“Our Daily Bread” is a movie about the unplowed (both city dwellers and farmers) coming together and finding a common solution to their social struggle. The young protagonist, John found himself jobless in the city, and he and his wife Mary moves to live on a farm owned by her uncle. As a city dweller, John finds himself in a predicament upon arrival at the farm, since he has no knowledge whatsoever about farming. While he struggled to farm, John meets a farmer who is deprived of his land and is driving elsewhere seeking for a job. John invited the farmer to live with him on the land and to contribute his farming skills. Quickly, it expands to a larger commune consisting of about 20 unemployed (from different parts of the country and industries), who each contributed their talent and labor. After overcoming the lost of hope and a brutal drought, this collective community become even stronger than before. Although it’s often interpreted as a piece of political propaganda — radical socialism in opposition to capitalism, I will not focus on its political vision in this post. I would like to focus on its depiction of genuine human interaction and their connection to their work, which has long been missing in an alienated capitalistic world. Reflecting on what we’ve been discussing in class, I think the film shows us that our nature longs to do away with unnecessary desires fostered by overflowing material wealth.
Under capitalism, both artifacts and living human are measured through numerical value. Workers are valued by their wage. Products are valued by their price. Work are valued by pay check. And even a culture is valued by touristic attractiveness. But during the Depression, the economic system crushed, thus monetary value also collapses. It’s during this time, many are awakened that material value is external and very susceptible to the fluctuations that are not in our control. When stroke by poverty, the city dwellers realized that they’s lost all they had — material possessions and property. They can’t be self-sufficient without the capitalistic system functioning. In other words, they don’t have any skills that can guarantee their survival outside of a capitalistic world, such as the skill to cultivate a land.
Coming from a sophisticated city life, John and Mary found themselves in a minimalistic and simply life style in the country. They meet people and build relationship with them by looking out for each other. They return to the more simplistic life style. There is only the small community and the land. Somehow, it seems more fulfilling than their city life. Each of them contributed their own talent, to the land that they own, and they take care of the land as if it’s their child. The relationship between people and people, and between people and work become so simpler but also closer. I think it suggests that when we don’t rely on any external values, it’s easier for us to be true to our essence. What’s more, when we build our identity on external values, our identity doesn’t belong to us; because it could be taken away by a loss of fortune or other external forces. However, when we engages in a minimalistic material life, we have more control of our life and who we are. I often ask myself, what is more that enough? What is sufficient for a decent life? I think this film gives me some insight in answering these questions — what’s sufficient is what is natural. What is natural is to treat our work with genuine affection and to treat people as an end in themselves rather than as instruments for material gain.
Looking at the travel guides, it’s amazing how similar they are to today’s travel guide books. They introduce specific places for aquariums, museums, art collections, national parks, and outdoor recreations such as sports, camping, fishing, and boating. From the daily routine of the locals to cultural entertainment, everything is presented as “the place to go if you ever travel to this state”, in other words, tourist attractions. Tour guides redefines the meaning or culture of a place. Or maybe they just overlook its authentic identity, and gloss it over with a artificial and superficial identity as a tourist attraction.
In class, we discussed the “sign value” in American consumptionalism. Everything is measured by a singular value measurement, such as the monetary value. On one hand, this singular value measurement creates artificial values on things that we didn’t place value on before, such as brands; on the other hands, it deprives the pluralistic nature of values — it makes us value everything on the standard of monetary system. However, many things can’t be valued by a materialistic system; for example, it’s absurd to ask a mother how much money her child worth or to ask a person how much money his/her childhood memory worth. What travel guides introduces to our lives is not an authentic picture of what other regions look like; rather, it’s a commodified version of what the people and culture of these regions are.
“I saw the million automobiles, and trains, and buses and people walking on the road, all trying to get somewhere …. But on this imaginary road here were no traffic rules, or cops; and the highway was not paved, and the various wagons and automobiles and trains rushed one after another, pushed each other out of the way crashed into each other, and never stopped, but continued rushing onward. And one never saw the milepost ahead, one never saw the moment that was coming, but as in a mad darkness one dazedly hurried on, and crashed again….”
