The 2000 film O Brother, Where Art Thou? chronicles the escapades of three chain gang criminals on the run in America during the late 1930s. Conceived by the Coen Brothers, it is fashioned as a modern day retelling of Homer’s epic poem the Odyssey. The movie has moments both endearing and chilling, and is an entertaining medley of near escapes intertwined with moral complexities. It widely encompasses themes that were prominent in original works created during the Great Depression itself, including a constant restlessness and itch for movement, and seeking a “fortune” beyond one’s current, nonideal, circumstances. Lastly, the soundtrack of the film, which in 2001 won a Grammy for Album of the Year, contains haunting and beautiful American folk songs that embody the essence of the era through poignant lyrics and composition.
Plus George Clooney is in it. And he looks like Clark Gable.
The theme of movement was very significant during the Great Depression, but drew from many inspirations, and meant something slightly distinct to different people. In many of the journalist’s autobiographical accounts, their travels are either for literary inquiry or leisurely exploration. In a book like The Grapes of Wrath, on the other hand, Steinbeck’s characters cross the country out of dire necessity; they were uprooted and thrown of their land, and now have nowhere to turn to but the West. O Brother, Where Art Thou? resonates more closely with the latter, as the convicts (Ulysses Everett McGill, Pete, and Delmar) are relentlessly hounded by the police and a particular bounty hunter named Sheriff Cooley who doubles symbolically as the Devil, just as the Joads are kicked from camp to camp by the discriminatory authorities. The three male characters in the film span Mississippi by foot, rail, hitchhiking, and stolen car. Day to day, their adventures and luck fluctuate unpredictably.
Despite Everett, Pete, and Delmar’s ramblings, however, they each have a specific goal, or end, to achieve, which is seeking fortune. This first is understood as “the treasure,” which Everett claims is $1.2 million that he stole from an armored car and hid in his house, before he was arrested. In reality, Everett is lying just to trick the other two men into running away with him, a necessity as they were all chained together. Regardless, none of the three convicts truly desire money, but envision a higher type of fortune; a fresh start and chance at redemption. With his share of the treasure, Pete wants to open a restaurant out West and be its maitre’d, and eat free meals there everyday. Delmar wants to buy back the family farm, professing his belief that “You ain’t no kinda man if you ain’t got land.” Everett, knowing the treasure is nonexistent, planned his escape to be able to find and return to his wife and six daughters. Although he was reckless in taking care of them before, he is determined to do right by his family, as their father and husband. These sentiments reflect those widely captured in works from the Great Depression; that poor people were not greedy or desirous of quick cash, but truly wanted an opportunity to work hard and forge their own happiness.
The final significant theme of the movie is its incredible score, which highlights the unrivaled ability of music to transmit emotion and feeling across a generation. In this movie, the songs were not particularly positive or uplifting, or even really optimistic. Most seemed to sigh along, carrying an air of resignation. Even a seemingly happy song like You Are My Sunshine contains heartbreaking lyrics, such as,
“The other night dear, as I lay sleeping,
I dreamed I held you in my arms,
but when I woke dear, I was mistaken,
and I hung my head and cried.
You told me once dear you really loved me
that no one else could come between
but now you’ve left me and love another
you have shattered all my dreams.”
Another piece entitled I’ll Fly Away continues with “when I die, hallelujah by and by…. like a bird from this prison walls I’ll fly,” and finally Angel Band contains “My latest sun is sinking fast, my race is nearly run. My strongest trials now are past, my triumph has begun. Oh come Angel Band, come and around me stand. Oh bear me away on your snow white wings, to my immortal home.”
The songs are heavily religiously inspired, but rather than calling on or praying for strength to persevere on one’s earthly journey, the pieces seem more to idealize death and crave a peaceful passing from this challenging world onto the heavenly one. In this movie however, I find this does not correlate to the character’s actual outlook, but it is understandable that such music would be soothing throughout hardships. Also, despite its similarly downcast lyrics of “Through this open world I’m bound to ramble, through ice and snows, sleet and rain. I’m bound to ride that mornin’ railroad, perhaps I’ll die on that train,” the song I am A Man of Constant Sorrow turns the trio in the record-breaking Soggy Bottom Boys, who sing and dance and are able to put smiles on the faces of children and adults alike.
Andrew S. Gross’ The American Guide Series: Patriotism as Brand-name Identification considered one of our previous readings, Nathan Asch’s The Road, as a precursor to the WPA Guides that were government sponsored for creation and publication during the Great Depression. Gross identified that the state guide for Arizona contained hints about deportation and forced migration of people who didn’t outwardly mold into the “American” landscape, notably Native Americans and Latinos, whose populations were treated almost as tourist attractions. California was considered an ultimate destination, a sort of utopian “vacationland,” which I find still widely applies today, being that when people find out I’m from California, I ready the disclaimers of “No, not from LA,” and “No, no one actually sees the Kardashians.”
California: A Guide to the Golden State was compiled and written by the Federal Writer’s Project for the WPA in 1939. It begins proclaiming that it was “written to be read, by not only those to whom California is still and unseen land of sunshine and oranges, but also by those who will look in these pages for something new and little-known about the everyday California in which they live and work.” Divided editorially into southern and northern California, Part I entitled “From Past to Present” examines the general history and overview of the landscape and environment that initially attracted settlers, to the growing prominence of music and theatre in the 1930s in Hollywood. Part II is “Signposts to City Scenes” and ran through the state’s main cities and urban populations, while Part III is “Up and Down the State” chronicles individual travels and national monuments. The guide also contains maps, illustrations, photos of various regions, and a “Calendar of Fixed Events,” such as the Rose Bowl, Annual Snow pageant, local rodeos, and the state fair.
