Depression Literature, The American Dream, and My Own Travel Habit

Depression Literature, The American Dream, and My Own Travel Habit

I decided to take The Travel Habit because I knew I would be starting the class after a month of driving through America, and I thought a class about travel in America would be an interesting complement to that experience. I was intrigued by what the class was really about– I didn’t know anything about Depression-era literature, or about how tourism was invented as a commodity. Here are the discussions that stuck with me most: documentation of suffering, the New Deal vs. the American dream, and why people are compelled to travel.

Depression-era literature is complicated. Almost all of it is biased through the lens of someone who has the privilege to write or publish work (fiction or non-fiction). It can be seen as exploitative if they are writing about something they have not fully experienced. On the other hand, it is important to document suffering and make the masses think about what is going on in their country, especially if you can bring light to a possible solution. Either way, what does it mean to profit from another’s suffering? What moral issues did these artists and documenters face when they chose this path? One of my favorite readings was Waiting For Nothing because it felt like fiction but I later found out it was based on Tom Kromer’s actual experience. It put the reader into the situations and feelings of being “down on your luck” without exploiting anyone’s experience but the author’s own.

When first reading about the New Deal’s relief programs and the reactions to them, I didn’t question that it was the duty of the government to take care of the people who had lost their jobs and homes. I began to understand for the first time that some people had questioned whether or not this was to be expected from the government. The questioning of the New Deal seems to go hand in hand with assuming it is someone’s own fault if they don’t have a job or food, shelter, and clothes. These people were believers in the optimistic myth of the American Dream, that if you are honest and work hard you can “make it” in America. I loved how A Cool Million joked about this myth and compared it to the reality of how impossible it is to be upwardly mobile, especially during the Depression.

Another topic that fascinated me is what aspects of travel are consumer-oriented.There is one moment towards the end of Grapes of Wrath where Uncle John realizes that he wants to buy stuff he doesn’t need just for the sake of consuming. It amazed me that the ploy of consumer culture was even affecting a character who could barely afford to eat. Reading Agee’s American Roadside reminded me of how precious food and shelter feel when you are on the road, and how all these businesses (in my experience, rest stops mostly) are modeled around that necessity. What compels people to travel and “consume” the world around them? I am still unsure if it is innate or something we have learned. How is my choice to travel shaped by my consumerism?  It is definitely much easier to understand travel when it is packaged and presented for you. I remember someone asking me in Seattle what was the most beautiful thing I’d seen all day– after driving 8 hours through famously beautiful Montana, all I could remember was the scenic outlook we stopped at above the Columbia River Gorge. It was the only time we had stopped to really take in the scenery, and the only reason we did was because the Forest Service of the USDA had advertised the experience on the side of the highway.

Regions As Commodities

Regions As Commodities

“American Guide Series: Patriotism as Brand-Name Identification” by Andrew S Gross dissects the American Guides as a form of advertising that ruins regional culture by presenting it in a particular format. Gross asserts that the guide series is “propaganda” because it “transforms local culture into a tourist attraction, and the tourist attraction into a symbol of national loyalty” (2). He compares the AGS to Automobile guidebooks, which also used the “travel narrative- or tour form” to “promote commodities while mapping the landscape in ways that facilitated their use” (2). The article presents reasons to distrust the AGS, namely the fact that it is formatted as a useful and interesting history, while it destroys the authenticity of the places it maps out by making regions into commodities.

The American Guide Series has to try to advertise each location on its own as a great place for travel, but is faced by a loss of regional identity because “traditional communities and customs” were replaced by “transregional symbolic systems like money, commodities, and brand names.” The AGS makes use of this problem by transforming the “erosion of regional difference” into “common national identity” (2). The series goes through the history of an area, and then discusses (and celebrates) the ways in which the culture has become more “American.” But to keep it interesting, it also “mobilizes stereotypes for the sake of establishing local color” which makes”the reader, figured as a white tourist…appreciate the Other as an extension of the landscape” (6).