This passage trikes me the most in our reading. With tour guides, we don’t have to worry about our goals in a journey, because it’s already predetermined for us. The tour guides’ design is made to help us experience the best of a place, to go to all these “must go to” places. With the advertisements, locals are caught in between their old customs and culture and their identity being expressed by these these sites/activities promoted by the travel guides. To generate revenue, they are forced to be the “stereotyped” version of their true selves and to build their communities according to the stereotypes presented in the travel guide, so that the tourists are not disappointed when they arrive at the actual site. Whereas the tourists are caught in the endless search for the so-called California as presented by the California travel guide; not seeing, hearing, and feeling things on their journey as the way they are. In this way, everyone is lost. The locals and their habitat/culture/community is turned in to commercialized values; wheres the tourists have nothing but a commercialized destiny awaiting them.
I think the danger of commercializing what should not be measured with material values is the possibility of losing the value of culture and local traditions, because the values that we hold dear to us are subjected to be measured by the standard of monetary values. When the graveyards are converted into golf course, what gets lost is not only a physical graveyard, but the locals’ value of sacred space and respect for their ancestor. But according to consumptionalism, there is really no value in graveyards because they are not tourist attractions, thus are not able to generate revenue. Commercializing everything meaning selling everything with a price tag, and everything includes our culture, tradition, and even ourselves. I think in this super commercialized world, it’s important to identify these non-tradable values, because they are part of our identity and constitute in who we essentially are.
After reading Michael Berkowitz’s ‘A “New Deal’ for Leisure”, I can’t help but ask myself, what’s so “American” about the making of mass tourism during the great depression? And the answer I found is the significance to profit making in American capitalism. Consumptionalism and profit-making are the unique values that made mass tourism possible during the great depression.
The beginning of tourism is the yearly paid vacation of white-collar workers. It was believed that they will be healthier and thus have more productivity when they come back to work from vacation. According to Berkowitz, paid vacation is “the opportunity to recuperate form their demanding mental tasks while inhaling the productivity of American business and industry.” It sounds like business only offer paid vacation to their workers in so far that it increases their productivity and the material benefit of the business. In other words, the business doesn’t care about its employees as peoples for their own sake; it cares about its employees only because they produce utilities, which is made obvious when Berkowitz contrasted mental laborers with physical laborers. Physical laborers were thought to be “less deserving of vacation time” because “men and women who work primarily with their hands are stolid, ox-like, in need of thick beefsteak and a sound sleep to prepare them adequately for the next days’s work.” Physical laborers weren’t thought to deserve paid vacation merely because paid vacation wasn’t a way through which they become more productive — all they needed is a good sleep and meal. What’s more, when blue-collar workers eventually had access to paid vacation, it was because the business wanted to keep their loyalty, which is another way to minimize the lose of total profit. Now, it becomes clear that paid vacation started simply because business owners wanted to make more profit.
However, it’s ironical that paid vacation originated not from the good for the employees, but from the profit-making of the business; yet in advertisement, it sounds as if tourism generated for the good of the travelers, especially those American travelers who are targets of such ads.. For example, it was advertised as following, “travel strengthen American. It promotes the nation’s health, wealth, and unity.” It sounds as if the end of tourism is for the good of America, where its citizens get to know about their country and become unified with one another. But in fact, tourism is just another way to increase spending and consumption. It will definitely help to build the economy of America. In deed, the ads made it clear that one becomes a good citizen through traveling, because one gets to experience the real America. It’s every American’s obligation/duty to travel, because that’s the way to become a good citizen. Of course, it’s not merely for the leisure of American individuals that they travel; it’s also for the development and recovery of American economy. Thus, Berkowitz says, “the travel habit was not born with most Americans. It’s an taste and one which must be religiously and patiently cultivated by the seller.” There is a hidden sentiment of patriotism and nationalism being developed by those ads among Americans. They convey a strong sense of solidarity and unity among Americans. However, it’s ironical because only the middle/upper-class Americans could be the travelers. While traveling, they don’t get to see the real American or interact with the real Americans who work on the land. They are only interacting with the landscape and their little cabinet. It’s true to say that the tourists booted the local economy; however, it’s false to say that they actually become better citizens in the sense that they know better about their countries.
Throughout A cool Million — The Dismantling of Lemuel Pitkin, Nathanael West explores the relationship between confused American individuals during the Great Depression and the gradually shown empty ideology of what is to be “America”. In this post, I will show first that the empty ideology has killed our native Lemuel in the novel. Then I will explore why this is the case — because the ideology is used as an propaganda to gather lost Americans to fight for America, sacrificing self and live up to the empty idea of “America”.
