The ridiculous story that is Sullivan’s Travels portrays an affluent member of society attempting to live life like a bum. It’s a satire that has intense moments of clarity between absurdities. Sullivan is originally conveyed as the typical shallow citizen of the upper class who is ignorant to the plight of the underprivileged. He is a well-established film director who wants to take his next work very seriously. His travels begin as a way to capture the harshness of humanity so he can make a film. The first fifteen minutes of Sullivan’s Travels is an incredibly accurate depiction of how the media was viewed, along with some buffoonery that added to the satire. Aside from Sullivan’s love interest, as the movie developed a lot of the content started to parallel what was shown in Waiting for Nothing—on more than one occasion Kromer’s influence is definitely present. You see gradual and continual weariness from the duo, however theirs is originally self-inflicted. It isn’t until further into the movie for Sullivan’s existence in desperation to manifest due to circumstance. I was surprised how amused and entertained I was by this movie catered to a very different—yet similar—audience.
Apart from the wandering ‘stiffs’, a lot of movement during the time came from tourism. In James Agee’s The American Roadside he provides knowledge on business operations that flowered during this period of migration and exploration. His focus is on auto cabins and how they remained successful. The key for a good auto cabin campsite is having all the necessities. The necessities of the cabins are relatively Spartan—a bed, a washbasin, and a bathroom. However, for a good auto camp, it is essential to be more of a one-stop shop. Agee tells us two of these essentials are a refueling station and a restaurant. By creating an offering that satisfied all a travelers needs, the auto camp industry thrived during this period. With his estimates I calculated an average profit of 10% from the numbers provided. During such hard economic times, this provided a lucrative source of income for the average middle class persons.
Later in his article he writes of caves—maybe to establish causation for the tourist activity. When hypothetically asked about an ideal dream life, most people would say something along the lines of, “I’d love to travel around.” The vagueness echoes in Agee’s oddly introduced section of caves. Or, maybe, after talking about the optimization of the commodification of travel he shifts towards the commodification of nature and how it only serves to further the commodification of existing enterprise. Has enterprise spurred the travel habit? Or, as Agee ends, “…reacting delicately to the wonders of this land…the spirit that most deeply moves people is tamed out their blood.” The classic conundrum of what came first—the chicken or the egg. In the foreword to Let us now Praise Famous Men Walker describes the Agee of the time as simple, yet incredibly driven. Devotion and motivation for action are hallmarks of passion. Within passionate people, like Agee, lives the drive that fueled movements like manifest destiny—or more simply put, exploration.
I found Agee’s interest in how far society has come in terms of travel to be humorous—only since I compare his astonishments to my own. It wasn’t long ago, he states, that trivial things—such as travel—were much more difficult to do. Now we can fly upwards of 500 people from New York to London in around 7 hours. I think that Agee would be much more interested in the travel of our time. As we’ve learned, depending on one’s situation, travel can come from necessity or inspiration. The globalization that has occurred in the past century blurs boundaries and creates a more fluid ‘human’ experience. I wonder what Agee would make of the homogenization of culture—or furthermore, the ignorance that has persisted in its evolution.
In the preface, Agee makes a point to remind us of his task: to capture the life of the average white-tenant farmer family. He goes into much detail of the task at hand and how absurd it sounds. You can’t capture the life of the ‘average’ white-tenant farmer family—let alone any person’s life. For Agee and Walker it was insufficient—to them, and for us as well—to capture lives through print and pictures while observing a sharecroppers day-to-day activities for a mere four weeks. How can they accurately summarize, describe, and emit through writing the essence and experience of life? How can they convey the empathy they feel through pictures? The hope they have is to create a piece that’s empathetically strong enough to illicit action from readers. To create a movement that might spark change. However, Agee tells us he and Walker try their best—and the history of Three Tenant Families publication speaks to that.
Yet four weeks is a long time, you can learn a lot in four weeks; but agreeably it isn’t long enough. Agee and Evans learned how families earned their money [a twisted system that exploited the large supply of workers through low wages]—which was essentially serfdom. Since a family could hardly support themselves [some years were better than others] they would often seek odd jobs to make ends meet. Agee found it incredibly frustrating to have to try and convey the struggles—such as trying to sell firewood for fifty cents only to sell it for fifteen because it would be too tiring to carry it back home—in writing. The privileged further profited off of the low wages by extending lines of credit to the desperate, struggling families for upwards of 8% interest. Of course in a capitalistic society it would be absurd to loan money for free—due to the time value of money—but at 8% the landlords were destroying any chance of their tenant’s ability to save and invest. They were sucking the tenants dry of not only their money, but also their hopes. One of the easiest ways to make money is to have money, accurately shown in the actions of landowners. By gradually accruing debt with an unstable job[again due to the high labor supply] the condition of the white-tenant family is bleak—reminiscent of the first chapter in The Grapes of Wrath and embodies the title of Waiting for Nothing.
