Bonnie and Clyde

Bonnie and Clyde

The characters of Bonnie and Clyde depicted in the 1967 film starring Warren Beatty and and Faye Dunaway does an excellent job humanizing two of the most infamous criminals. Once they begin their life of crime, they meet a man who had just lost his house. They give this man an opportunity to shoot at the sign that shows his old property now belongs to the bank. I felt that this scene was symbolic for what the legends of criminals like Bonnie and Clyde potentially saw themselves to represent for the working class folk who lost everything during the depression — a big f**k you to the system.

Unfortunately, this is not what they embody for the rest of the film. Although their characters start off as somewhat relatable, their lack of proper crime coordination develops their lives into a perpetual race against the police that endangers the lives of everyone who crosses their path. Their destructive behavior in the film could definitely be a reflection of the effects that the depression had on everyone lives. Through this class we have learned of numerous people living life on the run from death, from starvation, or succumbing to what the system has to offer.  

The theme of infinite suffering for those who had not chosen the life of crime gives some perspective behind the motives of adopting the outlaw lifestyle. There are definitely a lot of people we have read about this semester who could have reaped the benefits of pursuing a profession in bank-robbery. However, Clyde continuously suggests that the main reason for Bonnie’s inclination to crime stems from her boredom with her previous lifestyle. Does that make her more like the everyman, or less? I would argue that this was a poor choice of characteristics had the writer of the screenplay wanted to make Bonnie more likeable. When people want to identify with a character, especially one who leads a life of crime, we usually search for better excuses than “boredom” to explain bad behavior. Especially if the movie was motivated in any way to make a point that this life of crime stemmed from systematic failures during the depression.  

In one of the key moments of the film, Bonnie asks Clyde what he would change about their lives if he could go back in time. Instead of seizing this opportunity to voice remorse for their life decisions in favor of innocence and hard-work, he would choose to improve their chances of getting away with their crimes by spreading them to out-of-state areas. This scene occurs minutes before the death of Bonnie and Clyde. Was this meant to symbolize that Clyde deserved his punishment, since he felt no remorse for the crimes he suggests he would commit again?

This film played an interesting role in the glamorization of Bonnie and Clyde still prevalent today. There’s already been a remake of the film. Perhaps this glamorization itself is a reflection of the times in the 1930s — there are tons of criminals from the “Public Enemy Era” that have secured their place as interesting figures in history – Pretty Boy Floyd, Bonnie & Clyde, and John Dillinger to name a few. Whether they served as an easy source of blame for the depression, or an inspiration to the public, these criminals gained notoriety for a reason. Some parts of this movie and the reading combined suggests that the economic system in place during the 1930s perpetuated a necessity for such lifestyles.

I'm From the Lou and I'm Proud

I’m From the Lou and I’m Proud

Wow. Reading about The American Guide Series: Patriotism as Brand-Name Identification I can’t help but think of Nelly, St. Louis legend, and his iconic lyrics from the song ‘Country Grammar’: “I’m from the Lou and I’m proud.” Such a simple phrase, tantamount to the Bill of Rights for anyone West of the Mississippi and East of I-270, the parameters that encompass the Greatest Place IN The Whole World. Honestly, though, after reading The American Guide Series, I can’t help but wonder: where does this sense of pride come from? Is this authentic, or did Big Brother tell me to feel this way about the Arch and the Cardinals and Grant’s Farm?

The culture of Us vs. Them allows for the many facets of the American people to separate and distinguish ourselves from one another. I have also found that adopting an exaggerated display of characteristics expected from someone of my demographic (loves Nelly for St. Louis, sarcastic as a millennial) gives me a sense of culture to cling to when faced with the challenge of self-expression. This has a point, I swear.

In reading a few excerpts about New York tourism guidelines from the 1930s (since Missouri was snuffed in the archives), I found myself expecting Chinatown to be super Chinese and Spanish Harlem to exude Spanish culture. Why would I want to read about Harlem except to learn about the part of American culture that is supposed to be there? No, I will not go to Harlem to eat pasta! That’s what Mulberry Street is for! 