Lemuel Pitkin’s dismantling represents the process in which the American Dream falls apart. American Dream is explicitly expressed by Mr. Whipple’s words — “this is the land of opportunity and the world is an oyster” and “Go out in to the world and win you way”. In other words, the American dream embodies a stereotype of impoverished boys rising from humble backgrounds to lives of middle-class life through hard work, determination, and courage. Those are the examples that kept Lemuel going; but ironically, the closer he strive towards the ideal, the worse his situation gets. Eventually, he dies while embracing his naive belief in the so-called American Dream.
However, Lemuel didn’t just die because his naivety; rather, his death is ultimately resulted by people who manipulate this ideology as an propaganda to recruit lost young Americans to fight for their country, which is built upon this empty ideology. Throughout the novel, we can see how Lem was not treated as a person per se; rather, as a piece of political tool to attract others attention. After Mr. Whipple exhibits his “young friend” — Lem, as the last man to have been scalped by the Indians, he gives Lemuel the title of “martyrs”, and uses his story to inspire his party members to dight for “National Revolutionary Party”. When Lem is shot dead, Mr. Whipple claims, “Of what is it that he speaks? Of the right of every American boy to go into the world and there receive fair play and a chance to make his fortune by industry and probity without being laughed at or conspired against by sophisticated aliens.” Lem is never clear about the object of the party and just followed Mr. Whipple blindly. It’s ironical that Mr. Whipple put those sophisticated and propaganda-alike words in to Lem, since these words are anything but what Lem would say. Mr. Whipple merely uses Lem’s story as a piece of tool to promote his political ideology.
Not only is Lem treated as a means to the end of Mr. Whipple’s political ideology, other people are also objectified as masses who can buttress the party. Before Mr. Whipple gives his speech to the unemployed who are in line waiting for soup, he says to Lem, “ ‘These men are the material from which I I must fill the ranks of my party.’ ” There is nothing more disturbing that seeing the the comparison between persons to “materials” that “fill the ranks of my party.” It’s obvious that Mr. Whipple doesn’t care about those unemployment as persons; rather, he is interested in them because they can be used to bring about his own political ambition. Further more, Mr. Whipple believes that the solution of American predicament is to unite all classes by bring them to work together under the name of “America”. He says, “What I am getting at is that Capital and Labor must be taught to work together for the general good of the country. Both must be made to drop the materialistic struggle for higher wages on the one hand and bigger profits on the other.” Again, his words shows that again, he doesn’t perceive people as individuals with freedom and nobility. He objected people as tools to achieve an empty ideology — “the exceptional America” — which is already proven false by Lem’s tragic life story.
West shows us that the relationship between American individuals and the empty ideology of “America” is not reciprocal. While American individuals naively believes the ideology which represents their country pride and optimism, they are at the same time manipulated by politicians to be tools to spread this ideology. The Americans have to escape what defined them by others and create their own identity. And maybe there is no such a thing as “the America”. And, maybe it’s better to just have individuals with different identities than forcing an false identity upon them; because identity is created by individuals, not the other way around.
The ending of John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath was unexpected. After seeing so many pains and helplessness, I though the book would end in a bleak note. However, Steinbeck seems to offer us a solution to this social inequality and oppression experienced by the poor.
In Chapter 29, Tom seems to experience a spiritual rebirth after his hiding in a dark cave alone. It reminds me of Plato’s allegorical cave, where a philosopher struggles to get out of the illusion-filled cave and gets to see the truth. Tom undergoes a spiritual transformation after he gets out of his cave.
Before he entered the cave, he wasn’t confident and was confused about what to do. He was disfigured and distressed by the police, physically disabled by his sister’s secret telling, deprived of physical freedom and sight by the cave. He represented the group of the immigrant farmers, living a passive life and are under to determine how to live their life. They didn’t have a voice.
However, after Tom was forced to stay in the cave alone, he starts to think and contemplate about life, the life where “our people living like pigs, and the good rich land laying fallow, or maybe one fella with a million acres, while a hundred thousand good farmers is starving.” By stepping out of the constantly stressful surviving situation, he sees the big picture of his kind of people. He thinks of the absurdity of their living condition and starts to think the reason behind their suffering. What’s more, he seems to see a way out of the helpless cycle of migrant farmer’s life.