I decided to read some of the New York City Guide because that’s where I am from. They cover so many different specific areas within Manhattan, and I chose Chinatown because it is currently the most touristy area of NYC that I have spent much time in. The guide claims “tourist trade” was a “secondary concern” of the area (104). If this was true at the time, it’s not anymore– making it an example of the Guide “[celebrating the authenticity] it destroys” (9, article). The guide also describes the shops where “many articles…may be purchased,” saying they are “patronized almost exclusively by Chinese” but describing the items like an ad (106, guide). They also advertise the restaurants in Chinatown which have been “declared by the Board of Health to be among the cleanest in the city.” They state that “a visit…should include dinner,” and go on to describe in depth the “delicious,” “exotic,” “delectable,” and “famous” dishes (107).

Along with proving Andrew Gross’ point about the AGS “celebrating the local traditions it helps to dissolve,” the NYC guide also makes excuses in advance for any inauthenticity the reader may notice when they visit the region (7). In the Chinatown guide, it states that the “younger generation…like that of other immigrant groups, no longer adheres strictly to the traditional mores” (104). They name one of the “more rigid ethical customs” from China that “are being ignored or abandoned” — suicide when unable to get out of debt– and the reader is relieved that this scary tradition is no longer in place. Then they name the lighter changes which feel positive– “no longer is American citizenship frowned upon; and mixed marriages cause little comment.” Finally, the guide tells us that “the process of assimilation” has far “progressed” (105). These positive terms let the reader know that this is a good thing indeed, bringing us back to that “common national identity” Gross talked about.

The Travel Necessity

The Travel Necessity

Various beliefs about vacation (specifically American tourism) allowed for it to grow to become a staple in American life. Businesses believed that paid vacations would give their employees “the opportunity for rejuvenation that would make them more efficient,” but only if they went “away somewhere,” not if they stayed at home (194, Being Elsewhere). They also thought paid vacations would assure their workers’ loyalty, and keep them from forming unions– which might have contributed to their belief that the people had to leave home for the vacation to be successful. Communities wanted tourists to come to their towns because “the continuous stream of money from outside sources…energizes local trade. No community increases its wealth by having the residents merely swap dollars” (196). The government decided to be involved because they thought “recreational travel could make Americans into better citizens” by helping them to”transcend the regional, class, and other social differences that too often divided them” (204). Traveling in America would unite them as members of a beautiful exciting country. New Dealers also thought promoting vacation was “a potential solution to the problems of economic instability” by “circulating new income” within regions,and nationally help “[stimulate] demand for commodities such as gasoline, oil, automobiles, rubber”etc (204).

So vacation was almost viewed as a mystical cure-all, and these believers worked hard to help it grow. Advertisements worked to make vacation feel like a “psychic necessity” (200). Paid vacations became more and more common for salaried workers as well as wage earners, with help from successful strikes and negotiations. The federal government finally got involved by creating the American Guide Series and the United States Travel Bureau to help travelers nationally. Other government agencies like The National Park Service and United States Forest Service encouraged Americans to experience their scenic country. The United States Travel Bureau’s 1941 slogan explained: “Travel Strengthens America. It promotes the nation’s health, wealth, and unity” (204).

On the other hand, James Agee expressed that the roadside “industry” was founded upon the “restlessness of the American people” (43, American Roadside). His essay makes it feel as though we were propelled into the travel habit by our American obsession with movement. Mostly, that Americans always want more. The invention of the automobile “continually…satisfied and at the same time greatly sharpened [our] hunger for movement” (44). He describes the roadside as “the most hugely extensive market the human race has ever set up to tease and tempt and take money from the human race” (43). His chapter is all about the various businesses which are successful because of the way tourism encourages consumerism. He breaks down the yearly profits in 6 industries which contribute to tourism and are helped by tourism: Transportation, Lodgings, Retail Goods, Food, Amusement, and Confections (see pg 58– it’s a lot of money).

Did the travel habit need to be formulated and presented to the American people? Would we as humans have further developed this habit without the help of institutions? Without the help of businesses providing paid vacations to more and more workers, the working class may never have experienced travel. As Ilf and Petrov wrote on their American Road Trip– young Americans are not curious. So maybe the urge to travel would never have occurred to the majority of Americans without the concept being “packaged, price-tagged and merchandised like any other commodity” (199, Being Elsewhere).

