worldly as Agee’s:
There had been a murder in a trailer. A trailer had been a “love-nest” for a man who took both his wife and his mistress. There had been several births in trailers… (15)
These are camp signifiers of the real America that Wild is pretending himself to be looking for. He won’t see it, of course: “for our eyes were on the ground” (21). The sign value of the American experience, patriotism come a little less than a century after the hotheads of Europe, was being dressed in the democratic aesthetic of the Voting Day and the Land of Opportunity. Even Agee, his sarcastic wits about him, is lured into the lavishness narratives of backwood entrepreneurs stumbling onto wealth mobility, reported with a Henry David Thoreau eye for valedictory minutia.
Constantly Agee evokes in the reader’s mind a constant and omnipresent change, an era whose very newness provides for a new manner of organizing the world, new groups, new conflicts entirely out of comprehension from the world of old. The is not unlike the reports being run from the modern art world, the modernist manifestos being scrawled in the very capitals Mr. Wild was so keen to run from. It is in the new network of the motor economy that this newness is being generated into meaning, meaning available to handsome selections of the masses at reasonable rates.
The irony, of course, is that it is the Great Depression that brings about this newfound popularity for the capitalist ethos. Agee pains himself to depict the ubiquity and somewhat profitability of these newfound institutions, as if new industry (he uses this word too) had sprung out of the cracked sidewalk. This is a bit delusionary and we’re not exactly how sure to take Agee’s word, at times the narratives of remove and certain disdain can be heard, we are given some of the cons that greeted us on every page of A Cool Million.
Wild tells us, with no small amount of smarm, that he designs to report on “America from the ground up” (12). Depression anxiety, fears of a revolution: sends to country collectively into the dirt, exploring its finer features like antiques, sticking on commodity value to every little element found at the excavation site. The politics of the respective authors meld together, all a number of degrees more self-aware than the earlier journalists of the road but almost all equally unsure of how to tender it expression. An intonation of sarcasm persists throughout the tones of the writers we’ve been reading, an exhaustion at the repetition that it sees evervesant. As Agee and Wild plot out the narrative of capitalism repeating themselves , even on the micro-level, we begin to wonder if the Great Depression was merely a blip in the late-capitalist radar.
The American experience as capitalism, capitalism as a fundamentally uncanny place to do business: “Lem’s job was a sinecure. He had merely to enact the same scene over one morning a week” (183).
Like a fine number of the texts we’ve read so far, A Cool Million contrives to take us on a journey through certain segments of the US of A, our faceless hero wandering through a pastiche of American cliché. The historically informed textbooks say Horatio Alger, but I think a more interesting and less forgotten contemporaneous name could come in the name of the popular Belgian cartoonist Hergé and his third installment of the popular Tintin series: Tintin in America (1932). Like West, Hergé’s titular Tintin finds himself in the big city and runs into similarly seedy men and their black cars whisking him away. For both authors, the American experience is subsumed by sets of miniature escapades: encounters with criminal elements, corrupt police/unjust imprisonment, westward explorations, etc. Though ostensibly interdependent, they are all provided “American” narratives that justify them through the same foil of nationalistic meaning: for West, the fascist former President, Shagpoke Whipple, reoccurs with the same byline while in Hergé’s narrative an endless stream of opportunist prospect capitalists spout lines like: “Unerring American know-how!”
The notion of “Americanness,” in both works, finds itself uncomfortable defined. As Kubo writes, Whipple is able to loosely use ‘America’ as an adjective only because “its original meaning is uncertain enough” (131). As such, both novels feature scenes of “America” on storefront display: Wu Fong’s brothel of the “genuine American” (156), Tintin’s encounters with the rapidly disappearing Native Americans placed prominently on display. In one scene, shortly after Tintin accidently discovers oil (another motif both novels share, the innocent/accidental discovery), politicians turns venture capitalists offer him thousands for the rights to the land. After he tells them that the land belong to a venerated Native American tribe, the official turns around and barks: “Twenty-five dollars, and half an hour to pack your bags and quit the territory.”
