My main takeaway from this course is a view of the Great Depression that differs greatly from how I saw it just a couple of months ago. The way that I used to see it was greatly impacted from the stories that I had heard from my grandparents about them growing up during the Depression. Their families came to New York during this time to find work, and had to work at those jobs for very long hours, until they went back to their very small homes and lived in relatively confined spaces. So, I had always thought of the Great Depression basically as this time when people were poor so they had to go to the major cities, and while there was travel involved, I had not idea about the travel habit and the movement of farm workers.
While I had heard of the movement of the farm workers before, I never really understood much about it. The idea of travel during the Depression for leisure was something that I was not familiar with whatsoever. Initially while examining this concept, I feel that the Depression was a great time for members of the middle class to travel. They had never seen the country before and now had the chance to tour the United States and feel better connected with it and the people that they are a part of this larger community with. It was also a great time for writers to travel. There were so many stories to tell and just by traveling to all of these different places, these writers were able be a part of stories of their own. Looking at the works of these writers today is incredibly interesting because it shows American culture during this time and the struggles of its people as the result of this economic crisis. The images that often accompanied these works helped to better capture this feeling.
However, while this sort of thing makes these things seem appealing, this time also seemed to remove a sense of naturalness from America. Of course all of these people suffered during the 30s, but a lot of these well-liked things, such as traveling America, arose during this time. Something that bothers me about this is that the federal government was actually responsible for instilling this urge to travel in the American people and it is something that we still feel today. Along with this, there was a commodification of certain things that really just seem to be purely culture. This makes me wonder if many things that people in this country believe as being part of their American identities are really just things brought upon them from advertising and the government as a way to benefit some product. People during this time were obsessed with the American Dream, and a lot of Americans still believe in this idea today. Since this is something that is also often thought of as a myth, perhaps it was also put in the minds of many Americans in this same way. This makes a lot of American culture seem sort of fake, and it is something that came out of the Depression.
The American Guide Series was a series of books that were made during the Great Depression by the WPA. They contracted many different writers to put them together. These books focused on many different things, and there is one for each state. There were also some made for the major cities in the United States and even some identifying regions or routes that had something in common. Each of these guides is divided into three sections, one for history, another for cities, and a last section for tours. All of these are structured in their own way. These guides were meant to by the federal government to serve as a sort of advertisement for these places. The idea was that the members of the middle class, who had recently received leisure time and were not too greatly affected by the economic problems of the Great Depression, would read these and find a way to fill the time that they had been given off by their employers. These books, while advertising the different places to these people, would also serve to guide them through those places. By traveling there, these people would spend money and stimulate the local economy. It was also seen as beneficial to the travelers since they now could see America, the larger country that they did not understand to the fullest extent.
I chose to look through the American Guide Series book for Philadelphia, which is titled Philadelphia: A Guide to the Nation’s Birthplace. Since this is a very old city that they were advertising as the birthplace of the United States, history of the city is something that is greatly covered in the book. It also identifies the climate, places to shop, and even the different annual events, so that the tourists could come and enjoy these special occasions with the locals. This book is quite informative, however, I see some problems with it. For one, I found it to be really boring. While this might just be the result of me reading it in 2014 and not understanding the significance of this book in the hands of a traveler from the other side of the country, I still do not think it is entertaining to look at. I feel that if I was coming to Philadelphia in a car I would like to have a better organized book that is more visually appealing. However, maybe it was made like this so people could enjoy the real Philadelphia. I also thought it was strange that they said that Philadelphia is no different than any other city in Pennsylvania. Coming from a much smaller town in Pennsylvania, I know that this is not true. Philadelphia today is the fifth largest city in the country, and was likely larger than even more American cities in the 1930s.
I do feel that these things that I had problems with might have actually been done on purpose. The boringness of this book might have just been because there was not a great focus placed on traveling to major cities like Philadelphia during this time, since other cities likely had much worse economic problems. Also, the statement that Philadelphia is the same as all other towns in the state might have just been the way it was marketed to get other people to travel around the state. These people, who wanted to see the country, also wanted a genuine American experience, and this might have just been feeding this urge. So, this might show that the guides were somewhat inaccurate and might not provide accurate representations of these places during this time for us today.