Part I began describing California as a “sun-kissed garden spot cooled by gentle zephyrs from the sea.” While this certainly applies to San Diego, it is difficult to generalize the climate of the whole state, which ranges from sunny beaches in the south to rocky cliffs on the northern coasts, from dense forests in Yosemite and to dry deserts, from indented flat valleys to the Sierra Nevada Mountains and Mt. Whitney. The guide acknowledged that American Indians inhabited the land before white explorers arrived in the 1500s, led by Francis Drake. Beginning in 1853, following the Gold Rush that brought many more Americans into California, the Native American Indians were gradually gathered onto reservations. As of 1938, ⅗ of indians lived on reservations, with a total estimated population of 24,000. As of the 2010 U.S. Census, however, this number has grown incredibly to 37,253,956 Native Americans, making California their most inhabited state.
Agriculture and the abundance of fertile farmland led to an influx of workers, including Japanese and Mexican immigrants, but unfortunately this created an uneven ratio in the demand for work where none was available, resulting in minimal wages. This is an issue I have seen firsthand, as my grandfather has owned and operated an agricultural warehouse and labor supply company since the 1970s, in the heart of the San Joaquin Valley. Even today, hundreds apply for work in fields and packing houses when only a couple dozen positions are available, and as the work is seasonal even those eager to be employed must often depend on welfare during off-seasons. In addition, certain overreaching restrictions as the result of government involvement and union supervision creates difficulties for people looking to start or expand their small businesses in ag. While worker rights should obviously be upheld, the extent to which labor and ag is regulated in California today can be more discouraging than progressive. The looming drought issue, for example, cannot be remedied solely by certain officials ordering urban companies to cut their water usage by 25% and citizens to cut their household consumption by one-third of what it was in 2013. The agriculture sector is being affected, and it is terrifying to imagine what would happen if the state that employs millions and grows 80-99% of the United State’s produce runs dry.
A section under Cities I focused on the city and county of Fresno, where I am from. It was very entertaining to read and realize that certain streets and landmarks still exist today. KMJ is now our “oldies” station and Blackstone Ave is slightly sketchy, but the Big Fresno Fair still takes place every September, there are daily and weekly farmers markets throughout the city, the courthouse is still on Van Ness Ave, and I’ve performed many times in the historic Fresno Memorial Auditorium, built in 1932, which is still in use today.
I believe Andrew Gross fell short in his article about the WPA guides; I disagree that they were intended solely for brand-name identification. Through my reading the guides for New York and especially California, I found them to be written thoughtfully and personally, but not influenced or biased intentionally. They explored aspects of various regions, such as weather and climate, that would be useful for tourism, as well as historical landmarks and events which native citizens, upon reading the guide, would be proud to have acknowledged. I very much enjoyed reading about America as chronicled by writers who lived here an era before me.
The tourist industry boomed during the Great Depression. It increased during that decade to unsurpassed levels, in terms of how many people took vacations as well as the profitability of businesses and products that resulted from (or, perhaps instigated) the surge of travel. While writers of the era varied in their opinions of what caused the tourist frenzy, the 1930s blossomed this leisure had previously been unavailable to the majority of Americans, and it has continued to grow to generate over $1.5 trillion in revenue in the U.S. today.
Michael Berkowitz, author of “A ‘New Deal’ for Leisure, Making Mass Tourism during the Great Depression,” believed that the idea of vacationing was something that was carefully cultivated and taught to the American people. During the 1920s, time off work was essentially nonexistent but for the very wealthy. Working citizens in general associated leisure with unemployment, and they preferred to work hard and earn money to better their lives. Other jobs especially, such as farming, did not easily allow for vacationing due to the demands of crops to be planted and harvested with the rotating seasons. Initially, only salaried workers were considered to have strenuous jobs (“mentally”), while it befit manual laborers to continue working year round it order to retain their bodily strength and preparedness for their duties. Therefore, while in 1935 only a little over 10 percent of salaried workers were allotted vacation with pay, this number rose to 40 percent by 1937. These years of advertising and the glorification of tourism rallied groups such as the National Industrial Conference Board, the Industrial Relations Counselors, and the Metropolitan Life Insurance Company to begin advocating for paid vacations for regular blue collar workers, citing them as necessary recuperation from the everyday, workday taxation. The working classes themselves became more influential, including an instance of a strike representing more than 750,000 railroad workers who demanded paid vacation. This event was so large that FDR was forced to intervene in order to see that the demands were adequately negotiated and the railroad continued to function. Berkowitz contends that the American people did not ever inherently desire to travel, but became caught up in the excitement and hype of tourism, including marketing and advertising strategies that there were incredible places to visit, and that travel was easy and inexpensive, as well relaxing and restorative. It was “sold,” he thought, to Americans.