How to Make A Cool Million

How to Make A Cool Million

Nathanael West’s A Cool Million, or, The Dismantling of Lemuel Pitkin, is a story about a young boy from Vermont who tries to go to New York to make his fortune. His story is a sad but funny example of extreme optimism and belief in the American Dream. Before he embarks on this useless journey, he is encouraged by Mr. Whipple, a strong believer in America, who later leads a revolution that dismantles Marxism and Capitalism and makes the American Dream realistic again. Mr. Whipple tells Lemuel very seriously that “America…takes care of the honest and industrious and never fails them as long as they are both”(7). Lemuel believes Whipple and leaves for New York, filled with the “incurable optimism of youth” (16). His mother, with the same American optimism is “like all mothers…certain that her child must succeed” (13).

Later, when Lemuel is getting out of jail and has no teeth, his spirits are low from being wrongly sentenced immediately upon leaving home, and having been very sick from the conditions forced upon him in jail. He runs into Whipple (who is also in jail) who encourages him again, saying “I once told you that you had an almost certain chance to succeed because you were born poor and on a farm. Let me now tell you that your chance is even better because you have been in prison” (27). Lemuel goes back out into the world, unrelentingly optimistic against all odds.

The most obvious forces working against Lemuel Pitkin are the people abusing positions of power. The lawyer that tells Lemuel’s mother about the foreclosure of the mortgage on their house shoves Lemuel down the stairs on his way out. When Lemuel leaves Ottsville, he meets a rich-looking crook on the train, who says in character as Wellington Mape, that you “must have money to make money” (15). He is a perfect example of this, as someone making money (stealing Lemuel’s $30 dollars) because he had money (enough to look like his fancy character and maintain Lemuel’s trust). He also gives good advice, warning Lemuel to take care of his cash because of the many crooks in New York. Immediately after this, Lemuel is wrongly arrested from a misunderstanding, and we see the brutality of the police that grab him by the throat and hit him “extremely hard…on the head” before he can say anything (19). The justice system continues to show their corruptness when Lemuel tries to save Betty from the evil Wu Fong’s “disorderly house” and they refuse to arrest their “great good friend” (56). We are reminded of Betty’s original rape by Bill Baxter, the drunk chief of the Ottsville Fire Company, who led his firemen to loot her house instead of saving her parents from the fire.

The moral of the story is not that Lemuel’s hopefulness helped him. At the end he does not stand for an image of someone who has been aided by the American Dream. But he has become a martyr for Mr. Whipple’s cause. After losing many body parts and finally being shot dead, he represents the “right of every American boy to go into the world and there receive fair play and a chance to make his fortune…without being laughed at or conspired against” (95). This concept has been brought back to life by the victory of the National Revolutionary Party over Capitalism and Marxism.

Paper Moon-- Conning In The Depression

Paper Moon– Conning In The Depression

Paper Moon is about a con-man, Moze, who ends up giving a ride to a young orphaned girl, Addie (possibly his long-lost daughter), and using her to help with his schemes. His living goes against and with the concept of American Dream that if you work hard enough you will make it. Moze makes it by conning people, mainly tricking new widows into buying Bibles by saying their husband had ordered it and had it engraved with their name. His schemes usually work because he’s smart, and because in a world where honesty is assumed, it can be easy to con. In Grapes of Wrath, people trust each other based solely on them being “our kinda people” (like the infiltrators who try to start a fight at the Weedpatch dance, who get scolded for breaking this unspoken code of honor). Moze relies on this Depression-era attitude for his cons to make him a profit.

Addie is a nine-year-old who learns quickly how to use her smarts to make money. She is very sharp and good at scheming, and keeps exact count of their cash. By the time Moze gets her to the destination he is supposed to drop her at, she wants to stay with him and make money on the road. Her attitude reminds me a little bit of Boxcar Bertha because she seems to love their travels for the sake of adventure, not by necessity. At the end of the movie, Addie goes running from the concept of living a steady childhood at her Aunt’s nice house. She would much rather keep being a con-man’s assistant than have a normal childhood.

Addie is very tough for a child, and is aware of the effects of the Great Depression. She raises the price when she sees the Bible “client” is wealthy, and she wants to give their excess profit to a suffering family on the side of the road (who look like they could be the Joads). She also gives away a Bible in order to stop Moze from conning a Depression-stricken family. Addie is also a big fan of “Frank” Roosevelt. Moze tells her that F.D.R. still eats “off silver trays” in order not to appear “common” and that giving away money is “a whole ‘nother business.” Addie says FDR says “we gotta look out for one another” which is why she wants to give away money to poor people (or at least not con them).

