The Arts during the Depression

The Arts during the Depression

I found it really fascinating looking at all of the photographs taken during the Great Depression. It was a time when photography became more advanced and portable so it was easy to take cameras around the country and photograph the reality of the situation. Also, because cameras were able to be made into such small, portable devices, it was a lot easier to take candid shots that really captured the reality of the emotions and feelings expressed from human suffering. From seeing photographs from Dorothea Lange and Walker Evans, we were able to see a wide range of landscape photography and portraits that became timeless icons that represented hardship and human suffering. These photographs have become so famous because they are relatable to people today; the emotions evoked from the photographs (and usually the captions that accompanied them) express emotions that everyone feels at some point in his or her life, at any age, in any point in time.

I also found it very interesting learning about the relationship between the journalists, who were sent out by the Government, and the common people who the journalists were sent to report on. The journalists were meant to see how the common people were affected by the Depression and (hopefully) tried to keep their biases out of their reporting. However, obviously it was impossible to keep their biases out of their reports and, in addition, it was a futile attempt at documentary journalism because as soon as they interact with the people and interrupt their normal space, it isn’t going to be the same. The journalists are reporting about a people who are trying to impress them in hopes that the journalists will write nice things, but also the journalists has preconceived notions about these people and their situation. The journalists also have an obligation to present a certain image of the subjects’ circumstances because their bosses also have preconceived notions of the situation and are probably expecting an article close to that scenario. Lastly, it was interesting to discuss the moral issue of a journalist profiting of his report on victims of the Depression. Thanks for a great class!

Hopelessness of the Homeless

Hopelessness of the Homeless

In Tom Kromer’s “Waiting for Nothing,” life during the Great Depression is depicted as utterly miserable. It is a very dark book in which the main character, a bum, leads a life filled with tragedy and hopelessness, a feeling that a lot of people felt during this time, as he drifts through America. The Depression was a time filled with brutal hardships and America had hit rock bottom. People were out of luck and that was the worst part; they wanted to work, but couldn’t. People weren’t aware of how bad the Depression was for a lot of Americans and questioned why these people didn’t go out and find jobs. The entire problem was the scarcity of jobs, as well as farmers losing their land due to the Dust Bowl. The poor victims of the Depression had to struggle to get by in intense poverty and rely on the kindness of strangers, while hoping that the situation might get better one day and jobs might be available.

It is interesting in the book that, when someone does help him out, he seems to pay attention to the motives behind the action. No one is just helping him to help out a poor homeless man, but there is always an ulterior motive. This can be seen when the first man buys him a meal and makes it clear to the restaurant that he is buying a meal for a homeless man. However, Kromer still believes that he is a good man.

The book displays the disappointment felt by many from the shelters, police, and relief workers. One would hope that in a time like this, people would feel some sort of compassion for the homeless, but in Kromer’s book, that is not the reality of the situation as homeless people struggled to get by.

It is hard to read such a tragedy because it makes you wonder about Americans today and if the same scenario would play out in today’s society if the stock market crashed. I am hopeful that Americans would be more than willing to help out in a situation like that where jobs were scarce, but it is hard to say for sure what would really happen.

Journalist vs. Farmer

Journalist vs. Farmer

In Walker Evans and James Agee’s Let us Now Praise Famous Men, it was fascinating to read the very descriptive interactions Evans and Agee have with people they meet who are victims of the Depression.

One of the first meetings they had was with a man who was very nervous to talk to them. It seemed as though he had been down on his luck and couldn’t take anymore hardship. While talking to him, he was “watching [Agee] with fear from behind the glittering of laughter in [his] eyes, a fear that was saying, ‘o lard god please for once, just for once, don’t let this man laugh at me up his sleeve, or do me any meanness or harm.’” It was sad to read, but also reminiscent of the failure to document the reality of the situation. If Evans and Agee weren’t there, this man wouldn’t be so nervous, but would be doing what he normally does. Also, how did Agee know what this man was thinking? There is a lot of room for miscommunication.