For Kubo, West’s novel registers anxieties on the transition from use-value to sign-value, from the innocent farmhouse to the 5th Avenue ‘Colonial Exteriors and Interiors.’ That the popular notion of ‘America’ being passed around was, thus, a creation of pure sign-value is riddled with anxiety: Whipple tells Pitkin that is is nothing less than a statement of pure faith, faith being something that doesn’t exist concretely but must be reiterated, over and over again, as pure sign. The narratives that West explores, as Hergé’s earlier work shows, are ones that recognize themselves as pure pastiche, whose very absurd composition work to satirize the very notion of their ability to offer didactic allegory.
Yet both West and Hergé are profoundly moral writers. Their collection of anecdotes serve some purpose, together crafting an image of an America’s own desperation to sell itself, to generate meaning out of the sheer friction of constant exchange. The anxieties such constant always moving friction create also anticipate much of the American existential literature of the postwar era: Catch-22, Invisible Man, etc – the later of which, we notice, similarly orphans its protagonist, takes him to the big city and forces him into a position of political symbology. For both Ralph Ellison and West, these are anxieties fundamental to late capitalist exchange: its no surprise that toward New York is where their protagonists are drawn.
That the system remain byzantine and directed by forces far away and on high: be it the actual heavyweight conspirator that follows Pitkin around or the “Wall Street and the Jewish International Bankers” that Whipple bemoans. That there is an actual conspiratorial agent, Operative 6384XM/Comrade Z muddles the line between the reality that West portrays, creating an America capable of manufacturing its own mythology, on the assembly line.
California, we take it, is not all the Joads thought it would shake out to be. Yet, deep into the depths of Steinbeck’s novel, his string narratorial voice ensuring us that “The Spring is beautiful in California” (473). The titular image of the novel, its Grapes of Wrath, are proud product of the state itself, a state that: “quickens with produce, and the fruit grows heavy, and the limbs bend gradually under the fruit so that little crutches must be placed placed under then to support the weight” (473). We can heartily apply that imagery to the very condition of California itself: whose promise of fruitful land and purpose brings upon it the very weight of Midwestern emigrants that befalls the condition that Steinbeck diagnoses. In the context of the novel’s Biblical imagery, this is the curse of the promised land, one whose promise may seem, perhaps, in need of reordering.
Steinbeck’s position then, as the child of the well-to-so California set, proves as essential to reading through his interpretation of the migration of the millions toward his home state. They come, like Tom, from a world of guiltless loss; the family is indignant when demanded to leave, and Joad feels no shame about his years in the penitentiary. This kind of subjectivity that Steinbeck manifests here – i.e. creating a position where we know the innocence of his protagonists but they are organized in such a way that characters can realistically oppose them (that is, in a way that doesn’t feel forced, that isn’t conductive to turning them into propagandistic caricatures) – is essential to the book’s status as a work of art in and of itself. In these descriptions we can even see how differently Steinbeck treats his own land compared to the dusty reds of Oklahoma.
The descriptions contains conflicts within itself, however: “The pears grow yellow and soft. Five dollars a ton” (475). Natural description is paired with the values of capitalist enterprise. Capitalist enterprise hangs over the lush grounds not unlike the heavy fruits themselves; we think of the scene of entry, earlier, into California land. The lush trees are seen from from the slight distance, the land is kissed. But from Steinbeck’s late 30s perspective, this is a lush world not put to use, a lush world whose trees lay heavy with unpicked fruit: “The purple prunes soften and sweeten. My god, we can’t pick them and dry and sulpher them. We can’t pay wages, no matter what wages. And the purple prunes carpet the ground” (475). The ground carpeted in prunes is, of course, the empty cities and factories of labor, unable to produce content people can buy nor afford to hire the people to be able to be able to buy those things. This system, then, is given representation into the real, it becomes a manifestation of rotting fruits, lying on the ground, unpicked eternally.
