Bonnie and Clyde is much like the typical ‘On The Road’ story, only it involves bank robbing and shootouts. Clyde Barrow and Bonnie Parker don’t come off as your typical criminals; however, there is a certain friendliness to them. Before her criminal days, Bonnie was simply a waitress who went with the flow, which made me question how much the great depression influenced her decision to join Clyde, and how much her own personality did. Perhaps it all goes back to the manner in which people were okay constantly being on the move because life wasn’t the greatest in their original hometowns, anyways.
What I found most interesting about the film was how Bonnie and Clyde, criminals on the run from the law, were depicted as heroes. Speaking to the time of the great depression, they fought “the system” that many dictated economic booms and busts. In doing so, they become celebrities of sorts, and naturally, as a viewer I found myself ‘rooting’ for Bonnie and Clyde. The bad guys in this film are almost the good guys, playing on a Robin Hood like motif. I also found it strange how casual Bonnie and Clyde were about their criminal habits that began with robbery and escalated to murder. It seems their catchphrase was “We rob banks.” They say their catchphrase as if they are saying as if they are telling others that they are rogue heroes- even though what they are doing is completely deplorable. Bonnie and Clyde’s comfort with their crime-ridden lifestyles was even more evident when they asked Buck to take a photo of them for the newspaper. The duo, on the run, sought to bask in as much fame and power as possible, likely because both qualities were generally unattainable for people of their standing in depression-era America.
It was also interesting to see how others either joined or were roped into the Barrow gang. CW, for example just seemed like he sought an out from the depression-era lifestyle. Even though he had a job as a gas station worker, the lack of excitement and opportunity for mobility seemed enough for him to give up the small fortune he had, with an occupation. It made sense that Buck, Clyde’s brother, and ex-convict would join the crew, but it seems like his wife, Blanche, certainly did not want to be a part of the Barrow gang. I guess being a woman at the time meant being forced to join your husband in his illegal and life-threatening lifestyle.
The scene in which Bonnie reunited with her mother was by all means, strange to me. If one was to truly leave behind their old life and in their own avant-garde way transcend the depression, they’d have to fully commit to it. I question whether Bonnie was able to do so, when she reunites with her family…. Maybe Bonnie wasn’t always as ‘on board’ with Clyde’s intents as she initially seemed. The whole scene is presented in some hazy manner, which also may be indicative of something irregular about it. We see criminals playing on a hill with a child and sharing a meal with a family. The scene could also represent that the barrow gang was comprised of humans with human tendencies, no heroes and no villains.
Ultimately, the Barrow gang is ratted out and Bonnie and Clyde are murdered. Although the manner in which the film was presented allowed me to sympathizer with Bonnie and Clyde, the movie’s final scene truly blurred the lines between a happy ending and a sad one. On one hand the robbers/murders were stopped. On the other, there was nothing left of the characters we had been following and for which we had grown akin. Perhaps the ending serves as a metaphor: Attempts to truly transcend the depression would be futile and could end in one’s own demise.
With winter break not too far away, reading The Arizona Quarterly’s Article: The American Guide Series: Patriotism as Brand-Name Identification and the Guidebook: California: A Guide To The Golden State made me feel as though winter break could not come soon enough. A native Californian, I didn’t find either piece to lure me using special rhetoric or exaggeration. As a matter of fact, “The Guide is…careful to avoid a rhetorical device characteristic of both Utopian writing and more conventional travel narratives: hyperbole.” Thus, it sounded rather objective. However, the reason I believe I feel so excited to go home after reading these pieces is best summarized by the title of the Arizona Quarterly article. In my mind, California is kind of like a brand. I don’t necessarily miss the palm trees or the 405, but I do miss the feeling of California, that I pledged allegiance to for eighteen years of my life. What the guide does rather well, and the article explains rather well, is how this idea of “the feeling of California” became a real constructed concept, one which made the state seem to be its own brand. In marketing, a commonly used term to describe how a company is perceived by its consumers is ‘brand identity’, what the guidebooks eventually did was, establish California’s own brand identity.