Tom remembers preacher Casy’s words, “a wilderness ain’t no good, ’cause his little piece of a soul wasn’t no good ‘less it was with the rest, an’ was whole.” This suggests that a way out is solidarity and unity of all migrant farmers is the first step. While Ma worried about Tom’s fate after he leaves the family, because he is probably going to be driven away or killed by the police, Tom extends the love and care he received from his family to his people — the migrant workers. He says, “They gonna drive me anyways. They driving all our people.” He has seen the large picture, and realized that what he is suffering is what all migrant farmers are suffering too, solely in virtue of being an migrant farmer. When he zooms back to his own experience, he doesn’t forget the large picture. He feels a strong sense of connection with the rest of his kind of people. At that moment, his life is no longer about an individual human being or a individual family; instead, it’s about a large group of individuals in society. Identifying with this group, he feels so much stronger and more powerful, because he is not alone in fighting against the unjustness; what’s more, his effort in fighting becomes more meaningful because he is fighting on behalf of his people. This constantly zooming in and out on the picture of a society helps Tom to enrich his life with purpose and meaning.
When Ma asks Tom how she could find out about him after he leaves the family, Tom replies so: “I’ll be ever’where—wherever you look. Wherever they’s a fight so hungry people can eat, I’ll be there. Wherever they’s a cop beatin’ up a guy, I’ll be there. If Casy knowed, why, I’ll be in the way guys yell when they’re mad an’—I’ll be in the way kids laugh when they’re hungry an’ they know supper’s ready. An’ when our folks eat the stuff they raise an’ live in the houses they build—why, I’ll be there.” I think Steinbeck is suggesting a way out. Love and solidarity is the answer. And if all farmers unite and fight for their rights, their future would be so much more hopeful.
In Grapes of Wrath, John Steinbeck shows that the farmers are forced to give up their homes and travel to somewhere else. What become vacant on the farms are filled in by tractor farmers, who are hired by big corporations and doesn’t own the land. This process results in the real farmers travels on the road with no sense of belonging (because they really belong to the farm life and there are raised to be farmers since they were born). And It’s not just the farmers are forced to give up their beloved home, the new tractor farmers don’t find any sense of connection with the land. They also don’t feel a sense of belonging; however, they have to work like robots for endless hours on those lands.
It struck me when Grampa said that he is no leaving. While everyone is hoping for a better future in California, Gramps decides to stay behind. “I ain’t saying for you to stay,” said Grampa. “You go right on along. Me — I’m stayin’. I give her a goin’over all night mostly. This here’s my country. I b’long here. An’ I don’t give a godddamn if they’s oranges an’ grapes corwdin’ a fella outa bed even. I ain’t a-goin’. This country ain’t no good, but it’s my country. No you all go ahead. I will jus’ stay right here where I b’long.” He seems to be the only one awake and alludes to the difficulties awaiting for migrant farmer down the road. For him, home is everything. He doesn’t want to leave home because that’s the place he was raised, grew up, and raised his own family. He has a strong sense of connection to this land, though it can hardly bring him any harvest now. For Grampa, home is just like one of his babies. There is a special value attached to it, incomparable with the material values, such as “oragnes and grapes crowding” and other material comforts. I call this value “a sense of belonging”.
This sense of belonging valued by Grampa is contrasted with the tractor farms who replace original farmers. “One the tractor shed of corrugated iron, silver ad gleaming, were alive; and they were alive with metal and gasoline na doil, the disks of the plows shining. The tractors had lights shining, for there is no day and night for a tractor and the disks turn the earth in the darkness and they glitter in the daylight.” Farm lands are turned into a big working factory of assembly-line work style. There is nothing that the tractor farmers feel connected to the lands, because they are merely workers hired to complement the works done by tractors. Those big machines replaces hand labor and are more effective; but they also deprive the workers a chance to feel connected to the place they work.
Grampa’s worries is also contrasted with migrant farmers’ difficulties on the road. They don’t belong to the road. They got cheated on when they try to buy cars because they have absolutely no idea about cars. They are confronted by people who suspect their motives, because they don’t belong to the road. They are told that California weren’t meant to be a place for them, and migrant farmers are merely crowing up the state… Migrant farmers feel out of place. After all, all they wanted was to find some work and to survive. But wherever they go, they are confronted with hostility and critics.
John Steinbeck fully explores the value of home — a sense of belonging. He calls into question the act of forcing people to leave their homes behind and to find work elsewhere. When farmers become migrant farmers, what they gained is a sense of out of place and the destitute of homelessness — both psychological and physical. And the more productive industry-style farming also deprives the new farmers a possibility to feel connected to their working place. After all, sense of belonging was traded in for productivity and profit. But is it supposed to be a trade? I don’t think this should be a exchange. Just as Grampa’s silent but determined protest shows, human culture and memories are so much more special than material benefits, thus cannot be replaced by material things.