Surprisingly for a child, Addie’s ideas are firm and her morals are clear. She is a fan of the New Deal, and she wants the world to be fair– she doesn’t mind stealing if it’s from the rich, but she still implies that she thinks stealing is bad (she yells at Moze that she doesnt know what scruples are “but if you got ’em you can sure bet they belong to somebody else”). Moze, on the other hand, is always jabbing FDR, and doesn’t seem to care about fairness from the beginning of the movie (when he tries to use Addie to make $200 for himself). Throughout the film though, it seems like Moze has become a parental figure for Addie, and we wonder if his morals and goals have changed or will soon. Paper Moon revolves around this unlikely team and the themes of travel, money, and Addie and Moze’s morals.



The Big Soul

The Big Soul

With nothing else working in their favor, the Joads and other migrants are propelled by the support of their peers and hope. They can’t rely on the land or on the corrupt system of work, so throughout the book suffering migrants help each other at the Hoovervilles. When Tom leaves his family and has been thinking a lot about Casy the preacher, he says his “little piece of a great big soul…wasn’t no good ‘less it was with the rest, an’ was whole” (418). When he leaves his family, he says Ma will know about him because if there is a big soul he’ll “be all aroun’ in the dark…wherever you look” (419). These ideas from Casy come up earlier in the book when Casy tells Tom what he’d been thinking about religion– that instead of it having to do with “God or Jesus…maybe it’s all men an’ all women we love; maybe that’s the Holy Sperit–the human sperit– the whole shebang” (24).

This idea of the Human Spirit is definitely supported by the events that follow, the moments of kindness and feeling of being “in it together” on the road. Moments like the Wilson family helping the Joad family, expecting nothing in return (139), the random diner lady Mae giving the poor family a break and sparing them their pride (161), and the amazing Weedpatch camp where everyone trusts each other and nurtures an environment of safety and health together, where Ma says “I feel like people again” (310). In the camps built each night along the road, it’s described as all the families “[becoming] one family,” the children becoming “the children of all…loss of home became one loss, and the golden time in the West was one dream” (193). This is the Human Spirit Casy was talking about.

However, It seems that this human spirit doesn’t apply to rich people or those in positions of power. The “comfortable people…felt pity at first, and then distaste, and finally hatred for the migrant people” because they are afraid of them (434). They are afraid because hungry people are driven by need, and they are angry because the wages will go as low as the hungriest person will accept, which is scary. Somehow though, the poor people tend to help each other because their need and their cause is one. In the last chapter, whatever is needed to survive (food, shelter, clothing) is surpassed by human support. Rose of Sharon has within her the help to fulfill a dying man’s need. She physically wouldn’t be able to help him if she hadn’t experienced the horrible loss of her child, and she emotionally is prepared to help him because she has experienced extreme need herself. The ending seems to be proof that hope and family/fellow people can get you through anything.

Wholeness in Grapes of Wrath

Wholeness in Grapes of Wrath

A recurring theme throughout Grapes of Wrath is whole versus part. In the first chapter, when “the men” don’t know what to do after the dust storm, the women and children know “deep in themselves that no misfortune was too great to bear if their men were whole” (4). Tom Joad’s old friend Muley Graves fills him in about everyone getting tractored off the land while he was in jail. He talks about how the land had meaning to the families, and it’s useless to the new owners, and that “they jus’ chopped folks in two for their margin a profit…Places where folks live is them folks. They ain’t whole, out lonely on the road in a piled-up car” (52). Later, we meet the Joad family when they reunite with Tom (with impeccable timing) right before they leave their home. When the Joad’s car is all packed they stand around, afraid to actually begin their journey West. As they look out at their old land, “their eyes focused panoramically, seeing no detail, but the whole dawn, the whole land, the whole texture of the country at once” (112). This moment of wholeness is their last view of this part of their lives, of what home once was.  As the reader follows the Joads on their journey, we hope that they can remain whole in order to get through it all.