The title “Waiting for Nothing,” describes how the homeless live day to day without a means to correct their situation. I thought it was interesting how the ideals reflected in a stiff’s actions were more akin to pure capitalism while ultimately only a redistribution of wealth would solve their problems. The lowest caste operates with a laissez-faire style because a stiff acts with self-interest in mind; in their world, it is survival of the fittest. There are no institutions in place to regulate their actions, such as a bank. Without regulation, capitalism’s flaw of exploitation is able to thrive. This was accurately displayed when Kromer meets a man who shows him how far he can take a 10-cent piece—basically how far he can exploit the system. The contrary Marxist ideals are also evident in the novel. When Kromer is about to rob the bank he effectively would have redistributed wealth. I think the hesitation and ultimate failure to act ties into the Marxist idea that a revolution needs to occur before change can happen.
I think another hallmark of capitalism that is exemplified through the life of a homeless person is uncertainty and risk. A homeless person doesn’t know where their next flop will be, when their next meal will be, if they will receive any future cash flows, or even if the cash they have can be protected.
We, the non-homeless, often ostracize rather than rehabilitate because it becomes a personal cost when government fails. Although the Roosevelt administration was trying to curtail the homeless epidemic, a lot of the facilities in place were in awful condition. With no help from the government whom does a homeless person turn to? If there is one homeless person in my town and I go out of my way to rehabilitate them, I take on a personal cost for the benefit of the town. This [free rider] problem only occurs assuming people are selfish and resent sharing. During hard times, selfishness is a capitalistic ideal that holds across economic class. Kromer recognizes it himself when he idolizes the idea of being able to walk down the street and think about not helping the less fortunate. Ultimately the book was string of events that showed just how punishing our economic system is for the underprivileged.
Reading Andrew Gross’s The American Guide Series: Patriotism as Brand Name Identification gave me the feeling he went into his project with a cynical mindset. Something that particularly irked me was his review of the Arizona guide. It is important to note that these guides were being written during a depression and the writers had a job to do—increase tourism. Gross takes a strong stance against the guides labeling the writers as propagandist rather than artists.
Taking the socio-economic factors we’ve discussed into consideration—I’m sure a majority of the writer writing for the FWP were ecstatic to even have a job. An economy cannot recover without spending, and that was the purpose for the WPA guides. Gross’s stance supports the notion that the guides should have provided more accurate cultural depictions. Specifically, in his review of the Arizona guide, he mentions racial intolerance that has plagued the area and how it has shaped the different ethnic groups and industries. How can you positively market these sites when their history is deeply rooted in intolerance?
A brutal fact about America is that it was founded on genocide [think Native Americans] and discrimination [think slavery]. Any travel guide that accurately reflects the history of landmarks would probably only repel tourists. The main focus of the Roosevelt administration was to turn the economy around. A hallmark of any good salesmen is that they put their best foot forth. If I’m trying to sell you a used car I won’t focus on the defects unless you specifically ask. I think Gross’ review is almost too intellectual in that it overlooks the reason for the guides.
A Cool Million is the story of an adventurer, Lem Pitkin, which is told with a tone that mocks the severity of its content. The story is set in an immoral world where misfortune follows Lem, our ‘hero’, and coincidentally all others from Ottsville. His series of unfortunate events derives from a combination of ignorance and naivety.
Lem’s adventure to New York is symbolic of the American Dream. He leaves his hometown with a small loan in hopes of being able to make something of himself. Despite the considerable number of misfortunes that come his way, our hero picks himself up and moves forward. His resolve is fortified by an eagerness for opportunity. This is in large part due to the many inspirational speeches our hero hears from Mr. Whipple. Mr. Whipple, like Lem, is also victim to unfortunate circumstance, but always manages to get back on his feet with seemingly more resolve. However, our hero does not realize that his journey to ‘win’ the American Dream is killing him. Along the way he loses an eye, his teeth, a leg, a thumb, and even his scalp.
