Seabiscuit takes every trope of American success and smashes it together with horse racing. What would three straight white men be without a horse that represents the economic conditions of an entire country?
The four main characters of Seabiscuit cover depression stereotypes. Red, the Canadian played by Toby Maquire, comes from a family financially ruined by the depression, and resorts to intense weight loss strategies in order to maintain his jockey physique. Tom Smith, played by Chris Cooper, represents the traveling man, the one who sleeps under the stars and pulls himself up by his own bootstraps the next morning. Charles Howard, played by Jeff Bridges, the man who struck it rich selling automobiles, lost his only son in a car accident, and decides to take his chances on a down and out horse, our hero Seabiscuit.
The narrative arc of the movie follows no ordinary horse; it’s not enough that Seabiscuit makes an improbable turnaround from being a lazy horse that can eat his own weight in grain, he also comes to represent America as a whole, and becomes a national icon for overcoming the odds. In his book Bloodhorses, John Jeremiah Sullivan notes the phenomenon of horses serving as national icons, “…when your Sammy Sosa has four legs, cannot speak, and has, to all appearances, no idea what people are so worked up about, you have to work harder to generate narrative.”
Horse racing is an economically irresponsible industry in every sense of the word. The only people who are gambling more than the folks in the stands are those who actually own the horses. It’s strange how “the sport of kings” could come to become a so popular for a country with a 25% unemployment rate, and yet horse racing was one of the top three popular sports in America during the Great Depression.
The film tries to show how a horse lifted a group of people out of financial ruin, but in reality, these three men weren’t lifted out of their sorrows by a horse. They were lifted out of their troubles by Charles Howard’s money, and that’s the ultimate myth that Seabiscuit tries to sell: that everyone has the power to lift themselves up their own bootstraps.
For the cheese ball of cheese ball conclusions Toby Maquire’s character states, “You know, everyone thinks that we found this broken down horse and fixed him, but we didn’t. He fixed us. Every one of us. And I guess in a way, we kinda fixed each other, too.” It’s a nice sentiment, but couldn’t be further from how America actually got out of the depression.
In the opening paragraph of the WPA guidebook for the state of California, the editor states, “The final preparation of this guide has involved the difficult task of choosing what to put in and what to leave out.” You could say this about the history of any significant place, but the balance between inclusion and exclusion plays a heavy role in how the state of California thinks about itself, and how it thinks about its history. It wasn’t until I moved away from California that I began to see the holes in my state’s telling of history, and many of the cultural assumptions in the WPA guidebook reflect the fractured narrative we’ve created for the state of California.
The history told in this guidebook goes along a similar history as the one I was handed as native of California. Fourth grade history classes in the state routinely celebrate miners, settlers, and anyone else who has come to the golden promise land. The first words of the chapter, El Dorado up to Date, read, “The First to come were exploreers by sea…” This is where California history erroneously begins: there were actually close to 500 distinct Native American sub-tribes in California before a European ever set foot upon the land; today there are about 100 tribes recognized by the Federal government, with a similar amount petitioning for recognition. The problem of History and guide books not addressing what came before us is compounded by the fact that we have a limited view of what happened when we arrived. No telling of California history, either for ourselves or for tourists, explains this drop in the number of native American tribes.
The other parallel between this guidebook and history books is the description of El Dorado. California has been considered a gold mine as way of finding a physical place where the American dream exists. Our relationship with the land is predicated on exploitation: it’s been this way since we got to California, and it’s still this way today.
Californians tell themselves lies about their history and founding, I guess all Americans do, but this problem becomes compounded when we celebrate our exploitations of Native Americans who were here long before we were. The history handed through tourism often lacks the nuances of the past, and in the particular case of California, the allure of our tourist attractions double as symbols of economic prosperity, particularly gold mines.
Joan Didion faces the conundrum of California’s tourism industry in her book, Where I was From, by looking at the creation of “Old Sacramento”, a formerly run down area of our state capital that was rehabilitated into a tourist attraction mimicking what the city would have during the days of the miners. Didion’s father had owned a saloon in what would have been the actual “Old Sacramento”, and she described her daughter walking on the purposefully distressed wood planks saying, “…I had no more attachment to this wooden side-walk than [my daughter] did: it was no more than a theme, a decorative effect… it seemed to me that this had been the moment when all of it… the entire enchantment under which I had lived my life began to seem remote.”
