The American Soul: "Soul of A People"

The American Soul: “Soul of A People”

The documentary “Soul of A People: Writing America’s Story” focuses on Roosevelt’s “New Deal”, more so on the fact that the government authorities believed that people have talent, regardless of their socioeconomic conditions or even “lack of luck”. The resonant concept of “We Understand You” helped people on both the economic and psychological front – by motivating and uplift themselves from the once-destitute conditions of the Great Depression. Roosevelt created the Works Progress Administration, which saw the occupation of 8 million people in areas of construction – particularly in building bridges, public parks and libraries. Demand to fulfill these jobs was burgeoning as supply increased alongside the minimalistic skills required to get hands dirty. This overall idea of Roosevelt’s “inclusiveness” is recurrently emphasized throughout the documentary particularly in the way the Historian Douglas Brinkley’s commentary is interspersed with black and white, zoomed in video snippets of men looking satisfied at work under the WPA.

In stark contrast, whilst building projects were quick to find champions as a result of a clear need within the economy; “Art” and other “White Collar” jobs were tougher sells. The narrative juxtaposes the pleasant images of building and construction workers with painful snippets of the artists holding up placards that demand jobs. This rapid transition creates a real aura of desperation at the time – wherein both, the skill-less and skilled were eager to make ends meet. The documentary shows well-dressed men and women with placards saying “You Can’t Get Fat on a Fireside Chat” and “Writers Demand Projects Books”. The theme of inclusiveness pervades this segment of society just as much in the way that the unemployed fight together and unite a common voice in demand of jobs.

The story of Author Richard Wright is also indicative of a struggle and a passion to find employment at a time when everything was seemingly unsure. Wright moved to Chicago with just seven years of education in his repertoire and after losing his job at a post office in Mississippi. His story evokes a real sense of sympathy as it unfurls to reveal the intensity of his travel to the North in the harsh winter, his requirement to shovel the snow for eight hours before he could get back on the road amongst other similar events. However, his experiences working with and near the other men gave him the necessary sense of internal peace and confidence. Once again, Roosevelt’s overall desired “inclusiveness” comes into play here – particularly in acknowledging the fact that at a time when America was brought to its knees, its people would be its strength.

Another story that intrigued me was that of Zora Neal Hurston, one of the few female, African American authors who was paid to write by the Federal Government. Zora became a prominent personality for her ability to capture a lot of the folklore and “the rhythms of African American life and speech.” This documentary segment shows video snippets of the everyday life of the African Americans – as police officers, mothers, caretakers, gardeners and dancers. In her back, “Their Eyes Were Watching God”, Zora says “There is something about Poverty that smells like death – Dead dreams dropping of the heart like leaves in a dry season.” She came from a town in Florida that was founded by African Americans and so a lot of the poverty that she saw around there influenced the major themes in her writing. According to many, she was an “anthropologist” at heart – the kind that immersed in society, became one of the people and had a high regard for what the people shared with her. The documentary displays a video of Zora immersed in a music session with an African American community – as she describes her desire to feel the music, get involved, learn the verses of their songs and sing them back till they tell her that she can sing them just like they can.

Overall, the theme of inclusiveness guided largely by Roosevelt and the government he lead stands out the most the documentaries of Soul of A people. Despite being down-and-out, the government put heavy emphasis on creating jobs, involving members of the community and emancipating the deserving – particularly those like Richard Wright and Zora Hurston.

Unique Advertising

Unique Advertising

In the WPA American Guide, it is interesting to note the way in which Nathan Asch personifies two time periods – the contemporary and historical in Texas-Oklahoma using his character, Mary. He says, “she wasn’t the Texas of today, but of thirty years ago, and I really think she was not from Texas but from Oklahoma.” The story revolves around Mary’s rape and the difference in law and orders 30 years ago and now, where he says that 30 years ago the “boy would have been shot, and Mary gone to a brothel” however now, “the boy winds up in prison” whilst Mary is compelled to leave the town and wander as a means of saving face. It is particularly interesting to parse the facts and find that Mary is subjected to a life of “aimless wandering” for no fault of her own. Through Mary, Asch personifies a changing social order, particularly one that is less unforgiving yet puts a heavy emphasis on saving face, abiding by the law and upholding a sense of proprietorship.

Throughout the course of the piece, the writer aims to use the Guide to describe places in America. It is interesting to analyze the way he uses rhetoric to personify the characteristics of a place to connect with readers on a more personal yet profound level. To describe Arizona, he says, “Land of extremes. Land of contrasts. Land of surprises. Land of contradictions. A land that is never to be fully understood but always to be loved by sons and daughters sprung from such a diversity of origins, animated by such a diversity of motives and ideals, that generations must pass before they can ever fully understand each other. That is Arizona.” The main purpose of using rhetoric is to help the tourist “understand the state better than the inhabitant.” In this sense, the guide does not focus as much on the geography or the landscape as it does on the people and the governing culture. At this point, it becomes clear that the Guide serves to evoke a sense of empathy for a typical “tourist” in a way that the tourist would understand the culture on the level of its people prior to visiting or interacting with the local people.