Perhaps the reason why the guidebooks were so successful in marketing California to the masses was the matter in which California was marketed, seemingly objectively and mostly honestly. As mentioned earlier, the guidebook shied away from exaggeration. It often used generalizations that weren’t definitively right or wrong but presented California in a positive light. In doing so repeatedly, good thoughts about California were naturally ingrained in the readers mind by the end of the book. For example, the guidebook’s preface begins “California has so great a diversity of places and things that the problem of getting it between the covers of a single book seemed almost unsolvable. The final preparation of this guide has involved the difficult task of choosing between what to put in and what to leave out.” Starting off with a more equivocal perspective about itself, the book sets a foundation as an honest source. Additionally, it briefly tells of California’s great diversity, but doesn’t explicitly discuss it yet, to naturally place California in a good light in the readers in mind.
If any deeper agenda is sought, its ideas are also presented in this equivocal manner to appeal lightly to the readers. For example, as the article states, “The Guide does not make its case for centralized control and rational management directly; rather, it scatters positive examples throughout its essays, descriptions, and tours. An essay on “The Movies,” for instance, claims that studios are able to respond to the exigencies of the Depression by rationalizing their production methods: ‘The movies that reach the first-run houses today are produced by a streamlined system in which all efforts are organized and specialized’ (127).” So, did the WPA manipulate tourists, well, yes, but not explicitly, which perhaps was why their efforts worked.
Finally, hearing a book from several decades ago discuss the landmarks near my home was rather interesting. The guidebook states, “The mild climate of southern California affords unusual opportunities for the construction of numerous outdoor theaters and stadia. Among the most notable of these [is ] the huge Hollywood Bowl…” An avid attendee of concerts at the Bowl, this reminded me of warm summer nights picnicking with family at a great concert with fireworks. For non-Californians, however, it likely just added to the nice picture the guidebook painted. This collection of nice tidbits about California was also what made it attractive-the great amount of its different attractions. This all is why, as Andrew S. Gross describes in his article for the Arizona Quarterly, “If Arizona is the land that migrants move through, California is the place where they stop.”
“The initial efforts by railroads and resorts to encourage recreational travel dated back to the mid-1800’s. It was not, however, until the decade after World War I that paid vacations were extended to a majority of salaried workers, and that local business leaders and government officials began to establish a network of professional tourism promotional associations. By this time, employers had come to accept the idea put forth by progressive management experts and social commentators that vacations renewed the spirit, energy and efficiency of the salaried middle class.” (Berkowitz, 185)
I grew up in a middle class family, where travel was stressed as an important part of life and leisure. I’d first like to take a second to say, “thank you, FDR, and economic depression of the thirties.”
It seems Berkowitz’ was the first real piece we’ve read that didn’t make any part of my stomach churn or pull on my heart strings. The boom of the tourism industry and the social change towards a greater acceptance of the value of travel were of the few good things about the depression. This acceptance was validated by the nascence of the national tourist agency, the United States Travel Bureau. The USTB basically guided the lost, new, tourists and travelers, who were unfamiliar with the new practice that would become commonplace. It was a catalyst and facilitator in the tourism boom, essentially showing people what the country wanted tourism to be. These efforts can also be seen in the declaration of the year 1934 as a National Parks Year, which essentially meant nothing but, was a huge marketing campaign by the government. FDR, in on it too, also did a bit of modeling for the masses, to set forth the American example that organizations like the USTB were trying to solidify. As Berkowitz explains, “Even FDR played the role of mass tourism promoter, taking his family on visits to Hawaii National Park and Glacier Park. In a nationally broadcast radio address from Glacier, he suggested that ‘every year ought to be a National Parks Year’.”
Something that perplexed me a bit was the creation of specific travel organizations for certain “neglected populations. For example, it created a Division of Negro Activities that produced guides such as handbook listing hotels suitable for ‘Negro’ travelers.” (Berkowitz, 204) I wasn’t sure if this was a misguided nice gesture, a bit of backhanded racism, or just another way to try and make money- it was probably all three.
As a result of all this tourism promotion, the notion of tourism, naturally, became a big idea in society. Such is evident in James Agee’s work “The Great American Roadside” where he describes the flourishing world of roadside business. Agee is clear yet a bit critical, examining price increases in roadside cottages, which attest to his point that “the Great American Roadside, where this people pauses to trade, is incomparably the most hugely extensive market the human race has ever set up to tease and tempt and take money from the human race. (Agee, 43) Whether or not he was right about the deceptive nature of roadside business, Agee, and others were critics of these new changes that resulted in capital gains for some people, and just made traveling more expensive for others, who had recently fallen on hard times. With regards to roadside travel, Agee believes, “Whatever we may think, we move for no better reason than for the plain unvarnished hell of it. And there is no better reason.” (Agee, 44) A benefactor of today’s road trip culture, I naturally can’t agree with Agee but understand where he comes from. Nevertheless, the ramp up of travel in the 30’s was, in my eyes, something great that continues to shape our country’s culture and economy today.