The idea of leisure, either as a privilege or as a human right, is a fairly recent concept. It was only during the industrial revolution that the idea of free time on a weekly basis for relaxation, personal reflection, and rejuvenation, became a widespread phenomenon. Leisure is traditionally associated with free time, which is in turn associated with disposable income, something that was in the hands of a relatively small part of the population during the Great Depression. The marxist interpretation of leisure is that it is one more form of subduing populations so that a workforce will remain complacent with their conditions. But paid vacation, which allowed for tourism to flourish even in the Great Depression, has a different connotation than mere leisure time.
Paid vacation implies that a worker is of value to a corporation even when they are not actively working. This usually arrises either because an employee is seen as costly of difficult to replace, or that said employee serves some sort of function (re:profit) that comes from something besides their direct output. The rise of paid vacation might also accompany the rise of more highly skilled labor falling under the umbrella of a larger LLC; paid vacation is by and large the barometer that you are an important part of your work force. This isn’t to say that paid vacation is an inherently bad thing, but if we only require, or expect, it for a certain part of the population, it begins to become problematic.
The question then becomes, is paid vacation merely another way of subduing populations and encouraging complacency in the workforce, or is the establishment of paid vacation an actual step towards workers rights? The idea that you are of value to a corporation even when you are not in service is inherent in paid vacation, but not in leisure. Regarding the difference between leisure and paid vacation, one columnist in the Nation noted: “Men and women who work with their brains are sensitive, fine strung, in constant need of replenishing burned-out energy; men and women who primarily work with their hands are stolid, ox-like, in need of thick beefsteak and a sound sleep to prepare them adequately for the next day’s work.”
Paid vacation might be more stratifying than wages themselves. And yet who benefits in the war between paid vacation versus leisure? It’s customary for carpenters to make somewhere between 25 and 30 dollars per hour, about the same someone might expect from an entry level comfy office job. But what is the real significance of these wages if only one of these two workers is allowed for paid vacation?
Although A Cool Million was initially disregarded for being a direct parody of the “Horatio Alger myth”, the novel does resonate as a sharp political commentary. Horatio Alger’s work is known for it’s rags to riches tales, but one of the key parts of Alger’s work is that economic gain is useless unless accompanied by middle-class normative respect. Lemuel Pitkin never gains respect, and even after he dies, his life is treated as a martyr, to belittle his dead self even further.
Respect in American culture is an elusive concept. By middle class standards, economic status is nothing if gained through an undignified means. A garbage man and an entry level marketing brand strategist make the same amount of money, and the fact that a brand strategist has more upward potential has nothing to do with the fact that the position is more esteemed than the garbage man’s. A Cool Million tracks a man’s respect moreso than his economic status and shows the road to respect’s inherent contradictions.
Much written about the Great Depression is concerned with economic difficulties, but one of the overlooked themes that comes with loss of work is the loss of respect. Americans have a tendency to equate their work or their job with their identity, and so when someone loses their job, they’re not only face economic hardship, but a loss of identity, or grounding. The main problem with intertwining our jobs with our identity is that jobs and income are directly related, and so income begins to become associated with identity. The mantra, “You are not your job” is an interesting concept in the context of A Cool Million, as the main character Lemuel Pilkin is treated with a lack of respect throughout the entire book due to a lack of employment.
Much has been said about A Cool Million’s commentary on European fascism rising around this time, and the fact that so many people at the end of the novel latch onto Pitkin’s martyrdom seems to corroborate this. This seems to be less of a warning sign for America, and more of an explanation of how fascism arrises. Pitkin’s life resonates with anyone who’s failed at anything, and the martyrdom that concludes the book shows how widespread this feeling of a lost identity or a loss of respect in America truly was.
One of the most piercing parts of Alger’s work is that the characters are almost always helped along the way by someone who is already wealthy, and so A Cool Million might not be making fun of Alger’s work as much as it is pointing out that everyday Americans have no wealthy patron to rescue them from poverty.