The New York City Guide to the Five Boroughs account of Chinatown gave me a very personalized account of the Chinese shops and their locations and suggested what could be going on in the Chinese world of Chinatown. It gave me the Chinese history of Chinatown and wrote about the Chinese cultural practices that have been let go of and those that still remain. When I finished reading about Chinatown, I did not feel like the writers had necessarily personalized Chinatown, nor did I feel personally invested in the concept of a Chinatown. I am just now more acutely aware that there is a Chinatown culture of which I am not a member.

My favorite part of Gross’ American Guide Series was the discussion of Arizona tourism. Gross speculated that tourists were actually much more aware of the value and natural beauty of Arizona than the inhabitants could be. He quoted, It was later arrivals who told Arizonans, and finally convinced them, that they had a state of unsurpassed charm and grandeur, a romantic history stretching back into the mists of antiquity, and extraordinary opportunities. They looked around and saw for themselves the beauties and marvels that hordes of tourists were swarming here to see,” Vardis Fisher

Thankfully, Gross recognizes that the culture of the natives and their ‘ignorance’ or ‘prejudice’ (he admits these are the wrong terms) is just as noteworthy as the idyllic notion of Arizona represented in the Writer’s Project guides. He acknowledges that a lot of cultural identities of human beings were altered into tourist attractions through  sensationalizing and exaggerating (or lying) about different non-white cultures. I go back to my reading of Chinatown and compare it to what I read of Madison Square Garden. In the New York Guide of Madison Square, it gives the history and the events that might be held in the venue. Somehow, it seemed like less of a fetish than Chinatown. It seemed like more of a place people go and less like a place certain people belong. Like, Madison Square Garden, come here and stay awhile! vs. Chinatown: come observe the difference. Cultural appropriation is definitely a thing in these guides. Is this a product of the misinformed tourist wanting these types of travel guides, though, or a reflection of our nation’s own culture, regardless of the travel habit?

Perhaps the guides were conducive to radically characterizing all these places, allowing for tourists to mark a handful of identities checked off a list that made up America as they drove down Route 66 and on their merry way. Although I love to buy into brands, I know that this is no way to get to know a place. Simply waving at it from your window as you drive along the highway to mark off the next checkpoint does not constitute a tour of America.

What Do I Know?

What Do I Know?

When I was little, I thought tradition came from a place where all the things of my childish life came from. There were a lot of experiences I had in my youth that I just accepted as a fact of life because nobody taught me that I should think anything else. So this reading has had an interesting turn of events on my idea of where the traditions of my childhood may come from. Why do my grandparents always go to Florida? I have never thought much about it; I thought it was something every person over 65 does. Obviously, had I delegated any critical thought on the subject of the elderly migration to Florida each winter, I would realize that this movement from some place like Brampton, ON, where my grandparents are from, to Tampa, FL, has only become a sustainable retirement plan since the early 2000s, when they started doing it.

For some reason, since I learned about this common occurrence of retirement in Florida during my younger years, and a believable explanation at the time could be a simple sentence, I will always associate Florida unquestionably as the standard of retirement paradise. It really didn’t cross my mind until I read things like Berkowitz’ A “New Deal” For Leisure-Mass Making Tourism during the Great Depression to consider that are infinite instances in my life that are in no way familiar to the lives that have preceded my own; and these traditions that I swallowed in my youth may need to be reevaluated.

In this frame of mind I have begun to consider our previous readings with a new train of thought. Perhaps this wave of pseudo social-justice type novels have been brought about not because Kromer or Steinbeck or Algren identified so heavily with the cause of the homeless but instead feel the need to reject this sense of needless consumerism that the 1930s travel habit had wrought upon the country. It is easy for me to look back on the positive effects of tourism of the 20th century and say that it was a necessary step towards the progressive state we live in today, but I have also grown up associating all aspects of life with travel and consumption as a second nature. It’s almost like a habit I never recognized had once been taught.

