With this class (and the class period) being my last in my undergraduate career, I find it very necessary and relevant to reflect over not just this past semester, but also how what I’ve learned in class applies to my everyday life. In all of my posts, I’ve noticed that I have been able to engage my coursework with greater concepts that affect the world we live in. This semester, generally my coursework has pushed me to become more politicized. In thinking about and engaging with Depression-era literature, I believe this class was able to provide me a platform to think through the discursive spaces I have been exploring in many of my classes and have the freedom to comment on whatever aspect of the readings caught my attention or connected to other ideas I have been toying with in my head.
I remember at the beginning of the class, the following question was posed: What is the meaning of America? By examining American literature in a pivotal moment in American history, I can’t say I have been able to grasp a good definition. However, I have been able to engage with the familiar “American” ideals that claim to make this nation what it is and really unpack those imaginings.
I was actually surprised by the topics I chose to persistently pursue, which include capitalism, politics, and social inequities. If I had taken this course a semester or two back, I don’t think I would have been able to write the kind of posts I did and be able to find the connections I have. That, along with being able to read all these interesting texts I otherwise would never have read, really allowed me to explore and challenge myself to apply the concepts I have learned in different places to critically examine the complexities of social relations during the Depression. Having never read The Grapes of Wrath in high school, I would most likely have never read about this time period in American history and especially with a travel studies lens.
The WPA American Guide Series was a telling look into the historical, cultural history of the narration of the American way of life. Legitimized by the written text and cemented into the minds of the American bourgeoise in picturesque landscapes of the America’s national treasures (think Yosemite National Park), the WPA American Guide Series is much like the brochures of the Disney World theme map: here is the Americana small towns, there the urban, futuristic New York City, and in the West the wild countryside where cattle roam with cowboys. Instead of using the guides as a space to reflect the locale, the distributed pamphlets made American places into spectacles, where the middle and upper classes can approach at times of leisure to take pictures of what are considered the must-visit of all American places. The guides’ attitudes towards the national landscape not only narrated America as a standardized, consumable place, but also created new American towns in the likeness of those pictured and deemed worth visiting in its books. Andrew S. Gross comments,
“[The guide] 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 commodification of America–its Disney-fication–shows why theme parks are so attractive to American and foreign visitors alike. The guide’s specific representational strategies tell the story people not from these places want to hear: that New York is the city of dreams and lights, rather than an expensive, rat-infested concrete grid where young hopefuls have their dreams crushed by landlords who turn your gas off to “fix” it when you know they are just trying to push the elderly tenants out to raise rent prices (true story).
To promote national tourism in a time of economic turmoil is a convenient period for this kind of appropriation. The commercial forms of representation in these guides reveal the U.S. government’s level of interest in funding the arts.. Why else would the government do so, without those forms of representation to be beneficial to government purposes? Federal editors have almost all the say (except for Idaho) in controlling the final form and content of the guides, aka the product that speaks to how America’s diverse states tell a shared story. The guide series uses this tourism promoting guide to blur the boundaries and erode the regional differences that exist to create a common basis in which to formulate the American identity. This imagined community, as Benedict Anderson, would note, depends on the style in which it is imagined. In this case, the government uses commercialized forms of American places to not promote diversity, but create a forcefully unified image of the American public for the American public.
The centralization and standardization pushed for by the guides sees self-realization in the face of a slowly changing America. Gross states, “Standardization opened up the countryside to drivers who knew they would be able to find gas, food, lodging, and parts almost anywhere. However, it also reduced regional variation and consumer choice.” Driving up from New York City to Boston on I-95N, I see the same, standardized food courts, gas stations, and even bathrooms, each one built 10 miles apart from each other int he same, exact fashion. I’ve taken these buses on the same route for three and a half years and never can I really tell where I am than from the sign that says, “Welcome to..”