In Daniel Walden’s biography of Nathaniel West he tells us A Cool Million is a spoof of ‘every Horatio Alger novel’. Horatio is most well known for his multitude of books that tell the classic rag-to-riches story. I think West did a great job of mocking the American Dream. If America is the land of opportunity everyone thinks it is, why not go out and ‘achieve the dream’? A Cool Million acts as an answer to that question. From what we have discussed in class thus far, it seems that the American Dream is only attainable for the privileged. The suspicious man, Comrade Z, acts as an enforcer to this ideology. With the forces of the Bankers and Bolsheviks, Comrade Z is able to quell any uprising from those seeking the American Dream for themselves. Without privilege, Lem blindly follows ignorance to his death.
Because the novel mainly follows the journey of Lem, I was confused as to why West included the sections with Betty. Her sad story consists of rapes and slavery with no mention as to her aspirations. The only take away I got from Betty, is that she is a product of circumstance. In a larger context she reflects underprivileged people, like sharecroppers, who continue to be taken advantage of.
I thought the first chapter of the novel would be a perfect preface to the pictures done by White and Caldwell. Steinbeck talks of the dryness and how it cracks the land. He talks of the dust and how even if you couldn’t see it, it was still there. The severity of the dust is illustrated when it permeates into sealed homes and settles like pollen . The pictures by White and Caldwell were of struggling and determined people, but they were also of noble people. Their nobility comes from a strong determination in the face of so much uncertainty. Looking back everything is set, but in the moment nothing is certain. The men at the end of the first chapter remind me of the woman staring out, sitting on the steps of the house with greek pillars. For all they knew, the next day could have brought the end of their struggles. In a way, I think the men “thinking—figuring” is their way of hoping.
In class we have talked a lot about how writers wanted to portray struggling Americans and also how those Americans wanted to be portrayed. The last paragraph of the first chapter is an excellent example of unbiased reporting. Steinbeck shows us the daily routine of hard-pressed peoples without adding any extra flare or dialogue. His description is simple, and adequately surmises people of the time as hardy. The mothers protect the children from the complete truth of the situation, yet the children know something is wrong. Both groups look to the stalwart male for guidance, knowing as long as he is determined they will persist. The squeamish dynamic between the families is something we all can relate to. I personally connect this part of the book to when I was younger, driving down to Florida with my family. It was nighttime and we were about halfway there when a tire blew out. My brother and I had no idea what was going on, as we were young, but looked to our parents. Our mom was the one to reassure us that everything was going to be okay, but all of us looked to my dad to get us out of the situation. That’s not to say that it is up to the men to make the big decisions and rescue the family; Steinbeck gave a good example, through Ma Joad, of how women are just as capable of holding things together.
Due to the sharp decline in the American Stock Market during the early thirties, many people went back to their agriculture roots to survive during such an oppressive time. However, a severe drought and a failure to apply dry-land farming techniques led to what is now known at the Dustbowl and subsequently led to the ‘Dirty’ thirties. Exoduses, in general, occurs when a large group of people is fed up with their current situation and Need to change their surroundings. Currently our society is seeing a huge exodus from Syria to the European States. The American Exodus was brought on for two reasons. The Depression caused all financial institutions to suffer which prompted reluctance to lend and a huge spike in unemployment. Those seeking refuge through an agricultural setting were set back by the dustbowl. The theme of mass migration, and exodus in general, throughout the United States during the thirties is refuge. The American Exodus is told through the life of a ‘stiff’. They’re constantly moving looking for work or opportunity.
The American Exodus involves those Americans who were hit hardest during the depression. These are the wanderers, travelers, and bums alike who look no further than how to get their next meal. Many turned to short-term work, such as farm labor [as needed]. Others entered into contractual agreements with plantation owners that allowed a person to occupy a plot of land, farm produce, and then give a share of production back to the landlord. Sharecropping as it began to be known became a social construct that kept the poor, poor and the wealthy, wealthy.
One of the pictures that stuck out to me was of a pickup truck packed with able body men heading to the field for work. It’s clear from the picture that they are crammed like sardines in the back of the truck. The comment that prefaced the picture shed light on how plantation owners were still able to exploit labor even in the aftermath of the emancipation proclamation. By paying workers daily wages they neglected them the safety of having full time jobs and were able to capitalize on the increase in labor competition brought on by the American Exodus. The picture is a perfect example of how the lower-caste was not only far worse off, they were also abused and exploited.