In contrast, James Agee, author of “The American Roadside,” felt that the lust for travel was insatiate, and in every American’s’ blood. He saw the true inspiration behind the tourism boom not as seeking money or love or superficial qualities, but simply because America was “restive” and it constant search of something, anything new and adventurous. People bought good cars, investing their money in “motion,” and being content with sleeping in small, practical not extravagant, cabins, or even pulling over on the side of the road and throwing up a tent for the night. As more of the country was allowed vacations, marketing and advertising boomed. Places like California and Manhattan were widely popularized, but even areas like the often bypassed middle America developed their own attractions, such as the Ozark, where “a good cave may gross $150,000 a year.” I find myself agreeing more with Agee’s opinion of the cause of American tourism. Perhaps romantically, I like to consider the human spirit restless and adventurous, in ways demonstrated by great American adventures such as those described in later decades by adventures of the Beat Generation and others. America will never cease to have endless corners that inspire exploration, and Americans will hopefully always retain a restless urge to discover them.
A Cool Million, or the Dismantling of Lemuel Pitkin, by Nathanael West, is a satire of the typical, happy-go-lucky depiction of America. The typical novel of the time, depicting a noble journey toward the American dream, contains hardships and tribulations only fleetingly, all of which are overcome by the hero who triumphantly maintains his moral gumption in a world of sinful distraction, and finds sanctity among other giving people and is able to continue his life (and end the novel) on an infinitely optimistic note. This naive outlook is heavily mocked in A Cool Million as our “hero” of the novel, Lemuel Pitkin, is utterly destroyed despite all of his most valiant and optimistic attempts to behave admirably while seeking his fortune.
The tale begins stereotypically enough, with Widow Pitkin approached by sly lawyer Mr. Slemp, representing greedy Mr. Joshua Bird, with a declaration of foreclosure on the Pitkins’ home. Young Lem is determined to avoid becoming homeless, and approaches bank owner (and former United States President, naturally) Mr. Whipple for the money. Mr. Whipple declines, because it would never do to simply give the young lad money, but gallantly encourages him to travel to New York City and make his own way. In the beginning of the book, Mr. Whipple embodies, from a positive outlook, the ideal American man. Self-made, neither weak nor dampened by instances of misfortune, and non-materialistic yet successful in his economic pursuits. Yet, our “hero” Lem concludes the book with one less eye, one less thumb, no scalp, absolutely zero teeth, and only one and a half legs, and then he gets shot. While these misfortunes are over exaggerated in terms of reality, West effectively made his point that pursuing the American dream, in his opinion, is futile.
One aspect of the book, however, made it very uncomfortable and almost wholly disenchanting. This was the blatant racism. Modern-day readers must acknowledge books that were published in a different era, with different social norms, but even so A Cool Million is incredibly offensive. Not only in the mannerisms of the characters, such as “Injun” Jack Raven speaking in stereotypically halting, backwardly formed sentences like “Rascal shut up or me kill um pronto quick,” but mainly in the narrator’s descriptions of the characters. He continually calls Wu Fong, the brother owner who randomly speaks perfect Italian, a “son of the Celestial Empire” and refers to an Asian female as an “oriental with bound feet.” His accounts of Jewish people are always riddled with derisiveness: from lawyer Seth Abramowitz who is threatening and greedy, eventually stealing Lem’s savings from the bank, to Mr. Whipple’s grouping Jews with Communists who jointly caused the failure of his bank. This is hypocritical, because previously Mr. Whipple exalted self-made millionaires like Rockefeller and Ford, but seems to detest similarly successful Jewish men because of their ethnicity. Also confusingly, Nathanael West was Jewish himself. Finally, the ultimately cringe-worthy phrase follows the account of Wu Fong buying Betty Prail and the “services of a genuine American” because “ the inferior races greatly desire the women of their superiors. This is why the Negroes rape so many white women in our southern states.” This comment is despicable and infuriating.
I find, however, the style and structure of the novel quite intriguing. I have never had so many “ um what the heck” moments as I did when reading A Cool Million. I disagree, however, where critics comment that the novel is dark. To me, it is narrated almost comically gleeful, if sickeningly so. The narrator regards catastrophic events with a solemn headshake and a shrug of the shoulders, and West pummels his characters again and again with unrealistic mishaps. If West had wanted to be truly dark, I think, his narrator should have been at least partially tactful. Instead, he is anything but sympathetic, and the characters themselves barely even seem to recognize the misery of their plights.
Lem is frustratingly naive, and the amount of misfortunes he brings upon himself paralleled greatly the journey of Pinocchio, in the classic book by Carlo Collodi. He is gullible to the point where, in the chapter set in Chicago when he is easily tricked by the fat stranger, he becomes Maxwell Smart. Lem’s actions essentially make him the teenage girl in every horror movie, walking into the attic of a haunted house where she heard a noise while the audience is yelling DON’T DO IT. A reader might have felt more pity if Jem had perhaps been partially blinded in a scene depicted more sympathetically, but it becomes overdone when he loses half a leg, an eye (and a fake one about ten times), all his teeth (and dentures about ten times), and is scalped; these together are rather ridiculous. The scenes in California, at the mining camp, reminded me of the old TV show “Bonanza,” where rugged cowboys mix with drunk hicks and violent indians. Further, as the chapters are so short, there is very little depth or genuineness to the plots. Everything that happens is outlandish; it is jolted and jam-packed with action, and almost seems like a chapter play-by-play of a much longer novel, written summatively by a sarcastic teenager for his English assignment.
Steinbeck wrote Grapes of Wrath in atypical novel format. Instead of a straightforward, continual biography of the Joad family, he breaks up their story by chapters that are outwardly narrated and historically reflective, even critical. Steinbeck inserted this segments in a fluid manner that offers a refreshing respite, stylistically, from the rest of the novel and further allows him to speak more freely and literally on topics that would be difficult to work into the Joads’ day to day happenings. From the latter half of the book, chapters twenty-five, twenty-seven, and twenty-nine follow this format. Although distinct in style and purpose, each successfully withdraws the reader from intimacy with the Joad plotline, and makes him witness to the gravity of the Depression and tenant farming as a whole.