What if the fingers pointed by these writers so passionately towards the middle class that grew out of the consumerism of the 20th century technology were merely afraid of what they did not understand? When I think about it in the world of my own, I can’t help but reflect on the many discussions I’ve had with my father on the benefits of a selfie. He will go out of his way to elaborate to me any experience he has watching someone take a selfie (and everyone who has ever taken a selfie knows that when I say 1 selfie I really mean 10 or 23). Sure, we’re narcissists, he has a point that I cannot really refute. But my generation, while statistically self-absorbed, are also more communicative, more honest, more connected, and more confident in who we really are than people of my father’s generation ever had the chance to be. This article talks about how narcissism and self-esteem can come off with similar attributes, but concludes with a point that really only individuals know how they feel about themselves. I think self-reflexiveness in the digital age has amplified our abilities to know ourselves better than any generation ever before. I look at a selfie taker and say “way to go girl! appreciate yourself!” I will outlive my father mainly because I do not have a heart palpitation every time someone takes a selfie. So, people older than us, the Steinbeck and Kromer’s and Algren’s of my parent’s generation, they write about the dangers within the society my generation is slowly taking over because they simply can not understand what millennial kids are going through. How can they? They did not grow up with the traditions I did.

Anyways, this train of thought links back to my original statement because tonight’s readings opened my mind to a side of the Depression that the previous author’s only stood up against with a pen and paper to disapprove. I am not saying that what has been written in protest of the government’s handling of the Great Depression was wrong. I am so glad all of these authors have voiced what they needed to say. I just realized tonight maybe it was easier to demonize the unknowns of their world than to accept change or the fact that we won’t be able to understand everything that happens. 

An Optimist, An American

An Optimist, An American

I would consider myself an optimist. My confidence in Lem Pitkin finding his ‘cool million’ did not waver until perhaps the last ten pages of the e-book. Some might call that an admirable quality, but I think I just lack critical thinking skills from time to time. Nathan West’s A Cool Million seemed to excellently create a satire of the American dream. Because he wrote as a narrator with a continuously positive attitude about the potential outcome of every situation, Nathan West cleverly mimics the way we as America — The Greatest Country In The World — are always willing to overlook the bad parts of our nation and enthusiastically celebrate the good.

If I look at Lemuel as a manifestation of America’s irrational optimism, I get frustrated. When Lem makes it to the store on Fifth Ave that now contains his family’s home for generations, he revels in the easy money he makes while the wealthy store clerk prospers off Lem’s disadvantage. Lem’s inability to see the bigger picture — that this store owner exploited Lem’s intimacy with this house without taking responsibility for Lem’s loss — resembles the dilemma touched on by Steinbeck in Grapes of Wrath with the overemployed land-workers and the landowners. Both situations I think exemplify the way those with high power and an ability to do something for the greater good but are blindly taking advantage of those who cannot do anything to even help themselves.

Although Steinbeck and West brush on the same systematic problems of America at the time, I think West’s intent was to criticize the American people’s stupidity rather than the government’s apathy, as Steinbeck had. West’s repeatedly farcical embodiment of the American dream gone wrong only causes frustration with Lem for being an idiot. There were so many times that he could have taken action and stood up for himself had he not just believed that the American dream could save him. Frequently he follows Mr. Shagpoke Whipple from one dead end scheme to the next until finally Mr. Whipple makes a martyr out of him for a racist, backwards political movement that Lem did not even attempt to understand. I think in this sense Mr. Whipple represents our most idyllic side of ourselves. Even today, even me reading this book, as each chapter began I adopted the hope that Lem’s life will get better. I think this is life reflecting art as I had faith in the book much like Lem had faith in Mr. Whipple, even after every adventure of his ended with Lem losing a body part.

I would have liked to use the dismantling of Lem’s physical body as a dismantling of the American faith in ourselves. However, I don’t feel like that would be fair. Lem never slipped into despair. I don’t think his positivity of finding the AMerican dream, of getting his Cool Million, ever wavered. I don’t really think Mr. West wrote this book as a tribute to the American spirit whatsoever, but I kind of feel like it happened anyway. Even today I do not hesitate to write that America in many ways is the greatest country in the world and a model for all others (IN SOME WAYS). I don’t think this infinite faith in one’s country is exclusively American, but I do think it is one of our most powerful attributes that we still have today.

Blame it On The ---- Probably Us.

Blame it On The —- Probably Us.