The guide takes a different approach to describing California – by way of a graveyard located at the terminal point of the Lincoln Highway. In order to compensate for the initial morbidity, the guide soon describes California as a “terminal point” – the goal and the graveyard of a series of journeys both historical and touristic. In this sense, California is a place where people ultimately stop their movement for extended periods of time. From the Spanish Conquistadors to the Dust Bowl refugees – each demographic has served to add a new cultural layer to the landscape making California the essence of multiculturalism. In this way, the guide serves to create a strong image of the diversity by alluding to the history of California rather than directly describing.

Overall, the WPA American Guide Series attempts to provide a thorough yet truer advertising effort for tourism in the country. The guide leans heavily on historical factors, personification and rhetoric as a means of connecting with laymen on a personal level. Moreover, it seeks to celebrate “local differences by better managing social conflict” by emphasizing historical factors that may have led to the blend of differing social groups and their resulting conventions. On the whole, the guide appears to be a unique yet strong marketing tool for tourists that focus on aspects beyond the superficial cultural artifacts of places in America.

"The Travel Habit"

“The Travel Habit”

“Why did a period of drastically declining national income coincide with the development of new leisure practices, especially that of mass tourism?” This question appears to constitute the central theme of Berkowitz’s writing, particularly in the exploration of how leisure travel expanded rapidly in the depression era alongside the movement of vagrants for work. The cause has its roots in “paid vacations” and “growing promotional apparatus” within the economy – which in essence, appear to be naturally occurring phenomena. At a time when the upper, white-collar workers were being granted paid vacations to revitalize their “social health”, many emphasized the need for similar “periodical rest” by the middle-class, or “those who worked with their hands”.

It is particularly noteworthy to understand why the vacation phenomenon increased rapidly during the depression. Berkowtiz alludes to a level of insecurity by employers who were eager to ensure that their workers do not resort to unionization at a time when wages were lowering. He says that the “nation began to institute or liberalize already existing paid-vacation plans in an attempt to purchase employees loyalty and subvert their interest in joining unions.” More and more workers started addressing their entitlement for paid vacation as a result of the propaganda around them, particularly pervading the elite human capital segment. This idea appears to be a strong paradox for a time when one would imagine that employers had the power of authority and could dictate the work terms of their employees. Moreover, a lot of employers were concerned that their workers would squander the unpaid leave and therefore, the opportunity to rejuvenate and return as more efficient workers; however, they still had to abide by the institutionalized vacation requirements. To that end, there was a heavy emphasis on “going somewhere on vacation”. Employers were desperate to ensure that their workers were actually using the time to fulfill the “ethic of leisure” and actually traveling away from the work environment – to then return and increase productivity. Therefore, whilst employers granted paid vacation time with a lot of ease, they had a strong agenda, in that their workers would ultimately return more robust and ready to challenge themselves for their bosses.

The major perpetrators of this kind of “travel habit” were aggressive community advertisers who deployed the psychological benefits of travelling through their marketing habits. These advertisers, whilst not credited for encouraging travel as much as creating travel needs, emphasized such things as “America as the vacation land” and “See America First” as a means of encouraging Americans, to pursue a mobility that was driven by curiosity. Moreover, these advertisers positioned their marketing to express to government officials and civic-minded residents that the depression needed tourists. Tourists could “bring in new money, stimulate the economy and lower the tax burden” all of which could be done without depleting more resources. Hence, tourism was well poised for growth in spite of the overall falling economic climate. Community advertisers also used their know-how to teach the middle-class how to take a vacation, either through rail and bus fare guides or through setting up bureaus that helped plan and budget amongst other similar initiatives. On the whole, the mass movement towards increased tourism during the depression was a largely orchestrated phenomenon by government officials, community leaders and the private sector to improve the mental health of workers to then return more efficient and ready to bring the economy back on its feet.

No Room for the Innocent!

No Room for the Innocent!

As I started reading “A Cool Million”, I didn’t get too far before I was drawn to the overarching theme of Capitalist America and the greed that plagues the average person as a result. At the onset of the story, our hero “Lem” is made to understand the widespread truth: “If you can’t make money in New York, you can’t make money anywhere.” It is on the basis of this truth, that Lem sets out to find his calling in New York City and ultimately his fortune, to cover his mother’s mortgage. Whilst optimistic about his endeavor, it is particularly interesting to witness the unfortunate experiences Lem has soon after he sets off on his journey. First, Lem meets a “Mr. Mape” who is portrayed as a wealthy man from the city but eventually we learn that he is nothing less than a crook who pickpockets all of Lem’s 30-odd dollars. It is at this initial juncture, that I got a sense of the immorality and dishonesty that plagued people in capitalist America, to the point that there was little trace of veracity in character or honor for the hardships of those who were unfamiliar with the “big bad world.”

Just as I thought that one bad experience might have been enough to instill a sense of necessary distrust of this society for Lem – he falls right back into the clutches of a “pawnbroker” who we later learn, is a notorious underworld character. At this point, it is clear that the society at the time was unforgiving. There was little room for the innocent in a world of greed, wrongdoing and blame. Our innocent “hero” Lem, ends up caught by the police who incarcerate him for stealing and selling the ring that was once stolen by “Mr. Mape” and conveniently dropped into Lem’s pocket. It becomes even more interesting to learn, soon enough, that a similar doom falls upon Mr. Whipple who finds himself in jail along with Lem. The unforgiving, evil forces of capitalist America soon catch up to him when he says Wall Street working hand in hand with the Communists caused his downfall. He says, “The bankers broke me, and the Communists circulated lying rumors about my bank in Doc Slack’s barber shop. I was the victim of an un-American conspiracy.” At this point, the author is able to evoke a sense of sympathy for the innocent Lem and Mr. Whipple who were destitute in a society that was intolerant.