The subtitle of A Cool Million is “The Dismantling of Lemuel Pitkin”. What the book really is, is a dismantling of the typical hero story. It’s essentially a parody of a typical rags to riches, difficulty to success story. Perhaps that’s all a testament to the dark cloud cast on by the depression. However, with all its extremeness the book is a farce. It’s lampooning is not to be confused with a typical reality for someone at the time (not that it really could be).
On thing that really struck me about A Cool Million was its relationship to the typical Horatio Alger Myth. Way back in my high school US history course, we read several of Alger’s stories which I thought I had forgotten. Reading A Cool Million, they naturally returned to my mind. That was likely because Nathanael West used pieces of Alger’s work in his story. He literally copied in excerpts of Alger.
The book was filled with racism to a near uncomfortable point. It’s particularly evident in the way characters are portrayed; either with racist nicknames or typically stereotyped personas. Wu-Fong is dubbed “The China-man”, yet he speaks Italian perfectly. On one hand, this is typical racism. On another, it’s a parody of racism in novels, highlighting the inaccuracy of Wu Fong’s label as he has assimilated with cultures other than his “own”. The same goes for Seth Abromovitz, a Jewish lawyer. As someone of the Jewish faith myself, I see the name ‘Seth Abromovitz’ as a clearly “Jewish” name, something Nathanael West probably intended. It is also worth noting that Nathanael West was Jewish as well, though his name doesn’t clearly give it away as his character’s does…West was born Nathan Weinstein. Abromovitz is also portrayed as shady, money-hungry, and swindling. This is all to such an extent, that Ambromovitz is portrayed stealing from Lemuel, his client.
I’m interested in what would prompt Nathanael West to write A Cool Million. It’s definitely a stranger piece than those I’ve read for this course, and with this one I often felt lost and confused, as if some moments were totally arbitrary and came out of left field. Nathanael West definitely has an interesting history, and in some ways Lemuel Pitkin and his downtrodden, outcast qualities have parallels in West. Nathanael West west had his own, non-financial struggles, and eventually dropped out of high school. However, unlike Lemuel Pitkin who just continues to get beat up by the world, West caught a few breaks of his own, perhaps making his own narrative more like a personal, modern, Alger Myth. West faked a transcript that got him into Tufts University. After getting expelled, he used his cousin’s transcript to get to Brown.
Unlike his main character, West actually was able to use his problems to move up the ladder, eventually becoming a well-noted writer. Lemuel, on the other hand, is mocked beyond his death, and never sees out of his bleak reality. It seems every time he is getting back on his feet, he gets knocked down, yet again.
I wouldn’t say I particularly enjoyed the reading, yet it did keep my attention. There was something about the way it was written i.e. dialogues, straightforward prose, that for some reason made it a smoother read than expected, given its content. Still, after reading it, there is an empty feeling in me.
In His Essay, “Audience and Closure in The Grapes of Wrath”, Nicholas Visser writes, The difficulties Steinbeck had with closure in The Grapes of Wrath may stem in part from the very success he had in gaining access to his audience. Appealing to public opinion entails granting a measure of legitimacy to the social order the presumptive audience inhabits. Appealing to specifically American cultural tradition further confirms legitimacy. Once legitimacy is granted, any revolutionary implications arising from the narrative must be curtailed, even if that means skirting some of the narrative’s most profound insights into how the social order is actually constructed and in whose benefit it operates.” (P.8) Visser’s idea of the juxtaposition between a work’s legitimacy and how revolutionary it could be, really got me thinking.
I’m not entirely sure I agree with Visser about the paradox of the Grapes of Wrath. While certainly his view can be made sense of, I believe Steinbeck still remained at least somewhat true to his message in the novel. Perhaps his ideas were better hidden in the stories, inside the relationships among sharecroppers and landlords, or among typical traveling family members. While the novel isn’t explicitly making a commentary on the country’s situation at the time, its ideas of about it can certainly be found in the novel’s undertones.