The guide’s its attempts to stimulate demand by pushing white consumers to “see America first” on the road destroys the kind of cultural diversity that American towns have, or well, used to have. In America’s need for circulating goods and capital, citizens have lost the sense of America. Instead, we now have printed mugs at Starbucks labeled with various state names and some kind of graphic design of a mountain or building in the back.
The rise of mass tourism owes much to the long brewing developments that come to fruition during the Depression era. The making of tourism, and the paid vacation, into a mass phenomenon is America’s way of promoting the same capitalist values that caused the economic crisis in the first place. In order to quell social and economic woes, the New Deal-era was the best time to transform tourism. It was the vehicle for feeding consumer spending as well as inserting a tradition that would benefit a new growing sector in the US economy. The creation of paid vacation was made to promote the cause of tourism and push consumers to spend even more than what they were paid in their off-hours. What would America be if overconsumption were not in our value and belief system?
Revitalizing the economy was synonymous with achieving social harmony, as consumption practices were intensified to spread the idea of vacationing as the new middle and upper class activity. According to Berkowitz, “The wage-earner desire for paid vacations did represent a growing embourgeoisement of the working class.” It was the creation of the middle class and the creation of another inalienable, reinforced by the employer. Until the 1930s, the idea of time off wasn’t exactly the most ideal situation, the idea was generally coupled with unemployment, not fun time. With the uptick of promotional materials for traveling on one’s will, the human psyche suddenly became the site of the work ethic, needed to be reinvigorated for the good of the nation. A vacation advocate stated in front of Congress, “A vacation is a builder of health, mind, body, and soul… I believe that it is as vitally necessary as their diet or their morning daily dozen.” Social health was now the demand of the productivity and well being of the working American public.
Berkowitz states, “Advocates of paid vacation and tourism promoters had not only made tourism into a mass phenomenon, they had also helped fashion the view that the mass consumption of leisure, especially in the form of vacations and tourism, was a necessity for the social, cultural, and economic health of the nation.” Today we see this alive and well: luxurious getaways in exotic paradises for the wealthy, spiritual healing places for yoga trainers, romantic ideals of backpacking through Europe on a dime.
King Vidor’s Our Daily Bread depicts a cheery, optimistic couple, who decide to move to a farm to make their living off the land after being hit by the hardships of the Great Depression. Director Video, an innovative filmmaker of the time, uses Our Daily Bread as an extension of his classic silent film The Crowd. Utilizing the same lead characters, Vidor builds upon their story as the depression years come.
John and Mary Sims (played by Tom Keene and Karen Morley), the main characters of the film, are a couple who got evicted from their apartment from being able to pay their rent. With no opportunities for immediate jobs in their city, Mary’s uncle offers them a soon-to-be foreclosed farm. Clueless about tending the land, John and Mary soon assemble a sizable collective to help them farm and live communally. As time goes on, the Dust Bowl hits the collective hard, killing all of the corn crops. The group comes up with an idea to dig a two mile long ditch to irrigate the crops from the nearest reservoir. Although it is unclear how exactly this agricultural feat is pulled off, the collective celebrate and cheer as water streams into the ditch. Children, overjoyed by the accomplishment, roll and play in the wet earth and the adults jump excitedly, knowing they had built their new lives on self-sufficiency and hard work.
The film is mildly entertaining, simplistic, and oftentimes, awkward in the conveying of its political message. As a film championing the virtues of the collective and hard work brought by non-corporate, noncapitalistic action, Our Daily Bread appears naive, innocent as a social commentary. However, that didn’t stop press of the time labeling the film as Communist or Socialist propaganda. Besides, it was a look at communal living where ideas of personal profit and personal success did not exist. A man even decided to turn himself in for the betterment of his community. Overall, the film’s political agenda isn’t quite direct.