As I continued to read A Cool Million, I was immediately reminded of the book “Too Big To Fail” by Andrew Ross Sorkin that I recently started reading. The first few chapters of the book serve to humanize Wall Street and both the individual and institutional perpetrators of the 2008 Great Recession. In light of the overarching theme of a “dog-eats-dog” world and “no place for the innocent” in A Cool Million, it became interesting to juxtapose the sense of sympathy for the innocent with the sympathy evoked by “Too Big To Fail” for a lot of the Wall Street professionals, such as Richard Fuld of Lehman Brothers – a bank that fell to its knees and similarly, brought down the people associated with it. The themes of greed and mercilessness are striking, particularly in the context of paralleling the worlds of Lem and Mr. Whipple in a different time period with Richard Fuld, “a millionaire one day and a pauper the next”, in a more recent time period, to understand the “demonizing” impact that capitalism has had on all of society – right from the bottom to the very top. Having said that, it is inspiring to observe the way in which the same demonizing capitalist society holds to tenets that keep ambition running. This is true when Mr. Whipple tells Lem, “America is still a young country and like all young countries, it is rough and unsettled” – implying that this misfortune is temporary and Lem should not lose the hope that trumps defeat in Capitalist America.

The Omnipresent Forces

The Omnipresent Forces

One element that stands out in the first few chapters of the “Grapes of Wrath” is Steinbeck’s use of recurring environmental motifs – particularly that of the sun and the desert. From the onset of chapter 1, the sun is an ever-present force in Joad’s life. The sun appears to be something extremely violent – an oppressive force that represents the cruelty of nature in the way that it destroys crops and in turn, the livelihoods of those who rely on it. This idea is established in the initial introduction of the sun in the quote “as the sharp sun struck day after day, the leaves of the young corn became less stiff and erect; they bent in a curve at first, and then, as the central ribs of strength grew weak, each leaf tilted downward.”

In the context of the Joads’ life, the presence of the sun and the desert seem to symbolize a seeming “lack of hope” for those in America at the time. The “Dust Bowls” are a testament to the once fertile land that is now desolate. The “violence” represented by the sun is also symbolic of the harsh conditions that the Joads face as they travel into the depths of California. The symbols also lean on foreshadowing – for instance the “little starved bushes” foreshadow the hunger that would be afflicted upon the Joads as they continue their travels. This idea becomes more and more pronounced throughout the course of the novel.

It is interesting to analyze Steinbeck’s use of underlying motifs and symbolism for the very fact that they are metaphors for overarching, supporting ideas. Whilst Steinbeck uses the sun and the desert in the context of the Joads physical surroundings, he also attempts to overextend his metaphors so as to represent the economic conditions of the Great Depression. For instance, it appears as though Steinbeck places the “violent” sun in the context of the barren desert as a means of representing the empty promises of capitalism in the 1930s. This is particularly true given the idea that the capitalist culture that had preceded the period had, at-once, become “barren” and “dry” just like the desert.

Furthermore, Steinbeck uses elements of the earth and weather to build tension and evoke a sense of anxiety for the Joads. In the opening of Grapes of Wrath, Steinbeck says, “The finest dust did not settle back to earth now, but disappeared into the darkening sky… In the gray sky a red sun appeared, a dim red circle that gave a little light, like dusk; and as that day advanced, the dusk slipped back toward darkness.” It appears as though Steinbeck’s painstaking description of environmental factors are a direct representation of the Joads initial fluctuating feelings of hope and despair, slowly descending into despair, as the skies turn dark. He goes on to say that “every moving thing lifted the dust into the air: a walking man lifted a thin layer as high as his waist, and a wagon lifted the dust as high as the fence tops, and an automobile boiled a cloud behind it. The dust was long in settling back again.” This description serves to intensify the conditions and observe the way in which the Joads and other tenant farmers fall into despair further whilst their crops are ruined and their entire world is covered in “dust”. It is interesting to note how Steinbeck ends chapter 1 by saying that as the storm settled, “it settled on the corn, piled up on the tops of the fence posts, piled up on the wires; it settled on the roofs, blanketed the weeds and trees” and uses this to distressing context to begin the Grapes of Wrath. Overall, Steinbeck’s expressive descriptions and use of motifs, whilst distressing, provide a solid sense of context to the Joads’ lives and align with the sentiments of tenant farmers at the time.