In 1930, Charles Michelson coined the term ‘Hooverville’ in reference to the shantytowns made up of homeless migrants that developed under the Hoover administration. Mostly as a criticism of the Hoover administration, ‘the shanties’ of these communities were made up of stray bits of cardboard, wood, glass, scraps of whatever could be found. These pseudo-civilizations cleverly embody the situation of the times: people had to make these places themselves with scraps of trash not provided to themselves, and give Hoover credit for the masterpiece. In Grapes of Wrath, Steinbeck takes it a step further. One of the rising actions of the novel’s is the altercation between the police officers and the Joads in one of the Hoovervilles they stayed in. In the world of the novel, police brutality is unregulated and unpredictable. Steinbeck writes as if the police were vengeful to the Okies that made up the Hooverville population because they weren’t thrilled with the idea of these Okies thriving. This theme of repression and exploitation follows the Joads from place to place around California.

The system of exploitation does not merely exist to control the impoverished. The policemen had quotas to fill, the farmers had loans to pay off, and the banks had stats to maintain. When the farmer explained to Joad and Timothy why he had to cut pay five cents, there wasn’t really a person to blame. The five cents per hour disappeared from the page as the words went on. This question of who is to blame persists really from the beginning to end of this novel. For those living in the shanties, it was easy to blame Hoover. Casey finds over time that the police officers represent all that deserves resistance. In the end of the novel, Joad is now responsible for two murders — where does his blame go? And Rosasharn’s stillborn? Would Rose have been to blame had she refused to feed the starving man with her breast at the end of the novel? Although most of these dilemmas are resolved by either instigating selfishness or selflessness, in consideration of the depression, it was hard for me to draw a conclusion.

And what about the Joads’ getting the jobs that replaced the workers on strike? Were they wrong to take those jobs, even unknowingly? Either way I think, Tom’s ethics must be far more in tact than hunger was in his stomach. It seems like a timeless realization from novel to novel we’ve been reading that those who have nothing value the lives of others’ around them more than those who do not know suffering. When I think back to previous readings, it seems like those who we treat like nothing are understanding. They realize, perhaps, that maybe we are the ones who are not human.

Steinbeck’s writing forces a reflection of responsibility that humans have for one another. It makes me wonder how far we are meant to extend this responsibility. The essence of his book clearly suggests that we lack a sense of responsibility for anything more than ourselves, as time and time again the characters of the novel experience such fierce rejection of their suffering by passer-by-characters. No farmers can perceive them as human with need. “We don’t do no charity here,” says one of the government-funded work. She describes ‘charity’ from the Salvation Army forcing her to crawl for a meal and beating her husband.

I am not sure who I think the villain is in this book. When I think back to the 1930s I can’t imagine a single person living as content as I do now. However, I can imagine that much of the same sense of paranoia and fear circulated among the middle to upper class as is going around my facebook feed right now in concerns to the Syrian refugees. This has been a poignant novel to be reading this week as I imagine the suffering of the characters of Steinbeck encountering the same embarrassment and rejection thousands of Syrian immigrants are being objected to all across the world at this moment. It is kind of sad that we never learn.

Why So Blue? (I Definitely Meant Gray)

Why So Blue? (I Definitely Meant Gray)

Steinbeck pays immense attention to color in Grapes of Wrath. The introduction of the earth, which seems to embody its own character in the story, involves the use of colors like “red country” or “grey country” and another reference to “dark red country” that disappears under “a green cover” in times of prosperity but morphs into “a thin hard crust,” under the severity of the hot sun.

Steinbeck obviously uses these colors as symbolism to reflect the richness, or lack thereof, of the land as the novel begins. He elaborates to a time when the “pale clouds” were still around to protect the earth from the sun’s “flare.” He tells us, though, “the clouds appeared, went away, and in a while they did not try anymore.” (1.3) Then the grey country grew white and the red country grew pink. Because white and pink are arguably the lesser versions of their counterparts, I interpret this to elude to the decline of value of the land as the Dust Bowl of the mid-nineteenth century crept in and destroyed the farmlands of Oklahoma.

This writing technique subtly guides the reader to keep in mind the signs of poverty and it’s intricate link to the destruction of the land as Joad learns of the gravity of the situation of his family in parallel to the reader. Since he has been removed from the world for the past four years, he is just as out of touch with the rest of the world as we are out of touch to the severity of the Dust Bowl. While our character can’t ever get out of the dust, we can’t ever forget about it.