Chapter twenty-five begins joyously, describing a California spring that is unmatched by other areas of the United States, one complete with blooming fruits and blossoming buds, symbolic of rebirth and hinting towards the possibility of new beginnings. However, the flavour of the text soon turns sour. Although fruit is ready to harvest, farmers refrain from picking because the market selling price is not worth the labor and processing. They hold out, hoping that prices will go up, but instead they remain stagnant and even drop. Farmers are unable to afford to hire men for harvest, and as a result the crops rot on the trees and fall to the ground. Some landowners, frustrated by failure after a season of growing, pruning, and carefully cultivating their agriculture, burn whole piles of fresh fruits, knowing that the money from selling them would not be worth the effort. This in turn causes angered confusion among tenant farmers, who see whole piles of food being burned while their children stand starving. I felt pity for the tenants, and cringed at the thought of good food being wasted. However, I also empathize with the farmers of the land; is it fair after their investments of time and money to put themselves in debt by selling underpriced goods or giving them away? This whole system, due to the failing markets and convoluted economy, wrecked the American market and, worse, turned supplier against demander.
Chapter twenty-seven details the experience of tenant farmers turned cotton pickers. This was typical of migrant workers, especially in areas as fertile as California’s Central Valley, to roam from town to town and orchard to orchard as work became available. Issues arise on the cotton farm, however, that pit worker and employer directly against each other. First, the workers are essentially required to buy a cotton bag “on credit,” to be taken from their wages; some do not even make the one dollar to cover the cost of the bag, and so end the back-breaking day in debt. Next, the landowners are notorious so tipping the scales in order to cheat the pickers out of their earnings, so the pickers in turn sneak rocks into their bags of cotton to make up the difference. In reality, these is breeding further dishonestly and distrust. Instead of creating a mutually beneficial work environment, the pickers and owners are all driven to such desperate lengths that they turn against each other, instead of against the government and economy that has truly failed them.
Finally, chapter twenty-nine is devastatingly first-hand depiction of the promising California sun turning cold and gloomy with the seasonal change to winter. It is especially devastating for migrant farmers, many of whom are destitute yet do not qualify for state aid, and are forced to survive shelterless in the wet and cold. In addition, the knowledge that no work will be available until spring harvest is monumental for many families. This idyllic West has failed them, and now they are stuck penniless, uprooted and relocated in a land that rejects them, faced with yet another starving winter. In such throngs of desperation, it is no wonder that men turn against one another. Now they have made enemies of the local populations and policeman, who went from generous to understandably frustrated themselves at still having squatters throughout their towns. In such throngs of desperation, it is no wonder that men turn against one another.
John Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath examines an interesting aspect of the Great Depression: the relationship between the physical land of America and the American people. It challenges core principles of what it means to aspire towards the American dream of having your own home and owning property. This idea is presented from various perspectives on what it means to even own property, what makes the land someone’s possession. The other main contention, related to possession of land, is the question who or what has caused the turmoil that made the American farmland uninhabitable.
A particular quote that struck me was “Every moving thing lifted the dust into the air.” It highlights in the literal sense that movement from anything like walking to the well to hoeing rows of crops stirs up blinding, choking clouds of dirt into air that should be clean and nurturing. It hints that human attempts to simply subsist are discouraged by the very land they so heavily depend on, that any action only causes further storms and struggle. It seems at this point in American History, that America is no longer a safe or fruitful place to live and raise a family. In the opinion of many during the Great Depression, it is America itself that has deserted its people.
On one hand, a sort of angered confusion can be noted in Muley’s storytelling to Joad and Casy, telling them of how he and his family were pushed off their land, along with many others in the surrounding area. The local overseer of the land came, on the pretense of inspecting the crop growth and production which was of course a mere formality, to tell Muley that they would have to leave, that their work as laborers was being replaced by tractors, which were also referred colloquially to as “cats” because they were manufactured by the Caterpillar Tractor Company. This sends the farmer into a frustrated rage, asking the owner, sitting in a shiny new car, who was responsible for taking his land away from him. Was it the owner himself? Or the agriculture company? Or the bank? The president of the company, or the board of directors? Who could they retaliate against? Who could they shoot?
These questions had a combination of answers, none of which were satisfying. Banks pressured companies to pay back loans, thus companies had to increase profits and cut expenses. New technology of tractors did this perfectly, but in turn unfortunately directly hurt the farm workers. These families, who all their lives had known nothing but the land, were now rejected by it. Also, from an environmental standpoint, the persistence of cash cropping derived the soil of its nutrients, thus becoming a windy waste, which was perhaps the combined fault of the farmers, the overseers and companies, and nature herself. Mainly, however, the farmers did not understand how they could be driven off after generations of existing in that certain place. America, which had initially been pioneered through being open to anyone who chose a lot, settled down and developed the land, was changing. Muley felt he earned the land by “being born, working, and dying on it,” while big businessman (who were becoming the more influential, if not the majority of, citizens) knew that the deed, the piece of paper in their desk, gave them authority over the land.