“Migrants are needed, and they are hated”

“Migrants are needed, and they are hated”

It is particularly interesting to analyze the way in which Steinbeck describes the living situations of the migrants when they first move into the camps. He describes the way in which a new family in the area begins demarcating their living space – “he tries to make a toilet by digging a hole in the ground near his paper house and surrounding it with an old piece of burlap.” Steinbeck attempts to evoke a sense of disgust in his readers by describing the repulsive, unhealthy conditions further, when he says, “there is a clump of willows nearby where human feces lie exposed to the flies – the same flies that are in the tent”. Steinbeck complements these descriptions with accounts of how younger members of the family are victim to their surroundings and therefore, deteriorate to the point of death. The poignancy in each of these descriptions becomes that much more amplified in the readers mind when Steinbeck indicates that these conditions are attributable to the “middle class” of the camps.

To that end, the conditions are significantly poorer for the “lower class”. It almost appears as though Steinbeck’s “matter-of-fact” tone is a representation of his own acceptance of the migrant conditions. He has become so immune to their tragedy that he has no personal emotion underlying any of his descriptions – it is more a means to an end of relating, in the most accurate way, the hardships faced by the migrants. In one of his anecdotes about a lower class family, Steinbeck says “Four nights ago the mother had a baby in the tent, on the dirty carpet. It was born dead, which was just as well because she could not have fed it at the breast; her own diet will not produce milk”. The matter-of-fact tone embedded in the description amplifies the sense of sympathy and pain felt by an average reader.

As I continue to read about the inferior conditions of the migrants, I am inevitably reminded of the presence and miserable conditions of the Gypsies during my semester abroad in Prague. A sizeable Gypsy population continues to occupy inner territories of the Czech Republic – however, they are so much connected to their past in that they continue to live in squalor for being ostracized from native society even in the modern day and therefore, are subject to the same destiny that migrants in Steinbeck’s accounts are. Whilst in other instances, migrants are regarded with an “otherness” that is attributable to anything from color to status – in Steinbeck’s account, the “otherness” is somewhat attributable to a level of filth, disgust – to the point that these people are reduced to moving bodies that “carry diseases”.

There is a very harsh reality that Steinbeck accounts for in his writing. This reality revolves around the fact that the migrant workers are “dirty people”, who are, for no fault of their own, locked into a vicious cycle of dirtiness by the majority population. He says, “The county hospital has no room for measles, mumps, whooping cough; and yet these are often deadly to hunger-weakened children”. The imagery created in this quote lends more and more to the fact that the migrants were caught in a vicious cycle of poverty. More often that not, this demographic of people continued adding to their population by risking the well being of their offspring alongside their own. On the whole, John Steinbeck’s matter-of-fact prose style is conducive to objectively expressing the repulsive living and breathing conditions of the migrants. He is able to clearly indicate that the migrants had little scope for breaking out and fixing themselves on a physical, social or economic level.

Unpredictable "Money", Arduous "Work"

Unpredictable “Money”, Arduous “Work”

In the James Agee excerpts, “Money” and “Work”, Walker Evans’ lyrical writing style is noteworthy. For instance, in reference to the earnings of the farmers at the end of the month, he says, “It can be enough to tide through the dead months of the winter, sometimes even better: it can be enough, spread very thin, to take through two months and a sickness, or six weeks, or a month: It can be little enough to be completely meaningless: it can be nothing…” It is this lyrical prose style that provides a sense of how farmers thought about allotting their meager earnings. Evan seamlessly juxtaposes how valuable the earnings can be and immediately, then how invaluable they could be – and achieves this through the long run-on sentences and overly expressive writing style.

A similar sensibility is evident in the “Work” passage as follows – “The arduous physical work, to which a consciousness beyond that of the simplest child would be only a useless and painful encumbrance, is undertaken without choice…taught forward from father to son and from mother to daughter…” Here, Evan’s poignant tone resonates with me. He, so unapologetically, likens the idea of work on the farm to the very basic consciousness of a child –requiring no higher-level, educated skill. He further adds that the “work” and resulting “work ethic” is passed from generation to generation – upholding the tradition and care for the land within familial confines to the extent that their lives are so consumed by the “work”.

Evans further exaggerates his lyrical writing style to incorporate personal pronouns as a means of evoking sympathy in the average reader, like myself. He says “It will stand and stay in you as the deepest and most iron anguish and guilt of your existence that you are what you are and that she is what she is and that you cannot, for one moment, exchange places with her”. Here, Evan refers to the women that are caught in the physically strenuous, iterative work on the land. Through his rather poetic means, Evan’s suggests that an average reader, who is in a more opportune and favorable economic surrounding, should feel a certain sense of guilt for the suffering of such women who are “locked between the stale earth and the sky” upon being married. As a girl myself, reading this make me wonder how it must have felt to not have the ability to “choose” work, like most women do today. At the time, women had one and only one fate – to end up married and continue working on the land. This idea becomes even more poignant when he says, “there is nothing conceivable for which it can afford to stop short of your death, which is a long way off” – to suggest that nothing, but death, could change the fate of those on the land.

Overall, Walker Evan’s lyrical writing style stood out to me as a means of evoking a reaction in the reader. Evan’s is able to use his long, drawn-out, run-on sentences to his advantage by elongating the emotion or the idea behind his prose. This serves to complement the emotional ideas he intends to convey when describing the uncertainty surrounding earnings or the physical strain afflicted on people working on the land. Moreover, Evans is also able to use his lyrical style to successfully draw the reader into his own emotions. He is unabashed in the expression towards “Money” and “Work”, and as a result, seeks a similar response from his audience.