In Let’s Now Praise Famous Men, James Agge explores the effect of the labor/work on tenant farmers’ families. His description shows that farming labor becomes an essential part of a family, and almost is the purpose for which a family exists for.
“The family exists for work. It exists to keep itself alive. It is a cooperative economic unit. The father does one set of tasks; the mother another; the children still a child, with the sons and daughters serving apprenticeship to their father and mother respectively. A family is called a force, without irony; and children come into the world chiefly that they may help with the work and that through their help the family may increase itself.”
How the family functions sounds like a assembly system in factories. In factories, there is no time or space for individual connection. Everyone is just doing what they are commanded to do, for example, wiping phone screens, non-stopping, for 8 hours, etc. And everyone loses their individuality, because their identity is the type of work they do. And their collective identity is the complicated factory assembly line. Their collective function is to make this assembly line work as quickly as possible.
Similarly, in the tenant families, there is little time for family connection among individuals, because the urgency of physical survival is the most important aspect of life. Thus, the purpose of a tenant family is to survival. In order to survive, their only option is to farm on land. Thus, the purpose of a tenant family’s existence is solely for the work. But what Agee wants to show is not just the alienation between farmers and their landlords; rather, the alienation among family members among a tenant family. A family is classified into three parts — father, mother, and children. Each part carries out a different function, just as every artifact has its proper function. The function of a pencil sharpener is to sharpen pencil. Analogically, the function of a father is to work on land; of a mother is to work at home and reproduce; of a child is to take apprenticeship to learn the work that they need to be responsible for. Family members become individual pieces of instrument, supporting the big mechanism “family”. However, because a family solely exists for work; each part of a family only exist for the kind of function they perform. Because the family is only an instrument for another purpose; the individuals whom the family consists of have a lower instrumental value. Humans don’t exist as human beings — each having end in oneself; rather, they exists as instrumental objects for the actualization of a higher purpose.
In a tenant family, no one has freedom. I remember Agee’s says that a man has three stages in living — existing for his parents; then existing for self-survival; and finally existing for his own family. Family members also become exploiters of each other, although not through their will. Children become slaves for their parents. And married men and women became slaves for the survival of their families. Families are not built on the basis of love and responsibility; rather, it’s organized because they need each other for their own survival.
Reading Agee’s words made me realize that alienation can be even more scary than what I’ve imagined. It’s not just the rich alienate the poor; but that the poor cannot help but create alienation among themselves. They no longer see themselves and their family members as persons. Everyone is just a instrument for the purpose of work, which alone suffices to sustain a family.
Those photographs give a more primitively compelling force, which is almost like a “slap in the face” for the viewers. When farmers/proletarian workers are objectified into faceless masses, we realize that something has gone wrong. Economic division between poor and rich, and black and white, left more than half of the country lifeless and desperate.
In Caldwell & Bourke-White’s You Have Seen Their Faces, they present documentary photographs with text on their sides. Those photographs convey a strong sense of reality and transcendence of time and space. Viewers are confronted by the real life figures face to face. They each have distinctive features — they are distinct individuals rather than faceless masses. Seeing their faces and emotions remind the viewer that they are also human beings. And then, the viewer goes to learn about the stories of those human beings, behind these images that captures nothing but reality of the moment.
One of the main issues explored by these photograph and stories is the “out-of-place” of the working class, especially farmers in the South. When the farmers’ labor force was an indispensable part of cotton plantation, the rich exploited them and kept them on the land. When lands are barren by over-production, the landowners leave the profit-making resource and their workers and go for urban cities for a comfortable living. They’ve collected enough wealth through exploiting the Southern land and farmers. The farmers are left with nothing to harvest form barren land, but they are still victims of sharecropping, according to which the tenant farmer has to give a share of his crop as a rent. Seeing no hope of paying off the rent to their landlords, they migrate into the cities in search of work, although what awaits for them is no work.
“All has been taken away from them and they are nothing… But they are still people, they are man beings. They have life. The older ones can be helped by charity and relief, and the remaining days they live can be made easier for them. Beyond that, there is little else anyone can do for them. They are the wasted human beings whose blood made the cotton leaves green and the blossoms red. To the cost of raising cotton add the value of human lives.”