Take the near end of the book, for example, Tom Joad’s mother says “Use’ ta be the family was fust. It ain’t so now. It’s anybody.” (P.172) She, as a character is certainly nuancing exactly what Steinbeck is conveying, but through deeper examination, Tom Joad’s mother’s purpose here is clear. She serves as a warning for the effects of the Dust Bowl and the search for a better life. Steinbeck is essentially saying that it all destroys families as members begin to detach from the family and become interested in only themselves. The deeper, more edgy idea Steinbeck is conveying is that the quest many take upon destroys families, something more on the revolutionary side of the spectrum, as he goes against much of the crowd. However, this thought is packaged well to retain its legitimacy. To some extent, the novel’s legitimacy hinders the thought as it cannot be explicitly expressed due to its symbolic package. However, on the other hand, the novel’s legitimacy actually adds to the spread of Steinbeck’s covert revolutionary idea, and thus without legitimacy nobody would read Grapes of Wrath. Thus ensues the three –way tension that Visser alluded to. It’s a tug of war between legitimacy, iconoclasm, and marketing. Steinbeck was able to find a happy medium among the conflicting factors, and perhaps that is why “Grapes of Wrath” is read so widely today. So, in a way Visser is correct; in another, he is not. I personally do not believe the book to be revolutionary but definitely believe it sparked original thought about life in the epoch. If one could understand the meanings behind the plot, the manifestations of Steinbeck’s opinions, he/she could get a more legitimately revolutionary understanding. However, as Visser points out, there is still some inherent struggle among the legitimacy and value of the quality of the novel. I wonder what Grapes of wrath would be like if Steinbeck didn’t hold back like Visser claims he would. Would it still be a novel, an essay, a pamphlet? Given the paradox of being legitimate and revolutionary, the following greater question also arises, “Can you even write a novel, especially one from this time period, that would be both legitimate and revolutionary?” Aditionally, “Would attempting to write something revolutionary be a lost cause because of the work’s ensuing legitimacy? I doubt it.
Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath is a novel of many themes. One, which I found particularly interesting, was the relationship between farmers and landowners and how outside factors augmented the tension between them. Landowners push the farmers off the land because, given the environmental situation, the farmers are unable to farm. The dust storm and the drought are strong factors contributing to such. Additionally, much of the tenant farmers’ work is taken over by men operating machinery, making them seem even more marginalized. What really struck me was how many farmers a single tractor could replace, and how many people such a transition would put out of work. A tenant farmer tells a landowner “”For your three dollars a day fifteen or twenty families can’t eat at all. Nearly a hundred people have to go out and wander on the roads for your three dollars a day. Is that right?” (42) The landlord who ushers in one, often sad, truth about improved technology, facilitates the struggle between the tenant farmers and tractor drivers. The book mentions that for three dollars a day ten to fourteen families are put out of work, instantly turned from down and outers to completely poor people. While the landowners are often, rightfully, made out to be villainous in Grapes of Wrath, this may be a case where they are actually just being practical and the tenant farmers are getting the short end of the stick. Although it hurts a lot of people, who are gravely upset, the choice makes good economic sense, which creates a question of morality.
In the novel, landowners and banks have horrible reputations and rightfully so. While the tenant farmers hate them for several reasons, some, like the one mentioned previously have some rational. However, other acts are just deplorable. The tenant farmers dislike these parties so much that throughout the novel, the bank gets renamed to “the monster”. It starts as one says, the bank is something more than men, I tell you. It’s the monster. Men made it, but they can’t control it. (28)
The whole notion of control in this struggle is quite one-sided. The landowner’s and banks are initially, for the most part those in control. Then, they become pretty much, completely in control, getting rid of many of the tenant farmers. However, in this gain of control, they carry out unnecessarily evil acts to further dehumanize the tenant farmers who’s lives are already going from bad to worse. For example, they tell the tractor driver to purposely terrorize the struggling tenant farmers, for which he is rewarded. The tractor driver says, “I got orders wherever there’s a family not moved out – if I have an accident – you know, get too close and cave the house in a little – well, I might get a couple of dollars. And my youngest kid never had no shoes yet.” (31) The added incentive to hurt the farmers is what really makes the banks and landowner’s “the monster”. In addition to the negative financial effects they project on the farmers, they unnecessarily do things to destroy their lives. The tractor driver, new to this, also talks about his own financial struggle, which is ironic in spite of the struggles of the tenant farmers, who have it far worse off. I guess he might have “needed” the money so he could get his kid shoes The farmers on the other hand, only needed a fraction of the money, so they could survive.