Steinbeck writes of the land, the people, the animals, the sky to be gray. This color encompasses a spectrum of specimen because it is not specific to one aspect of Joad’s life. He has a gray cat, gray clothes, he sees his father as a “graying man”, his mother was dressed in gray when he finally found her. Everything he loves seems coated in gray. This gray lens that captures the world puts a dismal, sombering attitude into the mind of the reader as we tentatively wait for Joad to move into the future. Even that future, when looked at on the perspective of the road, is covered in gray.

In particular the color grey covers the surface of this novel. It’s constant appearance from page to page replicates the infinite presence of the dust in the journey of Joad. The earth, the cat, his clothes, his essence is constantly coated in dust because no matter what he is unable to escape. I want to link the presence of the dust to the presence of the system that drove Joad’s family from their land. When the ‘tenant farmer’ wants to get angry and blame the tractor driver for his devastating circumstances the driver says, “It’s not me. There’s nothing I can do… You’re not killing the right guy,” (5.26). To me the whole system is spread out over so many numbers of men that they are all covered in gray. Is the tractor driver morally wrong for wanting to earn a living for his family? I think he and the rest of the world getting by are living in a morally gray area. Steinbeck coats the book in gray because the issues of this book don’t really exist in the realm of black and white. Even the main character is a murderer who garners our sympathies. Gray is a wonderful representative of the issues addressed in this book.

Locked Between The Stale Earth and The Sky

Locked Between The Stale Earth and The Sky

The two sub-chapters of the middle of James Agee’s works in Let Us Now Praise Famous Men were so grueling and unengaging I fell asleep. Twice. He made the reader pay extraneous attention to detail for about fifteen minutes reading about the work of the farmer in a fabulous display of art imitating life to highlight the gruesome monotony of work. In the middle of his exposé of Work 2: Cotton called Cultivation, he reminds the reading that even after all this meticulous work the farmer puts into cultivation, ultimately, “Everything is up to the sky, the dirt, and the cotton itself,” (165) so that no matter how hard these sharecroppers and their families work, they still have to chalk up their livelihood to fate. Kind of makes you wonder about the ideals that rest on pulling yourself up by your bootstraps — what happens if your bootstraps are tied to forces just out of your reach? You can metaphorically pull at them as hard and as long as humanly possible, and still have to wait six weeks to see if you’ll make it through the winter.

Agee doesn’t introduce the farmers in terms of their labor. People looked at the farmers and saw them as poor, so their identity did not rest on their hard labor but instead on their lack of results. Agee speaks of the three families, the Woods, the Grudgers, and the Ricketts, in terms of their farm-stock and average incomes and debts. This is a powerful method of representation of these farmers’ image, because the first thing the reader thinks of these people is how much they’re monetarily valued.

The first segment of Agee’s writing we read eradicates the notion that Agee is writing to pull at our hearts. He clearly hates that people make money off the hard times of the American people. By the third section of his writing, it is clear why he feels so despicable. The impression he has of Fred Ricketts. was that he was thinking,  “O lord god please for once, just for once, don’t let this man laugh at me up his sleeve, or do me any meanness or harm,” (361). Most writers of the depression are very self reflected and know who they are and what they are doing as they write. This self-reflexive narrative only bolsters their intelligence to a higher plane. They are on a high horse, like they are better than the rich because they have spent their summer vacation slumming it with the rest of the world. Agee instead uses this self-reflexive technique on that of the farmers. His characterization of Fred Ricketts is that he is very aware of how other people see him. He continues to emphasize how nobody knows but the family how the world of despair and hopelessness is. Although I would argue that Agee is implementing the same sense of self awareness that most writers of his time use, I think he is one of the only ones who effectively communicates how aware he is of all the things he cannot know, because he does not suffer as his subjects do. Going back and comparing the third section of his writing to the first, he obviously writes his piece with a humble lens — he is not worthy of attempting to translate the people’s real lives on their land into stories.

What's the story here?

What’s the story here?

The words of the photographer’s books reach into the history of the impoverished subjects and articulate the reasons of the spiral into the depression for many. They spoke on behalf of the farmers. Their pictures captured the essence of their present day strife and their words elaborated the back story.

