Agee’s main purpose in writing Let Us Now Praise Famous Men and the other volumes in his series (Three Tenant Families) was to create a comprehensive and immersive narrative of the human existence experienced by white cotton farmers in Alabama. This was incredibly marketable, it was previously unimaginable to most readers of the New York magazine from which he had received funding for the study in the first place. Apart from the narrative, what was unique about Agee’s piece was his exploration of the proper technique to critique and analyze communication and livelihoods and argue in defense of different statures of human life in this part of the country.
In his study, Agee acknowledged and addressed several concerns he encountered when formulating the most sensible way to approach the subjects. Firstly, he recognized a vast difference in perspective between himself (the author) and his subjects (tenant farmers) and pondered where his background would limit his understanding of the situation. The first hurdle was to fairly and comprehensively express his observations about the harsh realities of this civilization without demeaning their way of living. He curiously notes that, “…that the assignment of this work should have fallen to persons having so extremely different a form of respect for the subject, and responsibility toward it…” This self-awareness is a crucial aspect of the legitimacy of his work. His solution was to focus on the farming families’ relationships with food, clothing, and shelter (something considered universal human needs) — he focused on the how — how they went about acquiring it, how they valued it, how they defined standards for “good living” given the context of their situation, etc. He also voiced a concern about his ability to honestly capture, whatever that means, the life of white cotton farmers in his narrative. In his four-week immersion and writing period, he gave great consideration to how these farmers and their families viewed themselves, their community, and the realities of their situation. He considered how they might want to be portrayed to lofty New Yorkers as well, a people he knew the tenant farmers regarded with high disgust and ignorance. Did he truly owe it to these people, when they could not extend the same scholarly appreciation for another culture and way of life? This resulted in the emotional, restless, unsettling writing that barely conceals his contempt and anger for the patron-client system he blames for the overtly arduous lifestyle of tenant farmers.
The introduction to the text is important because it gives the reader a deeper understanding of why James Agee wrote this text the way he did– with an active resistance to producing a work that would be considered scientific, political, revolutionary. By no means did he want his work to be interpreted as religious, mystic, or artistic. However, the romantic quality and inexhaustible detail of his prose were the very things that inevitably qualified it as a work of literature. How ironic. Agee compassionately held a strong desire to dignify the living conditions of peasant farmers. His pain is evident in his writing: the entirety of the text seems almost like self-laceration as he examines and searches for meaning in the depressing living conditions of white tenant farmers. Agee attempts to counter the dehumanization of tenant farmers in the feudal-esque system by inspiring an appreciation for the dignity of their work and environment, valuing their lives, livelihoods, and perspectives.
Agee’s work is maybe one of the earliest pieces to recognize the spirit behind what we know today as the principles of participatory, human-centered, community-based social action. I can relate to his anger and his bitter resentment of the system. He dealt with his situation much better than the college-aged girl in coal-town Pennsylvania, that’s for sure.
“These people are not hand-picked failures. They are the human materials cruelly dislocated by the processes of human erosion. They have been scattered like the shavings from a clean-cutting plane, or like the dust of their farms, literally blown out.” – American Studies at the University of Virginia online
In the 1930s, times were a’changing, and no one knew what the future held. Industrialization started about a hundred years prior and had vastly changed the lifestyle, work, and even the ecology of America and its people. This rapid exhaustion of resources, the eradication of buffalo and other large beasts, the erosion of natural waterways and soil degradation from money-grubbing landowners that had either bought the land for pennies from conquered natives, inherited it from family, or were the banks lending money to these wealthy individuals to proliferate the business model. This unsustainable practice led to the American people to downsize and prioritize around incredible feats of inhumanity. Entire people and cultures were sloughed off like old skin “scattered like… dust” (p135), and Dorothea Lange wondered if these eroded humans even felt human, or just the dust they were being beaten into. The cotton picking had only gotten worse, making it difficult for these people to cling to life. Yet people, being people, clung to their humanity, “their clothes, abused, are neatly patched”. However, Dorothea is part of a community that distrusts the government that created the system that enslaved them and the Jim Crow laws that continued to oppress them, when she said “if you don’t have to go to the government man about what bread you eat, I like it better.” (p. 135).
During the great migration out west to California, much of the minority population ended up in life-threatening jobs with little pay, but working in the shipyards in California “beats the WPA”. (Lange and Taylor, p130). They had the resolve and strength to brave their destitute circumstances beyond their control. They yearned for economic independence as their freedom, as Lange explained to Taylor, “…if I could get me a piece of land, I’d go to diggin’ it with my hands’ we could work… we would.” Yet even when the harsh reality around them had a severe imbalance between available work and the demand for it, they still did not appreciate relief. There had been too many hands before them taking their piece of it before it finally got to them.
Was this cause of hopelessness? Is this stubborn stand against feeling so desperately helpless, to refuse to accept government relief, their last hope at still feeling like an empowered human being? As long as they work for their own food, they have no conceded defeat. This came up in previous literature, namely A Cool Million, where his infallible optimism in satire of the American Dream does reveal one thing. Our hero in that story never puts his head down. “Dignity”, is what writers for Exodus called it. A dignity that shines through brave photographs of dying men, when thriving in life is not possible. A dignity that drives man to help man, to brave the coldest nights, to retain resolve when the system continues to harass you, when the police make nuisance instead of conveniently dying in a hole. When all hope is lost, what else is there, when God has fled? Is dignity the next best fuel for survival?
In Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath, the Joad family is moving from Oklahoma to California. The fourteenth chapter marks an interesting transition between the death of Grandpa Joad and the start of Ma and Al’s story. It is a short, philosophical speech describing the great changes sweeping across America, and the great unnecessary panic it caused. Steinbeck is emphatic that mankind never takes more a half step back, which I largely disagree with. He argues, “this you may say of man – when theories change and crash, when schools, philosophies, when narrow dark alleys of thought, national, religious, economic, grow and disintegrate, man reaches, stumbles forward, painfully, mistakenly sometimes. Having stepped forward, he may slip back, but only half a step, never the full step back.” While civilization around them deteriorates, Steinbeck describes these incredible steps backward that these Oklahoman tenant farmer families face from pawnbrokers to used car salesman. It is apparent that Steinbeck, and most of white culture, never truly takes the time nor has the vehicle to analyze, criticize, mourn and take responsibility for the damage that they cause. Their “progress” was indeed several steps backward for humanity, it destroyed entire ecosystems and cultures without thought, and it spread plague, disease, violence and the same car salesman that are so inhuman in times of need. Steinbeck gets close when he describes, “the great owners… not knowing these things are results, not causes. The causes are a hunger in a stomach… hunger for joy and some security, muscles aching to work, minds aching to create…” on page 150, but he never finds fault with white man’s insatiable culture, a Protestant Christian society where greed became a virtue, for there is no better Christian than a sinner with a pocketful of coins.
The incredible proliferation of the church through the bible belt was built on these dollars. These landowners plowed their tenant farmers out of their land, their homes, with industrial tractors and left nothing but church houses and banks in its path. This vague concept of Mankind broke down when white men turned their backs on other white men. Funny enough, this is not the first time in history that the elites of a white society have conveniently sacrificed the needs and concerns of members of lower socioeconomic classes in the interest of maintaining their power, wealth and influence. However, white man has proven timelessly to follow a single book when times get tough, reverting to the same material for answers to the same problems that have surfaced time and time again. The hope, the manifest destiny, the promised land, all of these themes come out in every piece of literature. Do we realize that it was white man destroying white man this time, not the Pharaoh?
In his last major quote from the chapter, it ends with “For the quality of owning freezes you forever into “I”, and cuts you off forever from the “we”. The accumulation of wealth tends to isolate you. When you personally reap what you sow from the fields, the land YOU own, the land you care for, and you actually see your hard work bearing fruit, this direct contact gives meaning to your life. However, the farther you get from the process, the less you respect the work and the people who do it. You understand the whole process less and less. This is what allowed these landowners to thoughtlessly plow over their land and evicting their tenants. Instead of investing in the people that make your business grow, you grow to only care about the dollar sign attached to an asset’s value. This is the fundamental flaw of capitalism: asset value over human labor value. A machine, built by man to replace men, can still be viewed as less valuable than one man, if the right philosopher is asked.
Having been born well after the 1930’s I had often wondered how the idea of travel especially the idea of vacations became tied to the american way of life.
One thing the past readings have shown is that the idea of traveling as a form of relaxation was not present in writings from traveling authors who visited and wrote about the down and out in rural america.
However after, “decades worth of paid-vacation advocacy and aggressive tourism promotion had created a cultural climate in which Americans had come to view vacationing as more than a trivial diversion.”
The new found importance of vacationing could be seem as the ultimate social change of the New Deal. After sinking money into new roads and bridges along with the fleet of young artists making travel guides in order to sell the need to see other areas of the nation, the new deal was able to provide the means as well as the will to travel and vacation in the US which ultimately sets up a perpetual economic stimulus to rural america.
As travel is continually looked at as an american right, the goal of forced relevance on rural america and reliance on the wealth of travelers and passersby in order for their towns to turn a profit set up a new form of sharecropping.