In Louis Adamic’s “Girl on the Road” the young woman depicted has an outward appearance symbolic to how others were feeling during the depression. Cut and bruised she is unable to care for herself but is fortunate that a kind stranger feels sympathetic towards her. In Lorena’s “One Third of a Nation” the narrator reveals the suffering many families had to go through. Their cuts and bruises lie on the inside, acquired from continual evictions, hunger, and uncertainty.
I found Hazel’s trust in Adamic to be quite compelling. In our day and age it would be madness to trust a stranger on the highway. Trust is something we reserve for friends and family because when you trust someone you shouldn’t you become susceptible to deception. For Hazel, she is at a point of desperation where she doesn’t have the luxury to pick and choose. I think being a true traveller entails putting your trust with strangers. I also think one of the many dangers of being on the road involves having to put your trust with strangers. This is evident when they stop for food and a passerby, and eventually the police, question Adamic about the situation of the beat up girl. It makes the reader know that this isn’t the first time a helpless ‘women’ [or man] has had to rely on a stranger and gives the impression that more often than not there is malicious intent.
It was interesting to see how Hazel responded when Adamic mentioned he was a writer. She perked up knowing her story would be told, and tried to put her best foot forward. In a time where writers were merely passerby’s, profiling had become a big issue for those who stories were being told. How can one learn and accurately write about a situation that they have only known about for a few days? In fact, Adamic even notions that he could make up a story about the girl, leaving the reader wondering if in-fact Hazel is real or imaginary. I can only imagine that writers in the 30s had to meet deadlines too, which leads me to believe that some probably fudged facts or even made up interesting stories to sate readers. As a lower caste American struggling to make it by day to day, it would be incredibly frustrating to see someone misrepresenting my story and situation.
In Nathan Asche’s “The Road”, he makes a point to tell the reader his method of travel for his cross-country adventure. He argues that trains are too pompous, too comfortable. People dress up and try and put their best foot forward when interacting with other, instead of being themselves. For someone who is trying to create a ‘story’ for America, riding on a train simply won’t do. A car, he argues, is too comfortable. It is like driving around in your house. The scenery may change outside the car, but everything stays the same inside. There is no one to talk to, no one to listen to. A bus is just right. A bus puts everyone in the same uncomfortable situation for an extended period of time. A bus provides Asche with new people to interact with every time he gets on.
He wants to capture raw stories and emotions, not generic remarks. It’s important that he take a bus because it puts him with normal, everyday people. If he took a train he would be stuck with people more akin to the coal operator who he meets in the diner. The coal operator provides an interesting statement that makes Asche’s journey seem important. When people want information about his coal mine they should go to him, not his employees. Nobody knows more about coal or the operation than him. When you look past the coal operator’s remarks, you see that they are symbolic of a larger problem. When you read in the paper that times are tough and X amount of people are homeless, it provides a broad stroke explanation that is open to wild interpretation. Asche is searching for more than the broad strokes, he wants the specifics. When you are on a bus for so long, you have time to discuss the specifics. You get to hear people’s stories. I don’t think it is a stretch to assume that people would tell you the whole truth either. There is nothing to gain from lying to someone on a bus ride.
Nelson Algren’s “Somebody in Boots” depicts the horrid life in San Antonio. Something that I noticed right away that bothered me slightly was how Cass assumed an air of superiority through his tone. Although he was in the same situation as the other homeless, I got the impression that he felt himself above them. In the first paragraph he talks about how the homeless move from place to place, “sometimes it seemed to him that men were all, somehow, blind; that they went from city to city in darkness.” What makes one homeless person better than the next? Is it slightly more change in their pockets, more food, or maybe more experience?
I thought a common theme throughout his story was waste. While waiting in line for food at the shelter, Cass tells the reader that San Antonio sprays their garbage to keep people from eating it. They argue that it is for their safety so nobody gets sick, especially on a holy Sunday, but the food they feed them at the shelter is no better. I immediately thought that this was a considerable waste of resources. Couldn’t the money being spent to buy spray, equipment to spray, and labor to spray be better used elsewhere? This doesn’t stop Cass from trying to find his next meal in a can. He reaches down in and pulls out nothing more than human waste.
Another instance was when Cass talks about the police. He says that they get paid $1 for every ‘stiff’ they catch trying to bum a ride on a train. In Tom Kromer’s “Waiting for Nothing” we see how far a homeless man can take ten cents. Why wouldn’t this incentive for police be better applied elsewhere? The only reason police do this is because the train company complains that they have people hitching rides for free on their train. This aptly named ‘free rider’ problem is only a problem if people are inherently selfish or resent sharing.