Generations of Southern farmers have sweated and bleed on the cotton plantation, ganging nothing for themselves. When they had the hope of eventually having their own land, the land left for them are barren and dry. There is no hope for them to escape, because they are trained to raise cotton and farming lands for generations. They are stuck with the land, which doesn’t even produce any crops, until their death. The farmers are alienated by the landlords, because landlords only treat them as tools for generating profits. The alienation makes it impossible for the farmers to be treated as human beings. “To the cost of raising cotton add the value of human lives” — this sentence is provoking because it reveals the reality under capitalistic alienation, where the value of human lives are calculated by the value of material objects. Those are two different values, because they can’t be calculated on the same value scale. There is a sense of human dignity that makes everyone reluctant to treat their fellow human beings as objects. However, the rich capitalists behind these images doesn’t recognize this special dignity for all human beings. Maybe documentary photograph serves as a way to foster human communication — to make us realize that these faces we see in cold photographs can possibly be faces that we are familiar with or even ourselves. Their stories are also human stories and we ought to listen to what they’ve got to say.
“Sister of the Road” begins with the protagonist, Bertha, telling us that she started her hobo journey when she turned 15 years old, and has always been attracted to her wandering life in box-cars. She feels that she can find out the particular thing that is missing at home through being a hobo. This novel is about the sister hobos she met on the road, including prostitutes, gangsters, thieves, robbers, revolutionists. What’s more, it’s also a novel about Bertha’s journey of self discovery.
Bertha’s restlessness and curiosity lead her to join the hobo gang. She discovers that many sisters of the road are not hobos because they want to take an adventure, which is something Bertha herself craves for. After her research and investigation, she says, “I’ve decided that the most frequent reason they leave is economic and that they usually come from broken or from poverty-stricken homes. They want to escape from reality, to get away from misery and unpleasant surroundings.” In other words, the majority of female hoboes are on the road because they are forced by the Great Depression to adapt such a style of living. Bertha pities them, and she set her aim to help the sisters on the road — her kind of people. Bertha thought of herself as privileged and fortunate — being the few who actually enjoy freedom and don’t react passively towards the drastic social change.
However, because she remotely placed herself from the typical social roles to which other women attached themselves, such as roles of mother, she doesn’t quite have the intimate bond a that mother is supposed to have for her child. She confesses, “I am truly married to the boxcars. There’s something constantly itching in my soul that only the road and the box cars can satisfy. Jobs, lover, a child — don’t seem to be able curb my wanderlust.” She is never settle with someone or at some place, and she truly believes that she is in love with the freedom of going to any place at her will.
However, as Bertha encounters other sisters on the road and listens to their stories, she discovers what she was looking for was always within her reach. However, if she were to choose again, she would still go with the hobo life, because she would never realize what she really wanted without all the wandering and people she met on the road.
“I have been trying to escape my own natural need to be responsible for someone, to live for someone else, some special individual person who belonged peculiarly to myself. For years I had told myself that I didn’t want to be tied down, that I wanted to keep myself free to help others, to uplift the vast mass of struggling humanity. And I knew now that I had been rationalizing my need to be a mother, dissipating it over the face of the earth when its primary satisfaction lay within reach of my own arms.”
Bertha understood her “natural need to be responsible for someone, to live for someone else”. I understand it as unconditionally loving someone. There was a woman named Blondie whom Bertha encounters during her time at the social organization she works for. Blondie’s life story evolves around her son. Her ambition in life was to get her son to receive a good education. Although it’s impossible for her to find a job, she doesn’t give up, and search for jobs everyday. Although she is not religious, she brings her son to church, because she wants provides him the best spiritual support. What kept her going and not being in prison was her beloved son. Bertha sees it as the way out of the confusion and chaos generated by the Great Depression — to really care about someone and love him/her unconditionally. Love will help us persevere through doubts and hardship in life.
What Bertha has been looking all along was some grounding that she can rest her life on without sacrificing her individual freedom. Although caring for someone would necessarily limit one’s freedom in certain aspect, Bertha realizes that individual freedom becomes meaningless if she doesn’t care for anyone. It speaks something very powerful about human nature — the capacity and the need to love. Maybe Bertha suggests a solution to the Great Depression and other social issues. If we just learn to really care about someone, which we are all capable of doing, the chance for us to fall into desperation would be much smaller.