Who is Grapes of Wrath written for? It is one of those odd books that exists as a cautionary tale, a historical relic, and a championing of the working class. Steinbeck said of his writing, “My whole work drive has been aimed at making people understand each other and then I deliberately write this book, the aim of which is to cause hatred through partial understanding.” It’s entirely unclear then who his audience is, or who he thought it to be, if the book causes hatred through partial understanding.
One theme that is prevalent throughout Grapes of Wrath is the idea of the inhumane conditions we inflict on each-other. America, by definition, has been built on the creation of inhumane conditions, and remains a central part theme throughout our literary canon. Our country would not be today without its history of subjugation, and one of the aspects of subjugation that Steinbeck seems to tap into is the idea that inhumane conditions can be created by anyone, as long as power is involved. None of the characters in control throughout this novel appear as particularly strong, smart, willful, or any other characteristic associated with leadership. On their own, without their standing in the world, they appear as equals to the Joad family. The smallest modicum of power seems to be the overwhelming thing that differentiates these characters.
The sense of power in American culture is constantly being validated by supposed merit, and the myth of America’s meritocracy. But one only has to look at American politics to see the fallacy of the idea of pulling yourself up by your own bootstraps. We see the same families and pairings dominating politics over and over again. Just look at our current primary, one candidate is married to a former President, one is the son and brother. Steinbeck’s novel seems to point that the only differential between people who can do inhumane things, and those who can’t, is power, or at least, the desire for power. When power remains in one family, it becomes compounded, and one of the lessons we can learn from Grapes of Wrath is the ways in which power not only creates inhumane conditions, but also perpetuates itself.
Still, the question of readership remains, who is Steinbeck writing for? Steinbeck is writing for his own class. There is no prescriptive element of his writing, only descriptive, as Steinbeck’s aim is not to persuade the reader of anything, only to highlight a situation. Grapes of Wrath’s audience then becomes those who already have power over the world, as a cautionary tale of what can happen when power goes wrong.
There have been entire literary careers based on California’s largest natural resource: disappointment. No generation in the 20th century seems to lack its Americans who think life in California is one big nugget of gold on the beach, only to find the reality of place whose history is essentially one continuous exploitation.
The particular brand of disappointment that comes when Tom Joad’s family reaches California is a common one within the state’s history. Many have come searching for new pastures, only to find the grass was never greener on the other side.
The reasoning behind the Joad families migration is a very reasonable one: work. The economic conditions of the depression forced people to take on any kind of work, and this is representative of how people have historically come to California. In the land of opportunity, California has been America’s supposed promised land, and the history of people coming to California for the last 150 years has been one of constantly striving for something that is better. How, or what, exactly it will be better remains undetermined upon departure, but whatever it is will surely be out west.
Joan Didion has noted in her book, Where I Was From, that settlers coming to California continually found themselves to be outsiders upon arrival, only to give up their previous identities to take on a treacherous term: Californian. The only thing distinctive about being a Californian is participating in the process of making other people who come to your newly found home state Californians. It’s like America within America. The reason why I bring this up is that Tom Joad’s family in The Grapes of Wrath will also soon become Californians, continuing a long and weird tradition. Maybe not by the end of this book, maybe not by the end of their own lives, but it rarely takes more than a generation of settlers to turn into Californians.
What’s more, Tom Joad’s family will be remembered by his children’s children, and their children, as a heroic settler. In discussing the task of getting to California, Didion points out how it was often times a deadly journey, and yet the decedents of these settlers rarely remember this. Grapes of Wrath rightly points out that the terrain surrounding California renders the state not easily accessible, and yet Tom Joad’s journey will be remembered as one of triumph over the forces that defy the golden state.
California has built a history on forgetting the histories of other people and outside places. And it’s not like people don’t know this when they come to the state. So much of the rhetoric California espouses about itself highlights the state’s ability to give people a fresh start, to begin anew. This is largely the reason why people move there, and would have been particularly appealing during the Great Depression. The appeal of erasing your history, in the case of Grapes of Wrath the dust bowl, combined with California’s ‘strike-it-rich’ miner mentality makes California seem like the literal pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. But as people have continually found out, California’s economy rarely escapes national crisis. The 2008 economic crisis foreclosed entire communities surrounding the Silicon Valley area that had popped up in the preceding years. Similarly, Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath shows how California never escaped the Great Depression.