What the banks and companies failed to realize, however, was how intensely people clung to the land not solely as a means of living, but for how it defined them as beings. Families had been farming on a certain plot in a certain town for their whole life, and their parents and grandparents before them. Grampa’s extreme resistance to move to California shows this expressly. Even in today’s America, people from different areas, such as the West, the Midwest, the Northeast, the South etc., proudly identify with their home and regional culture. Muley declares that, uprooted and homeless, he is now only a “poor ol’ graveyard ghos,’” emphasizing that without land he is only the shell of a man.
I would like to touch slightly on an issue that arises almost hypocritically, but is not examined fully in the novel. Floyd Knowles, a migrant worker in California, mentions the fact that California was taken from the Mexicans when Americans traveled West and settled in search of gold and good farmland. I find this point interesting, because although the Joads and fellow migrants expressed great unhappiness at being uprooted from land which they had lived on contentedly for decades, they do not seem to realize that the Golden Coast to which they are migrating has similarly evicted Mexicans who inhabited the land for centuries. While of course Mexico did sell California to the United States, this was, similar to native Oklahomans being run out by banks, a bureaucratic transaction made on paper, one that overlooked the people themselves.
Let Us Now Praise Famous Men is a darkly beautiful work written by James Agee, with accompanying photographs by Walker Evans. Stylistically, it exists on a much higher plane than the earlier readings. While Tom Kromer’s Waiting for Nothing was semantically comparable to Hemingway, Agee’s excerpts more so resemble the work of Dickens and, very strongly, Hugo. He is heavily descriptive with wording that is audibly fluid yet heavy, a contrast that is notable by Agee’s prompting his readers to read the book aloud and completely. From this, we can see that the dense language, though beautifully poetic, translates more easily and emotionally when heard, as the long paragraphs that focus endlessly on a seemingly minute encourage skimming, which naturally any author would detest. Further, illustrates a definite picture of the world Agee was just discovering, and countless Americans were living.
The middle section, categorized as “Money,” details specifically the situations of the three families whom Agee’s work chronicles. Gudger is a sharecropper who works for Boles. Owning nothing himself, he offers labor and is allowed to keep for himself half of the corn, cotton, and cottonseed that he harvests. Beyond this, he must repay Boles the cost of fertilizer and monthly rations plus interest, which are granted during barren months. After these, as well as expenses like doctor’s fees, Gudger earns an annual income, which generally settles around $25-$30, but one out of every three years ends negatively, resulting in cumulative debt. Woods and Bickett are tenant farmers employed by the Margraves brothers. Since they already own animals and tools, they only use land. For this, they must surrender one-third of the cotton and one-fourth of the corn crops, and additionally must pay back two-thirds and three-fourths the price of cotton and corn fertilizer, respectively, to the Margraves. They are also bestowed rations, to be returned with interest. On average, these families, ranging in size from six to nine people, must subside on $6 to $10 per month, equivalent to barely over $100 in today’s money. This amount becomes especially measly during the cold winter months, where no outside revenue, from harvesting or selling crops, is being generated. And despite these families’ obvious financial burden, they rarely qualify for even a small percentage of aid, due to their being technically employed. This is a point where government aid fails and unintentionally creates harmful suggestions; farmers undoubtedly recognize that they could be given the same money and supplies that they are earning, perhaps more, by being unemployed. In this era I believe, strong American work ethic began being dented, because why would anyone engage in strenuous back breaking labor when they can be handed the same benefits by doing nothing? Although government aid had good intentions, its message was sometimes interpretatively twisted by reality and the lives of everyday Americans.
The closing section, titled “Work,” speaks extremely sorrowfully of the daily plight of the farmers and their families. For basic needs of clothing, food, and shelter, they are forced to work long hours at harsh jobs. Afterwards, their bodies and spirits are, sadly, so drained that a relaxing or enjoyable respite is impossible. “The ends of this work are absorbed all but entirely into the work itself…. and what little remains, nearly all is obliterated…. in the tensions of physical need…. (and) of the need of work which is not available.” Agee declares his frustration on not being able to accurately depict the desperate, monotony of tasks that are plain, but cruelly repetitive, every day over decades.
James Agee’s Let Us Now Praise Famous Men is written gorgeously about a topic that is unsettling and gloomy. His embellishments, while seemingly excessive at times, are truly effective in exciting the reader’s senses and emotional response.
The 1930s in the United States brought about an unprecedented change on both technical grounds, regarding labor, and social grounds, in harsh adaptations to the all-revered, idealistic American dream. The Great Depression created a country that was, in many ways, unwelcoming and harsh. Whereas previously most Americans had been, stereotypically but also somewhat realistically, hardworking and optimistically carefree, the mass downturn of fortune birthed among the population widespread distrust, dissonance, and despair. Several works, notably American Exodus by Lange and Taylor and You Have Seen Their Faces by Caldwell and bourke-White, powerfully capture this tense evolution as revolutionarily formatted text that couple photographs with quotes by the local people depicted. This style functions to intimately share experiences through words, and further allows the reader to almost become in-person witness through images.
Photographers Dorothea Lange, with economist Paul Schuster Taylor in American Exodus, devoted her work to addressing social concerns, focusing on capturing people in their natural states, raw and unstaged. Most of her pieces involved the working class, specifically farm laborers. At this time, advanced farm machinery, such as tractors, was developing and becoming more locally accessible. Although this seems beneficial, in partially was problematic as it caused a steep drop in human employment on farms, from 32.4 million in 1933 to only 12.3 million in 1939. Sharecroppers were reduced by 83%, disappearing so severely that the Census Bureau stopped recording them in a separate category. Due to this, many (usually poorer) people were forced into cities in search of work, while affluent citizens were able to afford more spacious homes outside the overcrowded streets in areas that came to be known as suburbs.