There are two unfortunate ironies at play in this situation. The first is that the tractor driver was likely once a tenant farmer himself and is taking over a struggle he once was a part of. The second is that of a basic and required item, the tractor drivers’ sons’ shoes, are seen as a luxury good because times are so bad and the truly necessary goods are so hard to come by. Both show just how hard the time is.
Take farming, an industry already governed by factors it cannot control like extreme weather, drought, and scarcity. It’s already filled with booms and busts, and has some risk involved in it that a farmer simply cannot control. Now, take farming during the depression; the possible ramifications for these uncontrollable problems are magnified and life is not easy.
James Agee’s Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, documents and portrays the lives of these farmers and sharecroppers, showing just how difficult their lives were in the depression. During much of the year, money was hard to come by, the money from the peak seasons was supposed to last for times when nothing could be grown, and nothing could be sold. As Agee says, “During most of the four months between settlement time in the fall and the beginning of work and resumption of rations advances in the early spring, “he will have no money and can expect none, nor any help, from his landlord: and of having no money during the six midsummer weeks of laying by, he can still be more sure.”(P.150)
At a time where any certainty of the continuity of one’s life and occupation was hard to come by, sharecroppers were no exception. Additionally, if a sharecropper didn’t grow enough, they were simply out of luck with no help from the others, who were also struggling. Luxury goods were simply out of the question as well. Sharecroppers, like many others I assume, were just working to survive. As Agee says, “it is for the clothing, and for the food, and for the shelter, by these to sustain their lives, that they work. (P.152) The sad irony here however, as Agee explains is that “Four to six months of each year, in other words, [the sharecropper] is much more likely than not to have nothing whatever, and during these months he must take care of himself.” (P.150) The times when the sharecropper has it worst, he must continue to survive, yet he doesn’t even have any opportunity to work to do so. It makes sense that as Agee explains, many sharecroppers took other jobs to supplant their work at times when agriculture was slow or stagnant.
The psychological effects of all this were probably horrific. An already physically dehumanizing job, in turn became psychologically dehumanizing. Agee says for sharecroppers of the depression that “to know at length better and better and at length into the bottom of you soul your unworthiness of it” (P.152) Sharecroppers didn’t just have to struggle and scrap to continue their lives. They also had to feel worthless doing it. While they were, in essence, struggling like the others of their social class, the psychological effects of their lives make the sharecroppers feel sub-plebian in their worth.
When looking at the images provided, they all, for the most part, fall in line with these ideas. However, the one above stands out. Here, we have a family: a mother, a father, two kids, and a grandmother. If live was hard as a sharecropper, imagining the life of a family of sharecroppers sounds dreadful. Exhaustion is written across everybody’s faces. The father is skinny to the point where it may be unhealthy. They’re dressed in rags, looking back at photographer, Walker Evans, like he is an outsider. It makes sense how worn out they are, given how much work they all perform. Agee tells that growing cotton “demands the work of a tenant family and yields less reward than all the rest” (P.158) Say the family was in fact, growing cotton, they together would be performing the work that multiple families would do collectively, to make enough to (possibly?) survive. Some things were easier than others to farm, and more rewarding. However, no matter what they were growing and whether or not it was “easy” and “rewarding” one thing’s for sure: their lives were not easy and rewarding.
It makes sense that Erskine Caldwell and Margaret Bourke White’s You Have Seen Their Faces, is recognized as an important artifact of the depression. One important thing the book did was show the reality behind the fiction stories authors, including Caldwell, were writing. So often we mention the blurred line between fiction and reality when examining works from the thirties. Any text presented, especially that in the book may be construed, contrived, or simply made-up. Here, with the photos, we have undeniable evidence that even if what we believed to be true of the period’s written works was actually false, there was certainly some truth behind the stories.
I found it interesting how many reacted to the book, perceiving it as “the book of the future”. (vi) While Nowadays, photo-books are everywhere, Caldwell and Bourke White were probably a bit ahead of the time on their concept. The photographs and the candid quotes below them evoke a similar principal to that of today’s ever-popular Humans of New York. It seems the book essentially served the same purpose for the South in the thirties.