Whereas as long as the town has a reason for people to visit and thus have a good crop of tourists, their off season wont be too rough but if they have a weak crop and are not able to bring about visitors then there off season will be rough and the amount of indebtedness from the rural towns of america will continue to grow until another collapse leaves them as down and out as it did in the 1930’s
I enjoyed Jason Spangler’s We’re on a road to nowhere: Steinbeck, Kerouac, and the Legacy of The Great Depression about as much as I’ve enjoyed any reading this semester. The reading was insightful and provided a lens into how two of the seminal American literary masterpieces, John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath and Jack Kerouac’s On the Road are actually much more alike than one would think upon reading both novels for the first time. The statement that first jumped out at me from the reading was
Kerouac remained throughout his life a “child of the 1930s.” His works are products of a philosophical imagining of America that include the anxiety born of a youth spent in the throes of socioeconomic decline (2)
I know that we are not supposed to personally relate to much in our blog posts, but this quote resonated with me on a personal level. No, contrary to what you would think, I was not born and raised in the 1930s. However, being a child of the 2000s, I was born into a philosophical imagining of America that included the anxiety born of a youth spent in the throes of sociopolitical decline and sociomoral decline. I distinctly remember the dismay that many folks New York felt upon the election of George W. Bush in 2000, and the memory of the attacks of 9/11 will be seared into my memory forever. In addition, while my early teenage years brought about the election of America’s first black president, Barack Obama, my early 20s brought about the election of Donald J Trump, America’s least qualified president ever.
Spangler then draws another throughline between the work of Kerouac and Steinbeck, when he states
Steinbeck and Kerouac are both interested in how nomadic existence disrupts the concept of family. This simultaneous embrace of modern aesthetics and antimodern themes is also evident in their treatment of the family unity. The Depression fractured countless families who were forced to break up in order to improve their chances for work, and therefore for survival itself
There is a strong neoliberal theme that has presented itself in many of our readings this semester, and Spangler ties this theme between the two books wonderfully in this passage. Nomadic existence, or the experience of the travelling working class, quite simply, disrupts the concept of family. The idea of home and rest, familiarity and routine, is thrown out of the window when you are in constant worry about where your next meal will come from, and how you will next get a job. It is a main tenant of neoliberalism, that basic conditions of humanity are abandoned in the pursuit of making money, as is highlighted by Spangler when he stated that the Depression (the catalyst of breaking people’s incomes) forced families into such dire situations that they had to break up to find work and make money; that the only thing that still tied them together as a family in theory, was the same thread of money that they all survived off of.
I’m actually grateful that I read William Solomon’s Politics and Rhetoric in the Novel in the 1930s a bit later on in the semseter as oppose to towards the beginning of the semester. After diving into the literature of 1930s this past month and a half, it is enlightening to read about how scholars with perspective objectively consider the literature of the 1930s. Solomon begins by stating that
No longer…are students of the novel dismissing the thirties as, from the point of view of the history of the genre, a period without interested, a time in which most American novelists other than Faulkner regressed, unable to pick up where their more modernist precursors left off 799
I was shocked to read this paragraph. I was totally unaware that there was a negative perception of the literature the 1930s produced. On the contrary, after reading John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath and Nathaniel West’s A Cool Million, I would say scholarly brilliance and humor alike were healthy and abundant during the 1930s, as oppose to the floundering economy. One could maybe even make the argument that such chaos and despair acted as a sort of fertile soil from which controversial and thought provoking literature could grow.
In Hugh Crawford’s On the Fritz: Tom Kromer’s Imaging of the Machine, he illuminates the plight of Kromer in Waiting for Nothing beautifully. Crawford states that
The narrator of this text is an outsider to the world of the socially secure, yet at the same time, as is repeated in nearly every episode, he is an outsider to the world of the other bums 106
This piece of writing from Crawford captures the tragedy of Kromer’s homelessness. To be dispossessed is already tragic. One could also argue, in a less relatable sense, that to be gifted as a writer, is also tragic. But to be dispossessed and not feel like you belong to the dispossessed, and to have a great talent that goes unexposed because of your economic situation, is a certain kind of tragedy unique in its hopelessness. I’m surprised and thankful that Kromer was able to make it through. Kromer lived the life of a bum, aptly described in a to the point manner in Waiting for Nothing, in a style of prose unlike anything else we have read this semester. Not even unpretentious, as this would imply the lack of pretentiousness. Rather, Waiting for Nothing is relatable, uncomplicated, and heartfelt. As Solomon states in Politics and Rhetoric in the Novel in the 1930s,
The most striking feature of Waiting is the apparent artlessness of its diction. The novel achieves this effect by rejecting the preterite, or narrative past, the literary convention Rolan Barthes identifies as “the cornerstone of Narration” and “part of the security system for Belles-Lettres.”
What makes Waiting for Nothing so powerful is the immediecy of the work. The artlessness of the work that Solomon describes induces the reader into a suspension of disbelief without the reader knowing it. You are not indentifying metaphors, or trying to figure out the traps the author has set for you before they happen. Rather, you are along for the ride, sentence by sentence, moment by moment. One is reminded of a current trend in film that values realism over production value (saving on budgets as well), films like American Honey, White Girl, and James White.
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In the article “The American Guide Series: Patriotism as Brand-Name Identification,” Andrew Gross addresses some of the inherent issues with the writing of the WPA guidebooks as they relate to tourism in America. In the article, Gross explains that the purpose of these guidebooks was to bring about consumer spending, which could potentially boost the economy during times of extreme hardship. The way in which these guidebooks did so, was through the commodification of towns and cities across the United States. According to Gross, these books “transform local culture into a tourist attraction, and the tourist attraction into a symbol of national loyalty.” The United States Tourism Board managed to essentially assign a monetized value to these towns and its inhabitants. While reading about it, it reminded me of the passage we read in Nathaniel West’s “A Cool Million,” about the different regionally themed rooms in the Chinese man’s brothel.
In the article, the author briefly touches upon this tension in the guidebooks between national identity and regional identity. The guidebooks had to make people interested in the United States as a whole, but also had to promote different cities and towns individually. This is a very hard thing to do because by advocating for a strong regional identity, through the lengthy descriptions of these towns, they are sort of erasing that national identity that would make people explore the United States to begin with. The writers of the guidebooks truly had a difficult task on their hands.
There is also another main tension I noticed with the writing of these guidebooks: between authenticity and the standardization of traveling accommodations that made travel possible, to begin with. In order to establish a way for people to travel across the US and visit other towns and cities, the travel industry established roads, gas stations, hotels, etc. Without all of these standardizations being brought to cities across the U.S., it is possible that many people may have never left the comfort of their own homes, not knowing what to expect as they traveled across the country. But in that process, the authenticity of each of these cities, with their quaint little homes, or mom and pop shops instead of McDonald’s is lost. The lines between each of the regions are blurred into a homogenized America.
The WPA guidebook I chose to explore was “New Jersey, a guide to its present and past.” Upon reading the guidebook, I was struck by two main realizations. First and foremost, the political views of the writers are more in-your-face than I thought they would be. I was aware of the origins of these WPA guidebooks, but I definitely did not expect them to be so politicized within the text. At every turn, the writers manage to insert commentary about political parties, and capitalism, even if at times it feels as though it does not fit. Second, some of the recommendations for the tours of NJ are things you can do everywhere else in the U.S. Some of the recommended attractions include drive-in movie theaters and golf courses. This brings me back to my original point about the homogenization of America due to standardization. Each of these cities does have some unique qualities, but some of those lines across cities are inherently blurred.
Steven Kurutz’s “The Depressing Food of the Depression, in ‘A Square Meal’ “ is a fascinating read, and one I had been looking forward to all semester. I don’t know if anyone else had this experience in the course, but whenever I visited our class website, travelstudies.org, the link to the Kurutz piece was always the first article that popped up at the top of the page, with the attached photo of in addition to the attached photo of the historians, Andrew Coe and Jane Ziegelman. When I clicked on the link, a thought ran through my mind: “Finally! I get to read this goshdarn article!”
The article begins with the following statement
In March 1933, shortly after ascending to the presidency, Franklin Delano Roosevelt sat down to lunch in the Oval Office. A gourmand, President Roosevelt had a taste for fancy Fifth Avenue foods like pâté de foie gras and Maryland terrapin soup. His menu that day was more humble: deviled eggs in tomato sauce, mashed potatoes and, for dessert, prune pudding.
Franklin Delano Roosevelt has always been my favorite president of the United States. On the verge of collapse under the pressures of facism and a bust economy, Roosevelt was able to push this country out of a depression and towards victory in the worst war this planet has ever seen. It is unsurprising, that he was happy to eat like the suffering man during this time. His presidency was one of leadership by communion, not leadership by worship, the style preferred by the incoming administration to the United States and the president elect.
Another interesting bit of the article occurs later on, when Zurst states
As never before or since, home economists — among them Louise Stanley, chief of the federal Bureau of Home Economics from 1923 to 1943 — drove the country’s eating habits. Publishing recipes and articles in newspapers and magazines, they encouraged women to become “budgeteers” and rise to the challenge of transforming glop like creamed spaghetti with carrots into tasty dishes.
It is wholly incomprehensible to me that economists would be the one to decide the dietary habits of citizens across the United States. And I simply mean incomprehensible by way of I have had a spoiled palate in that I eat what I want, when I want. There was a certain nutritional and budgetary constraint during this period in the United States that required everyone to sacrifice for one another. What this sacrifice also encompassed, was sacrificing aesthetic pleasures, the Epicurean joys in life, and making the choices that benefited the country the most. Today, we are all consumed with loyalty along party lines. I would only hope that something besides a war could unite us all, sooner rather than later.