Indeed, Steinbeck’s rejection of such a system involves a rejection of even its own historic mythology, writing of the Mexican-American war: “And such was their hunger for land that they took the land–stole Sutter’s land, Guerrero’s land, took the grants and broke them up and growled and quarreled over them, those frantic hungry men” (315). The narrative of California that he gives, his own ontological narrative nonetheless, becomes one of theft and perversion, seeming to contain within in the very germs of historic dissonance of the Howard Zinn and Joan Didion variety, the recasting of heroes as villains, showcasing pop-narratives void of nostalgia and rich with hypocrisy. Steinbeck’s rejection of his own class values comes out of pure emotive disgust, rendered real across his recast tablet of failed American promise.
Penetrating the first pages of Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath, the sensation of loss that we previously seen in Paul Taylor’s eulogy for the farmlands becomes a dense fog of forbidding. In the very first chapter, the scene between Tom Joad and the truck driver who picks him up takes place in a dense atmosphere of the unsaid: “the secret investigating casualness” that occupies the driver’s lens, a conflict to define himself as goodly that we see scraped off in Tom Kromer’s Waiting for Nothing comes to the fore: “He knew he was being trapped…and he wanted to be a good guy” (11). The moral turbulence that Steinbeck’s truck driver feels toward taking along the novel’s protagonist, between his humanity and the greater forces of the unseen Company and its visible presence: No Riders, becomes a fixture of his own moral impotency, his inability to ‘talk straight,’ so to speak. Joad, then, steps into his role as moral leadership that the Great Depression’s sheer absence has vacated and demands answers: “You took a hell of a long time to get to it,” he tells him, it serving not just to signify Joad’s own past but really his present condition which is to say, the real condition of the American Midwest that so many writers we have been reading so far design to strike at.
That Steinbeck sounds nothing like the singular voice the pervades a work like Waiting for Nothing evidences itself from the totally different angle that Steinbeck chooses to view the omnipresent situation: for Kromner the situation can only be viewed from the breadlines, for Steinbeck, the highways: “Nearly twenty percent of the novel’s text is dedicated purely to landscape development,” Rick Marshall observes of certain sections of the novel. Objects, be they the crawling metaphors hunched on a turtle’s back or the simple tree selling shade, are situated by Steinbeck along these roads, Marshall expounds. Even its dust, much pontificated on, carries portent: “The dust hung in the air for a long time after the loaded cars had passed,” Steinbeck pauses to observe after the goods are burnt (121). The dust is the same that Steinbeck uses to christen his migrant movers: “a people in flight, refugees from dust” (119) We imagine this same dust having hung over many a burning, its little particles a collate of the Great Depression itself, coming around to the very it that Steinbeck designs to portray.
Because the highway thus manifests itself as a collection of Depression experience, enough to constantly epitomize it in one fell swoop, “the long concrete path around the country” that is Highway 66 hints at the country itself as something now made of sheer concrete, the new country where Steinbeck’s migrant citizens consider residence (119). The resolution of the highway to its sheer materiality, as opposed to the blurring convenience that we would associate it with, hint at the totalizing manner in which Steinbeck’s character see it, as one engaged with on foot, one whose full potential remains firmly out of reach.
And what of the other “two hundred and fifty thousand people over the road” (123) that Steinbeck collects passing knowledge of. Like the truck driver that begins the novel, they are men and women tied down, torn between commitments to the all-capitalized “OKLAHOMA CITY TRANSPORT COMPANY” and their greater humanity that Steinbeck is sure sure exists under all their own moral dust (8). The movement that Steinbeck concerns himself with, the slow and gradual migration California-ward, a migration whose diligent rigor has its own moral reward, a kind of escape from the dust clogging the nation’s united breath, the kind of heavy thing that must not exist it some place, in some state of mind. Maybe California.