One Nation, Divided.

One Nation, Divided.

The collection of pictures in “An American Exodus” by Dorothea Lange focuses largely on the destitute situations of those on the land, focusing specifically on depressed living and working conditions. As I initially sifted through the pictures – “Hoe Culture, Alabama/1937” caught my attention. The black and white images displays a close-up of, what appears to be, a man holding a shovel. The image starts at the man’s neck (leaving his face out for the viewer’s imagination) and ends just where his shirt and jacket fall naturally – which is also where we can see the top of his shovel and his hands, tightly dripped around it. This image – without any association to facial expressions or feelings, is effective in its poignancy. The ‘faceless’ man, to an average viewer like myself, is a representation of the monotonous, tedious and similar work carried out by all those on the firm. The emphasis on the hand clenched around the shovel further emphasizes this idea – evoking a sense of sympathy for the larger African American community that grappled with tools required to work on the land.

In a similar vein, “Greene County, Georgia/July 1937” presents a man, hunched over, struggling with the weight whilst tugging at a bag of cotton. Once again, the viewer is left to construe the image to the best of his/her ability and sense the hardship and pain without being able to see the man’s face. The black and white image appears to highlight a silhouette of the man’s face, his hunched back and the bag that he seems to be tugging at in the middle of a field. As I viewed this image, I not only got a sense of the hardship faced by people involved with the work, but also, of the resentment by the common man, towards the government at the time. The man seems to be helpless and resentful of his condition which has its roots in the lack of support by the higher orders. A similar sense can be extrapolated in the image “Macon County, Georgia/July 1937”. The image presents the silhouettes of a man and a women working on a dry, uncultivated field, appearing to be miserable with their situations – which serves to provide a strong sense of the deprived conditions at the time.

In contrast to images displaying people and real action, “President’s committee on Farm tenancy Georgia/1937” displays wooden steps leading to a hut. The photographer likens the “steps of an agricultural ladder” to “bars of imprisonment”. The image and the caption create strong imagery and provide a deeper interpretation of the entrapment of those working on the land to a vicious cycle from which it would be hard to escape and attain self-progress.

In her excerpt “End of The Road: The City”, Dorothea Lange draws on the idea of “One Nation, Divided.” She alludes to the fact that there was little room for making allowances and finding a middle ground with certain groups of people. Particularly in Sacramento, the city asked inhabitants of squatter settlements to vacate the land before the place would be burned down. In the same vein, The California Legislature declared that assisting any non-resident “indigent” to enter the state would be considered “misdemeanor”. These examples are a testament to the extreme actions taken by authorities against the lower-class, non-residents at the time. A huge result of these declarations was the movement of the lower-class from rural to urban settings, creating a population influx of American Negroes. Through her pictures, Dorothea brings to light, the fact that the once European immigrants melting pot transcended into “ghettos of blacks” that were swept in from plantations. The nomadism that was imposed upon the “blacks” appears to be the strongest influence to Dorothea’s photographs and her writing. On the whole, Dorothea Lange does a stellar job with her unique angle on images and descriptions that engage her audience on a deeper level. Her points of focus and simplistic images are noteworthy – in that she seizes to convey a more profound part of history through the most basic, un-detailed capture.

A Past That Follows

A Past That Follows

The recurring matter in “Boxcar Bertha” that really resonated with me was Bertha’s willingness to move on from her “recorded” past of being involved in gang activity and jail-life. Bertha leaves her old world and takes to the road in “Boxcars” in the pursuit of something new and different for herself. She first falls in to the hands of the Home Missionary Society to become a strong, trusted social server to young hobo women. However, it is not too long before she claims, “My jinx, which had been keeping its distance caught up with me and tripped me” and is asked to resign for being diseased. This initial incident sets the stage for similar instances in which Bertha’s past catches up to her and lowers her self-esteem to a former level of inferiority. The incident goes to show that there was little personal emancipation opportunity provided to those during the Great Depression. Many hobos like Bertha, who desired to leave their old lives behind, could do so, only temporarily, before they would be reminded of their past and fall back into being destitute.

In a similar vein, Bertha is asked to leave the Female Transient Bureau for having a criminal record that she failed to highlight in her application. This incident is indicative of the values and morals that guided society at the time. The director of the bureau tells Bertha, “What would we do if some newspaper got hold of this and said that the chief of the Female Bureau had been a jailbird, an associate of thieves?” She further adds, “This is a government organization and anything that would discredit this organization would bring shame upon the government.” Once again, the writer creates a strong and poignant image of the hardship afflicted upon Bertha. In analyzing these events, I found that despite Bertha’s promiscuous and carefree beginnings, she consciously tries to redeem herself through actively giving back to those who have the same fate as her. Having said that, she is constantly pulled back by societal norms and stigmas at every stage, which represents the general sentiment in society in terms of impeding the potential for growth and emancipation for those who pursued it.