The ultimate failure of this documentary journalism was inevitable, according to critics. Although Agee was writing about real people and real stories, he is invading on these peoples’ private spaces and, thus, changes the dynamic. Evans and Agee also can’t capture every moment, emotion, or glance and also can’t interpret every gesture correctly so there are a lot of chances to misinterpret something or write something that only the writer feels. It is hard being the writer and separating the subject’s story from your own biases and preconceived notions. Once it is published, there is also the chance that it could offend the people being written about.

The relationship between the writer and the farmers’ stories is a tricky one. The writer wants to do his job while also giving the subjects their due justice, but the farmer is the one suffering. The farmer is the one who desperately needs a job and this is the story that the writer is going to profit from. The writer is going to make money off of the farmers’ hardship and that isn’t right. Journalists have an agenda if they are getting paid.

The journalism for this project wasn’t a complete failure, however, because Evans and Walker are still able to view trends as they see them during the Depression. For one, Evans likes to take pictures while his subject isn’t looking and Agee noticed “how much slower white people are to catch on than negroes, who understand the meaning of a camera, a weapon, a stealer of images and souls, a gun, an evil eye.”

Photography During the Depression

Photography During the Depression

Photography was an important tool during the Great Depression because it “gives credible reality to a people who are no longer here, to an environment that is changed, and to an art that is increasingly dependent on photo-screen transfer.

They didn’t have photoshop and the only real manipulation the photographers could do was with burning and dashing, which made the photos lighter or darker, or putting negatives on top of one another. Although the “burn and dash” technique could alter the mood of a photo quite drastically, the photos really did capture reality. The photos were developed and printed and that was it.

However, the reality is shown through the photographer’s perspective. Only the photographer chooses what to take pictures of and only the photographer’s point of view is captured. This gives a lot of freedom for the photographers to present America, as the project were, in any way they wanted.

Dorothea Lange did an amazing job documenting the Depression. “She devoted her photographic life to exploring and depicting social concerns,” which is very admirable when compared to most photographers today, who initially take a misleading photographic set-up with fancy lighting and then edit the photograph to look good. This process, which is commonplace today, usually produces an image that is far from reality or what is seen in nature. Lange was interested in capturing real humanity in her photographs, which is why her photos have become so famous. Her photos show human struggle, as it is, and the emotion evoked from these images are relatable to anyone who has gone through hardship.

The captions add a lot to the meaning of the photos themselves. There is one photo of a small stairway leading to a home that would otherwise be overlooked because of its blandness, but it is accompanied with the caption, “‘The Committee’s examination of the agricultural ladder has indicated an increasing tendency for the rungs of the ladder to become bars – forcing imprisonment in a fixed social status from which it is increasingly difficult to escape’ – President’s Committee on Farm Tenancy, Georgia/1937.” There is also a photo of another woman standing on her porch, looking out at the world. Without the caption, it would appear that she is just taking a break from working around the house and it is not a picture that would necessarily be picked as being from the Depression. The caption reads, “‘The collapse of the plantation system, rendered inevitable by its exploitation of land labor, leaves in its wake depleted soil, shoddy livestock, inadequate farm equipment, crude agricultural practices, crippled institutions, a defeated and impoverished people’ – Arthur F. Raper, Georgia/1937.” The caption makes it clear that the woman is one of the victims of the Depression and the “collapse of the plantation system.” It becomes apparent that she is contemplating her uncertain future.

California Road Trip

California Road Trip

It was interesting to read in Andrew Gross’s “The American Guide Series” how local sites and culture were written about, but then they became tourist attractions and were commodified. The tourist attractions began to sell knick-knacks that were included miniature models of the site or postcards that the tourist could take away with them. The local culture transformed into a tourist attraction, “a symbol of national loyalty, in order to reproduce patriotism as a form of brandname identification.” This is how we know tourist attractions today, but now there is the added fun of going to the tourist attractions that are everyone’s “must see” list and then going off the normal path to see the real culture, how the local really lives, and where the locals eat.