The most elegant contrast in Let Us Now Praise Famous Men occurs in the chasm of emotional space between Walker Evans’ photography and the sheer rigorous tone constantly evoked in the contours of James Agee’s harsh prose line; the book’s form plays this for camp, but of course it figures itself into a greater metaphor of mediums at play, the impossibility topos constantly evoked (“If I could do it, I’d do no writing at all here…”) defers to photography (“It would be photographs,” is the rejoinder). Indeed, look as his metaphorical language seems sometimes to play with the visual mediums: “the bone pine hung onto its nails like an abandoned Christ” (17). The popular visual motif is of a fallen Christ, a lamentated Christ; in Agee’s South, this Christ figure is abandoned.
Which rings for a comparison to world of Dorothea Lange and Paul Schuster’s An American Exodus, a world where “between 1930 and 1940 the country lost one-third of its farmers” (138, emphasis mine). Loss is key, for Schuster, those departed from the countryside become like doughboys in the trenches; “We’ve lost a lot of good men,” he quotes another farmer remarking (138). Agee and Schuster, then, write works that serve as registers of loss, documenting the end of one style of civilization for another and whose words are haunted with the expected reverberations that they imagine: the type of human beings that Agee writes of are, fundamentally, “innocent of such twistings…which are taking place over their heads” (10), the veneration is fundamentally in the Romantic mode, that of Wordsworth and his “Intimations of Immortality,” etc.
The accompanying photography, Lange and Evans, then can be viewed then in contrast to Margaret Bourke-White work. There is space. Meaning glimmers from the edges as opposed to being lapped onto the center. “Nettleton Arkansas,” a photo I like to point to, shoves an aged Midwesterner in front of an illustrated chicken, they appear next to each other like figures in a math equation. Evan’s take on Van Gough’s Pair of Shoes series, on the other hand, builds a rich vacuum: we see the dirt detailing an open space. Unlike Van Gough, there is no post-impressionist whirlwind that centers out subject. In Evan’s work, they command our attention out of the sheer vacancy around them.
Lange, for her part, gives some quiet dignity to the grotesque images that Bourke-White chooses to capture (think “Yazoo City, Mississippi” or “Ozark, Alabama”). In Lange, we are to understand that a more serious emotional clout hangs over the faces she depicts. The gesture of Rodin’s “The Thinker” is one that I see constantly in the movements of the downtrodden in Lange’s work. Compared to Bourke-White’s goth horrowshow, this is a conferment of classical grace. Turning back to Agee, we find that he too presents something greater in the world of the tenant families he finds:
The whole memory of the South in its six-thousand-mile parade and flowering outlay of the façades of cities…the wide wild opening of the tragic land, wearing the trapped frail flowers of its garden of faces; the fleet flush and flower and fainting of the human crop it raises; the virulent, insolent, deceitful, pitying, infinitesimal and frenzied running and searching, on this colossal peasant map, of two angry, futile and bottomless, botched and overcomplicated youthful intelligences in the service of an anger and of a love and of an undiscernible truth. (7)
Whereas, to present yet another contrast, Erskine Caldwell cannot help but play doctor to the ills of the Southland, diagnose sickness after sickness (they are to be pitied, we feel time and time again) – Agee sees an image of “undiscernible truth,” of something that he cannot express, something he remains throughly in awe of.
By the time the 1930s rolled around and messers. Lange & Taylor, Caldwell & Bourke-White took to the road, photography was at its apex of credibility; Virginia Woolf would write, in Three Guineas, that the deluge of horrific war photography pouring out of the Spanish Civil War could encourage a revolt toward the act of war altogether. And it is in that quaint moral framework that we find such things as Mr. Caldwell narrative of exceptionalist Southern dearth: “the ills of a retarded and thwarted civilization,” he opulently observes on the very first page (1).