I find myself quite interested in the notion of how the writing of such guidebooks might have not just provided the nation with directions on how to travel, but indeed given a nation so rife with strife a better notion of itself; and not only that, but provided individual states with a sense of what was great about their state, what made them special. However, at the same time, in making sure that each state feels their own greatness, it is clear that there is a certain amount of whitewashing going around in terms of the histories of the states.
I can find a foundation for such a claim, of course, in the article by Andrew S. Gross that we read, discussing in part the Arizona State Guide, which he accuses of both whitewashing Arizona history and stereotyping its people.
It is remarkable to read it through the lens of how the Guide itself apparently describes Arizona: “Land of extremes. Land of contrasts. Land of surprises. Land of contradictions.” Extremes, contrasts, contradictions; such terms describe to me not Arizona itself but rather the feel with which the Guide itself was written. We see references to deportations, strikes, labor disputes, Native Americans forced off their land—and at the same time shine a spotlight on the fact that the tourists, and indeed, the guidebooks that led them there, that Arizonans “had a state of unsurpassed charm and grandeur, a romantic history stretching back into the mists of antiquity, and extraordinary opportunities.”
The guidebook drew Arizonans to such conclusions about their state, as they began to see the beauties that a national organization had decided would draw people to travel there, that would bring revenue to Arizona but also across the country, as drivers would need to spend money on other things as well before they could arrive in beautiful Arizona. Fooled into whitewashing their own history, stunned by the “beauties and marvels that hordes of tourists were swarming…to see,” it seems they neglect to notice how simple and stereotyped a portrayal of the average Arizonan must inevitably be, for “assimilated population…does not make for interesting tourism,” “ignorant or prejudiced” as they are (note the irony of the ignorance and prejudice of the statement that Arizonans in general are ignorant and prejudiced—think of the ignorance and prejudice towards Arizonans that this must have given rise to—but if the tourism lined Arizonan pocketbooks, perhaps so much the better).
I found similar things to discuss in even the first few pages of a South Dakota guidebook on Archive.org, though the stereotypes said of the South Dakotans seem considerably more positive.
South Dakotans are seen as “tenacious people,” “adventuring homesteaders,” describing in detail the sweat they dripped on that land, the calloused hands that wore smooth store counters. South Dakotans, it says, make their own entertainment, depicting a happy, friendly people of strong build and stronger will, with a strong tendency to remain behind in South Dakota.
Native Americans (“Indians”) are addressed only peripherally, as something that might be “expected” by tourists, but it says that there are fewer today, because after the “white adventurers” came, they apparently chose instead to lead “peaceful and interesting lives, foreign to war-whoops and breechclouts. The wars that went on between these “adventurers” and the now-apparently-peaceful “Indians” are not mentioned at all.
But the State itself is described with great beauty—and it is clear how those from other states might come and tell such tales to Dakotans themselves, and of the peaceful Indians, and of the “legendary ‘wide open spaces’”, and make them feel proud that they had settled it, giving them not just a sense of local pride, but pride in their place in the nation as a whole.
It is interesting to consider the fact that interest in traveling the United States was strong enough to reach even Mr. Roland Wild from across the pond. Sure, he has an “American wife,” but she seems to hate being called such a thing—interesting behavior for someone who had lived there for the first six years of her life—so that can’t be much of a catalyst for having wanted to go.
Thus begins a slew of vague thoughts on “America,” of which the author seems to understand little but his preconceptions, focusing more on the experience of the travelling itself than any experience he might find from place to place. This despite the fact that he seems to have clear delineations of what is America and what is not, writing that if he only sees New York, he will not have seen America—that “Hollywood, and Chicago’s gangsters, had obscured the real America” (12). Though this is not a statement I would entirely disagree with, it does seem a fallacy to not just presume but sell a series of articles based on the idea/presumed fact that he would “visit America without being dazzled by New York and Hollywood” (12).
Moreover, Wild is making the mistake of differentiating those things from the “real” America. Admittedly, he does not seem to be pretending any great knowledge of the Unted States, stating that San Francisco is his goal for the trip—based on what? Based purely on the fact that he has “always liked the names of cities rather than their smells or what they are famous for” (14). This is not the account of a practiced sociologist, but rather a completely subjective reporter of what now seems to me nothing more than a puff piece.
But—that might be what travel in the US was at that point. At such a time of strife for the nation, the idea of leaving one’s home and getting in a vehicle only to travel for thousands of miles on end for fun reeks of parody—especially in some popular trailer called a “Covered Wagon,” for chrissake. Whoever branded a trailer line with the name “Covered Wagon” surely meant to impress upon the driver the idea that they were pioneering in their journey, venturing to God knows where in order to discover something. And yet, though Wild reports that the trailer is the butt of many a joke, I confess I find myself still inclined to romanticize the idea of traveling the country in a trailer. My grandfather put his wife, my mother and her two brothers in a car and drove them cross-country and back, and I grew up hearing stories about that trip, so it still draws me. At the same time, it seems that driving in a car and with a trailer are two very different things. Making the commitment to truly put oneself within a moving bedroom for months on end is quite a different story from renting even cheap, shoddy motel rooms along the way.
Would one allow you to see the country more clearly? Wild reports that more than expected relied on “personal comfort,” and that no matter how much they get used to the space of a trailer, they “did not see much of America, for [their] eyes were on the ground” (21). It is almost exhausting to think about such a trip, where one is hemmed in by such little space—it sounds nicer to have a parking lot to park in, and a motel room to sleep in, and then perhaps one would see more of the country—if they could step out of their vehicle once in a while and find some more personal comforts.
I wrote in my first post on Lemuel Pitkin that his optimism is meant to be parodied in West’s novel, but that I was not entirely convinced—that I still found it somewhat inspiring to witness such a character be so optimistic throughout such trials and tribulations.
However, it is worth noting that aspect of Nathanael West’s writing which intended to parody the rags-to-riches tale so notably propounded by Horatio Alger. This factoid is not just salient, it is the very context out of which this book means anything at all. Though one might find Pitkin’s optimism still somewhat encouraging, it cannot be denied that that optimism is admittedly linked to an unfortunate mindset fairly specific to the “American Dream,” that there is always a way to pull oneself up by one’s bootstraps.
But observe this part of the story, as told by Maria Almanza in “Dismantling the American Boy: Nathanael West’s A Cool Million”:
“West’s protagonist leaves his rural roots intending to pay off a debt owed on his mother’s home; however, what he finds in the big city is not his fortune, but a series of misfortunes. Lemuel appears to have all the defining characteristics of Alger’s country-bred hero: socially accepted values, honesty, a simple upbringing, and an undying belief in hard work. But unlike Alger’s self-made man, Lemuel is violated, commoditized, brutalized, and eventually totally dismantled by the powers that be.”
So Pitkin is an interesting character, as one who apparently has the finest qualities worldwide—good values, honesty—and who has other qualities specifically celebrated by the United States—a simple upbringing, a belief in hard work—and these are values that are certainly expounded by others in the book, such as Whipple, who tells Lem on p.74 that “The story of Rockefeller and Ford is the story of every great American and you should strive to make it your story. Like them you were born poor and on a farm. Like them, by honesty and industry, you can not fail to succeed.” And yet it is Lem, that honest, industrious young man, whose every attempt at pulling himself out of the rut of poverty seems to drag him deeper into debt, deformity, and general deconstruction of his life.
Yet perhaps, unfortunately, this is far more likely a tale than anything Alger ever wrote. Alger’s stories are more like the exception that proves the rule, though their ubiquitous popularity falsely makes such rags-to-riches success seem more possible than it probably is.
Essentially, West writes of perhaps a more true personification of the American Dream. Where Alger writes of the American Dream as a reality, West writes of it as it truly is: a dream. Poverty, we know today, is more difficult to escape than one would hope, particularly in such a developed country; and yet, it is the poor that we celebrate in our speeches and our statues and our stories across all kinds of media.
This propensity, too, is parodied in an extreme version of that romanticizing of the poor unfortunate at the end of the book, when Pitkin’s assassination turns him into a martyr for the cause of making “America” truly “American.” Americanness, it seems, is the right to go out into the world and be shot and tortured and maimed—this, Whipple refers to as “fair play and a chance to make his fortune by industry and probity without being laughed at or conspired against by sophisticated aliens” (95). Perhaps we can learn from this, that we should do our best to refrain from romanticizing the poor when the poor are only poor because trying to be otherwise loses them a body part or three or more.
It is clear when looking at the travel guides were used for the commodification of differences. Before the government initiative of the travel guides the difference in lifestyles was already present in modern literature and art, artists were already using the cultural hardships of others to get ahead.
But the travel guides went a step farther in, “it transforms local culture into a tourist attraction, and the tourist attraction into a symbol of national loyalty, in order to reproduce patriotism as a form of brandname identification.”
The difference being no one read Steinbeck and said “yes, lets go see that” the traveling authors were more legitimate narratives than the guidebooks. Whereas the guides focus was tourism driven in order to revamp crumbling economies. Instead of people traveling from New York to California for the sole reason of getting to where they were going the guides worked to interest those who had the luxury of traveling to take routes through these otherwise untraveled roads in order to see the landscape or meet people they have heard about in the guides.