Tom Keene, the main protagonist, is one of the biggest problems of the film for me. His performance was overly loud, talky, and abrasive in character, which comes off as being annoying next to Karen Motley’s soft, subtle performance in the film. Keene’s booming voice and the overacted “American” charm typical of cinematic characters of film at the time, distracted me from the film’s other admirable scenes. His enthusiasm in the film renders his scenes to appear unconvincing and oftentimes, difficult to watch.
Director Vidor had a passion for Our Daily Bread to speak about controversial subjects that the American cinema was generally uninterested in at the time. However, Vidor’s attempt to tell the history of a collective farm falls flat in emotional impact. Much of the dialogue is given in an overly sentimental manner. The film is unable to explore the deep problems of everyday life in a way that is feels real and universal for the people who struggled during the Depression. The film depicts the members of the collective all being respected and their needs attended to, which more often than not, was not the case for many living during the Depression era.
An interesting idea I believe Steinbeck plays with and portrays through The Grapes of Wrath is the disruption of what is believed to be the standard family unit–the normalized conception of family in twentieth century America. In “We’re on a Road in Nowhere,” Arthur G. Neal observes that “[t]he economic hardships of the Great Depression fell disproportionately upon the family unit.” During the Depression, families like the Joads were forced to break up in order to improve chances of finding work, thus disrupting the role of the adults being the present, active providers for their children. The Depression and sufferings brought on by a life of migrancy created stresses upon the traditional ideas about family as well as physical stresses on older members of the family, who are unable to deal with the new circumstances the family needed to adapt to in order to stay as a unit. In the novel, we see this happen to Grampa and Granpa, who literally die in the family’s journey to California. In this instance, we see the struggle for keeping the family together (and the idea of family as well) as a real struggle to find that stability, economically, socially, and culturally.
The breaking down of traditional ideas of American family life disrupted the lives of the migrant families and stripped those affected by the Depression of the social and cultural roles in which they have been taught to play. In this way, the 1930’s was a troubling time not only financially, but also psychologically. The breaking down of the family unit, an idea that stabilized normal everyday life, made the dire situations of migrant families all the more distressing. Spangler states,
“The loss of boundaries–both property lines and those that demarcate roles of family members–has thrown the migrants into a state of disorder.”
What I found most interesting in Spangler’s article was the connection made between the obsession with the nuclear family rising in the 1950’s and the earlier disruption of the family unit that may have created a need to reinforce American ideals of the family unit. Spangler claims the promotion of the nuclear family as a “strategy for repressing cultural memories of how the Great Depression (and of course, WWII) disoriented the family unit.” This form of togetherness or rather, “self-containment,” as Spangler calls it, lends reasoning to the ways in which the family unit has become desirable and normalized.
Even in the first opening paragraphs of The Grapes of Wrath, readers already get a good idea of the extensive descriptions that will later inform much of the context of the book. Steinbeck’s realistic style of writing offers an overwhelmingly descriptive account of the plight of migrant workers during the Depression. Overall, the novel was not only a chronicle of the struggles that came about during the Depression, but also a form of commentary on the flawed institutional systems that caused and then failed to fixed it.
The many descriptive moments throughout the novel suggest a documentary style form of telling a story that relies on imaging to build the backdrop for Steinbeck’s fictional cast of characters. Steinbeck’s interests in journalistic storytelling show in the Grapes of Wrath, which can be credited to his journalistic sourcing of readings, interviews, and briefings to inform his assignments. Given the type of methods Steinbeck utilized to formulate a narrative, “he had trouble deciding whether his book should be factual or fiction, and what his stake was in its creation” (Howarth). Steinbeck states,
“I want this book to be itself with no history and no writer.” (L181)
In “The Mother of Literature: Journalism and The Grapes of Wrath,” Howarth examines the writing process of Steinbeck in the late 1930s, in which the writer often wavered “between the poles of fact and fiction.” By utilizing the information available from Tom Collins’s camp reports, Steinbeck built a diarylike narrative out of bits and scraps of information that journalists often encounter in their assignments. There’s a reporter-like behavior to the ways in which Steinbeck approaches data and how that reportage is translated. In addition to wavering between these two forms, Steinbeck also felt very caught in between literary and journalistic impulses in forwarding his political beliefs. For example, Steinbeck felt uncomfortable taking assignments from what he considered “slick” magazines “who are responsible for [neglecting the migrants].” Though when the Visalia floods occurred in 1938, Steinbeck agreed to take on a national circulated article due to his frustration with the poor coverage in local newspapers.