For the first time, therefore, America’s agriculture and farming communities were rejecting those eager to work. The land, which had long been a main source of work, food, income, etc., was turning its back on the population in search of refuge. Even the golden West began criminalizing those who left the bitter East in search of a brighter future; non-state residents, for example, could be charged with a misdemeanor for entering California.
A photograph of a migratory cotton picker, taken in 1938 in California’s San Joaquin Valley, depicts hot and unpleasant work; men and women trudging through dusty fields, stooping low over bushes, pushing through brambles and bugs, not to mention somehow withstanding the scorching summer California sun, to fill a heavy bag with cotton, in the hope of earning 75 cents per 100 pounds. From this, the quote that once “you gets down to your last bean, your backbone and your navel shakes dice to see which gits it” is understandable; long work hours at minimal pay resulted in physical strain and food deprivation. Even though so many were traveling and searching for anything better, there was no welcoming land at the end of the tunnel.
This sort of resigned sadness is further highlighted in You Have Seen Their Faces, by Erskine Caldwell and Margaret Bourke-White. The work personifies the often ignored plight of black workers in the south, whose condition as tenant farmers was repugnant at best. A pictured man from Arkansas shared how they would be whipped if they didn’t stay in the cotton fields and work absurdly long shifts. A couple from Maiden Lane Georgia said that “a man learns not to expect much after he’s farmed cotton most of his life.”
These collections are very powerful in how they combine words and images to encapsulate feeling that was prominent during the difficult era of the Great Depression. Farms and outdoor life in general was being deserted by necessity, as increasingly few jobs were available in these fields, and people instead resorted to rapidly expanding cities in search of work. The West, open and full of potential, was closing its doors to migrants. The pictures and quotes are saddening in their portrayal of a land that is tattered and uninviting, and a population that has almost given up on tomorrow.
Both Nelson Algren’s Somebody in Boots and the autobiography of Boxcar Bertha entitled Sister of the Road, as told by Dr. Ben L. Reitman, are thematically and stylistically similar in their sympathetic, but harshly realistic and literal depictions of travel in the 1930s. Narrated from personal perspectives, these novels are not ones of glamorous adventure or distant observation for journalistic purposes; they are true stories portrayed simply, if at times graphically. Each focuses on characters that are resolute and strong, who do not complain about life’s circumstances, but acknowledge their shortcomings honestly. Their unexaggerated rawness allows the reader a personal glimpse into each character’s life.
Algren’s piece draws on his experiences mainly prior to and over a three month period, during which the author, essentially a bum himself so far as money was concerned, was commissioned by Vanguard Press to write a book, although unfortunately its ultimate publication fell far short of commercial success. The main character, Cass, has been on the road a long time and in his encounters rarely finds hope or uplifting optimism, but disaster and despair in the attitudes of people. This is shown by the immense struggle Cass undergoes to simply find something to eat. Free food at the mission is rotten and foul-tasting, but he gulps it down regardless. He is fearful of dumpster diving, hearing stories from fellow bums of getting sick from coal oil that the city government sprays into garbage cans to discourage them from searching for anything edible in the waste. And the one time described during which he does forage through trash, he “dug deep down, blindly groping beside high-piles ashes till his fingers sank into something soft and warm. When he pulled his hand out, it was caked to the wrist with human dung.” Even this experience, however, fails to disgust Cass; his days on the road have completely desensitized him to what, before, would have been traumatic. He is later joyously rewarded in finding moldy raisin bread and rotten lettuce. Cass’ faults are also unflinchingly highlighted, such as when he deserts fellow hobo Matches, who is black, to be discovered and reprimanded by the police. Even more disturbing is his encounter with a homeless pregnant woman, whom he knocks down, causes her to enter premature labor and deliver her child stillborn. Although uncomfortable, these stories are valuable to read to gain further historical perspective on the era. Algren’s novel is distinct from many travel novels of the period, in that Cass is not falsely portrayed as the typical idealistic hero. Instead, Algren creates a character that is genuine, by his being both occasionally unlikable but still relatable.
Boxcar Bertha follows a similar vein; she does not make excuses for her faults or wallow in self-pity over the unfairness of life. She faces adversity strongly and makes the most of what she is given. She begins by tersely summarizing her life, that she has been on the road for half of her life, since the age of fifteen. Bertha’s mother, known as Mother Thompson, was a strong influence during her childhood. She says that although her mother wasn’t “what the world would call a good woman…. she had a way of lifting up her head.” This is symbolic of her determination to overcome the struggles life presented her, and those that she made for herself. Bertha’s mother had children with multiple men, but cared and loved them, working hard in kitchens and flophouses to support them. She was welcoming to all, from bums to prostitutes. This strength was learned by Bertha who, despite being fired from multiple shelters and institutions for having a criminal record, continues working hard and making the best of every situation. The same character is seen in State Street Blondie, a woman Bertha meets, who was married at the age of fourteen and had a son, and ever since has done her utmost to care for him. Blondie, somewhat surprisingly, doesn’t drink or smoke or sell her body, but easily gets into fights with men and unflinchingly admits that while stealing is wrong, she does it because she could not find work anywhere else, despite exhaustive efforts. From both Bertha and Blondie, the reader is again shown characters that aren’t meant to impress or persuade, but to simply acknowledge, and understand.