Another key element that stood out to me was Bertha’s inherent willingness and ability to leave her daughter, “Baby Dear”, behind and take to the road. Every now and then, she acknowledges her daughters presence by saying things like “Baby Dear was well and flourishing.” It is interesting to analyze the situation and come to terms with the fact that Bertha is a product of her own past. As a young child, Bertha too was left to fend for herself by her parents and so, has lived the life of a nomad for the longest time. Whilst it is heart-rending to read that Bertha abandons Baby Dear, it is simultaneously justifiable. Bertha appears to be a contemporary version of her mother – carefree and uninhibited. It therefore goes to show that Bertha, amongst other women hobos like herself at the time, was entirely a result of their upbringing, or lack thereof.

Overall, there is a recurring sense throughout the piece, that Bertha is product of her circumstances. She brings herself to leave her daughter because of the way she herself is brought up and also, falls into the clutches of society for having an unlawful past. These elements tie up to indicate that members of society at the time were largely victimized, were held to their personal standards and did not have an immediate opportunity to redeem themselves.

The Life of a "Stiff"

The Life of a “Stiff”

Waiting for Nothing”, By Thomas Kromer is a powerful chronicle of the darkest, most unsettling events surrounding The Great Depression. Kromer’s novella has stood the test of time and appears to be the most honest and raw account of the aggression and violence that was characteristic of this time in American history.

Kromer recounts the life of a young man who is a “Stiff” – homeless and wanders around asking for small change from “guys with dough” in order to make it through the day. The young man has “seedy clothes” and “shoes without soles” – it is in this poignant imagery that Kromer expresses the never-ending quest of the unemployed and the depressed during the Great Depression. In essence, the “wait” signifies a yearning for “Three hots and a flop” – three decent meals and a bed for the night. Most of Kromer’s accounts revolve around the “Stiff’s” quest, albeit, unsuccessful – for a roof above his head. Still, for the one-off nights that the Stiff gets a bed to rest his head, he appears to be bitterly grateful – He pulls these sacks up around his chin and “thinks about those poor bastards out in the rain.”

I was particularly gripped by Kromer’s moving juxtaposition of the unemployed stiffs and the wealthy. In the first chapter, it is interesting to see how, in spite of roaming the streets and being out of employment; the young man is profound in thought. He alludes to the idea that altruism is not entirely selfless. Despite being grateful for the day’s worth of food, the stiff keeps reiterating the fact that the “guy with plenty of dough” ordered steak dinner for the stiff “in a loud voice so everyone can see how big-hearted he is, but he is a good guy anyway.” There is an undertone of resentment towards the wealthy, helpful man particularly because he is in the capacity to flaunt an ability to expend his riches on the poor and make it evident too. In the larger context, the dramatic effects of income inequality is exemplified through this incident and makes evident that the divide between the rich and poor had become that much more pronounced during the Great Depression.

Moreover, Kromer makes evident, the fact that people like the “Stiff” were so destitute that they realized, better than their well-off counterparts, that this time was different. There was no opportunity, no outlet to a livelihood for the ambitious. When the Stiff is pushed away by the cop who suggests that he find work instead of loitering around “classy areas”, he says “Does he think I would be standing here in the rain and the cold if there was work to be had? There is no work.” This adds to the poignant imagery that Kromer has already been building up in that; these people had come to terms with their misfortune enough to admit to doing away with any traces of ambition they had left.

The world that Kromer illustrates is violent and compromising. He describes the brutality and aggression with which the “railroad bulls” and “police” work to push the wandering Stiffs to their next destination, keeping them caught in a vicious cycle of movement. Other times, missions hold these desperate men, crowding them “like cattle.” The protagonist says that more-often-than-not, men are “packed like sardines”. At one point the main character agrees to a proposition of a gay man in order to receive a meal and warm bed for the night; on another occasion he gives a young female prostitute lessons in how to “penny up” in exchange for bologna butts, onions, and stale bread. All these facts play a role in creating an unforgiving picture of the circumstances at the time.

I was particularly drawn in to the text by the vivid and poignant imagery that Kromer adopts in his writing. He provides a real, somewhat relatable image of the displacement of thousands of men and women and evokes a sense of empathy for these people at a time in history when the economy stripped most people off their entitlement to the basic necessities.

Darkest Chronicles of the Great Depression

Darkest Chronicles of the Great Depression

Waiting for Nothing”, By Thomas Kromer is a powerful chronicle of the darkest, most unsettling events surrounding The Great Depression. Kromer’s novella has stood the test of time and appears to be the most honest and raw account of the aggression and violence that was characteristic of this time in American history.

Kromer recounts the life of a young man who is a “Stiff” – homeless and wanders around asking for small change from “guys with dough” in order to make it through the day. The young man has “seedy clothes” and “shoes without soles” – it is in this poignant imagery that Kromer expresses the never-ending quest of the unemployed and the depressed during the Great Depression. In essence, the “wait” signifies a yearning for “Three hots and a flop” – three decent meals and a bed for the night. Most of Kromer’s accounts revolve around the “Stiff’s” quest, albeit, unsuccessful – for a roof above his head. Still, for the one-off nights that the Stiff gets a bed to rest his head, he appears to be bitterly grateful – He pulls these sacks up around his chin and “thinks about those poor bastards out in the rain.”