The book is a clear criticism of the policies that exacerbated the conditions of the migrant workers and this comes across in the way in which the Grapes of Wrath is told. For instance, I found Steinbeck’s characterizations quite flat and superficial in terms of using the narrative to explore the workings of the human psyche. Of course, that’s the point for Steinbeck, as characters embodied ideals or struggles rather than standing on their own as individuals. The Joad family is an interesting, inspired bunch, but not original. Howarth claims, “The Joads were both individual and universal; they gave the story credibility rather than authenticity.” The dramatization of that social history is told through the Joad family to make its point, not to just tell a story for the sake of doing so. DeMott nicely puts, the family “elevated the entire history of the migrant struggle into the ceremonial realm of art” (Howarth). In this way, Steinbeck reports through literature by using his journalistic writing style to make his characters believable, but also in the many ways of fiction, artful.
From reading the first few pages of James Agee and Walker Evan’s Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, I was thoroughly impressed by the author’s acknowledgement of Agee’s own struggle in portraying the people he has met in the South through his writing and Evan’s in his photography. Agee and Evans are very aware and conscious creators, of writing, of art (though Agee is cautious about allowing himself that title), and I think many writers and artists today can learn from him. The camera, as an instrument of capturing truth, is a sacred object for Agee and Evans, the “central instrument of our time,” in which Agee feels “such rage at its misuse.”
As a developing technology of the time, Agee expresses the misuse of the camera as a weapon often used in journalism to corrupt sight in so much that he knows “of less than a dozen alive whose eyes I can trust even so much as my own.” Mass media of the time, as much as it is today, is a form of “truth-telling” for the society it lives in—a reflection of the views, beliefs, sentiments of the people who produce it. Photography, as a powerful, visual medium, has the power to empower people and communities who have been silenced and rendered powerless by their economic immobility and socioeconomic condition–if, according to Agee, performed consciously.
“If I could do it, I’d do no writing at all here. It would be photographs; the rest would be fragments of cloth, bits of cotton, lumps of earth, records of speech, pieces of wood and iron, phials of odors, plates of food and of excrement.. A piece of the body torn out by the roots might be more to the point.” p.13
Agee illustrates key significant points about the responsibility of the narrator in respectfully portraying the narrated that I believe previously examined writers like Caldwell and Bourke-White have not done. I not only found the imposition of fictional captions in You Have Seen Their Faces disrespectful to the people being captured on film, but also violates a sense of ethical responsibility artists should hold in representing the marginalized and powerless on national platforms. I do realize that Caldwell and Bourke-White explicitly say that the captions are contrived, but I still have a lingering unease about You Have Seen Their Faces.
“In a novel, a house or person has his meaning, his existence, entirely through the writer. Here, a house or a person has only the most limited of his meaning through me: his true meaning is much huger.. As for me, I can tell you of him only what I saw, only so accurately as in my terms I know how.” p.12
For this acknowledgment of one’s responsibility in producing work, I admire Agee and Evans, for being conscious artists in the portrayal of oppressed, marginalized peoples. From my own personal experience, I can only speak to my knowledge of how pressing the issue of representation is in the media. I hope, for all creators out there, that these sentiments are equally pressing.