Given that the photographer of Let us now Praise Famous Men previously worked for the Farm Security Administration, it is interesting to see how this work functions as a result of private enterprise on behalf of Fortune Magazine. In a way, the fact that Agee is reporting on behalf of Fortune Magazine gives him a bit of removal from having to give a final declaration on the situation most of these sharecroppers are in.
In researching this book, I found that Agee’s style of reporting heavily influenced David Simon, a former journalist at the Baltimore Sun, and the creator of HBO’s The Wire. Although The Wire is most known for its explorations of the Baltimore drug trade, Agee’s reporting on southern sharecroppers is reminiscent of The Wire’s second season, which focuses on the port of Baltimore, and then men who work on sea docks.
Both The Wire and Let us now Praise Famous Men take the approach of showing the injustices and living conditions of marginalized groups, but neither one gives a prescriptive solution to the problems that they are highlighting. It is not that they argue the current situations will stay that way forever, rather, both Simon and Agee allow the reader to make up their own mind about present situations. But both The Wire and Let us now Praise Famous Men are never just about their subjects at hand. In the same way that David Simon wasn’t just writing about the city of Baltimore, Agee is not just writing about Southern Sharecroppers. Both are writing about the systematic conditions of America as a whole. Neither one sees their subjects at face value, both Simon and Agee see them as representative of larger failings in America.
The comparison that I see between the sharecroppers and the dock workers is how you adjust to situations when things take a turn for the worst. Both Simon and Agee present the dilemma of workers who have spent their entire lives doing one thing, and then find themselves with a shortage of work due to economic conditions. These circumstances are compounded by the fact that both the sharecroppers and the dock workers are not only losing their livelihoods, but traditions passed down to them from previous generations. In this sense, the loss of work is not only a loss of wages, but a loss of tradition.
Journalism is never subjective and both Simon and Agee recognize this by recognizing their own role within society, and then talking about the subjects they wish to portray. In journalism, the “I” figure used is supposed to be that of the dispassionate and unbiased observer. But anyone with a heart in Simon or Agee’s shoes would have some sort of passionate response to the situations they are witnessing. By inserting their own point of view into their respective narratives, they are not only being honest about the situations at hand, they are giving the reader a clearer vision into the subjects they are portraying.
With many of the photos in the book, You Have Seen Their Faces, the subject’s face is appropriately at the center of the frame, but many of the photos arrive so close to their subjects that the viewer cannot distinguish where the photograph was taken. Like all art, photography is a series of choices, and the decision to not include any contextualization as to where the photo was taken dislodges the subject from reality. All the photos have the cites and states where the subjects are from, but there the effect given by the photograph implies that these locations don’t actually matter.
Take the first photo presented; where is this happening? A woman is sitting with child on what appears to be the the steps of a Greek temple, maybe the Parthenon? The caption states that it’s actually on the steps of a home in Clinton Louisiana. The next photo of a man holding a wheel-barrow: the camera is aimed upward from the ground so that any land that could give an indicator of where this photo is taking place is obstructed. It also contorts how tall he is, as the photograph gives the subject no comparison. Without knowing anything about the photo, you might assume that the figure is a young man, but the caption states he’s a boy, and one who is missing school. The effect is that he remains somewhat ageless, and as we can’t easily discern how old he is, we lose the ability to put him in any one time or location.
These photographs give the sense that these faces transcend the time period from which they came, and the artist’s thesis seems to be that these faces, the circumstances that cause such anguish, are common anywhere in America today, and you have already seen them. But if we have already seen them, why photograph them? What service does this do for them? By this time, photography would have been considered one of the fine arts, and curating is also a series of choices regarding the importance of objects. The idea that common workers, with faces you have already seen, should be presented in a fine art setting signifies their importance, even more-so than any elements of the photograph.
When you place photographs such as these in the context of fine art, it divorces the subjects shows in the photograph from the subject’s presence in real life. The inclusion of these people in a fine art context signifies that the image is worth looking at beyond its immediate subject matter. What is lost in this transaction is the ability to empathize with the person or people being shown, but what is gained is a sense of the extent to which these conditions were prevalent in America at the time.
