Despair and Hope

Despair and Hope

The Grapes of Wrath was beautifully written in a way that some of the other texts we have read were not. It combined some well developed characters with an interesting and heart wrenching journey, all told in a descriptive and authentic way. I particularly enjoyed Steinbeck’s descriptive language. He really has a way of transporting you to the place by including a large variety of sounds, colors, and feelings in his descriptions. He definitely sets the scene before telling you the story. The novel contained a number of recurring themes, but Steinbeck’s dance with hope and despair particularly caught my eye.

Throughout the course of the journey the family is continuously losing members of their pack. It starts with the deaths of Grandma and Grandpa, who arguably would have been extra mouths to feed and eventually would have become and burden and a hindrance to the family as they fought to survive later in the story. Before we know it, Connie abandons the family and Casy is killed by the police, and eventually even Tom has to indefinitely abandon the family for their own good. What begins as a traveling group of twelve soon dwindles to seven. Two members of the group are lost to death, two flee, and one is killed by the police, which reminds the reader that the loss and suffering always come back to the gruesome journey that they are undertaking. Despite the dwindling of the clan, there are positive moments throughout the journey that contrast the with the despair. Small acts of kindness at stores and gas stations are countered by police violence and cut-throat competition for work. The first camp the Joads stay it is in squalid conditions, but this horrid and frightening experience is contrasted with the warm welcome they receive at the clean, organized and relatively peaceful government-run camp.

Meanwhile, the notion of employment remains pretty negative throughout the entire book, providing a realistic portrayal of the times. The Joads shuffle between towns that are already packed with eager workers and constantly cope with the threat of lower pay and being instantly replaceable. Overall, The Grapes of Wrath is a riveting look into life during the depression for migrant workers, touching upon themes such as family, pride and hope in the face of injustice and despair. I would also argue that this novel is closer to art than propaganda, as it offers a well-rounded account told through a realistic tale.

The Grapes of Wrath

The Grapes of Wrath

While we watched some scenes from the film The Grapes of Wrath in class, watching the entire film was a pleasant and more complete experience. Overall, it seemed a bit softer than the novel. While it contained some dramatic scenes that were high in human emotion, the rest of the film seemed to be more about the family’s never ending journey than the bigger picture of what was happening in the country at the time. The focus was always on the characters and their feelings and there was almost no break in dialogue. Despite the focus on the action and dialogue in the film, the visuals were very good. I have not watched many black and white films, but The Grapes of Wrath seemed to play very well with light and contrast, including some very photogenic shots of Tom’s face, as well as Ma’s. As we discussed in class, some scenes in the film look very much like the photographs of Dorothea Lange and other photographers at the time, giving the film a documentary-like feel. While those crisp, clear scenes were my favorite ones, I also enjoyed the dreamy, dark nighttime scenes that played with light and fog.

As far as the context in which the novel was set, the movie touches upon it only to the extent that the characters experience these hardships. It also seems to be missing some scenes as far as the actual time spent working by the characters. The most notable difference between the film and the novel is the ending. The movie ends on a rather hopeful note, with Ma’s words being the last thing we hear as the family drives on in search of a new destination. This ending is very lukewarm in comparison to the novel’s controversial and graphic ending.

It's All About the People

It’s All About the People

Nathan Asch begins “The Road” with a sentence that embodies the vastness of America and it’s potential for exploration and adventure: “When you try to see America, you start out from a point by train or car or freight or bus and go in any possible direction – all of it is America – and stop off anywhere at all and watch people and talk to people.” Asch then continues to make a very clever distinction between the different modes of travel available in America during his time. Preferring to travel by bus, he describes car trips as isolated and lonely, and train journeys as uptight and extravagant. He alludes to the discomfort of the bus as a positive kind of suffering in comparison to the comfort of the other two methods of transport. I like his description of bus travel, because he focuses on the bonding experience that occurs between passengers, often over cups of coffee during stopovers, as well as through story-telling and jam sessions.