In You Have Seen Their Faces, the combination of words and photographs portray this theme of “contemporary exodus” that An American Exodus was speaking of. With the camera as a tool of research and documentary, I do feel as if each image evokes the complex workings of rural poverty, race relations, and power dynamics in the South as the effects of a worn-out “cotton empire.” These photographs, informed by its carefully thought out caption, illustrate the lives affected by the mechanisms of capitalism that triumph overacccumulation over the dispossession of the people who physically cultivate and farm the land. This form of documentary photography, exercised by Caldwell and Bourke-White, allows for a long observation of the problems embedded within a capitalistic system that prey on vulnerable people already long oppressed by the cotton country.
“Nothing made money like cotton. Nothing else grew like cotton. Cotton was king.” (Caldwell, Bourke-White, 2)
It was, for a while in the Mississippi Valley Delta and the Black Belt of Alabema, where cotton grew in abundance without fertilizer and with barely no effort. Farming the soil and stripping it decade after decade did not worry the plantation owner until “the plantation system pauperized the soil to such a degree that raising cotton became a means of making a living rather than a method of making a fortune” (4). These faces reveal the tiredness–the tiredness of the people farming all day to pay their rent and the tiredness of the land itself, that has shriveled up. Like Caldwell and Bourke-White state, “They are either already worn out physically and spiritually, or are in the act of wearing themselves out” (5).
The second chapter explores this theme further, emphasizing the lack of interest from “political windbags” to solve the problems existing in the south. And meanwhile the politicians and economists argue about the equilibrium market theory, where “the remarkable curative properties of time will produce an equable balance between the landlord and the tenant” and will later “share alike in the distribution of wealth,” the nation sits, plowing dusty crops from dried dirt, waiting “patiently for a tolerable existence to be made available to them.”
I thought deeply about the connections between race, empire, and capitalism, with the themes of these photographs. In Taylor’s text, I see the same ideas about migration and poverty being addressed, but on a surface level that almost wishes to deny the true problems at hand with capitalism and the “historic ideals of American society” the National Commission so wants to act as the model for which a better future can be built upon (Lange & Taylor, 131). Lange & Taylor state:
“The implication of these simultaneous tides–exodus from the land into the central cities, and exodus from the central cities out to the suburbs–transcend the issue of race. Their roots lie deep in our past” (131).
I’m not sure if this problem and oppression transcends the problem of race necessarily. We can’t view problems of poverty and capitalism and systems of oppression separately. Yes, these roots do lie deep, but they built upon the ideals that white people dominate and black people are the ones to be governed. These roots do lie deep. In fact, steeped in ideas of racial supremacy that cannot be separated from the roots of capitalism that produce the businessman and the working poor. This conversation can’t be understood in a vacuum, can’t be grasped without making these interconnections.
When I think about the migrant workers of the Great Depression, one of the most enduring portraits of the time–taken by Dorothea Lange–helps me imagine some of the people most affected by the crisis. This image, of a migrant worker cradling her two children, serves as a visual for the many stories of those on the road, looking for jobs, shelter, food, and security. In Ben Reitman’s Sister of the Road, I imagine the main narrator, Bertha, and her mother, were similar to the woman portrayed in this well-known photograph.
Bertha, as a street-smart (and book smart) child growing up on the road, has lived a similar struggle, but with the same quiet desperation as the mother in Lange’s image. Bertha is strong-willed, independent, and hopeful. She tells her story with a sense of dignity that I feel is vastly different from the writers we have encountered so far. Even having endured such tragedy, loss, and failure, “Boxcar Bertha” devotes most her young life helping other women back on their feet by devoting her life to relief organizations that provided resources to the poor.
Although Bertha’s life is one of immense hardship, she appears as a humble, honest woman who believes in the goodness of others even in a time of great distrust. In one instance, Bertha provides someone from her past help at the organization, only to realize that later he had released information about her criminal record to her co-workers. Bertha was shocked at this betrayal, but surprisingly, she wasn’t bitter about her misfortune. Like many of the hardships she has lived through, she took each misfortune as just another reminder that it was time to be on the road again.