I was particularly gripped by Kromer’s moving juxtaposition of the unemployed stiffs and the wealthy. In the first chapter, it is interesting to see how, in spite of roaming the streets and being out of employment; the young man is profound in thought. He alludes to the idea that altruism is not entirely selfless. Despite being grateful for the day’s worth of food, the stiff keeps reiterating the fact that the “guy with plenty of dough” ordered steak dinner for the stiff “in a loud voice so everyone can see how big-hearted he is, but he is a good guy anyway.” There is an undertone of resentment towards the wealthy, helpful man particularly because he is in the capacity to flaunt an ability to expend his riches on the poor and make it evident too. In the larger context, the dramatic effects of income inequality is exemplified through this incident and makes evident that the divide between the rich and poor had become that much more pronounced during the Great Depression.

Moreover, Kromer makes evident, the fact that people like the “Stiff” were so destitute that they realized, better than their well-off counterparts, that this time was different. There was no opportunity, no outlet to a livelihood for the ambitious. When the Stiff is pushed away by the cop who suggests that he find work instead of loitering around “classy areas”, he says “Does he think I would be standing here in the rain and the cold if there was work to be had? There is no work.” This adds to the poignant imagery that Kromer has already been building up in that; these people had come to terms with their misfortune enough to admit to doing away with any traces of ambition they had left.

The world that Kromer illustrates is violent and compromising. He describes the brutality and aggression with which the “railroad bulls” and “police” work to push the wandering Stiffs to their next destination, keeping them caught in a vicious cycle of movement. Other times, missions hold these desperate men, crowding them “like cattle.” The protagonist says that more-often-than-not, men are “packed like sardines”. At one point the main character agrees to a proposition of a gay man in order to receive a meal and warm bed for the night; on another occasion he gives a young female prostitute lessons in how to “penny up” in exchange for bologna butts, onions, and stale bread. All these facts play a role in creating an unforgiving picture of the circumstances at the time.

I was particularly drawn in to the text by the vivid and poignant imagery that Kromer applies to his writing. He provides a real, somewhat relatable image of the displacement of thousands of men and women and evokes sympathy for these people at a time in history when the economy reduced people to poverty and took away their entitlement to basic necessities in life.

The Fighter in Every Wanderer

The Fighter in Every Wanderer

From the onset of “A Girl on the Road”, Louis Adamic sets a mystical tone to the story of the lost girl. The girl in question – cold and blue, unkempt and threadbare is lonesome, on a dark, threatening night – a symbol of the worst form of suffering for most nomads. As the writer takes this girl into the comfort of his car, the girl: Hazel, is de-mystified. She begins to represent the free spirit, and the fighter that is hidden in every suffering wanderer.

To me, the woman represents the childish drive that is often concealed in most individuals, myself included, who are in constant search of their destiny. Whilst Hazel is obnoxious at worst, often panicked and hysterical, she permeates her conversations with a tremendous amount of ambition. In a lot of her dialogue, Hazel makes clear that she has, more-often-than-not, been “picked up”. She alludes to having dealt with all types of men along the road and at this point, has no inhibitions. She is as comfortable asking for “needles and threads” to sew her clothes back as she is, for cigarettes or to be fed. This is indicative of yearning that most wanderers have for just the basic necessities – the basic relief from their immediate suffering. Moreover, these people do not shy away from seeking their rights. They are open about their destitute situations and have a burning desire to make something out of their lives.

Hazel constantly makes assumptions about the writer’s life, particularly with regard to his social status (based on his clothes, his car and his writing profession). Having said that, she does acknowledge the fact that there might have been a time in the writer’s life, where he too, found himself in a void, in adversity. However, she is quick to accept that he came out of it successfully, exclaiming that she too, “Can do the same!” This poignant statement begs the questions: Are most wanderers looking for a livelihood? Looking to find their calling? All too often, I have found myself under the assumption that those who wander are lost. Lost in the sense that they scavenge for the basic necessities but not for a livelihood or a desire to get back on their feet. This could very well be the case – however, the writer makes evident, that those who have once, been deeply hurt and are in fact, wounded soldiers in pursuit of their calling. Hazel suffered the death of her aunt, her first husband and was robbed and abandoned by her second husband. She is a woman in America whose conscience has been crushed several times over, and yet, she is actively seeking an opportunity to rebuild herself. This makes me think about the fact that the average person, myself included finds consolation in the story of female sufferers, whilst the sufferers themselves, remain in their destitute situations. The writer appears to be one of the few people, who is moved enough to write about the eccentricities and idiosyncrasies of female wanderers like Hazel. Over all, Louis Adamic expands my perspective by suggesting that there is ample opportunity to emancipate women and inspire them into a life that their counter-parts, in more opportune situations, have been fortunate to lead.