Overall, he distinguishes bus travel as communal and train and car travel as lonely and uninteresting. It was interesting to read about his attempts to debunk and understand Southern stereotypes and culture, only to wind up having lunch with a fellow Brooklynite. This makes me wonder if we always gravitate towards people similar to ourselves.. trying to learn something new and exotic, but always within our comfort zone or boxed into our own ideologies somehow. In any case, it’s clear that Asch values the human element to his journey and it turns out Erskine Caldwell agrees with him. In “Some American People”, Caldwell writes:”There are no memorials, vistas, or landmarks anywhere between the Atlantic and Pacific worthy of going fifty miles to see. Once seen, these Grand Views are relegated to the catalogue merely used to summon up topics for small talk. They are only the lures, after all, of commercial intercourse. What is worth traveling thousands of miles to see and know are people and their activity.” He also expresses that the landscape doesn’t mean much out of context. I can really relate to this. I mean, what value do the Pyramids of Giza have when taken out of historical context and not considered in relation to the development of human society?

Caldwell also comments on the unwillingness of Americans to sacrifice comforts and luxuries while on the road. I think this is relevant today in regards to international travel. Why only 38% of Americans have passports remains largely a mystery. Could it be related to a similar unwillingness to go without a bed or try strange foods? By venturing outside of the United States, tourists are no longer sacrificing just the comfort of home, but possibly their mother tongue and social norms, all in the name of experiencing a foreign culture. Or maybe it’s fear of being treated differently, of being the outsider for once. In Chapter XXIV, Caldwell experiences the treatment that a traveller can be subject to in his hometown. Once Charlie sees his foreign license plates, he boxes Caldwell into a category and is unable to recognize him until the very end of the chapter. In fact, he doesn’t even realize until he notices Caldwell acting differently, which shows just how much judgement was being passed based on one’s perceived origin and background. After seeing things from an outsider’s point of view, Caldwell reconsiders his perception of his own home town and the people he used to value. I think this anecdote brings my post back full-circle to the importance of the people met along the journey. One’s interactions with people can change even long-time perceptions of people and places that symbolize home.

Food and American Culture

Food and American Culture

In regards to the WPA Travel Guides, Andrew Gross writes that “The tour form is paradigmatic of the nostalgic structure of consumer culture, which celebrates what it destroys: the isolated or authentic location.” This statement perfectly describes the irony of tourism. Unless tourism is somehow controlled or regulated (e.g. The Galapagos), it is capable of spoiling the very thing that attracts tourists to a place. In my experiences, some of the most famous monuments and landmarks are often the least pleasant to visit due to large crowds, long lines and disney-like cheesiness. When places, artwork, experiences, etc. are made accessible to the tourist they often lose authenticity. Gross discusses tourism and appreciation for regional culture as a way to protect those cultures from corporate standardization as well as social, cultural and racial conflict. I think that the commodification of local culture into a tourist attraction contributes to the corporate standardization of a place. Gross references a few writers who criticize the assimilation of American towns. This rings true today, more than ever, especially if you happen to find yourself driving down an interstate highway where every rest stop looks more or less the same save for a small variation in fast food restaurant options.

Jonathan Miles puts it best in his 2009 article, Food Bloggers of 1940: “The highlights of any road trip, of course, are the pit stops for food, and — on paper at least — I-95 should offer a cornucopia: Maryland crabs, North Carolina barbecue, Virginia ham, Georgia boiled peanuts. Yet as we’re all sourly aware, Interstate exits rarely, if ever, yield memorable culinary pit stops. Without strenuous preplanning, road food is almost always bad food, sad food, chain food, clown food.” It seems that the interstate, the very thing that facilitates access to far away parts of the country, has become the perfect breeding ground for corporate standardization. One is now able to drive from Florida to New York, from North Carolina to California, from Montana to Tennessee, without actually seeing America. I did manage to find an interesting article on this topic that insists otherwise. In “Fast Food America” Nicholas Howe argues that fast-food and chain restaurants on the interstate are “as close to the real America as anyone will ever get.” The way Howe sees it, nostalgic travelers are searching for an idealized America that no longer exists. He defends chain restaurants, stating that “fast-food America has its stories” too. He explains that the locals are probably eating at the same Burger King as you, having appropriated it as a favorite breakfast spot, and that if you listen and people-watch you will pick up a lot about the local culture. While I understand his point, I’m not as quick to embrace fast-food culture. Culture changes and evolves over time and sometimes it is for the better.