In the beginning of Double-Crossing America, Roland Wild mentions that circumstances can make the time to travel perfect. During the Great Depression, different circumstances made it perfect for people to travel through the United States. In A “New Deal” For Leisure, Michael Berkowitz does a good job of highlighting the different circumstances that made this time ideal for the middle class to travel around the country. One thing that he greatly focuses on is the fact that paid vacations did not really exist prior to this time. Once these employees were given several week vacations, they needed something to do, and the government really tapped into that need by expanding the tourist industry. Something that Berkowitz lightly mentions but does not really go into is the use of automobiles. It could be possible that one of the reasons why people did not really go on vacations before this time is that they did not have widespread access to cars. This, combined with the newly acquired leisure time, explains why people wanted to go out on these journeys throughout the country.
Berkowitz also mentions that a lot of big companies, such as the steel companies, gave time off to their workers in an attempt to prevent them from having any kind of hatred for the management. Being raised in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, the site of the former Bethlehem Steel, I have seen a lot of evidence of how one of these rich American companies during this time could be easily hated by its blue collar employees. While it was not anywhere near its original status during my lifetime, there are still many vestiges of this company. All around there are many different massive houses that were owned by management. Also, near the steel plant, there are a lot of apartments that were built to house the plant workers, none of which can even begin to compare with the homes of the management. There is also a high-rise building, Martin Tower, standing in the middle of a city that has very little buildings over two storeys. It was a company that had so much money that nobody really knew what to do with it, and could have easily provided more perks to the employees. So, it is very easy to see how the workers, who are basically risking their lives every day, would dislike the people who stand above them in the hierarchy of the company. In this way, the eventual giving of vacation time to some wage workers and not just middle-class workers can be seen as preventing a Marxist revolution.
I also wonder about vacation times and the idea of the American Dream. If the point of the American Dream is to work hard so that you can have a great life and provide for your children to have a better life than you, then wouldn’t taking time off actually be preventing your progress toward that goal? One explanation would be that these people have already achieved the American Dream and by going on a vacation, they are actually living that dream. This could explain why many of the wage workers were often not given time off, since were seen as needing to work harder to attain that goal.
A Cool Million: The Dismantling of Lemuel Pitkin is a novel published by Nathanael West in 1934. I feel that knowing the background of this story makes it much more enjoyable, since it is a satire of Horatio Alger’s novels and the optimism that is evident in them. Horatio Alger, Jr was a writer during the Nineteenth Century who wrote many “rags-to-riches novels”, something that can easily be seen today as opposed by people during the Great Depression, since there was not much to be optimistic about. A Cool Million, in its overly satirical tone, with comical names for people and places, evokes many ideas from the novel Candide by Voltaire. Voltaire wrote his novel as a way to parody the optimism of Leibniz and Alexander Pope. Other elements are also similar to Candide, such as the main character, Lemuel Pitkin, who is essentially a 1930s version of the character Candide. Pitkin, like Candide, is always optimistic, even after a series of terrible events occur to him throughout his adventures. Another similarity to Candide is that of a love interest being constantly abused. In A Cool Million this is accomplished through the character of Betty Prail. A Cool Million is really just an adaptation of this story to match the then contemporary time of the Great Depression.
Something that I am noticing while reading these Great Depression novels is that the idea of the Depression really helps to provide the reader with a great story. It seems to be this world that is so vast, yet unknown. There is so much space for any kind of folklore to be present, and there are many people that readers might not even be remotely familiar with. It seems that these stories focused basically only on one topic were so important during this time, since they were needed either to show people in the country the detrimental effects of the Depression or to provide some kind of escape for the people whose lives were greatly affected.
Somewhat related to this is the concept of adapting older, sometimes classical, stories to be set in the 1930s. A Cool Million is such an interesting story because the story of Candide can be easily adapted to fit in with the times. It is successful because it is believable that all of these different adventures would occur during this time, and the things that are not believable are just exaggerations to emphasize certain problems with the world. This sort of thing reminds me of the Coen Brothers’ movie O Brother, Where Art Thou?, which is an adaptation of Homer’s The Odyssey, and came out in 2000. This also takes place in the Great Depression, and is an interesting film since it combines this classical travel story with this time period. This time is just so rich in culture and emotions so it becomes the perfect time period to tell a story, even if it does not seem that relevant today, even though it often does. I feel that if either one of these stories took place in 2014 they would not be as interesting.