The game of morose comedy played by Caldwell’s clumsily sincere posturing (“an urgent need for a government commission” he assures following this statement with his own imaginary commission comprised of “sociologists, economists, and Southern agronomists” and “a landlord” too, finishing up his rector set fantasy (47)) and Bourke-White’s rhetorical photography is an interesting one. Whist Caldwell bumbles around the history of tenant farming, Bourke-White sets up sleek jabs at her subjects. James Goodwin, for instance, makes note of her technique in “Belmont, Florida 1936,” where she uses a partial shot of a newspaper headline in “Nettleton, Arkansas” to load the image with the glam of charged violence; Goodwin writes that “this intimation of morality is more powerful for having emerged from picture’s internal discursive context” (275). In another photo, “Nettleton, Arkansas”, we see the face of Caldwell’s impotent Southland (It is foolish to ask a tenant farmer why he remains where he is” (6)) – he looks at us pathetically, not unlike the chicken behind him; he cannot escape the coop for that is what he is.
More escapable, however, is the Southland that Lange & Taylor whip up in An American Exodus: Paul Taylor proves a more malleable writer than Caldwell’s poorly aged creed: an entire passage cribs Dos Passos’ “Camera Eye” sections from his popular U.S.A. novels that came out a few years earlier. At times, the loss that he documents attains a certain Wordworthian heft: abandoned buildings become tombstones to something vaguely important that was lost to the big cities. Lange’s photographs, in eschewing easy juxtapositions age better as well. Lange adds something sublime to the faces she depicts, an expression that is explicitly inexpressible, like the loss of American’s rural lifestyle.
The distance between the photographs and the text, a void to be even more explored in Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, is fundamental to the sheer narrative power of this kind of journalist storycraft. The anxieties that Lange expresses in her forward: proclaiming the camera as “a tool of research” and assuring us that she would not report “what we think might be [the] unspoken thoughts” of her subject matter (15) reveal worries about the malleability of the photo art, a determination to present this truth as the real deal, not the hockey untruth it competes with in on the newsstand. Cultural critic Vinson Cunningham, in the New Yorker, discusses the relationship between space in texts (referring specifically to You Have Seen Their Faces): “the collision of photograph and paragraph requires a constant movement between broad themes and searing details, between sentiment and cold fact.” It is in the activity of this movement that the sensation of truth-finding exists. As readers, we look from one to another jolt down notes: we’re researchers too.
What immediately differs a text like Woody Guthrie’s “Ode to California” from Tom Kromer’s Waiting for Nothing makes itself apparent in its very title. The drifting placelessness of Kromer’s blank subdued townscapes turns toward the particular geography of the American Southwest. “Maybe the west country needs me out there. It’s so big and I’m so little,” (193) he muses.
The modern movement toward California that seemed to begin with Guthrie’s exodus from the east that had no use for him and reach its zenith in the creation of vast post-war suburbs surrounding the Los Angeles was an important symbol in the American literary consciousness. Take this famed passage from Nathanael West’s The Day of the Locust (1939):
Scattered among these masquerades were people of a different type. Their clothing was somber and badly cut, bought from mail-order houses. While the others moved rapidly, darting into stores and cocktail bars, they loitered on the corners or stood with their backs to the shop windows and stared at everyone who passed. When their stare was returned, their eyes filled with hatred. At this time Tod knew very little about them except that they had come to California to die. (60)
Compare to one of Guthrie’s first experiences of Californian geography:
The land changed from a farming country into a weather- beaten, crumbling, and wasted stretch, with gully washes traveling in every way, brownish, hot rocks piled into canyons, and low humps topped with irony weeds and long—cared rabbits loping like army mules to get away… The hills were deep bright colors, reddish sand, yellow clays, and always, to the distance, there stood up the high, flat-top cliffs, breaking again into the washing. (214)
Guthrie’s set is not as well dressed as the fame-desperate Californians that West satirizes, but the brooding feeling of death is all-present. What West layers in as a presentation of empty gaudiness, Guthrie sees a kind of sheer abundance: from the sheer morbid (in a River of Styx-like way) wealth of geographical feature, compared to “farmed country” he’s used to, to the “red and green neon flickering for eats, sleeps, sprees, salvation, money made, lent, blowed, spent” of Los Angeles proper (224). Yet throughout Guthrie’s exploration of California’s abundance a darkness glimmers throughout: almost as soon as Guthrie finds himself in center of Los Angeles, he finds it (like West) unbearable. If given a dime, he would shun dinner to “get the hell out of that town” (224).