One image and quote combination that really struck me was the African-American mother from Ocelot, Georgia, and her children on page twelve of the packet. The mother, holding a baby, with a young girl, presumably her daughter, by her side, is quoted saying, “I got more children now than I know what to do with, but they keep coming along like watermelons in the summertime.” (P.12 of handout) There first thing that makes me wonder is if the woman has any incentive to have more children, and if that’s even her choice. Kids probably cost some money, but they could also help a family financially. Secondly, her naivety in what she’s saying alarms me. The mother knows she is in a predicament with all her kids, yet brushes it all off. Finally, I wonder if she is a biological mother to these children, and where they al come from. Perhaps, I judged too quickly initially and the woman in the photo is helping out people in need (although it doesn’t look like she has much herself).
“Ten million persons on southern tenant farms are living in degradation and defeat… All has been taken away from them and they have nothing.” (P.48) This quote really resonated with me, especially when I saw the photo of the man taken in Porter, Arkansas. In his short quote, the man says “ We got seventy-five cents a day in the cotton field last year, and a whipping if we didn’t work. I hear them say we’ll get a dollar this year.” (P. 16 of handout) I know inflation means seventy-five cents then went a lot further than seventy-five cents now, however, still it probably wasn’t a great deal. The man discussing it seems to be driven by his pursuit of money. In a time where money was so scarce, a job where one could get beat for underperforming, was still, likely not in low-demand. Also, the man is African-American, further showing the plight of people of color during the depression. The man is taking a horrible job, because he needs it. He’s also greatly excited about a possible pay raise that still was likely nominal. In a time where milk cost thirty-five cents a gallon, the man in the photo is merely excited about being able to make enough money to live.
In all, the authentic parts of the book have a very candid feel, and make the book seem different from most others of its time. It’s been different, more personal, and in my opinion, more valuable, than much of what we’ve read so far.
“Regularly and minutely the dark line jerked, was still with waiting, then wormed six convulsive inches through the narrow door. Its humps were the heads of homeless men, centipede legs were arms in rags. Its hungering mouth was a thousand mouths; even from three blocks away Cass felt the dreadful humility with which homeless men wait for food.” (P.322)
With writing about travel in the 30’s it’s been unclear to decipher fact from fiction. The description and metaphor Algren provides made me cringe until I realized his writings were fiction. Soon after, I cringed even harder, realizing that Somebody in Boots is a reflection of a widespread reality, which was actually often worse. The fact that the text is fictitious probably has varying effects on different readers. It can placate the mind, or make it wonder about what this was based on, and what realities were and were not recorded. The fact is that there were so many poverty-stricken people during the depression whose personal stories were never recorded. For all of the famous works like Hickok’s and Gilfillan’s and famous photos like Dorothea Lange’s Migrant Mother, there are thousands more untold stories left behind.
The cow dung like meatball Cass is eating, gross as it is, was the typical meal for many of these people. The great irony of the meatball, depicted so well by Algren, is that it makes Cass lose his appetite. Cass is initially starving, as he wakes up so hungry he feels like there is a “wound behind his navel” (P.321) The food he’s given, and the food so many people are eating must is so incredibly vile that it a bite of it makes Cass’ extreme desire for food fade away.
With such difficult lives it’s no wonder people were always on the run. It seems there was a constant quest for a new home that would offer a people for the men of the depression. By modern standards, a panacea wouldn’t require very much, just a low-paying job, proper shelter, and sufficient food. Thus there were myth-like ideas of wonderful lands, where a half-decent life could be attained. As Algren describes, One spoke of Seattle, one of Memphis, another of Ripening wheat in Kansas. But whatever they said, Cass felt they were lying; he felt somehow these faces had never seen the cities and fields, that they only thought they had seen them.” (P.321) People probably didn’t really know the validity behind these ideas, after all, the educated Tom Kromer spent much time in Kansas and he didn’t seem to be having the best life there. It’s no surprise to me that Cass doubted the truths of these stories, although perhaps they were important in that for some, they kept hope intact during a hopeless time. I I found the style of Algren’s writing interesting and one tactic in particular, similar to previous readings. Like Adamic, he purposely spells certain words differently to emphasize dialect and a character’s background. The African-American man he meets says things like “Jeezus K. Reist!” Although Algren’s choice for giving the African-American man a less proper manner of speaking and a poor life may seem a bit prejudiced, it was probably grounded in some reality. From the readings we know life was awful for many “white” people. I can only imagine how bad it was for minorities and African-Americans. Additionally, the novel itself is based on reality as is based on Algren’s life. However, That’s not to say it couldn’t have been based on the lives of many people at the time.