In chapter 11, we get a general description of the vacant destroyed land, and the difference between a farmer’s work and a tractor’s work. A tractor’s work is “so efficient that the wonder goes out of the land and the working of it, and with the wonder the deep understanding and the relation.” When a man farms his own land, he is connected to his work and he is one with that land. The tractor is just a piece of machinery run by someone who doesn’t care, and whose “home is not the land” (115). Compared to the machine operator, who only understands chemistry, the farmer “who is more than his elements knows the land that is more than its analysis” (116). Here we have another amazing distinction between whole and part. The whole is a life that is immersed in its work, and the parts that make up man and farm can never amount to their connection and their wholeness.

When the new migrants lose their land, they lose their wholeness and themselves. On top of the obvious basic needs for food and shelter, they are also struggling with knowing who they are without their homes. When they need to leave their belongings behind to pack carefully for their travels west, the women are described as looking around at their “doomed things” that made up their lives. “How can we live without our lives? How will we know it’s us without our past?” they ask themselves (88). They cannot live without their land, because the land is them. They want to go to California to “start over” but they “can’t start. Only a baby can start” (87). They are their pasts, and in leaving their pasts behind they become lost in the world.

When they were farmers, they were their land. Now that they are migrants, the people become one with their cars. As Al Joad drives the family towards their new life, he learns to feel everything going on with their car’s engine, and try to sense if the car will breakdown– “He had become the soul of the car” (123). They devote their lives now to their travel, as they once devoted themselves to their farm work. “They were not farm men any more, but migrant men. And the thought, the planning, the long staring silence that had gone out to the fields, went now to the roads, to the distance, to the West” (196). Everything they think about is to propel themselves farther West. Maybe their devotion in this sense makes them whole because it gives them something to completely focus on and live in…but their spirits are still wearing down throughout the journey.

Self-Conscious Exposition of Suffering

Self-Conscious Exposition of Suffering

James Agee stresses that he and Walter Evans are extremely self-conscious about their task. In introducing Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, he speaks of their work as “curious…obscene and thoroughly terrifying” because they are being assigned to pry into suffering families’ troubled lives and “[parade] the nakedness, disadvantage and humiliation of these lives before another group of human beings” (7). He also writes that it is curious of them to accept the work without “[questioning] or [doubting] their own qualifications” for completing it (8). He writes that he wishes it wasn’t a book, and didn’t have to include writing at all, because he is so afraid of this task of capturing a human life.

After explaining his fear of this kind of work, we begin to read about his first meetings with the families. Agee writes of the “fear from behind the glittering of laughter” when he meets Fred Ricketts (361). He writes about this throughout many of his interactions, and I wonder if the families’ fear of the writer is as ubiquitous as Agee feels it to be directed towards him. He really doesn’t want them to fear him, but he feels an inner conflict when he tries to gain their trust. Because he feels like a spy, it “sickens [him] to disgust to think of” these moments when he has tried to bring them reassurance. He also feels that he fails either way because their eyes “time after time, held nothing but the same terror” (365).

Agee stresses the difference between reality and fiction or art– that the people he writes about exist “in actual being, as you do and as I do, and as no character of the imagination can possibly exist” (12). He writes much of his descriptions of the families in almost a letter format, addressing each character as “you” when he talks about them. Maybe this is his personal shield which makes him feel better as he exposes the people he spent so much time with. If he pretends he is writing to the person, it will be easier to convince himself to write down these intimate moments from their lives. He also tries to expose himself in his writing, going on tangents about his childhood, his depressed thoughts, or his romantic feelings. This seems like another shield against his assignment– something that might make him feel better about exposing others.

Reading about Walter Evans secretly snapping pictures before the subjects were ready makes me wonder if they really felt sorry or not. But I believe James Agee that they were truly self-conscious and upset about exposing these families for the sake of the book. I think they took on the task because they ultimately thought it was important to bring true stories about the Depression to the public. They probably struggled with this internal conflict throughout the creation of the book, and it’s apparent through Agee’s writing.

Effectiveness of Photo-Texts

Effectiveness of Photo-Texts

All three of these photo-texts use very different techniques to point out problems in America. An American Exodus by Lange and Taylor and You Have Seen Their Faces by Caldwell and Bourke-White both focus on the issues with sharecropping and the ruined lives of tenant farmers in the South. Lange and Taylor address the “living participants, who can speak” that they met while working on their book, and allow these people to “speak to [the reader] face to face” (15). Obviously we are not speaking to the subjects face to face, but Lange and Taylor are trying to say that they have put direct quotes in the book and given their subjects the opportunity to explain their situations. They include captions from both those suffering and those educatedly but distantly describing the situations. Caldwell and Bourke-White on the other hand, chose to add the component of fictionality by writing the captions themselves, but putting it in the form of dialogue.