The tension between California’s image of abundance and a suppressed unbearability, a darkness under the skin is an essential element to the last century of cultural narratives that linger over the California dream that Guthrie revels sees as so large. “Coming out of the Dustbowl,” Guthrie observes of the California countryside, “the colors so bright and smells so thick all around, that it seemed almost too good to be true” (223). Another popular Californian voice Joan Didion, in “Trouble in Lakewood” writes about just this very tension with the very West Coast easy-living narratives that seem so bright and smell so thick: “New people, we were given to understand, remained ignorant of our special history, insensible to the hardships endured to make it, blind not […] to the dangers the place still presented.”
That Guthrie’s landscape is “beaten, crumbling, and wasted stretch” upon first contact becomes more interesting, serving almost as a keenly authentic preview of the diamond, still very much rough.
The Day of the Locust (1939), Nathanael West
Early in Tom Kromer’s Waiting for Nothing, Tom encounters a crossdresser and spends the night with her in exchange for a roof over his head. This is an explicitly capitalist transactions; when she approaches, Tom remarks that they are immediately “playing a game, “(43) he repeatedly refers to Mrs. Carter as a “mealticket.” Yet while an ostensibly queer interaction, he refers to it as such, Kromer’s narrative voice presents its politics as naturalized: when Mrs. Carter asks if he ever had a girl (i.e. a conventionally heterosexual relationship), he responds “Sure, I had a girl…but I lost my dough, so I lost my girl” (44). An equivalency hangs over these respective relationships; now, Tom’s discomfort is now attached to capitalist exchange; Mrs. Carter simply signifies this.
A reader looking for less cynical characterizations will find them in Waiting for Nothing (between Tom and Yvonne, between Tom and Karl) but their respective lack of narrative weight renders them flat next to their anecdotal peers. The strongest motif that runs through an otherwise discontinuous set of stories is performativity; scenes of Tom telling Mrs. Carter that he is a virgin and that she is a woman, treated as a performance Mrs. Carter is paying for, sit next to an unnamed man ordering the protagonist a steak dinner “in a loud voice so everyone can see how big-hearted he is” (11). Kromer’s America has a certain staginess, scenes feel painted on the blank canvas of his unnamed towns and cities that the vagrant lifestyle strip of identity. An acute literary comparison would be something like the early Bukowski vagabond (Post Office, Factoum, some of Ham on Rye) melded with a gnawingly particularized vocabulary (“A man is bound to land up in the booby-hatch if he stays on the fritz” style anachronisms) recall Ann Beattie or Tao Lin (the prison scenes in, say, Shoplifting from American Apparel make a great read side by side with Kromer: “The inmate without a mop held back the inmate with a mop” layered repetitively for poetic effect).
Kromer’s form comes to its stylized, and ideological head, in a scene where he depicts wealthier bystanders watching the soup lines:
Across the street people line the curb. They are watching us. We are a good show to them. A soup-line two blocks long is something to watch. These guys on the curb are not in any soup-line. They have good jobs. They have nothing to worry about. It must be pretty soft not to have to anything to worry about. […] The bastards. They keep us standing out in the cold for advertisement. If they let us in and fed us, where would the advertisement be? There wouldn’t be any. (87)
The image here is something like Margaret Bourke-White’s “The American Way,” clicking the camera in front of lines of starving people, translating them into narrative commodities. Here Kromer’s protagonist watches himself being turned in commodity (“keep us standing…for advertisement”) and expresses the corresponding Marxian alienation. But Kromer too expresses aversion to the associated dialectic, cheekily naming a failed writer character “Karl,” creating in Waiting for Nothing a script opposing the larger systems and keeping with the baser human emotions behind the melodrama: greed, fear, etc. For Kromer, those are the barriers between him and the material needs of basic living; that they can exist so close yet so far from his world remains ideologically unconscionable.