Tom Kromer had a pretty unfortunate early life. Beyond that, until he published Waiting for Nothing, Kromer lived a poor life. What intrigued me about his story, and also said much about the time, was the relationship between Kromer’s intellect and what was happening in his life. Although he did go to college like his mother wanted him to, he soon had a life of someone without extensive school. What going to college did allow Kromer to do, however, was write Waiting for Nothing.
What really magnified how bad the times were was that Kromer was a smart and educated man yet, like people of lesser education, found his life in shambles. One might think, as his mother did, that going to college could save him from ending up a bum, however it doesn’t end up helping him find a conventional job. Times were so bad that eventually, “people started laughing at you for asking for work. (P.258)
One can tell, however, that Kromer isn’t the average beggar. Pit against most panhandlers one might see on the streets of New York City today, Kromer seems sharper and smarter. Even pit against the beggars he describes, the same is true. Firstly, his tone in describing his past is pretty professional, showing his skills and smarts. Also, his sociological analysis of who would and wouldn’t give him money was interesting, yet also scary. The fact that Kromer had so much experience that he could tell what type of person would give him money genuinely made me feel sad to read. Yet, his ability to recognize trends and motives show that the once professor wasn’t just the “bum” he refers to himself as. He’s also able to realize the peak hours and locations for pocketing some money.
I found his response to the beggar asking for soup kind of funny. The other beggar begins his usual pitch, to which Kromer offers the snarky reply, cutting the man off and saying “Boy, you oughtta have a whole tub of soup by this time. (P.250). Times seemed in fact so bad, that a man with more money than him fakes that he is poor. Ultimately, Kromer feels duped and outraged that he had to pay for a wealthier person’s pie, yet the other person seems to have no remorse for it.
Although almost all places had poor job situations, I’m curious as to why Kansas specifically, had no jobs for Kromer. In Kansas, things were so bad for him that at a point has to go “three days without food” (P.258) which is bordering on the human limit before death. What seems to truly embody the spirit of the time is Kromer staying in a town “for four or five months doing some odd jobs for a room and something to eat.” We’ve seen in it pervious readings, I believe, and I’ve seen it in a few movies from the 30’s. It really all shows how hard it was to secure a job and therefore secure food and shelter. Kromer, at a point got arrested for seeking shelter in an empty building in Washington during a storm- really showing how tough times were as even an educated man who had been a teacher was living such a life.
The organic nature and process in which Waiting for Nothing is written definitely contributes to the quality of Kromer’s work. Unlike travel reporters from previous readings who may have been trying to jazz up reality, Kromer seems to have a more natural perspective, as he says in writing he had “no idea of getting Waiting for Nothing Published”, and therefore “just wrote as he [felt] it.”(P.258) His work thus offers a pretty accurate way of seeing the situation as he’s just recording to record, not to make headlines.
Nowadays, if one said they had lived in as many different places as Hazel Leyton, they’d probably seem some adventurous travel extraordinaire. However, the woman Louis Adamic finds in My America just seems to be constantly running away and constantly down on her luck.
Firstly, the condition in which he finds her and that he ultimately does decide to stop says much about Adamic and the culture of travel in the time. The 22 year old is found on the side of the road, looking like a “skin enveloped skeleton”.(P.496). As Adamic describes, “Her shoes were broken…underneath her frayed garments she was also blue and bruised and scratched.”-women at the time probably got the tail end of their husbands’ economic frustration, (P.496) Such an outfit and bodily condition was probably more typical at the time due to the grave economic situation. Perhaps that’s why the girl declines Adamic’s offer to take her to a doctor, someone who could definitely help her.
The character of travel also seems generally welcoming. It doesn’t seem like Adamic is going to pick the girl up at first, but he ultimately sees how bad her condition is and decides to lend a hand. From other readings, it seems that as long as someone was not African-American, most people would do the same thing. Adamic even goes so far as to collect her “soiled, torn garments) (P.496) and help her out in a harsh wind. He did fear that she’d be what he calls a “female racketeer.”(P.497). Ultimately, the fact that he does pick her up shows that, given the harsh times, people were likely more willing to help others out. Regardless, it was a smart move on Adamic’s behalf as he gets an organic experience to write about. His is truly a random experience, and offers a snapshot of the situation, aligning with the book’s goals established by its subtitle.