It’s this realistic mindset that makes Bertha such a likable character; her co-workers, who were upset at her firing, would agree:
“It leaked out among the men and women who were living in the relief station that I had been fired for having a record. They all drew up a petition. The newspapers said later that one transient wrecked a passenger train in revenge for the organization firign me. Two days later, in the men’s shelter house, a fire broke out, said to be a protest against the organization letting me go” (Reitman, 176).
As a student interested in social justice and nonprofit work, I am impressed by women like Bertha who had nothing, but still committed their time to helping displaced people. Having grown up on her mother’s teachings, I applaud her for seeing people without prejudice and truly believing that “nothing was ever terrible, vulgar, or nasty,” especially people on the road.
There’s a grim quality about Tom Kromer’s Waiting for Nothing that already reveals itself in its title, exacerbated by his use of irony (that I am still not quite sure is purposeful or not). In “Politics and Rhetoric in the Novel in the 1930s,” William Solomon cites Waiting for Nothing as a “proletarian” novel, a working model of “criticism of existing social conditions” where Kromer utilizes language as a tool for political organizing. I find Solomon’s claim of Waiting for Nothing as a political statement or any form of representation of the proletarian to be strange and ungrounded. In no way are Kromer’s viewpoints as a stiff an accurate representation of the struggling, working man or homeless people who have never had the privilege of attending college, nor, say, writing an article about posing as a bum without living its realities at the time.
Although Kromer did live as a nomad after being unable to secure work after his schooling, his feature writing for class, titled “Pity the Poor Panhandler; $2 An Hour is All He Gets” leaves a bad taste in my mouth. At the time, Kromer was in school and earning a steady income, so compared to many of his fellow Americans, he was doing better than most. I found this particularly bothersome in the tone of the article, which presents Kromer as a middle-class American trying to “expose” the poor of their conniving, cheating ways. It is entirely possible that there are people who passed as homeless on the streets just to beg for change, but this conception is a heavy generalization, and a veil for victim blaming. According to Kromer, the bums’ presence on the streets is a nuance and a scam. As the Afterword well puts, “To Kromer it must have seemed a lark, a caper. Going on the bum probably looked like an easy way to get by” (263).
The most interesting element of Kromer’s work is his style of language (or lack thereof) used in different sections and situations in the book, which possess a lofty, elitist tone, and other times, what Solomon calls an “artlessness of diction.” Kromer is even compared to Hemingway in his “objective” style of writing as a “stiff.” In “Autobiography,” Kromer writes, “I had no idea of getting Waiting for Nothing published, therefore, I wrote it just as I felt it, and used the language that stiffs use even when it wasn’t always the nicest language in the world” (259). Kromer claims that “the ‘stiff’ idiom is, of course, authentic.” I, on the other hand, am not as convinced of this “authenticity.”
“Imaging of the Machine” by Hugh Crawford tries to get to the heart of Kromer’s adoption of “the language that stiffs use” in his work. Crawford states, Kromer is a character “dispossessed by culture,” who chooses to adopt an “objective” and “efficient” style of writing modeled after popular discourse and scientific, objective values of the American capitalist system because his value system is so deeply embedded within this cultural hegemony that his writing is apparent with “machine-age discourse.” Crawford claims the use of this objective form of writing is a reflection of Kromer’s inability to blame the system that has caused his failures and a relentless acceptance to live by the system’s rules for hope that it can be fixed. Like Kromer’s claims for authenticity, I don’t buy Crawford’s claims that the values promoted by the American capitalist society instilled a seemingly “objective” style of writing in Waiting for Nothing. Sure, there may be a connection between the two, though there cannot be any hard evidence for a writer’s choice of language and the economic system, aka the “machine.” This all seems trivial to me as a reader, as I’m left wondering why Crawford isn’t more concerned about Kromer’s privilege as a posing bum for the purpose of writing an article.