The goal of, “the guaranteeing of a united, harmoniously diverse citizenry; the demarcation of a safe, knowable (and hence controllable) space within all the changes and threats of modernity; and the demonstration of cultural maturity on the international stage” worked only to further divide regionally those who encompassed the US. Showing exactly how far behind some of these areas were than others.
In the end one can assume the guidebooks did their job in forcing all regions to keep up with modernization.It is easier for change to happen locally if you are aware of the happenings nationally. No small town wants to be the one left behind and soon they began their climb to relevance rather than remaining how they were.
Coupled with American photographer Walker Evans, James Agee traveled the Alabama clay highways. In “Let us now praise famous men,” they illustrate the life of the Southern tenant sharecroppers during the Great Depression. The book was initially planned as an article for the Fortune magazine about poor white cotton farmers in the American South. But after months in the South, Agee wrote something that is less of a magazine column but became a work of art and one of the most influential Depression-era social documentary.
“Let us now praise famous men” is differentiated from most of the other reportages of the same period, and is considered by many a masterpiece, because of Agee’s long-winded prose-like beautiful texts. His narrative of the poor Depression-era families is lyrical. It is descriptive, but it’s hard to say that it reads like an entirely objective documentary. (The Guardian) We can sense Agee’s emotions, thoughts and perceptions infused into his exhaustive description of the world around him. It almost looks like Agee was experimenting a style that combines reportage and modern art (and maybe some biblical seriousness/purpose, discussed below). Considering that it was quite early in his career when he wrote the book, maybe he was experimenting a style. Either way, the incredibly detailed and vivid descriptions stand out: “she has first straightened her dress, her hair, her ribbon” “I ate a tomato sandwich as slowly as I possibly could and then another and drank three coca-colas fast and one slow and smoke three cigarettes.” They are so exhaustive that I could imagine living in those scenes by reading them. In a way, even though Walker’s photos don’t have captions, Agee’s prose-like sentences could be used as captions. For example, he wrote “Walker made a picture of this … there you all are, the mother as before a firing squad, the children standing like columns of an exquisite temple, their eyes straying, and behind …” (Agee, p368)
Moreover, the language is more than just being beautiful. Reading even just the first pages, I somehow think Agee’s poetic language almost resembles something biblical. (Magazine of the Endowment for the Humanities) He wrote a prose about God on the second page: “I will go unto the altar of God…”. Also, the overall writing style seems to create a strong sense of solidarity. For example, the repeated “you” “us” “we” throughout the entire piece; “not to fear us, not to hate us, that we are your friends” create a slight taste of solidarity or comradery. Perhaps the biblical theme is one dominant theme that Agee intended to carry us through, because according to the Magazine of National Endowment of the Humanities, the title “Let us now praise famous men” comes from a passage in the Apocrypha, an ancient group of texts excluded from the Bible.
Another point I noticed is the contrast in style of Agee’s texts and Walker’s photos. Unlike the poetic style Agee uses, Walker let his subjects pose themselves in a very formal way. The photos are so formal that they look too plain. Besides the differences in personal style, another reason, if I have to guess, might be that Walker paid his subjects — the poor families – enough respect, so he let them pose as if they are taking serious portraits that the rich people usually do. Regardless, it is reasonable to say that both Agee and Walker had good relationships with the families – from Agee’s diction, and from the rather defenseless faces in the phones. Furthermore, the fact that Agee and Walker never used the families’ real name and locations in their work to protect privacy reminds me of Dorothea Lange – quite in the contrary, however, Lange and her partner not only used real names but also added inflammatory details to their stories. It makes me wonder what is the scope of “documentary”? How far should the journalists go to convey their ideas and educate the readers? Are the people in the photos and articles merely “subjects” for a document or an artwork, or are they the other essential half of the collaboration?
Magazine of the Endowment for the Humanities Gillis, Anna Maria, Kevin Mahnken, Danny Heitman, and John R. Gillis. “Let Us Now Praise James Agee.” National Endowment for the Humanities. N.p., n.d. Web. 23 Dec. 2016.
The Guardian “Review: Let Us Now Praise Famous Men by James Agee and Walker Evans.” The Guardian. Guardian News and Media, 2001. Web. 23 Dec. 2016.
The American Guides Series was published during the Great Depression as a work detailing major landmarks and attractions of each state of the country at the time. The initial reaction to these works is that they were simply guides to the country that were meant to promote tourism. However, recent scholars have identified these guides as problematic from a cultural and economic standpoint. Specifically, that these guides promoted what we now have dubbed as consumer culture as well as a consumer identity. When people are a part of a consumer culture, they are no longer buying products on a need or usefulness basis. The products are bought (in this case, tourism) because they have an identity associated with them (in this case the states). The problem is that these guides were basically selling out states and their unique cultural identities so that people would spend money on them.
The Roosevelt administration printed these guides “in order to reproduce patriotism as a form of brand name identification (The American Guide Series: Patriotism as Brand-Name Identification,Gross 2).” However, this was not the earliest case of aggressive advertising in the United States. In the years leading up to World War One and the roaring twenties, there was a change in the way American businesses functioned. The idea of apprenticeship was slowly being replaced by the idea of wage labor. This was one of many factors that contributed to the development of capitalist practices that are around even today. During this time, advertisement also took a new approach when attempting to appeal to potential buyers. They seemed to appeal to the wants and desires of the American people, an example being the automobile guidebooks.
These automobile guides advertised the innovative nature of the car and how useful it would be to get around. The guides used colorful language and stories to promote their message that an automobile was not only convenient but perhaps necessary. Though these guides promoted the message of using cars, Gross also notes their importance in the standardization of multiple corporate elements that most people don’t even think about. Assembly line production and highway structure were “all designed to accelerate the production, distribution and consumption of commodities (The American Guide Series: Patriotism as Brand-Name Identification, Gross 2).” These sort of advertisements are dangerous because they make it seem as though demand it higher than it really might be. This leads to oversupply and that means an over saturated market, which is what led to the Great Depression in the first place.
Even food was not safe. Of course as tourism became more commercialized, food became a big aspect of travel. The unique nature of each state was not only in its attraction sites but also in its culture. Food is a big part of culture in any unique geographic area, such as a state. What I mean to say is that food acts as a very defining part of people’s lifestyles. For example, the way families on the go and or who were more impoverished, favored the use of loaves. Loaves were relatively cheap and easy to make and above all they were filling. It was easy to make a loaf out of practically anything, even peanuts as unappetizing as that sounds.
Thus, it does seem that the American Guides Series can be viewed critically as works that promoted consumer culture. There is also the notion that the guide is assumed to be for a white reader. In a sense it was made for white people but also served to white wash those who weren’t white by making them view the United States through a white lens. Race is treated in a strange way. While cultures like the“Yankees are constantly developing, the guide tends to focus very heavily on the traditional aspects of the Native Americans even though they are a group of peoples who are developing as well. There are also parts of the guides that do tend to be rather racial. In the case of Native Americans and Latinos, Gross notes that they are seen “as citizens and tourist attractions (The American Guide Series: Patriotism as Brand-Name Identification, Gross 5, ).” Apparently assimilated peoples are not very interesting for tourism because the guide then habitually will note racist qualities about these groups of peoples, supposedly to promote interest in seeing them.
Dorothea Lange was an American documentary photojournalist. Her photographs humanized the consequences of the Great Depression. Lange was unarguably well-off with the profession of taking portrait photos for the rich, but she later devoted her entire career to traveling around the country and recording the real poverty-stricken society by taking portraits for migrant workers.
I was incredibly impressed by the portraits and moved by the story behind. Lange’s captions are mostly simple. One example is her most renowned work Migrant Mother: “Destitute peapickers in California; a 32 year old mother of seven children. February 1936.” Nothing more, but just enough for us the readers/viewers to establish a connect with her. Now that we’ve seen her face, and we’ve known her name. In comparison to a lot of the other photographers and authors who add on their own description of the story, not to mention some of them were not even authentic stories that actually happen to the men in the photos, Lange’s captions were succinct enough to create even stronger empathic power. However, I still can’t help but feel many of the photos are posed. Not to say that my compassion for the migrant workers was weaken in any way because of this, but sometimes it really just jumped out of the picture and caught my attention. Many less known portraits seem more candid than the best known ones including Migrant Mother. Considering that in the world of art, it is universally acknowledged that the most powerful works, regardless of its realm or era, have clearly defined structures and a predetermined focuses. So the notion that Lange’s best work seem a little too rigid, posed, or too perfect to be natural seems nothing but surprising.
But then it comes to the question of whether such portrait works should be manipulated in any way. Quite frankly, I can’t think of any art work that is not manipulated. In paintings, music, certainly true, as they are created through pure origination and full “manipulation.” Even in photography that has no moving subject, cropping, or photo-shop involved, it is true as well because the photographer pinpoint a section of the object or the scene around and record it down, purely based on the message he or she wants to convey. For the Depression-era photos that were taken completely out of chance or luck with no posing, the photographers still deliberately picked the subjects and chose to let the viewers see it under that circumstance. How could you say it’s just another form of minor manipulation? Arts originate from life, and are higher than life. But some may argue that art is not propaganda because it doesn’t aim to implant an idea into the viewers’ head. However in my opinion, arts always do as well. It’s just they are more personal, less political, more diverse, less straightforward and often less effective than Propaganda. There is always something in every art work that the author wants us to believe in. But we simply sometimes can’t capture or comprehend it, or happen to relate to it in an unexpected way. With this in mind, I completely understand if Lange posed some of her photos. She was very clear about her purpose. After all the photos were for the FSA and conveying a message is the whole reason why Lange devoted her career into this. Given that a purpose is clearly recognized, viewers at that time should have already had the expectation before they observe the photos. Therefore, it is not even comparable to seeing an artwork.