One of the common themes in Boxcar Bertha is the idea of perceived experience being a unifier for Americans during the Great Depression. Unity is a really odd concept in American culture. As has been noted countless times, America is too big to have a common culture or experience, and the idea of finding some thing or some event to try and tie us all together and make us one big happy family might be the most American thing possible. As she concludes in the opening paragraph, “All my life I’ve lived with hungry and lonely people.” Never do the characters in Big Bertha, or in many of these books, seem to question the economic side and reasoning of why they are in these situations, instead the focus on how they are all united, instead of why they are in this situation in the first place.
The idea of hunger doesn’t seem to be the exact reason why people felt united at this time, as hunger seems to be the constant. What seems to be uniting these people is loneliness. Part of what makes America the beast it is, is the sheer amount of land the United States government has procured for itself. There is a brand of loneliness that is distinctly American, and Boxcar Bertha taps into the that mentality. Part of this American loneliness goes hand-in-hand with another American phenomenon, pulling yourself up by your own bootstraps, which is a weird mentality to have about loneliness, as by definition, you need someone else’s help to get out of it.
You see in several places, Nelson Algren, Boxcar Bertha, Woody Guthrie, characters who continually go it alone can’t figure out why they’re lonely. They continually go off in new directions, California seems to be a reoccurring one, to try and achieve some sense of togetherness. Obviously loneliness wasn’t the main reason why people were moving around, jobs were. But loneliness is a symptom of this era that is really only expressed in the novels of this time. It’s not that nonfiction writers of this era didn’t feel the same loneliness, but it seems to be a more consistent theme in Depression-era fiction. Part of fictionalizing a story is adding in plot elements that allow the narrative to touch on larger themes than those present in the story, and one of the accomplishments of fiction from this time is to go beyond the narrative of hunger and work to show what else people were looking for.
Much of the communist rhetoric around this time is based on the idea that when individuals pool resources together, they can achieve more than if they were simply to work on their own. Americans continually downplay the fact that resources are more effective when pooled together, and yet Americans still seem to feel the same way about loneliness. Time and time again, in both these books and in the American literary canon, these broken hearted characters continually try to rely on themselves to work their way out of loneliness. American economic principles have seemingly seemed into how we deal with being alone, and regardless of your economic persuasion, that’s a bad thing.
Waiting for Nothing is characteristic of the Great Depression, but it’s message of Americans waiting for a false hope might be the dark underside of the American experience. One of the enduring attitudes towards homelessness Kromer shows is the perception that homeless people are lazy. The “get a job and go to work.” remark from the man courting the prostitute displays a stigma that we still see in America today. The quote not only shows a level of insensitivity to the plight of homelessness, it shows the stratified affects of the depression. The idea that there is one united America is a myth, and the effects of the Great Depression can more accurately be understood in regards to how different Americas are affected by economic downturns.
Kromer also touches upon the mentality of homelessness, and the struggle of long-term poverty alleviation when you can only plan as far ahead as your next meal. You see the other side of the romanticism (or fetishization) behind writers detailing the everyday lives of people out on the road. For “the writers up in New York” there is an end of this experience. For the homeless, there isn’t that hope. In his essay, The Atlas of Depression, Andrew Solomon notes that one of the worst parts about going through depression is the feeling that it will never end, and Kromer describes a similar experience felt by people who are homeless. Homelessness and depression are two separate issues, and should be treated as such, but we might learn a bit about both if we try and tackle them with similar tactics. The way you begin to break this never-ending mentality in depression, Solomon says, is to show that there is a light at the end of the tunnel. If you employ a similar logic to homelessness, then something like the WPA makes sense not only on an economic level, but also in terms of giving people that hope to overcome their circumstance. Obviously, the WPA did not give enough hope, as there weren’t enough jobs to go around (maybe war is what America needs to kickstart hope) but if you can realistically see the possibility of a job, you can begin to see an end to your current circumstances.
Kromer dedicated Waiting for Nothing to “Jolene, who turned off the gas.” Stylistically, it sets the tone for the rest of his book, but more importantly, it’s a reference to the woman who saved him from a suicide attempt. Waiting for Nothing shows how depression lurks in the shadows of homelessness, and how stigma does little to aid either of these conditions.