It is interesting to me that the photography books are the only ones thus far that have considered an explanation for poverty as a method of spreading sympathies. By now I have realized that the motive of most of the books we have read is to humanizing the victims of the depression using alternate methods: interviews, living amongst the poor, vulgarity, sympathy, self-reflection, etc. Margaret Bourke-White and Dorothea Lange’s inclusion of the written word allowed them to use the histories of the downtrodden farmer. The juxtaposition of  a powerful image followed along by technical explanation of the poverty of the South, blacks, whatever they’re photographing, allows for one of their photographs to represent the pain and struggle for any number of demographics in our nation. I guess it is not that surprising that two of the greatest photographers of the times knew how to turn one picture into a thousand words.

The photographs in the books are usually accompanied by a short and succinct quote. Unlike most of the authors, these quotes offer an entryway into the minds of their subjects without any of the authors internal processing of the quote. I think this has been the most humanizing of ways to represent a person, since there is no ‘other side collaboration’ between the narrator and readers, struggling to determine the meaning of what’s been said. I like that with both the photographs and the quotes, they seem to exist only as a method of representation, like a catalyst per se, instead of a manipulation of thought one way or another. I am not naive, I do know that photographs and writers are always manipulated. There is no way around that. I just like how subtle they’re being about it.
I am glad that these pieces, but especially Rosskam, touched so thoroughly on the historical poverty of black workers in the depression. The thing is, and I’ve been thinking about this since our class started, I feel a big part of the reason why all these novelist so far have not focused on black poverty, is obviously because poverty can not be a novelty event for anybody of color back then living in America. We were cruel. We did not see them as people, nor did we treat them as such. There was still a high chance that many people alive during the great depression in the south had seen some parts of the civil war. While a quarter of the white population was suffering from unemployment, black people were struggling to live in a place they had been taken to as FREE LABOR from the foundations of settlement into this nation. It kind of undermines a lot of the struggle any white authors write about. BLack writers had plenty more to talk about, they still do, they just aren’t given the time or consideration. Another thing, the depression wasn’t even the hardest thing black people had to be going through! Sure, it was poverty… on top of hot and hateful racism! I’m glad that Lange and Bourke-White explained some of the technical reasons for black poverty, but honestly Rosskam took the message home with his words.

Who Would Want to be Boxcar Bertha?

Who Would Want to be Boxcar Bertha?

While reading Boxcar Bertha, an autobiography as told by Ben Reitman, I couldn’t help but think to myself, “Who in their right mind takes pride in their ability to hobo?” No matter my personal feelings,  pride within personal identity was the main theme of his novel that Reitman uses to propose a new angle for an American heroine of the early 20th century.

In the introduction of this girl named Bertha, she emphasizes her childhood ties to life on the road with a vagrant for a mother and nobody in particular for a father. Bertha chooses to admit that in the eyes of most people, her mother was not a good person. However, she basically spends the rest of the introduction countering that statement with anecdotes of her mother’s sacrifices for her children, or kindred relationships with fellow travelers on the road. She chooses to describe her childhood as ‘free,’ which suggests she has an appreciation for her family’s poverty that most of us would channel into anger or hatred towards our parents. In her five-year-old anecdote, Bertha says “Without any good reason that mother could ever remember…took us and a valise and drove into Bismarck. Before nightfall she had found a job…” While most people in this day and age would choose to dwell on the purposelessness of the upheaval of their lives, Bertha instead uses this opportunity to brag about her mom’s capabilities of finding labor within hours of arrival in a new place. In this way, Boxcar Bertha is a very upbeat, positive representation of hope and happiness that can be made during a life on the road.

This open acceptance of vagrancy follows Bertha well into her years of prosperity. After choosing to leave her daughter in what can only be interpreted as a commune, Bertha finds success in the city. She takes this success only to abandon its comforts and commodities in the pursuit of stories of homelessness on the road. On her final trip in the transcript, she follows the description of her state of being as “penniless and ragged,” with the thought, “I found a secret joy filling my heart as I faced again the freedom of the road.” Her elation to be returning to an environment that society has engrained such negative feelings for begs perhaps the most essential question that all of the novels we’ve read so far try to force us to confront. Why do we think being homeless is some sort of equation to being worthless? Boxcar Bertha is a perfect example of an extremely self-actualized human being who came from poverty and had no struggles returning time and time again.