1930's Trailer-Life, Modern Van-Life, and Travel Marketing

1930’s Trailer-Life, Modern Van-Life, and Travel Marketing

I really enjoyed Roland Wild’s “Double-Crossing America” and found it honest and humorous. He starts out by mentioning a method of self-defense in which people build their own barriers and obstacles. In my opinion this is a way to combat the fear of failure. Expecting the worst in order to avoid being letdown. I thought that this allusion to psychology was a clever way to begin the chapter.

On a separate note, I also liked this reading, because of how relevant it still is. I had to double check the publication date, because of how much 1938 “trailer life” reminds me of what people are calling modern-day “van life.” While I have no data on this, from the amount of people using the hashtag #vanlife on instagram and this one article I found on an online auto insurance publication, it would seem that van life is trending and on the rise. (For more proof see #homeiswhereyouparkit). Google Trends, however, seems to disagree when it comes to the popularity of “van life“, although “living in a van” gets better results.) Personally, I follow a lot of rock climbers on instagram. Many of them, professional climbers or otherwise, choose to live in a van in order to leverage their time outdoors and easily change their location depending on weather. Some of them travel the entire country, while others visit many climbing areas in a specific region. Van life, being rent-free, is even more convenient for those who are lucky enough to travel outside of the US for long periods of time.

The article mentioned above claims that “there’s a a new American dream in town and it calls for quitting that stuffy, old corporate job of yours, buying a van, and hitting the road.” This claim fits into the stereotypes that I often hear regarding Generation Y’s rejection of traditional work and desire for work-life balance that may correlate with a trend towards free-lancing and working from home or the road. Roland Wild’s strategy of traveling-to-write-about-it and writing-to-get-paid-to-afford-travel is not all that different from the methods employed by today’s independent bloggers, free-lance journalists, and instagram product ambassadors.

These trends are especially interesting in light of Berkowitz’ “A ‘New Deal’ for Leisure.” I have honestly never thought much about the marketing behind tourism. I have never questioned vacation or travel as an unnecessary luxury, possibly because of how much I enjoy it or maybe due to my tendency to steer clear of organized tours. Understanding tourism’s beginnings in America has helped me to see travel as it is described in the reading: “packaged, price-tagged and merchandised like any other commodity.” Apart from the obvious marketing of vacation deals, packaged tours, and hotel/flight combos, I always felt that traveling and wandering were sort of inherent and natural. Now, I am sort of questioning how true that really is.

Berkowitz’ text states that “The travel habit was not born with most Americans. It’s an acquired taste and one which must be religiously and patiently cultivated by the seller.” Why, then, does it feel so natural to some people? If I’m being sold that I need to travel once a year to be happy and healthy, aren’t I also being sold that having a house and a stable income are equivalent to happiness? After all, what attracts me to van life is the rejection of a traditional lifestyle and the freedom of not being bound by physical location. But, maybe I’m being sold that too.

Racism and Gender On the Road

Racism and Gender On the Road

Nelson Algren’s Somebody in Boots begins with the main character Cass waking up in a wheelless coach in San Antonio. From the start, I saw some parallels between this work and Tom Kromer’s Waiting for Nothing. Both Tom and Cass are down and out, hopping trains and trying to get something to eat. The most obvious difference between the two is that Waiting for Nothing is told in the first person, which makes it feel more personal and authentic for the reader. Somebody in Boots is told in the third person, as a narrator tells us of Cass’ journey and his encounter with a man that he nicknames Matches.

While Waiting for Nothing was very blunt, depressing and descriptive, I felt that Somebody in Boots was more disgusting and graphic. The first thing that caused me disgust was the description of the garbage and the fact that it was being sprayed with poison, so that it would not attract homeless or hungry people. It was a very sinister way to keep hobos away from the town of San Antonio. I was equally disgusted when I read about the meat that they fed the homeless at the mission and it’s similarity to feces. Things only got worse when Cass mistakenly injured a pregnant woman and caused her to have a stillbirth.