I don’t think either book could have gotten their story across using only pictures. The pictures seem there more to support the argument and the fact that the writers went out into the field than anything else. The photos show the people suffering, but the tenant farming situation is too complicated to be seen from a photo. American Exodus and You Have Seen Their Faces have similar conclusions– the situation needs to be talked about more. People need to know the hopelessness of the tenant farmers. You Have Seen Their Faces does a great job explaining why it is the “duty of the States and the Federal government to inspire, promote, and protect unionization of cotton farmers in the South” (46). Tenant farmers should have the same rights to demand adequate pay as any other worker protected by minimum wage and child labor laws, but for some reason they have slipped through the cracks.

Ilf And Petrov’s American Road Trip uses a lighter and funnier tone to describe their take on America. Their concept is that they are trying to find out what “America” really is. They debunk the “grandiose associations” that Soviet people have when they picture “America” and replace the image of skyscrapers and stockbrokers with the image of “two roads and a gas station against a background of wires and advertising billboards” (15, 13). Though they are impressed by the roads, signs, and easiness of travel in America, Ilf and Petrov make fun of America’s indistinguishable cities, crappy movies, unimaginative town names, and obsession with service (and never having to leave the car).

This leads to their description of “the traveler’s now-hardened heart”– the roads and new towns don’t bring the excitement they should to a traveler in America because “he has already seen something similar” (23). Ilf and Petrov describe the attitude of Americans to not want to waste any time and not be curious, though they are eager to help others. Their main complaint is not of the people, but that “the entire spiritual sustenance that capitalism gives the people” is just “the paper, movies, and church” and that these mediums drill the “anyone can become a millionaire” story into American’s heads their whole lives (27). After all these thought-out impressions of America, Ilf and Petrov present a series of moments in the lives of the American people. These stories are ones we have already heard, but now we see them through the outsider eyes of Ilf and Petrov– they blame capitalism’s game and American’s false hope for the suffering they encounter.

Transient Women

Transient Women

The afterword of Sister Of The Road calls Bertha Thompson a “symbol of humanity” (204)..but I’d say she’s a symbol of human flaw and confusion. Boxcar Bertha is a dualistic character because on one hand she is the product of a failed system, and is addicted to life on the road, but on the other hand, she is passionate about fixing the system. While working on a statistics project for her job with Andrew Nelson, she discovers that “the conclusion could be drawn that ninety-five percent of the transients in the three months studied were employable” (181). But does she want to live in a world where she can be employed permanently? Where the system is fixed?

Boxcar Bertha brings up the subject of wanderlust (and boredom of staying in one town). The lower class’s version of vacation is taking a “hobo trip” because of their desire to travel and to get out of their towns. Bertha talks about the “freedom of the road” she feels every time she leaves again (194). Freedom from staying in one place, responsibility, and her child. She works passionately in a variety of places with homeless women and transients, but she is always forced to leave because the organizations have problems with her past. She never seems upset when she has to leave these jobs though, because even though they should be fulfilling, they are holding her back from the freedom she always longs for. She tells her friend Lowell Schroeder that she is “truly married to the boxcars” and that “jobs, lover, a child” don’t satisfy her the same way as traveling. Lowell calls it her “polygamous or varietaristic nature” (196). He breaks down her addiction to life on the road as her “deep religious nature” which, in search of God, has her “running away from something, and looking for something at the same time” (197).  At the end of the story, I really hoped Bertha was serious about going home to focus on raising her child, but I was almost sure she would be drawn out of her daughter’s life again by adventure. This is the flaw of Bertha and many other transients. Her wanderlust and fear of settling down seems inescapable.

Does it matter that Boxcar Bertha is fictional? She was written by a man whose life story is too similar to hers to overlook…It’s possible that he was almost writing his autobiography, but framed the story with a female lead to further the tension between the life at home expected of women and the addiction to adventure of transient women he knew from his travels.


Leave a Comment