Sister of the Road is an alleged autobiography of Boxcar Bertha and her adventures during the Great Depression. It is actually a fictional novel by Ben Reitman, based on many of his adventures during the Depression. In 1972, an adaptation of this film was released titled Boxcar Bertha, and was directed by acclaimed filmmaker Martin Scorsese. This was the second film he ever made, which might possibly help to explain why it is one of the worst movies I have ever seen.
This movie is basically unwatchable. I have no idea how I made it all the way through it. It starts off in a scene that is very confusing, in which Bertha’s father dies in a plane crash (I think). For some reason all of the other main characters are present here, even though it seems to take place sometime in the past, and they serve no purpose being there. After this, it jumps ahead to Bertha meeting back up with Big Bill Shelley, played by David Carradine. The character Bill is representative of the coming together of the poor during the Depression. He plays a union organizer of the farm workers, much like Casy in The Grapes of Wrath. Also, like Casy, he is constantly under persecution, being called a communist by the police and other people who are part of the larger institutions, who serve as the villains.
However, after about ten minutes, which contained some scenes that were pretty hard to follow, the film completely loses focus. Once Bill and Bertha meet when he is a union organizer, she is telling him about how she has done many things, and he literally replies, “Have you ever been with a man?” They then randomly enter into a graphic sex scene. This might serve to show how she is basically a free spirit of the time. Bill, early in the movie, is sent to jail and then broken out by Bertha. They together, with stereotypical northerner Rake, and Von, a black man who seems to constantly have racial slurs being thrown at him but does not really serve to show much of a black man’s experience during this time, start robbing banks and trains. They take this money not to benefit the unions and farmers, but for themselves. However, Bill does try early on to give the money they get to the union, but this concept fades away later in the movie.
Eventually on their robberies, they try to take down the railroad company by kidnapping the owner of the company. This does not work out and Rake is killed and Bill and Von are sent to prison. Bertha escapes and becomes a prostitute, leading to a strange scene that shows a montage of her with her customers. Eventually, Bill escapes, but is attacked by the people with guns who work for the railroad company (I don’t understand the presence of these people at all), who essentially crucify him to the side of the traincar. Von shows up and kills all of these villains, and the train leaves with Bill still attached to the side. This might represent that Bill is sort of the Messiah of the farmers and unions, but it might also just be a terrible movie.
Boxcar Bertha is awful. The concept of riding the rails is completely underplayed, and really only involves the main characters robbing trains. The only someone significant idea is that of Bill and the labor organizing, but this is sort of forgotten, mainly since this entire movie is hard to follow.
The idea of a Marxian revolution comes up several times in the second half of The Grapes of Wrath. This is a common theme in many other Great Depression travel novels and books, since many of them were written by authors who were very far left on the political spectrum, and believed that the economic crisis was the beginning of the revolution that would change the economic system. For John Steinbeck, however, it is somewhat unclear whether he is showing that there needs to be a revolution to put an end to the things that he is presenting in his novel, or if he is showing that the crisis needed to be solved fast to prevent a revolution, which would be the wrong course of action to solve the problem.
In Chapter 22, the boss of the ranch near the Weedpatch camp, Mr. Thomas, tells about how he is forced by the Farmers’ Association to pay his workers only twenty five cents an hour and nothing more. Even though he believes that his laborers should be earning more money, he had no choice but to pay them less, and is told that if he were to give them 30 cents an hour it would “only cause unrest”. In a way, this part of the book could have been written by Steinbeck to demonstrate how a revolution is necessary. However, it could also be showing that there is a need to reform the larger institutions that have a say in the wages of the poor. In this case, this institution is the Farmers’ Association, which is preventing a farmer from paying his employees what he wants to pay them.
This idea comes up again in Chapter 26, in which Tom meets up with the preacher Casy after not seeing him for some time. Casy, now out of prison, leads the migrant workers in organizing so that they can get better payment. He does this since many of them are starving or just making it by with their incredibly small wages. When together, they are found by the cops, and one of them kills Casy, whom Tom kills in return. The cops here serve to again demonstrate the point that the main problem is with the larger institutions in the country. Casy is just trying to prevent children from starving, but they accuse him of being a communist and kill him. They are just enforcers of the flawed organization that is responsible for the many of the migrant workers’ problems. After his death, Casy’s wisdom of how every soul is just a smaller piece of a greater soul is something that sticks with Tom, and could easily be interpreted as Marxist. However, it seems that when paired with Casy’s actions in trying to reform the problems of the migrant worker and not necessarily start a revolution, along with the other events in the novel, Steinbeck probably did not intend it in this way. He likely thought of it more as a reason to help others, and to show that the members of the upper and middle class were no different than the poor during this time.