Reading Tom Kromer’s Waiting for Nothing reminds me of Art Spiegelman’s book Maus, A Survivor’s Tale. It’s a Holocaust survivor story, told in black and white comic cartoon. By picturing the Nazis as cats, and the Jews as mice, Spiegelman shows the inhuman and the unimaginably brutal effects of Holocaust suffered by the Jews, and Spiegelman himself in particular. Both Kromer and Spiegelman were the victims of the social upheaval, either the Holocaust or the Great Depression. And that’s why stories told by them are so shocking and heartbreaking, yet so real. I notice a similarity between those two narratives — when “the other” is so miserable and dehumanized, people stop recognizing them as human beings and treat them as creatures worse than gadflies. We would imagine empathy, because we think that’s probably the greatest compassion humans are capable of; however, we only see disgust and brutality. “The Other”, whether the jewish or the jobless stiffs, are objectified by the “normal people” as something disgusting and unwanted.
Not being able to have any control in one’s fate is bad enough; but having one’s life fully controlled by some brutish monitors are precisely what makes the stiffs hopeless. When I encountered jobless vagabond as “stiffs” and cops as “bulls”, I somehow sensed the hatred and tension between those two “kinds” of humans. They are enemies, one is forever escaping the other and is powerless when confronted by the other. There was nothing humane in the interaction between “stiffs” and “bulls” — there is only fear, aggression, hatred, and force. “Stiffs” and “Bulls” are different because of the social power and appearance. But the difference is so drastic that “Bulls” can crowds the “stiffs” like cattle in prison and kick stiff’s only food with their boots just because they feel like to. When encountered by “bulls”, stiffs can only obey their unreasonable orders and take in their threats; because otherwise, they will die.
“What the hell can I do against a cop with a blackjack? He would sap me down proper, and all the rest of these cops would help him. A stiff hasn’t got a chance. They know a stiff hasn’t got a chance. I sit down.”
When the narrator tries to speak in court, the judge cut short on him. He doesn’t even get a chance to speak for himself! His fate is determined by him merely being an unlucky and jobless man. He thought America valued people who have good education and can speak in good manner, but all those were ignored when he speak as a stiff. He is hopeless to be anything other than a lazy and unworthy stiff once he is identified as a stiff by others. He hasn’t got a chance.
It’s not only the higher authority that’s making the stiffs hopeless. The way that they are treated by their fellow countrymen also make them feel hopeless. Their counterparts who are rich enough to sit in restaurants and read newspapers read about the stiff and how bad the situation is. “They turn over to the next page. The stiff in the rain if forgotten. But the stuff in the rain cannot forget. the water trickling down his song clothes will not let him forget. They gnawing pain in the pit of his belly will not let him forget.” But they are so rational that they don’t even feel pity for them. They believe that things will be better. And because the great depression hasn’t effected them yet, they don’t worry. They stay impersonal and objective about one third of their countrymen.
“There is an editorial in this paper. It says this depression is good for people’s health. It says people eat too much, anyway. It says this depression is getting people back to God. Says it will teach them the true values of life.”
“Health”, “eat too much”, “God”, “true values of life” — only the fortunate/privileged ones have the leisure to think about those things. For the stiff, there is nothing but hunger and sleep that’s occupying their minds. They don’t mind being inauthentic as long as they can get food to fill their stomach or get a bed to sleep. They can say that they love God just because that can get them a bowl of soup. They don’t have the privilege to talk about health — they have a hard time just to try to survive merely as biological human beings. In the newspapers and government commercials, the stiffs’ voice doesn’t get heard. Those people who wrote about the stiffs are the fortunate ones who dines’t have to worry about filling their bellies and naively believes that anyone who is hard working enough will be able to find a job and avoid the misfortune. They only pay lip service to the notion that America has the “highest living standard”; yet they ignore their fellow countrymen, who were just enjoying the “highest living standard” like themselves.
The danger of social inequality is that human beings can stop recognize their counterparts as humans merely because they look too different to resemble each other. The ones who have the power to be “normal” can easily objectify “the other” and treats them without human connection. And that is precisely what takes for the stiffs to feel forever trapped and hopeless. “It does not matter how long. At first it matters, but after a while it does not matter. They are not going anywhere.”
One power of story telling is that it helps us to feel sympathy towards other persons, and makes us human. On the side of the story teller, it a sense construct our identity.
In Luis Adamic’s “Girl on the Road”, he opened with a passage describing a girl he sees on the road in a winter morning. Through his narrative, the readers was immediately put into this imaginary visual scene, where a girl with thin and ripped cloth is struggling to move in a winter morning with her suitcase. Before the girl regained her ability to talk and tell her stories, it leaves both the journalist in the passage and reader to simply feel pity and confusion towards this unfortunate girl.