So often history tells the stories of bureaucracy and politics, and neglects this everyday aspects of economic ups and downs. Lorena Hickok’s detailing of the New York city relief crisis not only gives a humanizing aspect to great depression, but also dives into the mentality of poverty. Living day-to-day is the direct result poverty takes on families, and this mindset is largely responsible for continued impoverishment. Poverty is a nasty feedback loop that never allows people in its grasp to think about time beyond the present, and contemplate methods to alleviate oneself from economic hardship. Hickok shows the last effects of this mentality, which is primarily doubt in government, the people who are supposed to be giving a hand-up in this situation. No wonder marxist ideology appealed to so many people.
Hickok truly begins her assignment with the declaration, on page 47, “Let me tell you what happens when you apply for relief in New York city.” The switch from a third-person narration to a second-person viewpoint is a crucial part of this report. By taking the reader through the step-by-step process millions of Americans had to go through in order to get relief aid, Hickok takes the reader into the mindset of the average family on relief benefits. This is not only an effective literary device, but it’s also an effective political tool. Hickok knew that her audience was not the general public, but the U.S. government, and other officials who were likely making policy decisions about situations they themselves never had to face.
But the decision to include a second-person narrative momentarily lapses, as Hickok begins to to jump back and forth between the citizen (you) standing in line waiting for benefits, and the administrator in charge of the whole operation. In the third-person, she says, “If the person asking the questions were sympathetic and tactful, qualified by experience and temperament for the job, it might not be so bad.” She then jumps to the second-person, “But the person asking those questions is just another victim of the depression like yourself.” Before zooming out into the third person again, “He’s apt to be without experieince or training…He, too, may be worries about next week’s paycheck.” By switching between second and third person, Hickock forces whichever side of relief dispersement the reader is on to see the other side’s point of view. She implicates the reader in this understanding of the overall situation, as someone who should realize the impact that the great depression is having, not just on those helped by relief, but by those workers employed by the government.
One particular aspect of relief access Hickok dwells upon is the waiting period, and how this affects the mindset of U.S. citizens. This inclusion of an extensive waiting period in relief access serves a double-duty purpose. It not only shows the reader the bureaucracy behind gaining relief aid, it shows the mechanism by which poverty disenchants citizens.
The concept of a better life is at the core of American values, in terms of what drove people to America, and what supposedly continues to drive America forward. In his book, Where Life is Better, James Rorty pokes holes in the idealism everyday Americans place into the fantasy of these elusive concepts. Everyday Americans during the Great Depression seemed to list off places where life was better, but none seemed to have any mode of actually getting there. Where exactly this life exists is easy enough to determine: we have neighborhoods, cities, and an entire state where we think the better life is taking place. How to get to this better life is what stratifies America.
Marxist teachings suggest that the potential for a better life is right in front of you: in your factory, at your plant, at your store, you just have to take it. Rorty seems to be pointing at the fact that the American people lost sight of this. Part of the American dream is being able to take what’s directly in front of you (land, materials or otherwise), and turn nothin’ into somethin’. The harsh realities of the depression showed this was not the case, and Rorty shows that nobody in America knew this better than the unemployed.
Much of Rorty’s talk of the ’95 per cent’ evokes similar language used in the Occupy Wall Street movement, and the parallels extend beyond lingo. Both the 95 per centers and the Occupy movement advocated for extensive change within the American financial system, with the underlying theme being equal access to the better life. But whereas Occupy Wall Street only showed problems, but no solutions, the 95 per centers seem to have the opposite problem. Rorty says, “The 95% don’t know the questions. But they know the answers, know it in their bones. ‘I guess things won’t get better until we have another war.’” How true this statement rings throughout America’s history.
In both of these chapters, there is the prevailing idea that American citizens expect a great deal from their country. It’s as if the circumstances they are enduring are immoral, not because of their living conditions, but because these things are taking place in America. It’s a strange concept, but its one that’s a fairly common cultural assumption. Today, Americans pay the least amount of money in taxes compared to any other modernized nation, and yet the government never seems to be doing enough for us. Part of this is the idea of pulling yourself up by your own bootstraps, but the American nightmare might be that the bootstraps have been taken away. Rorty later evokes the idea that “the landscape did not want him” and I wonder if he realized the juxtaposition he created by giving a ride to a Native American woman in the next scene.