Moreover, Lange is a good example of those who become more eager to devote to making the world a fairer place after they see more of the unfairness. I can’t help but wonder if I would do the same if I were her? Meanwhile, there are endless examples, especially in the world of finance, of people who gradually can’t afford to be more altruistic or idealist because they exhaust everything in their endless attempts to be bigger, stronger, and faster. Some may say Lange’s decision was more like a career transition. Plus, helping people makes one feel good as well. However, is there really true and absolute altruism in the world? If paying attention to the needed and helping others can’t make us feel good in any way, what’s the chance that there will be any philanthropy remaining at all? The roses in her hand; the flavor in mine.
‘The US Government’ and ‘The Arts’ seem like two entirely different and unrelated entities. The government seems too bureaucratic to be a patron of the arts. While the art world seems too experimental to try and align itself with a structured government. I understand the thought process of some of the people that Andrew Gross discusses in The American Guide Series: Patriotism as Brand-Name Identification. Gross writes that “even those generally supportive of relief projects were skeptical of the government’s ability to act as patron of the arts.”
However, after reading the piece by Gross, especially focusing on the criticisms by Christine Bold, and looking at some of these guides I can see that Federal Project Number One was quite successful despite the seemingly warring natures of art and national government. As Gross writes about Bold’s argument, he says “culture not only reflects but produces politics, paying particular attention to how specific rhetorical strategies transform the landscape.” I believe this was successful in the guide books. The books aren’t wiped clean of politics and government bias, and they also in some cases can marginalize smaller towns, but in general the books are about all the beautiful things one can see in the country.
I read a guide called Here’s New England: A Guide to Vacationland. The guide is inviting, it’s brief and only focuses on a few things, but generally reads like one of the 36 hours column in the New York Times. The photos in the guide were exceptionally representative of the wilderness which made me think about what these guides were trying to depict. In some cases, I would think that the authors would focus on one or two aspects per city and its surroundings, then move on to the next since this is supposed to be a guide for drivers. While this does seem to be the case for some of the areas, in other situations, more attention is drawn to single attractions. My favorite section of the book, for example, is entitled “The White Mountains: A Coil of Shining Peaks” starting on page 75. In the article, the authors focus on mountains in New Hampshire and the summit of Mt. Washington. This is not a short section as some of the others where only two sentences are given per town. In this section, great care is taken to describe the multiple ways up the mountain, and the description of the view from the top. My favorite lines “once there it’s up to you know long you’ll stay… some stay a week and a few have remained all summer” add wonder to the trip I could be taking.
Overall I believe the guides were informative yet slightly marginalizing of some smaller towns, especially those out of the way of more major roads. I believe the guides were effective in their purpose to give unemployed artists work, and also encourage the middle classes to drive out and see these places for themselves.
Though the great Depression was noted for the movement of the unemployed and the adventure seekers across America, there is often little said about the tourists that also traveled the country. Generally, pictures of the Depression are not ones of leisure or enjoyment but meant to show the plight of the unfortunate. Thus, it may come as a surprise for some that there was an active tourism business that erupted in the 1930s. The reasons behind this sudden bloom came from two specific elements; the more commonly widespread practice of the paid vacation as well as the more aggressive wave of advertisement for tourism.
The idea for paid vacation time actually came around during 1800s because “railroad companies and resorts wanted to encourage recreational travel (A “New Deal” for Leisure, Berkowitz 187)”. However, it would be a decade after the first world war that paid vacations were finally granted to the majority of salary workers. Conceptually, the idea of paid vacation was foreign to most workers during the Depression era. It may sound cliche but America was a different country back then. The foundations of apprenticeship and business practices that had been established were changing dramatically as the corporate scene bloomed. The simple ideas and foundations such as owning the land you worked, do not apply in corporate America.
During this time, the idea of a good work ethic was so strong in the American mind that it created a generation of hard working people. Yet ironically, this wasn’t making enough money for the government. Strangely enough, these people who were so hard working and willing to use their time to do good hard work did not provide enough profit, probably because they didn’t spend their money on enough leisure products and events. Of course, how could they? They were working all the time. So the government decided to establish a new norm, one that was not only profitable for the administration but also beneficial to workers, giving them some time off.
This is where the concept feels the most interesting. The idea that vacation time and tourism needed to be inserted into the minds of people and the company, is strange. It is strange because now such a thing is a norm. Most workers, both part time or full time have paid vacation leave. It is interesting to see how an administration had to slowly work the idea into companies and then slowly the companies had to slowly change the way workers saw vacation time. As stated above, most workers were probably baffled when they first heard of the idea of vacation time, especially since most of them associated no work as being unemployed. However, it does get more believable when the economics behind the scenes are considered. The promotion of tourism and the shift toward a consumer culture is ultimately a capitalist sort of practice.
Before the year 1930, most Americans could not afford to or take the time to have vacations. This was especially true for the twenty percent of the population that was jobless. The idea of having leisure time was truly a relation to wealth. However, what is interesting to note is that Americans also embraced the idea of vacation time very quickly after it’s announcement. In spite of the impressive work ethic described above, Americans were influenced greatly by the advertisements put out by the corporations and the government. As a result of “decades worth of intensive travel promotion (A “New Deal” for Leisure, Berkowitz 193)” the working class was excited to participate in this part of life in America that was normally reserved for the middle class and higher. Vacation time became so important to the working class that Berkowitz notes a time in 1940 where dissatisfied railroad workers whom were denied vacation time; “the membership of fourteen brotherhoods voted to strike if their demands were not met (A “New Deal” for Leisure, Berkowitz 193).” Such impassioned responses were ignited from the desire to travel and see the country.
Before I started reading, I counted that in the past four years I’ve spent in the U.S, I’ve traveled to 16 cities, and had two road trips that allowed me to see somewhere else other than the city downtowns along the way in west coast and east coast. Besides New York and San Francisco, I stayed in each city for about seven days on average. As I lived in San Francisco for half a year, I consider myself a tourist that rather knows a lot more about the city than an average tourist – certainly an outsider who has many memories, but still limited understanding of the city’s history nor much emotional attachments to it. Quite surprisingly, I resonate so well with the California section of the book that I could totally see why the author says that the WPA guides was born out of being observed by an outsider. The guide’s depiction of the palm trees and the 405 look so vivid and so familiar to me. I’m almost certain that any native born Californian would have the same feeling as me. It’s objectivity is partly owing to its writing techniques. “The Guide is careful to avoid a rhetorical device characteristic of both Utopian writing and more conventional travel narratives: hyperbole.” But perhaps more importantly, it’s because of the target audience. If I was an American living in the 40s, I would be someone that these guides were directed toward and made for. The writers made it pretty clear that the guides are mainly directed toward middle class people on the road for their annual vacation.
Reading the guides, I can easily sense the dramatic differences in each state’s style. Each state has strong characteristics and an outstanding brand. Besides writers’ own writing techniques, preferences and insights, this is also because the WPA wants them to be differentiated. When it comes to branding, we often connect it with a product, instead of a culture. Thus, Gross criticizes that the guides transform culture into touristy attractions, for the sake of marketing its tourism products. However, I doubt that the guides were purposefully seeking to do that. It’s just the purpose and writing techniques are so clearly defined and limited.
Moreover, I actually think essence of tourism is to exposed oneself to a different culture as much as possible within the limitations of time and other resources. But really, till what point and to what extent can one say that he/she is no longer a tourist here for the tourism because he/she has established enough knowledge, understanding and spiritual connections with the place? There is simply no clear dividing line. Every few blocks in Manhattan tell a different story; every profession, every family, every attitude tells a different story. I think, the day when someone stops considering himself an outsider, maybe after 3 months or maybe 3 years, he is no longer a tourist.
Furthermore, the guides did a particularly effective job in creating patriotism. On one hand, it features the best nature and infrastructure of the country, and at the same time captures the best talents and most interesting American people. It simply is a very straightforward and efficient way to directly display to the American readers the greatness around them and at the places they haven’t seen. On the other hand, the fact they either helps create or strengthens the brand names of each state and aims to improve the entire economy with more tourists bringing in capital and increase transactions. The country is built upon transactions, and in this way the patriotism is fully exercised.
Double-crossing America is a storybook written by Roland Wild; he uses an English writer in the first voice to describe the challenges faced by a group of people as they venture outside America. However, Double-crossing America derives its epic scope from how the antagonist in the story and other characters such as Bill and Susan manages to overcome challenges as they travel in the trailer. Roland Wild uses proverbs and sayings from the article to explain different aspects for example; ‘you want circumstances to make a decision for you.’