Before the girl regained her ability to talk properly, she tried to sing, say sentences or words, as if she needs to make sure that she can still speak. She has an innate impulse to talk, despite her speaking ability has been impaired by the external circumstance. I think this says something biologically innate to us — that we rely on story telling to explain who we are, where we come from, and why we are here. The girl desperately needed someone to understand her story, instead of forming judgements from her appearance and the condition in which she was found. That’s why she put so much effort into speaking despite her poor physical condition.
After the girl regained her ability to talk, we get a closer picture of who she is. The author intentionally left all her words as they are by putting them in quotations — allowing the girl to speak for herself and dismissing his own judgement. In her story, we get to know the social background. For example, great depression is depriving men and women of jobs and homes; the country has been splat into two extremes — the extremely unfortunate and the average people who are managing through the crisis; and how those two portions have become disinterested and unsympathetic towards each other. The girl’s story also revealed her dignity and pride. She uses tricks to make the journalist respond that he is buying her breakfast out of his own will. And what’s beautiful about this is that the writer senses her pride, and try to protect it. Later on, when he was going to give her money, he said something about writing her stories in magazines, so that she is paid for her inspiring him to write about her. Upon knowing that he doesn’t give her money solely out of pity, her dignity and pride is preserved.
And that’s the way the travel writers are trying to get to know what’s going on in the country during the depression era. They want to hear the first-hand story from average Americans, and gives them a voice to speak their stories and concerns. They want pull their audience out of illusional hatred and beliefs by presenting what’s real to them. It’s a new era of exploring literature realism, where the protagonists are no less real than the writer who is reporting his experience. There are two layers of story telling — the protagonist and the writer. With the first layer, we empathize with a stranger that our writers meet; and with the second layer of story, we compares our feeling toward the stranger with the writer’s response, and also get to know a bit about the write through his narratives. Thus, through narrative, we relate to one another, and we become more aware of others’ need.
When the American pride that it has the highest living standard in the world vanishes, when the American dream turns into a bubble that’s more illusory than daydream, when the prosperous capitalism ceases to bring prosperity; America loses its identity that’s always identified by the Americans, and leaving its people confused.
In “Revolt in South Dakota”, Anderson observes the anger and confusion felt by men who suddenly found themselves in a situation with no work to do at all. Farmers had to watch their corps wither hopelessly while doing nothing, workers who searched relentlessly for jobs that didn’t exist, and prayers kneeled in the most destitute church to pray for a better tomorrow that’s determined to be worse… The bleak outcome shocks, and even paralyzes everyone who’s inside the depression era.
In Puzzled America, Sherwood Anderson tells us in the introduction that he is puzzled to see the reality of America as a country, as opposed to its ideal counterpart that’s believed by most Americans. Anderson can’t help but asks, “isn’t it a land of opportunity?”, and doubts “it’s such a rich land!”. Confused writers, like Anderson, set food to search for the reality of the country, but what they discovers is more confusion from their fellow countrymen. It’s a confusion about whether they should put faith in their country to pull them out of the depression as it itself claims, about the identity of their country and its grounding, about why the American way has failed. In short, most people was in one way or another searching for a way out.
“I want belief, some ground to stand on. I do not want government to go on just being a meaningless thing. I do not want life to be so stupid — so silly.” — Puzzled America, Anderson
In Rorty’s “Where life is better”, he explores a bit the cause that had lead to the immense confusion among Americans.
He writes “In the earlier time the prevailing motion was a slow, irresistible drift from east to west, now the movement is rapid, accelerative, and circular, almost centrifugal.” (15)
Rorty contrasts the difference between life in the earlier time and now: the former, although slower, it had a clear object; whereas the latter, although faster, doesn’t aim at anything in particular. Maybe this is one of the sources of the confusion felt by everyone. American citizens are just as delusional as the country’s political figures — believing the boasting advertised by the government on an native and ideal assumption that America is faring well. With mass consumption and production, material overabundance, and political propaganda, Americans became complaisant, taking pride in living the American Dream and no longer thinking or reflecting upon their lives critically.
So when the American Dream was proved delusory or nearly impossible during the Depression Era, Americans are stunned and question the other American identities which they’d adopted readily back them. They doubts their government, their believes, and the ideologies about democracy and capitalism that they’d hold dearly.
That’s why Rorty felt an impulse to escape, to get away from civilization on his journey — there’s so much material consumption that it has becomes part of who Americans identity themselves as, even to the extent that they can’t find anything internal that holds Americans together. In other words,The external/material circumstance defines what makes America America. And as soon as those external elements are stripped away, America is left with no identification. Thus, Americans experience an identity crisis, having no where to turn towards.