An odd indictment of early On-The-Road writer culture, “Girl on the Road” presents a canny battle of subject and object that manages to take a swiping pass at acknowledging inexpressibles: inexpressible tension, inexpressible ambition and, of course, inexpressible narratives. In that way Louis Adamic’s piece figures itself at odds with the ambitious aims of his writing peers; that is to say, as a presentation of “their story, as they themselves told it,” that writers like Lorena Hickok, as well as her male peers: Asch, Caldwell, Anderson, etc. took as their existential aim. (Hickok, ix). In interrogating this literary construct, a greater interrogation takes place: the ‘melancholy strain’ of Wordsworth’s titular Solitary Reaper, Dickensian dichotomies, the sexual values present in ‘progressive’ works Lady Chatterley’s Lover or On the Road.
“Say, don’t you wanna hear my story?” (Adamic, 501). This is the prerogative that underlies the metafictional elements carefully at play in “Girl on the Road.” Hazel asks this, creating the commodity form of her self (“my story”) that she presents as willing to negotiate, as a thing to barter (as it becomes, toward the end of the story). Though the unnamed narrator coyly refuses to validity it as something of value – the question of whether or not her tale is “interesting” becomes one of Adamic’s in-jokes, throughout – he ultimately assigns it a figure value. We aren’t revealed the actual numerical value of it (though we are told it is given one), but the conversation is interesting nonetheless:
She was silent for a half-minute, pondering all this. Then: “But what can you write about me? You don’t know my story, ‘n’ you even said you didn’ wanna hear it ‘cause it wasn’t interestin; – that’s what you said, ‘member? (507)
Hazel’s primary anxiety, that the narrator is unable to present a story that he doesn’t know, brings to mind a figure like the titular Jane, from Charlotte Brontë’s popular Jane Eyre. “I spoke as I felt, without reserve or softening,” Jane idealizes the narrating of her own past, her narrative story when first questioned for its account (49, italics mine). In “Girl on the Road,” Hazel shares Jane’s dubiousness that the listener will be able to manufacture a version of her tale; Adamic seems to even agree, as his narrator confesses he would invent the details he needed, that his understanding of her was simply: “A little run down and ‘groggy’ or ‘punch drunk’… tough, proud – all I need to know” (507). Not unlike Sherwood Anderson’s noble savage South Dakotans, the Hazel is self-consciously boiled down for the bones of an optimistic story, one that (Adamic constantly emphasis) is worth a dollar figure.
So, the ‘unsung hero’ that Adamic’s narrator picks off the road to venerate negotiates instead the terms of her veneration, ostensibly. The plucky optimism whose value she negotiates, however, rests on shaky ground; the “very much a democracy” that Anderson sings to moon about ultimately shows its face in the reoccurring motif of the American Duchess Wallis Simpson, wife of the soon-to-abdicate Edward VIII. “I couldof been her if I had the breaks she had” (513, italicized in the original). For Adamic, as much as his narrator, this is absurd; the vague and soupy notions of the American dream asserting themselves in the figures of celebrity royalty. This cartoon figuration covers over its real meaning, leaving it unexpressed (her ambition to have the right ‘breaks,’ is left to be void of emotional resolution.
However, unlike Brontë’s Jane, Hazel is left still the freedom to abandon her position as subject; her luck is allowed to deteriorate and her “story,” regardless of moneyed value is allowed to refuse didactic meaning. Only in being untold, the story can remain her’s.
Brontë, Charlotte Jane Eye. (Norton Critical Edition: Third Edition, 2001)
Imploring no more modernist a hope than to “watch people and talk to people,” (Asch, 7) and thankful as they make themselves to the “dozens and scores” (Rorty, 9) that they carefully yield authorship, Messrs. Anderson, Asch, Rorty, etc. do their best to not let their characters come in the way of the 1930s ennui that saturates their work. Sherwood Anderson, say, cannot even start without venerating the state of the impoverished with fetishistic gall: “I have always, when broke, been more alive to others, more aware of others,” whatever that means.