I looked at “California: a guide to the Golden state” because I’m originally from Los Angeles, CA. I was very interested in the photographs that were scattered throughout the book because it was very strange to see how underdeveloped some very iconic spots were and how different it was back then. There’s one picture of the Hollywood Bowl and, in the caption, it says “Easer Sunrise Service.” The picture itself shows the crowd of people normally seen at the Hollywood Bowl, but the mountains behind are completely bare. There aren’t any homes, major boulevards, or the freeway that destroyed a lot of this scenery. However there are some photos that look like they could have been taken yesterday, such as on the one of the Santa Anita Race Track. The horse racing track looks exactly the same, as if it were frozen in time. It’s good to see that some of the “culture” of Los Angeles still exits because when I think of Los Angeles, I don’t think of it as having much culture because of the amount of new construction I see on a day-to-day basis. However, it’s nice to be reminded that there are some spots in Los Angeles, like the Hollywood Bowl, that have history and might be considered tourist attractions, but are also spots that locals go and enjoy. It hasn’t been ruined by the commodification of travel.

One thing that critics don’t seem to talk about when discussing how the guidebooks encouraged the commodification of local sites is how much the guidebooks and travel helped the national economy. Farmers set up shop along the road to sell their produce and small towns that probably never had any tourists now saw an influx of cash due to tourists coming to town and spending money at local businesses.

The guidebook featured a lot of the same things that are seen in books today, like points of interest, celebrity homes, and photographs featured throughout, but it was quite longer than guidebooks nowadays. This guidebook is 840 pages and it would be quite a burden to carry this around while you traveled because of its weight, especially since you most likely only needed to read a couple pages for the journey you were going on.

 

Vacationing

Vacationing

I enjoyed reading Berkowitz’s “A ‘New Deal’ for Leisure-Making Mass Tourism during the Great Depression” and what I first found very interesting was how the majority of Americans didn’t value or even consider taking vacations prior to the 1930s. Extended time off was a luxury of the wealthy and for anyone else, it usually meant unemployment. Employers valued a good work ethic and employees spent their time working long and hard to earn better wages. In today’s society, Americans see the value in taking some time off for personal health. “Americans should be taught to play; to realize that a vacation is a necessity,” declared one vacation advocate in testimony in front of Congress, “that to commune with nature better fits one for the strenuous business life. A vacation is a builder of health, mind, body, and soul… I believe that it (taking a vacation) is as vitally necessary as their diet or their morning daily dozen.”

It was also striking to me, however, how quick white-collar workers were given paid vacations during a time of such hardship for so many people. This should have been a time for Americans to band together and help those who were less fortunate, but instead, 80% of white collar workers received annual vacations with pay by 1930 and thus created the demand for billboards to advertise leisure travel. Dorothea Lange’s Toward Los Angeles shows this unjust juxtaposition of the working class men trying to find work by walking to a new place and the middle-class white collar worker being paid to relax and ride the train. It was a strange time for the boom of the tourism industry, but it also helped save the economy for the Depression.

The American Dream

The American Dream

In Nathanael West’s A Cool Million: The Dismantling of Lemuel Pitkin, it is clear that “our hero” is down on his luck. Nothing seems to go his way, but he has hope in the future and that his persistence will pay off. In doing some research, I learned that the book was a parody of Horatio Alger’s novels and because of this, it has largely been ignored. It says something about the spirit of America that Lem is striving for success, constantly failing along the way, but continuing his pursuit anyway. The American Dream is a motivator for people to believe that hard work and determination will bring them success, no matter where they started out in the world. It’s a huge promise that, especially during the Depression, was somewhat misleading, but provided hope for millions of people that they would get through the tough times and thrive. It is important that this hope existed because America might not have escaped the Depression without it.