Lorena Hickok in contrast, reports a crucial time during the “Great Depression”, when there were “Foodless Holidays” and people were most in need of “relief”. However, unlike Louis Adamic who draws on a certain “spiritual relief”, Hickok refers to the “physical relief” (clothing, shelter and food) that most people lacked as a result of a shoestring government budget at the time. Whilst Hickok adopts a more matter-of-fact tone compared to Louis Adamic, she does intervene with poignant imagery. Hickok brings up the idea of a vicious cycle, whereby people found themselves in a “dog eats dog world”. To that point, people found themselves asking for relief from “relief professionals” who themselves, were working to make ends meet. Furthermore, she points out that the “highest monthly relief average dropped to $23 – hardly enough to keep a body and soul together”. It is at this point, that I am drawn to the story of Hazel and her fighting spirit in the face of adversity. Additionally, Hickok goes on to say that that “the unemployed man without a family receives almost no relief” and that “single women are considered discards – living huddled together on the earnings of one who may have a job.” I juxtaposed this idea with those put forth in Louis Adamic’s writing, to conclude that there was a lacking sense of regard for a livelihood and ambition for women and came to terms with the fact that, more-often-than-not, women sufferers are much more in need of spiritual relief than monetary compensation as a means of freeing their mind from a bad, yet, passing phase.

 

 

‘Wandering’ and its Nuances

‘Wandering’ and its Nuances

“Americans with the means of traveling do not know how to travel.” Amidst the many intertwining sub-themes, this quote fashions my overall interpretation of the readings. Contrary to the modern-day construal of “travel” – involving an accelerated, often-rushed, movement from place to place – travel writers, such as Sherwood Anderson and Nathan Asch, offer a more profound definition to the resonating term. To them, a traveler is a “stranger who gains a sympathetic understanding with the people he encounters.”

For a necessary intervention: I recently read an article about Jamie Dimon, CEO of J.P. Morgan Chase in the Vanity Fair that described the CEO’s efforts to demonstrate to clients, employees, and important people around the country that the bank is a force for good in the world. How he did this, is something short of a marvel. Instead of relaxing in the Hamptons, like many other Wall Street executives, Mr. Dimon initiated the J.P. Morgan Chase Bus Tour, following the financial crisis of 2008 and “Stop after stop [from Detroit to Ohio], the senior executives emerged from their bus cocoon into what they called “the Tunnel of Love,” where employees surrounded them for hugs, fist pumps, and high fives.” They routinely took “hostages”—employees, such as tellers, branch managers, and small-business bankers—aboard the bus. The hostages, in turn, told the executives what they could do better, like simplifying the computer screen tellers use. As a result, over the course of the three bus tours, many such ideas were discussed and have now been put into practice across J.P. Morgan, America.

As an interpreter, I believe that Jamie Dimon is a modern-day, iconic personality that characterizes Sherwood Anderson and Nathan Asch’s versions of “the traveler”. In Puzzled America, Sherwood Anderson creates a strong metaphor for “perspective” of and “belief” in American society out of the traveler. Anderson suggests that travel writers are “wanderers”, with an agenda to provide an organic perspective by immersing into communities, conversing and empathizing with people. Anderson’s perspective is refreshing – in that he relates a moving story from the view of the sufferers, over the victors. Anderson talks to people that have seen America grow and in turn, become sidelined by its growth. These are people who have been displaced by the extravagance of modern, capitalist America and yet, stay rich in their belief for progress. Anderson juxtaposes affluence with misfortune in his experience “spending an evening with a well-to-do man” and later, stepping out and looking to find a man “pawing over the contents of a garbage can”. Through his experiences, Anderson finds that America is extravagant – yet, it is not until you wander around, that you experience the ample “wastage of wealth” that this extravagance affords society. Anderson describes this high-level perspective similar to the one adopted by someone like Jamie Dimon: Delving into the depths of society to find enough opportunity in adversity. Those living in luxury are “blinded” to the real needs of those below their echelon and can only contribute to the creation of opportunities for these people by removing themselves from the cushions of comfort and muster a  determination to channel their wealth towards positive change.

In a similar vein, Nathan Asch describes the way in which, the essence of travel has been displaced by the tenets of modernism. Like Anderson, Asch too creates a metaphor for the levels of depth and realness embedded in a “travellers” experience through the different means of transportation. He distinguishes between traveling by car- an individualistic travel experience; by train – a more formal experience; and by bus – an organic travel experience. To this point, it is no surprise that one of the wealthiest CEO’s in America would choose to travel by bus, because as Asch says, “under the murderous vibration of the bus, you’ve got to relax” and that people on the bus “all quickly become friends”. To Asch, travelling is less a means of merely getting from one place to another and more an “adventure”, an opportunity to get to know fellow travelers by their life experiences. Similar to Anderson, Asch suggests that in recent times, being “politically correct” is becoming a prerequisite to tracing the steps of American history and people. Therefore, Asch’s curiosity drives him to Richmond, to find the truth about the South. He acknowledges the fact that he has great Southern friends who were open to most conversations besides ones about “Southern History”. Hence, he is determined to stray away from this political correctness that society now regards in the midst of modern conveniences – in his desire to seek the truth.

Overall, it is the essence of a true traveller, to wander and retrace steps with a personal touch. Often, modern travel writers are too comfortable to recount misfortune or suffering. Both Anderson and Asch suggest that suffering does not need to allude to “pain” – but instead, to “doing it the traditional way”. Moreover, America is the overall force that binds both – the sufferers and those who live in comfort. Someone like Jamie Dimon alludes to the fact that there is a bittersweet, shared equality that people need to actively internalize, about being in a country of opportunity. Just like Sherwood, Asch and Mr. Dimon, wanderers should pursue a profound experience of the hardships in society – a theme that is pivotal to their purpose in life.