The woman Adamic picks up, who could be a solid representation of many women at the time, is definitely a bit downtrodden by life. In her dialogue with Adamic, it is clear that she has little money and hasn’t had much education. She is constantly commenting on Adamic’s wealth is if such type of thing is atypical. Perhaps because for her, and many others, it was atypical- a Chevrolet, good meals, nice clothing… it hadn’t been so abundant since the better times. The woman also asks for a needle, likely for drug injection purposes, and when Adamic responds that he doesn’t have one for her, she replies, “Gee, you ain’t got nothin’ have you?” (P.500) The fact that she might expect Adamic to have a needle can show that either a: in such a time, drugs were a common escape from the harsh reality, or b the difference in wealth and social standing between the driver and the passenger-it probably is both.
What interested me most about the piece was the amount of times Hazel Leyton was willing to just pick up her stuff and go live somewhere else. She had been lived in so many different states and cities that she lost count. A bad living situation was probably so common that hitting the ‘restart button’ on life wasn’t even a daring thing to do, just a thing one had to do to survive. She had essentially become a nomad, and that all seemed very normal to her. For some reason, that evoked images of the 1967 film, Bonnie and Clyde, in my mind. However, unlike Bonnie and Clyde, Hazel wasn’t on the move for criminal purposes. She wasn’t constantly running from the law, just running from the harsh reality of her life.
Perhaps the most important thing one does in travelling is meet new people. We seek to have grand takeaways or new ideas sparked by the differences in norms or ideas we encounter. We also naturally assume that the small sample of people we meet in a new place is an accurate representation of the people who live there.
However, the social dynamic of travel can skew reality and thus, the small sample size of people now isn’t even an accurate reflection of the people themselves, let alone the people that live in their town. When visiting a new place, its inhabitants will often be unnaturally kind and welcoming. The reason for such is possibly that folks know that travelers will base their opinion of their hometown on the people they meet and thus seek to represent it in the best way possible. However, people don’t always fake friendliness around travelers. As a man in a restaurant in Richmond tells Asch, “A newspaper man, heh? Well, why don’t you bastards write the truth sometimes?” (P.20) This man would probably give Asch some more valuable information than someone just trying to make Richmond look good.
But still, the social dynamic of travel and the traveler’s findings, likely formed off minimal evidence, can all cause misunderstanding. The cycle for such is as follows: the people one meets do not act the way they really are, making one’s conclusions about a place and consequent takeaways based upon non-concrete evidence. Therefore, they are a bit misguided and possibly untrue. As Nathan Asch puts it in The Road in Search of America, a town’s inhabitants “always tell you the things they want you to hear… And you try to live with people, and try to find that thing in them that is so typical of them it is not unusual.”(P.7) Thus the question arises, how can one find something “so typical that it is not unusual” if the people they are examining are often presenting untrue versions of themselves?
While there is no surefire way to get honest opinions and a non-filtered view of the common lifestyle in a place, it makes sense that Asch stays with people, instead of hotels, immersing himself to collect the most data possible. It now makes sense to me that there were professional travel reporters like Asch. The distortion is what makes professionals necessary-their extensive time and living arrangements make them more suited to talk about a place and its people than a mere visitor.
There is much irony in the social dynamic among travelers in different mediums in transportation. In the 30’s, riding the train is a formal experience where “If you get to talking to a stranger, you’re not yourself with him, you’re likely to put on airs and to lie.” (P.8) While trains are supposed to be a classy and thereby comfortable form of transport, the social dynamic inside trains is not comfortable. Asch is probably taking a shot at the famous railroad motto captured in Dorothea Lange’s famous photo, (displayed above) declaring, “You don’t relax in a train” (P.8) On the other hand, “under the murderous vibration of the bus you’re got to relax.” (P.8) Bus journeys, like the one Asch has decided to take, are far less comfortable, and therefore more relaxed socially. Out of the cumbersomeness of a bus ride comes a community of people in a shared space with a collective journey. The culture of openness is what allows Asch to meet his lady friend, Jerry, and have natural conversation with her. Unlike when visiting a place or when riding a train, it seems people offer their most true stories and most natural selves when taking the bus. Thus, the bus is an ideal place for Asch to gather material. It would be interesting to see him do a chapter or short book about the conversations he had while riding it.