According to Naomi Kubo’s article titled America as a ‘Proper Receptacle’: Nathanael West’s A cool Million: or, the Dismantling of Lemuel Pitkin, West’s book describes the commodification of America and the “production and consumption of sign value.” I think the sign-value of items has become a huge part of consumption in today’s society, especially in America, so it is interesting to see this play out in the novel. Sign value generally adds value to an object based on it’s brand, design, or desirability (and sometimes rarity) of the commodity. The sign value is added to the use value, which is the basic functional value the commodity possesses. This can be seen as exploited in Wu Fong’s brothel, which claims to be “an hundred per centrum American place” and also the consumption of Lem’s American body, as he is, piece by piece, dismantled. This symbolizes the struggle that was happening in the 30s where people wanted to believe in the America they wanted and the image of America as the best place on Earth, but they were trying too hard to make the image a reality, versus fixing the real, deep problems of the country. It seemed as though people wanted to maintain the image of themselves that they wanted so that everything at least looked ok from an outside perspective. Women wore stockings and sewed them up if they were ripped and men wore suits if they could. It was a time when it was well-known that hardship had sprung upon the majority of Americans, but their pride wouldn’t let them give up the luxuries (like stockings) they were once accustomed to. That was also the American way of dressing and it seemed almost un-American to start dressing otherwise just because of the circumstances. Although new stalkings were too costly, it was unreasonable to thow out the bad stockings so they would fix the existing ones.

In West’s book, Whipple, describes the American Heart: “America is the land of opportunity. She takes care of the honest and industrious and never fails them as long as they are both. This is not a matter of opinion, it is one of faith. On the day that Americans stop believing it, on that day will America be lost” (74). Kubo states that while Whipple’s remark displays the fragility of sign-value. “The phrase, ’it is one of faith,’ implies that the sign-value, ‘America is the land of opportunity,’ is made up in the minds of people, and in their collective connotations. The last sentence, ‘[o]n the day that Americans stop believing it, on that day will America be lost,’ reveals that the idea of “America” is formed on an uncertain foundation, which can ‘be lost’” (132).

Sullivan's Travels

Sullivan’s Travels

I decided to watch Preston Sturges’s 1941 film, Sullivan’s Travels. It is about a Hollywood director who becomes a bum to learn about the struggles of man, especially during the depression, so that he can make a movie about it. Through some extraordinary events, he learns about the importance of comedies when you’ve lost everything. Sometimes laughing is all people have left.

As Sullivan begins his travels, there is a scene in the beginning of the movie that shows how the pace of travel really correlates with the experience. At first, there is a van filled with Hollywood Execs who are following Sullivan as he walks and pretends to be homeless. They are going at a very slow pace that one of the execs describes as “depressing.” However, they are enjoying a great meal prepared by a chef on the bus. Then, Sullivan gets into a race car driven by a 13 year old and they go extremely fast. The van tried to catch up and that created chaos within the van as tables, dishes, and food flew everywhere.

Throughout the movie, there is a running joke that he keeps ending up back in Hollywood no matter where he travels to. He grew up wealthy and then became a wealthy and famous film director so there was no way that he would be on the street and be as anonymous as he wanted to be. Also, while he was on the street, he was still living with the comfort of knowing he had money in the bank, a nice bed to sleep in, food, and doctors all waiting for him in case he needed it. Even when they do slum it in the homeless shelters or food banks, they are being followed and photographed and they aren’t truly ever going to live the real life.

Sullivan only learns about real struggle when he is attacked by a homeless man and shoved onto a train. He wakes up somewhere else entirely and while he’s confused, he beats up a guy and is then sentenced to six years of hard labor. The idea that you can go to sleep in one place and wake up in a different one is another part of travel that, in this case, is scary. It almost lost him his entire future, but he was smart enough to get his face into the paper so people could come save him.