These novels are neither stereotypical nor wholly comfortable to read. More importantly, they evoke a sense of relatability and tough buoyancy through characters that, despite everything, keep their heads held high and their chins up.
Tom Kromer’s Waiting for Nothing is a monumental work that not only describes the harshness of day to day life for “stiffs” during the Great Depression, but further captures incredible authenticity and heartwarming glimpses of human kindness that prevail even through the worst of times. The novel, which is essentially autobiographical, is written discontinuously in episodic bursts that focus on various specific moments from the narrator’s experience. This piece, tersely reminiscent of Ernest Hemingway’s blunt prose, presents the unapologetic lives of down-and-outers during the Great Depression. It shows that this population consisted not of people, but of “tombstones (that) are men,” of people who have nothing left but to wait hours in soup lines, spending days and years and lives just waiting, for nothing.
The everyday drudgery is made chaotic by moments of desperation that are interesting to the reader, but terrifying to the narrator himself. On one occasion, having been without food for several days, he acquired a “gat,” a revolver, from an old beat bum. With it, he plans to get money. In this chapter, the narrator’s generally matter-of-fact attitude has been distorted by not only physical pain, in terms of starvation and cold, but psychological destitution in that he sees violence and robbing others as the only solution to his bitter situation. After several failed attempts approaching restaurants and individuals on the street, the narrator enters a bank and approaching the teller, reaches to pull the gat from his pocket. Only the handle comes away, however, as the forepart became lodged in the worn-out lining of his coat. Cringing in shame at the terrified look on the bank teller’s face, the narrator flees, shaky at the idea of what he was about to do. This example highlights how individuals, on the brink, can be driven to do things and commit crimes that they would have otherwise been incapable of doing.
A similar instance is seen in the encounter with Mrs. Carter, a wealthy transvestite gay who approaches the narrator in a park, entices him with money for dinner and promises of a show, and then takes him home to bed. The narrator openly displays his discomfort at Mrs. Carter’s touch, but swallows his shame, declaring that “You can always expect a stiff to pay for what he gets.” This clarifies that the seeming gift of food and a roof over his head, courtesy of Mrs. Carter, were not bestowed out of kindness, but in exchange for sex. Another story of desperation is told by the narrator’s friend Karl, of his meeting a young mother with a two-week old baby, one day outside in the rain. He, pitying the pair, offers the mother a dime to buy food and wait inside a diner with her child until the clouds have passed. He finds her seated there after the storm, staring numbly out the window. Outside on a bench, swaddled in a blanket, is the woman’s baby.
Amidst these cases of hardship, however, Kromer relates moments of kindness both exercised by and shown to him. When a baker’s daughter gives him day-old bread and donuts and a majestically crushed coconut pie, he shares them with his friend Karl, and they in turn invite Werner, another starving artist, to partake in their feast, even though Werner stole food from them before. This demonstrates a forgiving and sharing nature that persists even among those who have very little. From a fellow stiff teaching him tricks of the trade, such as how to obtain almost three dollars using a ten-cent donut, to a young girl who, in her first attempt at prostitution, befriends the narrator and invites him to live with her, the reading illustrates how the pain and difficulty of the 1930s, while devastating, created a sort of empathetic understanding among strangers, and inspired true kindness.
In Waiting for Nothing, the stiffs endeavour, despite their harsh luck, to maintain their sense of humanity regarding moral action and personal values. And although Kromer make allowances for these intermittent rays of sunshine, his tale, overall, is very cold. The narrator has no naive ideas of revolution, or intentions of fighting for justice against police brutality, or expectations of any suddenly uplifting miracle. He lives meal to meal, penny to penny, flop to flop. Amidst the wealth of journalists who were paid to travel America by car and collect sad stories, Kromer, his works unpretentious and raw, stands admirably alone. Painfully authentic, Waiting for Nothing questions what causes us to give up on ourselves, conclude that life is no longer worth living, and declare that we’re “over and out.”
Historical texts, written in hindsight, often group together and stereotype whole eras and classes of people. These may be historically correct, but in attempting to capture the big picture, they overlook vital details. The features that are most continually, and unfortunately ignored, are people. It is easy to pinpoint catastrophic events and influential figures, but as a result the rest of society is often tossed to the side. However, the 1930s brought a change to this habit of de-emphasizing the significance of the everyday American. Journalists and writers, employed by the government and various private publications, flooded the countryside and were able to unearth stories and experiences and share them widely as never before; stories not fabricated or exaggerated, but told genuinely by those to whom they belonged. Through stories like these, people are better able to relate to each other and feel sympathy for those in difficult situations. I will focus on one of these tales which, raw and unedited, allows a personal look into the harsh reality encountered by so many during the 1930s.
Author Lorena Hickok, in One Third of A Nation, challenges America’s view of “the unemployed,” how the elite citizens, and even the middle class in some instances, frown and impose judgement upon the down-and-out. They eagerly generalize them as “shovel leaners,” people who perhaps have a bit of bad luck, but mainly are too lazy to apply themselves and work hard. This is easy comparable to how many impoverished people are viewed in modern day. Those on welfare are seen as undesirables, adding nothing to society, but inhabiting slums and degrading the value of society. Not only is this a cruel perspective, but it is unfounded. So many workers have simply been laid off, and unable to provide for their families, are forced to turn to government aid.