This scene was the only significant representation of a woman in the story. The fact that she was pregnant is a metaphor for the fact that women at the time were still holding very traditional roles in the household and society. Even while on the fritz, the poor woman was serving her societal duty of bearing a child. Although it’s an exclusive picture, this depiction of the pregnant woman demonstrates one of the specific struggles that only women can come to face while down and out – being pregnant without proper support, health or medical care. As a result of Cass’ hurting her, this woman loses her child in the boxcar of a train, which is pretty tragic and terrible.

Another interesting topic that comes up in this story is racism. Matches, a black man that Cass meets in the boxcar, seems strong and confident at the beginning of the story. After Cass makes repeated mistakes, Matches makes Cass feel pretty useless and careless, but invites him to pass the time together while they look for food. They spend some time walking around the town and even nap in the park together. By the end of the story, however, the tables are turned and Matches is portrayed as the liability. This only occurs after the cops show prejudice towards towards Matches and arrest him. Cass is found guilty by association and gets arrested and called a “Negro” just for hanging out with Matches. This makes Cass very angry and he repeats that he is not a “Negro.” This scene demonstrates the power that lies in authority. In just one move, the cops have managed to make Cass feel degraded and cause a rift between two people that had spent the day together and could have potentially been friends. Put in a scenario like this, Cass feels like he has the choice to save himself or perish with the “Negro.” Just like that, the cops have managed to further instill racism in Cass for the future. This brings up questions of dehumanization and otherization of targeted groups. It also shows how hard times often lead to the scapegoating of certain groups of people.

A Broken System

A Broken System

I found Waiting for Nothing to be an incredibly powerful work. While at times I found myself horrified at the lack of empathy and mercy portrayed by those in power, these instances were juxtaposed with moments of kindness and selflessness shown by other characters. It seemed that the more powerful a person was, the less sympathy they had for the stiffs. Moments of collaboration and sharing between fellow stiffs were very moving and gave me a sense of hope amidst the despair that dominates the book. These accounts reminded me of some articles I read regarding charitable giving. A series of studies found that, post-recession, the poor give a higher percentage of their income to charity than the rich do. These findings are reflected in Waiting for Nothing. Excluding a number of kind business owners and a few devious stiffs, the most charitable exchanges occurred between fellow struggling stiffs. Whether it meant sharing a coconut pie, a jungle fire, a hot coffee, or a room, the stiffs offered to others what little they had, which was often not enough for themselves alone.

Tom’s story is largely about survival and his tone throughout the book is one of desperation. He manages to make social criticisms not through deep analysis, but simply by recounting his experiences in a frank manner. His personal struggles demonstrate the various levels of oppression and contempt that were present in American society in the 1930’s. I find it very disturbing that although we have moved past the Great Depression and even a recent recession, the number of homeless people in New York City is on the rise. While I would like to think that more resources exist for the homeless than did in the 1930’s, I cannot say that their struggle is all that different to Tom Kromer’s. Thousands of people in this city will sleep on the streets tonight. They will probably be cold and they will most definitely be hungry. They have been passed by thousands of people today and helped by few.

Waiting for Nothing brings up questions about morality and pride. Time after time, Tom’s hunger is what drives him to the most extreme measures. He juggles his morals with the reality that he will do nearly whatever is necessary to keep himself from starving or freezing to death. Despite his desperation and his willingness to have sex for food or money, he refrains from going through with plans to rob a bank and mug a wealthy man. While he attributes this to his lack of guts, the undertone of his moral dilemmas gradually become apparent to the reader. Even through fits of rage and hopelessness he is generally not willing to harm others or act unethically. Tom also experiences an internal battle with pride. He meets a very clever stiff who impresses him by managing to turn a ten-cent piece into two dollars and sixty five cents. Although Tom is really impressed by this guy, he is hesitant to adopt his methods, writing, “I do not have the guts to dive down on a doughnut in front of a bunch of women. There is no use talking. I will never have the guts to do that.” We can infer that by this he means he will never be able to drop his pride enough to willingly and purposely look so pathetic in front of a group of women. It is interesting how each person measures and defines what they are or aren’t willing to do under such dire circumstances. Tom’s journey takes us through missions, jails, empty buildings, garbage dumps and train box cars and shows us, firsthand, the lives of people grappling with poverty, hunger, and loneliness, ultimately exposing an exclusive and broken system that arguably pervades America today.