Another time, earlier in the movie, it was beneficial that he was able to go to sleep on a train and wake up somewhere different. When he fell asleep on the freight train with his new lady friend, they woke up in Las Vegas. They were both exhausted and filthy, but met a nice man who fed them. They then found the rest of the Execs in the van and were once again saved and not living like a real bum or living the real struggles that people were going through during this time of the Great Depression.

Hitch hiking

Hitch hiking

As the book opens, everything is dying from the intense heat and the Earth is turning pale. Steinbeck uses a lot of detail in this chapter (and throughout the book) to paint a very vivid picture of a landscape.

He also uses metaphors, like the turtle, to illustrate larger themes of this period of time. I think the chapter dedicated to describing the struggle that the turtle had to get onto the highway shows the same persistence that is seen from men and women who were unfairly treated during the Great Depression after they lost their job. They are thrown to the side and they could so easily quit, but they continue pushing on because they have to. They must believe that it is all going to be ok because there is nothing else they can do. This metaphor continues on as Joad then picks up the turtle and wraps it in his coat so that he can give him to his brother as a gift. The turtle keeps trying to escape, and almost makes it, but Joad keeps him around. The persistence of the turtle is inspiring because against all odds, the turtle believes it must try until it can’t try anymore in hopes of some kind of success.

I also found it interesting how the driver was so quick to pick up Joad when he wanted to hitch hike. Hitch hiking is not something is seen a lot in today’s time because people know that it is dangerous. People realize that you could be letting any stranger in your car, which could be a murderer. It just so happened that Joad went to jail for homicide. The driver just wanted to be a good guy when he initially picked him up, but didn’t think twice about the hitch hiker being a good guy. He must have looked at this new, cheap clothes and decided he was harmless, but that doesn’t excuse the fact that he was going to let some stranger be alone on the road with him when he didn’t ask the man any questions beforehand.

Joad then runs into an old friend: an old reverend. This is when Joad finds out that his preacher has lost his faith and confesses to some sins he has committed. He took advantage of girls after he got the Holy Spirit in them. Joad seems to rub off the comments that the ex-reverend makes, but to me, it’s a huge problem. If the man who is supposed to lead the people and inspire them through the words of God is now on the streets, without a home and without any more faith, who is supposed to help bring up the spirit of the people? The one thing people were supposed to believe in to get through hard times was that God would help them through. Now, ex-reverend Casy, along with a lot of people who lost their faith at this time, doesn’t even think faith can help anymore.

Jesus feeds all

Jesus feeds all

In Nelson Algren’s Somebody in Boots, I found it very disconcerting that the government was spraying the garbage. It was meant to keep the poor people from poisoning themselves, but it seemed like a waste of government money that could have been used to feed more mouths. There were many starving people, yet it was accepted that they could only receive the food from missions like “Jesus-Feeds-All,” which only served people twice and then they had to go somewhere else. It was a cruel cycle that left people so angry, as we saw with the man who became engraged called the meat “cow-donick” before storming out. He’d rather take his chances with the coal-oil infested garbage. It’s disgusting that the people with jobs couldn’t see how corrupt the whole process was. When beggers went into bakeries, the bakers would tell them to go to the missions, but the missions were only serving a small serving of “rank” food.

I also found it interesting how the people are repeatedly referred to as animals. In the beginning of this article, the line at the mission is compared to a centipede: “its humps were the heads of homeless men, centipede legs were arms in rags. Its hungering mouth was a thousand mouths” (322). Then the people seem to be treated like animals by the government, having to be controlled, maintained, and fed like cattle. Another interesting part of this article was the many references to faith and Jesus. The “Jesus-Feeds-All” mission is where all of the homeless men in San Antonio are supposed to be getting their food. In the mission, there are two signs: “I Am The Way And The Light” and “Christ Died For Your Sins.” It’s a time when the only thing people could have is their faith. It was hard to stay faithful, but people still had hope and by believing, they were sure that it would all end soon.

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