To those who still think this life is lazy choice and easy to make, they need only to read Hickok’s description of the process to applying for relief in New York City to think differently. Hickok highlights the shame of going to the local schoolhouse, where very possible you could be seen by your child, his teachers, or other adults and friends in the community. Next, there are policeman surrounding the center. While they are understandably present as a method for prevention of any disturbances or riots, their being there cause discomfort and a sense of guilt. After, you deal with multiple social workers who, after seeing the same face day after day, have inevitably lost a little bit of sympathy, and are most likely themselves struggling to get by day by day. In New York especially, as Lorena identifies, the relief system which seeks to aid 1,250,000 wholly destitute men, women, and children is horribly underfunded by about one thirds of the money needed monthly.
She finds contrast in this situation in the Northeast when traveling into Florida, particularly the citrus belt. Here, citrus growers complain of the lack of workers, yet there are nearly 4,000 individuals on CWA and 5,600 on Reemployment that are desperate for work. The reason for this discrepancy, it seems, it that agricultural work of picking and packing is considered delicate and highly-skilled, and farmers can’t afford to hire those who are inexperienced. I find it especially interesting that this mindset existed in the 1930s, whereas now agriculture work is categorized as menial labor. My family’s business is in agriculture in California’s Central Valley, and nowadays it is hard to find skilled people looking for work in fields or factories; those hired are almost entirely unqualified with very little education, and are trained on the job. Notable also, is Hickok’s experience being a female journalist. One man mentioned to her that the wives and middle-aged women whom she interviews resent her because she is not only young and beautiful, but well-kept, clothed and fed, most likely paid reasonably well and also seemingly unworried in her career of traveling the country, while they are anchored down to home and family, uncertain of where the pennies required for tomorrow’s meal will come from.
Hickok’s journey, while historically significant in that it highlights social dilemmas of the era, retains its importance to today’s America as well. With unemployment reaching a high of about 9% in 2012, it has since been reduced to 5.1%; yet prejudices against the impoverished still persist. Hickok’s story, as well as those of Louis Adamic and and Lauren Gilfillan, creates an understanding, compassionate perspective that more Americans would do well to adopt.
The 1930s witnessed a new era of American exploration in a widespread surge unseen since days of the Western Frontier. This new frontier, led by Fords instead of covered wagons, began in search not of uncharted territory, but of meaning behind the American way of life, understanding the lives of everyday people, and connecting to the America that was deeper than beaming highway billboards, glamorous movies, and greasy drive-ins. This movement was was pioneered by journalists who traveled the country, not among elite artistic circles, but immersed within the people. In doing so, these writers were able to capture aspects of America that popular media ignored. While recurring themes are identifiable with several of this week’s assigned texts, discrepancies arise according to each writer’s personal experience. While Sherwood Anderson and Nathan Asch found a sort of beautiful strength and pride exuded by the people they meet, James Rorty’s journey encountered an unfortunate many who had capitulated to their struggles. Overall, however, the texts highlight the resiliency of everyday workers and the nation’s optimism despite its hardships.
Anderson’s book entitled Puzzled America follows his journey through a country that, despite its natural wealth of resources and hard-working populus, finds itself trapped in high unemployment and low productivity. He sees the longing of Americans to live happily and prosperously, to escape the decades of cynicism and falsity and have a “new birth of belief.” For Anderson, the issues of the 1930s are not reflective of the people, but rather the fault of an inefficient system under which they are subdued. Specifically, he is shocked by life in the mining communities. Not only are their working conditions wretched, but miners who attempt to strike back against mistreatment from their employers are met with with violent repercussions, such as being beaten, fired, and labeled trouble-makers, thus making them unemployable in the mines. They are paid minimally, mostly in scrip, which in turn anchors their purchases to the over-priced company stores. Anderson pities the workers, but he also admires them because, despite their trials, the mining families and townships retain strong work ethics and positive mindsets.
Similar feelings are highlighted in Asch’s The Road, of people who, instead of dwelling on misfortunes, recognize that they have equality, freedom, and the ability to forge their own futures. This quality, of self-determination, is inherently American. Asch worries, however, that in spite of the expansion and efficiency of travel, there is a growing distance between people, as regions are growing more strongly diverse and proud of local traditions. Nevertheless, he maintains that the collective American spirit of individualism links its citizens across physical borders.
Rorty’s Where Life is Better showcases the “tensions, confusions, and feel” of the country as a whole. He believed that America has grown weary of chasing its every-elusive dream, that throughout the 1930s sped increasingly out of reach. He sees democracy, and capitalism, as problematic and is need of major change, yet acknowledges that the nation doesn’t have time for leisurely rehabilitation of old institutions. From his encounters with distrustful policeman and a threatening pastor, he concludes that people have grown cynical. He wass concerned with issues of race and religion, and considers America’s problems with prejudice and inequality not a fight between classes, but one between “intelligence and stupidity, between sanity and fanaticism, between justice and injustice, and between freedom and tyranny.” Through his discussions with countless citizens, Rorty found that approximately 95% of the population were oblivious to the root cause of the issues that America was facing, as a functional governing system. Furthermore, while Rorty acknowledges the difficulties impoverished people face, he is incredibly frustrated by their resigned acceptance of poverty, and weak attempts at self-improvement.
The 1930s was a time of uncertainty and during travel journalists’ search for answers, many more questions arose. And although the American spirit faltered and waved, it was never extinguished, and the hope for a brighter tomorrow persevered.