Somehow I resonate with this line way more than what I would imagine myself to be. I am a big fan of variations of the concept of path dependency. In economics, path dependency means that the world right now does not progress steadily toward some predetermined and unique equilibrium, but rather that the nature of any equilibrium achieved depends partly on the process of getting there. On the broadest level, the idea essentially denotes that the environment you are in right now guides you to the future. I only wish life’s trade-offs could be displayed in a path-dependent quantitative model –preferably a simple parabola. Yet, path dependency also shows that a journey’s end is not fixed; it keeps changing based on new variables and one’s behavior in the present. This certainly leaves me unlimited room for change, and I am more than okay about my life ideals constantly changing.
Double-Crossing America has several themes as you read along. One of them is the unpredictability along the way. There are always unexpected obstacles regardless of if you are optimistic or not. Across the story, the characters face many challenges from climatic problems to congestion in the trailer, among many others. But their determination is what keeps them focused and finally overcome the challenges. Reading the story, I could not help but ask myself what ups and downs I will be facing? Stern’s education and a large portion of the financial industry place much emphasis on the results, or say, the eventual “return”. But really, the market force and luck play an equally controlling role in the results as my intelligence and endeavor. I am mentally prepared for and would allow much room for change down on the path, but this certainly does not mean pessimism or irresolution. It simply means that I aim to conceive optimistically, to plan pessimistically, and to execute confidently, and then see where I would be standing firm at 30.
However what Ronald Wild seems to teach us in the end is that, regardless of all the daily challenges we may face, there are always things in life to appreciate such as the beautiful world we are in. Just like Wild said, “gradually trivial matters, which had overshadowed our lives completely, became of less importance.” In today’s world, too many people gradually can’t afford to be more altruistic, optimistic, idealistic or just happy because they exhaust everything in their endless attempts to be bigger, stronger, and faster. For some reason I was reminded of Chekhov’s short story Gooseberries. When I read it when I was much younger I never appreciated the characters simply because they are so materialistic, which is essentially the major point that the the author wants to make. However, now I am just relieved to see the cousin Nicholai Ivanich is, regardless of his pursuits of life, so ridiculously satisfied at the end of his days.
I was born and raised in New York City. I love learning about the city’s history, so when I saw that there was an old travel guide about the five boroughs I jumped at the chance to read it. I was immediately surprised at how large the travel guide was. At over 800 pages, it was more of a dictionary of New York than anything else. I was really surprised at the inclusion of the outer boroughs in the guide, which is one of the reasons it was so long. Today there is the unspoken sentiment that only Manhattan and the parts of Brooklyn and Queens that are on or close to the East River constitute “New York City.” This is stupid. All five boroughs are New York (even Staten Island!) and I absolutely detest anyone who thinks otherwise. But, that’s the common thought, and it’s readily apparent in the general psyche of America. Travel guides today that focus on New York don’t have much on The Bronx or Staten Island or even Queens, if they have anything about those boroughs at all. Maybe the mention of a museum, a few restaurants, and a snarky quip about how the whole borough is only for the locals. I really appreciate how much effort went into the WPA guide to incorporate and show off the whole of the city. I absolutely think the guide is white washed. It doesn’t go into much detail about the hard economic conditions that abounded in New York at the time, and there are few mentions of the class and racial ghettos that were starting to form. Even still, they really tried to show New York in it’s entirety. Perhaps that was because people weren’t as jaded with the city as they are now, or they were trying their damnedest to commodify the whole of the city, but it’s still nice to see.
A few things I thought were interesting from the sections on each of the boroughs: Manhattan’s section starts off with the image of steam-liners coming down the Hudson. Steam liners! Carrying, “coffee from Brazil, rubber from Sumatra, bananas from Costa Rica” (pg 49). That is not how a piece on Manhattan would start today. Instead of the industry of the city, today a writer would focus on the — what? The consumerism? The people? I have an unfortunate suspicion they would start somewhere around Times Square… Ugh. Brooklyn’s section kept mentioning that it was a “home borough” (pg 432) to the people who worked in Manhattan, which honestly hasn’t changed much, but also that “Brooklyn as a manufacturing center ranks 5th in the country” (pg 432), which is obviously no longer the case. Again and again the WPA guide stressed the manufacturing power of New York City. Brooklyn still holds on to some of it’s factory past, but not nearly as much as it used to. I can’t say that I feel this is a good thing. From The Bronx’s section, I love that The Bronx was still called “the” back then. That’s a tradition that continues to go strong.
What surprised me though was the fact that The Bronx was called “the borough of universities” (pg 515). There are still a few universities in the Bronx, but no where near the amount needed to call it “the borough of universities.” Honestly, the only one I can think of off the top of my head that’s still up there is Fordham. The Queens section didn’t teach me really anything new, except that Nassau County out in Long Island was originally a collection of towns that voted against absorption into New York City when the boroughs were consolidated. To think, Queens could have been twice as long, stretching half the way onto Long Island! Finally the Staten Island section made me laugh. “It is the borough least known to New Yorkers, who vaguely think of it as the terminus of an inexpensive and popular ferry ride” (pg 597). Ain’t that the truth? The ferry ride is less popular nowadays, and even more inexpensive (it’s free), but Staten Island is still the forgotten child of New York. It’s nice to see that even in the city that’s constantly changing some things always stay the same.
When I saw that James Agee wrote “American Roadside”, I thought this piece would be similar to his “Let Us Praise Famous Men,” but I was pleasantly surprised to see that this piece was much different. It is a journalistic piece that was written for Fortune magazine (as was “Let Us Praise Famous Men” but I think the difference is that this was actually publishable). In this article, he discusses the impacts of the new highway and roadside industries in American culture. He also seems to be marketing roadside cabins at one point in his article, in which it takes more of a business function.
Agee does not take on the role of a removed narrator in this piece, but he also manages to incorporate his own opinions and sarcasm as he did in his other work we read. He also uses the same forceful technique of addressing the reader as “you.” However, this article has the clarity that his other work lacked. I think Agee’s point is that the creation of these roads and highways are transforming American popular culture. Roads uproot towns, create new ones, create new businesses (motels, diners, gas stations, etc), and connect people from all over the country. He even describes how the roadside itself becomes its own new kind of town. He describes this industry as “founded upon a solid rock: the restlessness of the American people.”
Both Agee’s article and Berkowitz’s articles focused on another aspect of the Great Depression that we had not previously discussed in class, nor one I ever considered. Up until this point, we have been reading very depressing accounts of the starvation and homelessness experienced during this time and one forgets that another part of the American population was doing just fine, so much so that they were able to go on vacations and participate in tourism. It seems strange that we get the creation of tourist industry during a period of economic depression, yet “the crisis of depression was ultimately responsible for completing the transformation of tourism into a mass phenomenon” (Agee).
It was also strange to switch from reading about the struggles of union workers and then start reading about their right now to paid vacation. However, it is interesting to note that the motivation behind businesses to grant their workers paid vacation was not out of kindness but motivated by the thought that this would allow the workers to relax a little and return to work refreshed and even more productive.
The American Guide Series: Patriotism as Brand-Name Identification by Andrew S. Gross depicts tour guides as something that homogenizes a state and suggests that the world is knowable and therefore controllable. He takes tour guides to this realm of discourse that has them as something that is a detriment to our society because they provide safety for the visitor through making it generic and devoid of the character a state truly holds. This seems like a completely dramatic and absurdly extreme view of the tour guide – perhaps people just want to know the best places to go for a short visit.
It is not to say that he is not right about the analysis of the tour guide and how it does suggest that the world is knowable or that a place can be homogenized. But to suggest that the idea of the tour guide is creating tourism and therefore the monetization of culture is an extreme claim. He even goes as far as to say that patriotism is affected by this. I would argue that the tour guide can bring people to an area for tourism but it did not create the concept of tourism. In addition, the idea that tourism created the monetization of local culture is not founded in reality either.
The monetization of culture and the nature of consumerism leading a person to believe that they can consume a location by visiting and touring is not something that was created by the American WPA tour guides. Capitalism gives the incentive to make everything a consumer product, marketable to everyone. The tour guide is just the advertisement for that product. Not to say that there aren’t issues with homogenizing the areas and all that but it is no different from the argument against any advertisement and in general the nature of capitalism.
I think that the WPA tour guides were a benefit for America because it gives people a reason to travel to their own country and explore the areas further. It’s important to understand your own country and through touring it there is the ability to see more of it – hopefully gaining a further grasp on it. This opens up the borders between states and allows for a national integration that can only further the comprehensiveness of the U.S.
If this is an argument against the nature of capitalism and advertising that is something that has merit but I do not think it can be placed entirely on the tour guide. The monetization of culture happens internationally because of the novelty and value of other cultures, and consumerism is inherent in capitalism as it fuels the entire system. This is a larger issue of our world since the industrial revolution but it cannot be narrowed to one symptom rather than the cause.
The WPA guide books were not only helpful in inspiring people to go out and see other parts of their own country but they also provided jobs to many artists under the New Deal. This was extremely helpful during the Great Depression because it was a classic period of economic trouble that can often stagnate the artistic development of the period. If there is no job for the artists then the art will often not get made and this allowed for the 1930s to have its own artistic period. There seems to be a desperate need to criticize it from Gross but I think there are a lot of benefits to it.