An idea that comes up in John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath, while not being as prominent as other themes, is that of religion. In many other Great Depression novels, religion plays an important role, especially in relation to the people who are suffering from the economic turmoil of the time. For example, in Waiting for Nothing by Tom Kromer, which focuses on a homeless man during the Depression, religion is seen as something that only the naive succumb to, but the narrator knows better, since there is no hope in such a thing. In The Grapes of Wrath, however, religion is seen as something somewhat different. The main character, Tom Joad, does not really concern himself with religion at all, and it is not something that he greatly opposes or supports.
We are first introduced to the main religious figure in the novel in Chapter Four, when Tom is roaming of the road and finds Reverend Jim Casy, a preacher who he had known before in his childhood. In their initial interaction, Casy seems to support the idea that Tom was really never that into religion, since he was “always too busy pullin’ little girls’ pigtails”. Having Casy, a reverend, be the character who deals with religion also allows for a different presentation of the subject compared with other Depression novels, which always seem to have a cynical man who does not really know too much about Christianity and the Church talking about how there is no hope for religion.
Casy’s skepticism in religion is also not presented as if he has lost faith in God, but as if he has lost a certain energy that allowed him to give the Holy Spirit, or sperit as he says, to different people. He is also greatly disturbed by his sexual urges for women, which he believes that he is not supposed to have since he is a man of God. In this way, he is no different than everyone else in the Depression, since he has lost what he used to have before the economic crisis.
Despite the fact that Reverend Casy really has no more involvement with his faith and religion, when he is first introduced he is living out in the middle of nowhere by himself, much like many religious leaders have done in scripture and history. He seems to be removing himself from the material world so that he can reflect on his own enlightenment. Interestingly, having him out far away from everything else does not really make much of a difference, since nobody in this area of the country really has anything anymore.
Casy’s confusion around his faith seems to show the idea that the American Dream is the only higher or supreme concept during this time. He even goes with the Joad family on their journey out to California so that he can have a better life. However, being with the family does allow him to have some impact on them with some of his religious teachings. It is interesting that later on in the story Casy chooses to sacrifice himself to help Tom, something that does demonstrate his goodness, likely related to religion. However, once he is arrested, he is in the same position that Tom was in before, showing that even with his faith, he is in the same place as one without faith.
Let Us Now Praise Famous Men was meant to capture, through writing and images, the daily life and environment of the average white family of tenant farmers. It was written by James Agee and contains photos that were taken by Walker Evans. This differs from other Great Depression books with photos of people who were affected by the economic turmoil in that it is incredibly text-heavy, unlike the others, such as American Exodus and You Have Seen Their Faces. In these two books and others like them, there was very little text, and it was usually only next to photos in small captions.
This large amount of text written by Agee helps to make this book feel like a true travel novel. He also does this by including himself greatly in the narrative that is being told, which is something that was not really done in these similar books. While he is focusing on the families, he is still very much the main character of the story, and his reactions to the many things he sees and encounters are just as important to the main message of the book as are his objective observations on the people he is studying. This almost makes it easier for the reader during this time to identify and feel sympathy for the troubles of the people that Agee is writing about, since they can see someone already showing that sympathy.
However, by the way this is written, it can be very difficult to understand at times. Most of the book is written in incredibly lengthy, run-on sentences, in which one idea is presented after the other, with no breaks. Many of the paragraphs, which are very long, are only one sentence. Also, there are some sentences that go on for a whole page, and some even longer. This adds a certain artistic tone and voice by the narrator, but it can also be incredibly confusing to the reader, since some of the ideas that are presented in the same sentence are completely unrelated. It occasionally seems like he is just listing things. So, the writing can be both brilliant and confusing.