Common also is a commitment to turgid explorations of Southern exceptionalism. Nathan Asch abandons his imaginary highway romantic posturing (“the tossing, almost dancing bus”) for deeply unexplained ambitions to chase after: “something foreign…something dark…” lurking in erstwhile capital of the Confederacy (16). Erskine Caldwell, for his part, denotes the same territory no less than “decivilized” and “constitute[ing] an empire, a newly formed nation, in themselves” (7). This is the kind of surface level scavenging that refuses to transcend, then or now. A visit is due with a cultural critic like Jelani Cobb, who in the New Yorker this summer, termed this exceptionalist narrative nothing less than a willful coexistence “with a translucent lie about the bloodiest conflict in American history and the moral questions at its center.”
But James Rorty, as a character, is more interesting. His pinning Marxism in the midst of the gears of the American melancholy machine puts the reader in the mind of another castaway, the 30s road archetype Jake Blount, from Carson McCullers’ 1940 novel, The Heart is a Lonely Hunter. Like Jake, Rorty is besot with a secretive “knowledge” of the ways of the world and finds only misery and disgust among “that ninety-five out of a hundred American [who] have not grasped this dilemma” (Rorty, 23). Compare that line to McCullers’ Jake framing the problem: “The only solution is for the people to know. Once they know the truth they can be oppressed no longer. Once just half of them know the whole fight is won” (301, italicized in the original).
Central to these 30s road narratives is this very ethereal knowledge of the situation at large. Nathan Asch, we recall, is insistent that despite the social and political disconnects he experiences in his travels, “They are held by something…its what makes for a certain look upon the face and a certain smile” (10). Portrayed within the insular indirect discourse of these ‘journalistic travel narratives, the actual sources of the disconnect appear either mythical or just out or reach: “no one, except in buses, travels today…[people] know each other less than they used to,” Asch chooses to posit (9). Or, vaguely blaming exchanges of capital: “If the next region raises a different crop or makes different things, the people don’t know each other” (9).
Back in McCullers’ novel, Jake’s hopeless political disconnect manifests itself in his inability to find common political or social ground with Doctor Copeland, the novel’s corresponding black Marxist archetype, as Jake refuses to concede “what do a few people matter…when the whole of our society is built on a foundation of lies,” while Copeland insists that the individual nature of their struggles do matter, that lines like black and white are not arbitrary things to be erased in solitude from above (304).
Compare to a more low-key scene in Where Life if Better, where Rorty tries to organize a “mulatto” hitchhiker:
“In that town over there,” my companion broke the silence, “they shot a preacher a while back.” “A Negro preacher?” “Yes.” “Was he organizing share-croppers?” He looked at me. “The plantation owner said: ‘The nigger is my shade in summer and my fire in winter’ “They’re not all like that.” “No.” “Did you go to college?” “Yes.” “The share-croppers need leaders, don’t they?” “I’ve got my mother, my wife and two babies. We can just get by.” Soon after that he got out at a cross-roads. I didn’t ask his name. I am sure he wouldn’t have given it to me. . .(20)
Like Jake, Rorty’s Marxist spirit finds expression only as an omnipresent alienating force between the writer and his subject. The road narrative doesn’t mind this much, be he Anderson or Asch or Kerouac or Kesey, it is an affect of literary solicitude. What ultimately undoes titles like The Road: In Search of America or An Unsentimental American Journey is not the heavy ambition that hangs from those very words or even the sheer ludicrousness of characters like Nathan Asch’s Broadway dancer. Its rather the trenchant inability of these narratives to have any social desire to explain themselves. “Why is it important?” Asch’s coy mistress begs (16). “I simply didn’t know.”
McCullers, Carson Heart Is A Lonely Hunter. (New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1940, 1961, 2000)