In Andrew Gross’s critique of the WPA American guide book, he points to a conflict of interest that many of my classmates have already pointed out. Namely, in producing a guide book about travel in a particular region, it is impossible to convey all of the detail of an area without making the narrative extremely disinteresting. So in order to maintain the functionality of a guidebook, one must distill the facts of the area until there is an convincing case to visit said reason, while still conveying the essence of the area. This creates, as the author descripted, “a tension between standardization and local difference” which is “heart of the guidebook as a genre.” He continues that, “This same tension manifests itself in the American Guide series as the conflict between Federal bureaucracy and local interests.”
While I agree that it is extremely difficult to capture the essence of an area, I’d argue that this is what creates the necessity of a guidebook, at least during this time. Some cities are tourist spots and will always attract visitors simply from their reputation. No one needs a guide book to decide they are going to seek Buckingham Palace in London or the Eiffel Tower in Paris. What we do need guidebook for, however, is to unlock non-traditional tourist destinations. Ironically, these are the destinations will probably have more local influence and therefore may face the “tension of standardization” the most.
It’s somewhat interesting to consider how technology is gnawing away at this tension. Now we have sites like trip advisor that can guide tourists to more “touristy” or more locally oriented trips. AirBNB’s marketing has been focused on giving you the experience of living in a city and not just visiting it. Finally, cameras are becoming ever more ubiquitous with people not only taking pictures along the way, but also sharing videos live. All of these things have helped us to experience tourist destinations, at least in part, from a distance.
But for writers in the 1930s conveying the essence of a city without modern technology must have indeed been a challenging task. I found this exert from the WPA guides describing the Washington Square Park Area. “Washington Square, near the center of the Village, is dominated by an arch erected in 192 in memory of Washington’s inauguration. Washington Square College of New York University is on the East. The old red brick houses on the North were once the homes of the Nation’s social leaders. Today along the three-shaded walks of the Square stroll residents of the vicinity – the well-do-do of Fifth Avenue, member of the poor Italian section to the southwest, university students, and visitors far and wide.” While things have certainly changed since the 1930s, there are elements of this description that remain true. And while the author may have left out details like the music in the park in the spring and the halal carts on the south part of the park, all these years later, the “tension between standardization and local difference,” don’t feel so great.
Image Source: Amazon
James Agee joined forces with Walker Evans to create the famous novel, “Let Us Now Praise Famous Men.” At first it was supposed to be a short article on poor farmers in the south, yet it developed in the full fledged body of work. The two travelled along the highways for two months yet were unable to find a home that represented the ideal place their editor was looking for. They ended up living with three other tenant families, and documenting their experiences to rejection by their publishers. A few years later they published it just before the economy got back on its feet, and the book became a classic American Novel on the struggles of society.
While it does describe and convey these people’s struggles, it isn’t a classical report. Through penetrating detail Agee states what he went through at these impoverished homes, never sparing a single gruesome detail. He holds the most deprived moments up to a light and expands on why they’re such a horrible condition. He has a pronounced hate for the destruction of kid’s creativity and characters by the lack of schooling that they get. In this era farmers needed as much help as they could, as sometimes kept their kids from going to school just for an extra laborer. Agee was frustrated by this, as he should be, because the farmers are inadvertently setting their children lives on the same track as them. Since the kids don’t go to school, the only jobs they’ll ever be qualified are farmers.
Eventually Agee even scorns the magazines he writes for because of their claimed ‘social consciousness’ yet they don’t even do much to help out on the causes they educate others on. This anger with the way the current system worked is what spurred him to create the project. Sometimes he comes off vain, considering no matter how engaged you are with the book, you won’t be able to help the people as much as you’d like to, yet it still inspired a lot of change. Agee resents the fact that he can’t communicate as clearly with words as he’d expect, yet resolves this issue by speaking through his camera. Evan’s photography highlights, and even beautifies the struggling children and harsh conditions of poverty.
Personally, I find that the WPA Guides served as a nice idea to kill two birds with one stone, if you will. One, they put writers to work and 2. They served as a push to get people to travel, for if you had the guide to New Orleans then why not travel New Orleans? I’m a bit mystified, though, because I don’t exactly understand how these writers went about documenting the states they were assigned. I mean, how do you put literary people in charge of directions, in charge of writing the cut-and-dry sentences that tell people exactly what they need to know to get around a city.
Then again, I think that writers are exactly the kind of people who should be writing travel guides. They can make the words jump off the page and transform into 3-dimensional buildings, landmarks, and other attractions that encourage travelers. This talent of writers made the guides better, in my opinion, and worthy of being known as literature. The tour part of the guides, for example, especially showcase this special writing. In Andrew Gross’ “The American Guide Series: Patriotism as Brand-Name Identification,” he states that:
The tour form is the most practical part of the Guides, since it was designed to direct drivers through the landscape, from attraction to attraction, without the help of maps. The editors were explicit about what they saw as the tour’s literary and historical significance.
The director of the project even states, “’The tour form is a difficult form; it is like a sonnet; but, if you can learn it, you can be more interesting in the description of a tour than in any novel’” (Gross). Though skeptical at first, I am positive that this assertion is true after reading the WPA guide to the city of New Orleans,
The buildings on Levee, Chartres, and Royal Streets were constructed of brick, faced with lime or stucco, and had roofs of tile and slate. Those in the rear were made of cypress with shingle roofs, and were so combustible than an ordinance had to be passed forbidding the further erection of timber buildings. As a precaution against flooding during rainstorms the houses were set on pillars, leaving a kind of cellar on the surface of the ground. flights of stairs, vestiges of which remain to this day in the Vieux Carre, encroached upon the banquette, a sidewalk four or five feet wide, constructed of bricks with a retaining wall of cypress planks. (17)
Just reading these few sentences makes me feel as if I have been transported into the city in a novel that takes there. What beautiful, rich lines. Reading these lines make me wonder if Gross’ assertion that “the Guide consistently privileges the perspective of the outsider, suggesting…that it is the tourist (not the inhabitant) who recognizes the true value of the state” is true. Are those who live in the places the guides are written about able to recognize the value in their homes? The beauty that lurks behind every sidewalk? Or is this ability reserved for the tourist who, in reading these guides and traveling to these places, can view cities in America as not just another city but as something completely magical and special? These guides make cities living books and allow us to step into their words and experience the places for ourselves: “The itinerary is a narrative” (Gross).
In the introduction to his article titled “The American Guide Series: Patriotism as Brand-Name Identification,” Andrew S. Gross writes that race does factor into the American Guide Series’ mobilization of the “idioms and strategies of corporate advertising to combat a crisis created by corporate capitalism” (2), but as background information. Race is, he says, “included in the scenery as an object of regional difference, but excluded from the tour perspective, which is politically progressive but determinately ‘Yankee,’ as the Guides put it” (ibid.). In other words, race comes up primarily as tangential information but is not brought up directly in the tours offered in the guidebooks. “Yankee” discourse refers to the way in which the U.S. believed racial difference was to be overlooked in order to focus on an “American” identity, a discourse that crystallizes during World War II. Indeed, many of these guidebooks were published on the eve of the Second World War. While Gross’s analysis is accurate, the Series’ guide to North Carolina, North Carolina: A Guide to the Old North State (1939), reveals how racial difference, particularly black identity, sometimes did come up in tours as an attraction to consider, which shows how Yankee discourse was not hegemonic at all times.
In “Tour 2,” for instance, readers of the guide are told about Princeville, “one of the country’s few incorporated villages politically dominated by Negroes” (310). In this way, then, Princeville is signaled as a site of interest for its “all-Negro run administration including a volunteer fire company” (ibid.). The village is brought up as being notable because black people run it, something not presumed to be a common sight for the tourist. In another tour, “Tour 4,” a backstory is given to explain U.S. Route 117’s nickname. The guide states how two black men, Dave Morisy and David Hicks, were convicted and hanged for plotting to drive slaves to kill all the white people in several towns in the area. After their hanging, “[t]heir heads were cut off and placed on poles at highway intersections […] Dave’s head was placed on Wilmington Road (now US 117), which became known as Negro Head Road” (331). This disturbing origin story is recounted to readers as if such a violent tale were worth knowing, an “interesting” local historical detail. I cite these two moments only to show how the guidebook spectacularizes black identity in order to sell certain parts of North Carolina to tourists.
Throughout the guide, black identity emerges as a point of tension (even if it not portrayed in this light) in North Carolina, be it during slavery or post-Civil War. While I cannot treat every instance where black identity comes up in this guidebook, I find it noteworthy that, in most of the tours offered, racial difference is not put on the back burner, hidden from readers to make North Carolina seem hyper-progressive. Instead, the state’s racist history and segregated social institutions are branded as sources of fascination for the tourist. Princeville is a sign of black resistance to Jim Crow segregation, founded as a space for black people to live and run their own lives without being led by white politicians. This resistance is elided in the guidebook, which relies on the ignorance of the tourist to recast the village as a spectacle, exoticizing it in order to sell it to them as a point of interest. U.S. Route 117’s backstory explicitly represents racial violence without problematizing it. The story is told to readers as if it were a fun fact to pass on to others during a trip. Essentially, what I am trying to suggest is that in some cases, minorities were capitalized upon, turned into commodities for tourists to consume. In the guidebook to North Carolina, racial tension and violence is presented to readers, not as background information, but as a sellable aspect of any trip to the state. It becomes a main feature of touring the state.