Boxcar Bertha did not skirt around the tough stuff. This did not come off as a happy-go-lucky story. Instead, Reitman used a lot of the positivity he invented for his Bertha character and tied it into a lot of the gross realities of homelessness (like gangs, sacrifice, prostitution, crime). Meanwhile, he wrote this barely-fictional character to maintain a sense of value and self-respect that I think we have all grown accustomed to assume becomes lost on those who have nothing. Honestly, a story like Boxcar Bertha needs to be told every now and again to remind us that all we need to maintain our dignity is to believe we deserve it. So, in response to who would wanna be Boxcar Bertha? I think she would, and I think she was glad to be Bertha every day of her life.

I'm Not Sure How You Got Here, But I'm Glad

I’m Not Sure How You Got Here, But I’m Glad

At first, I was really mad at Kromer for writing as if he was one of the stiff’s. I was mad at him for tying a lot of extremely compelling stories that he had heard from different people and making it into one person’s saga. All of his stories  tugged at my heart and caused a lot of pretty unwanted introverted reflection over the person I am now and how I have become this way — what I’ve done wrong or terribly wrong or downright despicable in terms of the treatment of other people. And I was really mad at Kromer for making me feel this way because of a fictional character that he profited from at the expense of the bum’s he met along his epic crossroads journey that all the self respecting writers were taking those days — like a Rite Of (Privileged) Passage.

Reading the Afterword has just forced me to be even more introspective and angry at myself for excusing my own faults just because this character that Kromer writes about might not necessarily be based on his own truths (which it seems like it primarily is, anyways).

Upon further reflection, I think my response to Kromer’s compilation of short stories in Waiting for Nothing is perhaps an unexpected educational element of his work that allowed for me to experience the mixed feelings that comes along with dealing with homelessness. I am sure that a lot of people back then, like me, used petty excuses (i.e. this story isn’t real) to dehumanize the people sleeping on the streets at night. I feel a great sense of shame for having dismissed the struggles of the spliffs that Kromer so wisely articulates in his novel by instead getting angry at him for (I assumed) making all of this up. I made such a big deal about something that did not matter to be honest!

Just as, I feel, it was easier for people then (as it is now), to come up with a few lame excuses for how it is that someone ends up on the streets (drugs, alcohol, laziness), instead of focusing on the bigger issue at hand: there is someone sleeping on the street tonight, when I know perfectly well that I have both a bed here in New York, one back home with my mother, and another back home with my father. There are plenty of vacant hotel beds tonight, and I can make myself feel better about this fact because it’s only 54 degrees outside right now so at least the New York City homeless aren’t suffering THAT bad. But when December comes around even that small comfort will be gone and I will have to find another reason to justify why I don’t need to worry about the homelessness a block away from my dorms.

Kromer’s story has been the most powerful and most moving of the reading’s we have done so far because I know that all of this self-reflection was inspired by his own quiet analysis of humanity throughout the pages of his novel. The most powerful piece of the novel is Kromer’s implicit internal debate whether or not his life is worth it. I am sure that everyone has faced getting over this challenge of prescribing self-worth at some point in their lives. I guess what makes Kromer’s challenge different was that everyone else in the world had already decided he wasn’t worth a dime.

It's All in the Technique

It’s All in the Technique

In each of the readings focused on Women on the Road there surfaced a different kind of relationship between the writers and their subjects. All three writers seemingly chose to write about similar subjects with shared demographics, or at least arguably very interconnected life circumstances, however each chose alternate methods in which to tell their stories. For instance, while reading Lorena Hickok’s “One Third of A Nation” I couldn’t help but feel that she had translated a lot of the meaningful conversations she had held with different community members into statistical evidence of the depression’s widespread impact. Although in the end I feel that her work was able to resonate some of the more looming realities of the depression, I had hoped that she would be using more personal experiences to tug on my heart strings and make me feel pain. In the first few pages of her piece I admired her courage in admitting that before she had gotten out there, “They were not really people at all. They had no faces. They were the “unemployed,” and she elaborated on how this piece was meant to make them more than that. I ultimately feel that she did not succeed in writing the piece she had set out to do and once more turned the homeless and unemployed into something of a statistic. Still powerful, still an impactful read, but I felt like she had really built something up about the average-man’s perception of those who are down on their luck, but then did not really do anything to change it.