There is nothing that is too difficult to understand in the images, though. Evans’s pictures in this book are incredibly simple, yet right to the point. Unlike the sentences in the writing of Agee, the photos taken by Evans usually only focus on one specific thing, which is relatively close to the camera when photographed. Most of these include people of all ages, with some focusing on just objects, such as houses, fields, and boots. The objects are usually small and simple, occasionally damaged. The people are always wearing basic clothes, probably nothing similar to what the middle and upper class people would be wearing, and their faces are covered with dirt and sweat. These images show that these people are hard working, even though hard times have made them not too prosperous, so they are not as happy as they could or should be.
An American Exodus by Dorothea Lange and You Have Seen Their Faces by Erskine Caldwell present images of people during the Great Depression, along with descriptions of their stories. This focuses on the many people who would travel long distances to find work on different farms in the United States, many of whom would not even be able to get work, due to different types of machinery, such as the tractor, replacing them. Today we can look at these to understand the poor conditions of the people during this time. They also serve as a great representation of the past, allowing us to get a good grasp of culture during this time from what people in the photos were wearing and what they were doing. The way that these photos were taken also helps to understand the overall culture of the time, but this is more focused on the more-educated people who were taking these photos and would not have been greatly affected by the economic turmoil of the Great Depression.
The purpose of these books that had images of the poor was clearly to present to the members of the middle and upper class the effects of the Great Depression on America. The idea behind this is that these people, who might have been completely unaware about what was happening around the country, would read these stories and be compelled to help the less fortunate in solving this nationwide crisis.
However, I am not entirely sure that this intended purpose was exactly how these books were being read. First of all, people who acquired these books might have not even been reading the text. The images, which instantly catch the reader’s eye, are very interesting. One could just glance and these and admire the artistry, completely overlooking the people and objects being photographed. If these were not closely analyzed, it is likely that these people would not even be close to understanding their meaning. It is also just as possible that the people who only read the captions did not grasp the meaning of the images. The captions are generally just something that one of the people in the images had said, and could easily be misinterpreted. For example, in the image taken in Natchez, Mississippi in Caldwell, the caption reads “Just sitting in the sun watching the Mississippi go by”. While this is trying to make a statement about these people’s lives that is somewhat negative, a reader from the upper class in New York who did not experience any of the effects of the Depression might just see it as these people having a nice happy life that requires no help from anyone. The actual content of the text in Caldwell, however, does present a clear message in showing how the Depression has harmed the lives of many people in the South.
Something else that is presented in the stories around these images is that the people often blame themselves for their problems. This is something that also could have been misinterpreted by the people who were looking at these images. They would very likely agree with this belief. This very American ideology of blaming oneself for your problems in relation to not working hard enough was likely to be held by most people in the country.
Tom Kromer’s Waiting for Nothing tells the story of a man during the Great Depression who is living day to day, but still maintains his tough guy attitude and shows how it was to be homeless during that time. Sister of the Road, which is written by Ben Reitman and tells the story of Boxcar Bertha, is much different. Her story begins with her early life, before World War One, in which she presents many different things, some of which seem like sad events, in a very positive way, showing the richness to the many events that have occurred to and around her. One of the better stories is how her parents were not married, something that was greatly frowned upon at the time, and put them in jail for six months. In this way, her story really works to present the culture and politics of the time, even when it does not relate to the main time period of the book. She also seems to greatly enjoy the Great Depression. She writes about being a young girl and loving the trains and boxcars. It was something that was so enjoyable for her as a child, so it must have had a great impact on her throughout her life. The fact that she didn’t actually write this book makes me wonder about its validity. It could be just as possible that she was miserable this entire time and her story is just being presented differently. Also, it seems that a lot has happened in her life, but that might just also be why it is a good story, and not necessarily imply that certain things were added to enhance it.
Woody Guthrie’s Bound for Glory also demonstrates a sort of embrace of overall American culture during the time of the Great Depression that is not whatsoever negative. While he does identify pretty early on in the book that he is traveling west to look for more opportunities, it seems that he is really enjoying his traveling to the degree that it seems to be his main purpose. Many other writers during the Great Depression have written about how it is the people, not the places, that make a good story during this time. Guthrie devotes a lot of his work to the people and his interactions with them, establishing a very diverse array of characters, all of whom demonstrate a different aspect of American life. However, he also talks a lot about the landscape and the natural environment. These elaborate descriptions give the reader a great picture of what was going on around the author. Both the people and the places work together to really give a feel of the culture and how people traveled. This reminded me a lot of the beatnik travel writers after World War II, especially Jack Kerouac.