In Ronald Wild’s Double Crossing America, the author leaves his home in the United Kingdom to explore America in a trailer. And just as the Russians that visited the US in our previous reading in search of “Real America,” Wild declared that he would “Ignore Hollywood” and some of the other major cities because “every book and newspaper article [he] had read about America seemed to presume that most Americans are film-stars, gangsters, or ruined Stock-Exchange gambles on their way downwards past the thirty-second floor.”
I find this idea that true essence of a country is somehow distinguished from the characteristics of its major cities fascinating. For example, I’ve traveled to Paris so I would therefore conclude that I’ve visited France. Wild, however, draws a distinction. After his first day traveling in New York, he worried that he wouldn’t be able to see the whole country and would “then be a traveler who had been to New York – but not to America.”
I find it particularly interesting when people outside the United States want to see the whole country. I grew up in suburban New Jersey along the shore, and aside from visiting family in India and my semester abroad, I’ve rarely left the land of the pork roll egg and cheese. Going to college in Manhattan wasn’t exactly a voyage either. And while I’m sure there are great places to visit in the United States, I find it curious that someone would want to see “Kentucky, Tennessee, Kansas City, Santa Fe, and the Painted Desert” before they saw the Coliseum, the Great Pyramids, or the Great Wall of China.
When I studied abroad in Shanghai, people constantly asked me where I from. Ni cong nali lai de? At first I would try to explain where New Jersey was in relation to New York in my remedial Chinese, but later I learned it best to just settle with Niu Yue (New York). To them New Jersey was New York, just like Paris was France to me. Interestingly, on my way home I had a layover in Japan and when I went explore I stopped a woman for directions. Much to my surprise, she walked me to my intended destination. Along the way she asked me where I was from, to which I responded New York (in English this time). Then she asked, “SoHo or Midtown?” I was taken off guard by the specificity of the question. I told her closer to SoHo, much to here excitement. That’s where the Gossip Girls are from (apparently). To her SoHo was New York, which in turn was her image of the United States.
It is somewhat of a tradition in Stern that after you graduate and before you start you 2-year investment banking analyst program, complete with 100-hour work weeks, that you “see the world.” Most people travel to Asia, but others chose to visit Europe or South America or something more mainstream like Cancun.
Last year a group of my friends that were graduating rented a car and went to see the “Real United States.” They drove to Chicago and through the Grand Canyon to the West Coast. All of the travelers were originally from outside the United States, and must like Wild wanted to experience life outside of major cities, if only for a few days. Maybe I’m jaded since I was born in the suburbs and I can’t imagine anything better than the New York, but I know I’ll never be searching for “Real America.”
Image Source: National Geographic
The photo text book, “You Have Seen Their Faces,’ by Caldwell and Bourke-White, points towards a major issue in photojournalism, authenticity. The portraits themselves are completely authentic. but the captions the photographers chose to place under them are completely incorrect. They place an insane bias and twist the actual words of the people shot to a completely different meaning. This reminded me of a similar photo-book, one also made to fund the livelihood of people in a serious struggle. A few decades ago a photographer went out to Africa, to document the struggles of the villagers and potentially raise money to put them in a better place. What they ended up doing was taking a random mother and a random child, both of whom were unrelated, and shot them under the context that they were mother and child. While the photo was entirely fabricated, it went on display in the book, and helped raise a ton of money for the people to live off of.
It broke every sense of moral code that photographers believe in, yet fully helped out the cause that it intended on saving. This poses the question, is it worth lying about the true struggle of a place in order to help it grow? You Have Seen Their Faces seems to imply that this is the reality of the poor, their true faces and struggles. That once we’ve read the supposed ‘authentic’ quote from them and seen one photo of their life, we know what they go through on a day to day basis. While its better than no description of their struggle, it still fails to pose the actual reality that the people go through. It instead gives us a sample of their culture. In a way, it objectifies them as inhuman figures, poverty cases that we may just be able to salvage. However, this photo-book still benefitted their well being, regardless of how dehumanizing it was.
It seems that at such a dire time, with death tolls increasing every day and poverty rampant, it doesn’t matter how funds are raised to save a people, all that matters are the funds that are raised to save a people. As long as mouths are fed and homes are built, the way it was raised is irrelevant. People put aside their morals for the greater good. The real question that should be asked is whether the greater good is valid or not. The photographers definitely made an immensely large sum off of their popular photo-book. Some of it obviously went to the broke people they photographed, but another part of the sum was likely just pocketed by them. It’s safe to assume that the duo was in it for their own benefit, as most people operated during this era. Self interest in the only interest in this age. The people must follow their inherently selfish motivations in order to survive another year. What’s shocking is that most don’t show regret in doing so. Everyone’s so motivation to pursue their own well being that they unknowingly benefit others in the marketplace. What ends up happening is the nation gets back on its feet due to people working hard for themselves.
The beauty of ‘Grapes of Wrath’ is that the family joined together to persevere through the difficult times. In traveling away from their native farm, they all risked their own lives. The entire family quickly realized they would have to put their individual motives aside for the greater good of the people. Each member has their own personality and driving motivation in the novel.
Tom Joad begins the story with his own practical form of self interest. After four years in prison, he become a man who devotes his energy and time to the present moment only. He doesn’t concern his mind with the distant future, since it appears illusory and out of reach. Tom lives with this philosophy not because he’s selfish, but as a means of coping with the harsh reality of the world. He believes if he places his life in a context greater than the present day, he will go insane with anger and helplessness. Unknown to him, Tom is destined for more than just day-to-day survival. His rare strength, thoughtfulness and moral certainty enable him to succeed far more than any other traveler would. One of the most piercing moments in the book lies in when Tom sheds his incessant carpe diem philosophy for a steady commitment to bettering his future. (Spark Notes, The Grapes of Wrath) Tom learns a lot from Jim Casy, a former preacher. He is taught that a human being, acting alone, can only have a little effect on the world. One can only achieve wholeness through devoting oneself to the benefit of other human beings. This results in Tom slowly being converted to these teachings by example as he and his family embark on this journey towards prosperity.
Ma Joad emerges as the center of strength for the family, as Pa Joad gradually becomes less and less powerful as a leader and provider. Regardless of how horrible the circumstances become, Ma Joad steps to every obstacle without shifting. Throughout the novel she proves again and again that she has an immense capacity to keep herself together and keep the family together through great turmoil. She embodies this idea especially when the family crosses the California desert. Ma is aware that Granma is dead, yet rides silently along her corpse so the family can complete the journey. This ability enables her to lead the Joads when Pa falters and hesitates. (Wikipedia, Grapes of Wrath) She proves to embody the teachings of Jim Casy in advocating the family to join together to succeed in the face of turmoil.
Pa Joad is a thoughtful, careful man. He organizes the family’s trip to California with deep consideration and attention to detail. Unfortunately, the hardships of the Joads prove to be too difficult for him, as he struggles to maintain his role at head of the family. He often finds himself confused and unable to keep it together when the family falls apart. However, until the end of the book he does show a commitment to protecting his family. His perseverance in setting up a dam is a testament to this ideal of love and unity in purpose.
While each member has their own internal motivation, they can all be guided by the central idea of unity and keeping the family tight during difficult times. That’s the only way they would get out of this trouble unscathed.
The popularity of travel guides intersects with a variety of themes on the role of art and government, the complexities of cultural exchange, and the role of the average American in the development of regional identity. However, one of the most interesting aspects of these travel guides is the author’s preferred method in addressing regional culture and stereotypes through their writing, and how these stereotypes functioned in the broader context of inviting tourism to any specific region. It is also interesting to note what these stereotypes say about the role of the author themselves as either loyal to the people they are depicting or the industry they are working for.
As Andrew Gross’s article “The American Guide Series: Patriotism as Brand-Name Identification” points out, reducing cultural practices and people to stereotypes often served to make the region more appealing because “stereotypes are much more picturesque than the complex realities of cultural negotiation and exchange” and thus the guides can often make use of this by utilizing “stereotypes for the sake of establishing local color” (Gross 5). While it is true that utilizing these pre-conceived ideas would allow travelers to see the region as different and interesting and thus would motivate them to spend their time and money visiting the region, there is also an interesting tension that develops through the use of these stereotypes.
In many of the guidebooks, it is clear that the author enjoys the region they are visiting. In the one I read about Princeton, the author states that the people are helpful and it is the kind of town where everyone knows everyone else, even remarking on the fact that the people call the mayor by his first name. However, the town is often described as rural and uneducated, and the author makes comments like “it’s the kind of town where the word Mister is seldom used” and takes liberties like titling the section on education “of larnin’” throughout the guidebook (Princeton). This seems to conflict with the characterization of the people as kind and helpful, since comments like these are often alienating or belittling. It shows that in the effort of the authors to create more travel and revenue for the towns and people they were writing about, they would often reduce the towns to stereotypes or more easily digestible tidbits of information.
Due to the nature of these guidebooks as intersections of art and advertisement, and the role of the government in their creation, there is often a variety of different purposes in the book itself. While some authors may have preferred to dedicate more time to fully learning about the people and places they were visiting and to talk about them with more depth, the reality is that these guidebooks served the purpose of creating an industry of travel in these areas, and thus the authors had to balance this purpose with their own. While the guidebooks are incredibly influential in creating a national and regional identity, this identity often becomes dependent on the cultural stereotypes used in these guidebooks. It leads to an interesting question about how much American identity itself is dependent on the stereotypes perpetuated by travel industries and advertisements, considering the impact these books had.