Although I criticize the technique of Hickok in relating the stories of her subjects, I’m not sure I really loved Adamic or Gilfillan did either. My problem with Gilfillan is that she seemed to be living as a bum by choice. The little I read from Gilfillan (for some reason the whole reading was not in tact) made it seem that at the end of the day she knew she would eventually get to go home to her mother and father and that she wasn’t really homeless. While some people may find this self-prescribed suffering as noble or for the good of the story, I think the subjects of the story were obviously very uncomfortable with this invasion of their world by an outsider who just wanted to try it out. Whether or not it was for a good cause, to me, is unimportant. At the end of the day I don’t think she was really writing on homelessness, because she wasn’t homeless.
Finally, we have Adamic and his travel companion from Cleveland to Harrisburg. I felt his technique in recanting another person’s life was the most successful of the three in fostering a relationship between the reader and the real people of the 1930s. Although any writer anywhere cannot write an objective story, Adamic still managed to leave a lot of the story up to this girl without really making anything exceptional occur. Instead, he let her life story, which sounded kind of like a lot of stories I’ve heard about the depression, take on a meaning of it’s own just by considering it an important enough story to be told. I like that he took an average bum “down but not out” girl and made her a compelling character. I look forward to reading more stories like his in the future.

The Many Faces of American People

The Many Faces of American People

Each of the four readings assigned for this week’s topic of ‘Writers on the Road’ touched on the writer’s personal experiences with discovering the multiplicity of the American identity. Sherwood Anderson first points out a blindness in those with wealth to the reality of the many facets of life as seen by writers on the road. From Anderson’s ‘Puzzled America’ I found myself reflecting on the possibility of those in houses, stationary and secure, to be metaphorical in his writing as also stationary and secure in their values without any desire to grow. They all stay in one place and accept the mindset of the American ideals that everyone seems to be promised as a young boy, but not everyone actually achieves. The houses they live in provide a sanction so much so that there ceases to be cause to venture out and learn, that is to say, they do not search for values elsewhere, simply believing they have fulfilled their own personal destiny by managing to achieve this preconceived image of the American dream. Anderson explicitly says of the men like this he wishes to call “Come on, let’s go look,” in reference to the realities of what the American dream has left to offer.

More so, Anderson’s writing contains a theme in which he discovers that the realities of the American people in the 1930s rely heavily on the perceptions they form from their environments. In his piece on South Dakota, from the outside looking in, those from Minnesota thought everyone from South Dakota was crazy. However the people of South Dakota simply accepted the realities of what their infertile, dry lands had to offer and deemed the rest of America too quick to judge them and knew that nobody from the outside could understand the values from within their great state. How can one reality be any more true than another? Although Anderson does write the South Dakotan people as a little crazy and naïve, he also manages to convey their concerns with their misrepresentation in the media because of misunderstanding of their way of life. I believe this translates to a much broader theme of American perceptions back then, closer related to the subject of his Intro, where the middle class man simply does not wish to understand the methods to the madness of the traveling hitchhiker or unemployed migrant. It was America’s refusal to grasp the reality that there exists MULTIPLE realities that causes the great writers of the time to be of such a value: since they tried as hard as they could to get the good and the bad in juxtaposition.

Although I enjoyed reading all of these pieces, James Rorty’s Where Life is Better seemed to be the most blatant criticism of those in power during his time who chose to ignore the realities of the poor. His writing seemed to describe that the new American way was to swallow the stories handed out to you and decide, much like Anderson pointed out, that to achieve the ideal American dream is to be okay. He criticizes the businessmen and the common man alike in not trying to find out the questions of life and simply accepting a very broad answer. He communicated his anger at the one-dimension of this American ideal quite clearly through his stories of obvious agitation with people he had encountered along the way. He seemed moreso than all the rest to be suggesting to his readers and those who don’t like their lots in life to stop accepting the hand that was dealt and instead rise up!! Take back what you think you deserve. It is a lot like Anderson pointed out — “There is work here for all men for a hundred years,” but I think Rorty wanted us (or his readers of the time) to get angry about it and do something.
In conclusion, for me these stories were the introduction to the multiplicity of the American identity that, perhaps started back then, but still remains now. I chose my cover picture (although I realize the literature is not synchronized to the times) as an illustration of the many lives people in America have been given to lead.