Interestingly enough, this class has fairly little to do with what I study and Gallatin, and NYU as a whole. But I took it because I was very curious about the subject matter, and had a little space in my schedule to do so. While I had a cursory knowledge about this time period in America, and had read some of the books/watched some of the films that we encountered in this course, I realize now that I knew laughably little of the wealth of art, information, and history that emerged from this period in America’s history.
I would say the text that I got the most out of in this course was Somebody In Boots by Nelson Algren. I’m not sure if it was the best-written piece of literature we went over, but it’s perspective and tone was something that I never expected to encounter when perusing fiction from this time period. Algren’s writing is so dark, detailed, and at times, disgusting, that it immediately captured my interest. With many of the texts and information that I’ve reviewed concerning the Depression, I often felt as if something was being held back, as if I wasn’t quite getting the full picture, or someone was attempting to sugar coat it for me. I realize this has something to do with the political notions and pressures of the time, but it always frustrated me, and pulled me out of the material. I had no such qualms with Algren’s work. Reading Somebody In Boots I felt like I was getting an honest, unedited glimpse into the conditions and struggles of the impoverished of this era. I was captivated by the text.
My takeaway from this course is feeling like I know something real about one of the most discussed (and at times, misunderstood) periods in America’s history. The Depression is often represented with caricatures, and seen through the scope of another film, or another story. I enjoyed being able to focus on it directly. I also leave this course with an interesting reflection: that despite all of its hardships, the Depression acted as a type of Renaissance for many writers and artists, provoking some of their best and most engaging work. I am very glad I got the opportunity to review and discuss this material, it is one of the most interesting historical educations I’ve ever had.
Tourism is an industry that I’ve always wanted to know more about, at least from an insider’s perspective. At face value, tourism is a relatively simple industry, and from a traveler’s perspective, it doesn’t go much deeper than that. However, I imagine it to be much more intricate on the other side—the side that promotes tourism and makes it attractive and exciting. I find the idea of “selling” a location or city very compelling and very complex.
From a planning perspective, I find the idea of recruiting writers and artists to assist in the development of tourism to be an ingenious one. Yet I couldn’t help but wonder how these projects changed the careers and focuses of contemporary artists. To transition from independent or creative work into straightforward accounts of areas and attractions feels like a mind-numbing task. All in all, I have to profess that I’m not quite sure what to think about the evolution of the tourism industry at this time, except to say that I am amazed at the way industry was funneled into this field that I would have believed required a more delicate touch.
For the travel guides, I decided to peruse the edition on California. California is my home state, and I figured it would give me a good perspective from which to analyze the writing and content. Indeed, much has changed about the Golden State since 1939, but there’s a lot that hasn’t. Immediately, I was interested in the writing style. While it isn’t the most engaging or artistic prose I’ve ever encountered, it certainly has the feel of being produced by an experienced author whose experience has been developed with other types of writing. The guide refers to San Francisco (my hometown) as being “born of the meeting of sea captain and gold seekers” (266), which is hardly a line that one would encounter in a travel brochure.
Reading this guide has been a fascinating experience for me, not so much because of the content, but because of the actual experience I have while reading it. The guide often feels schizophrenic, as if it is the product of completely different, yet related, consciences. There are these short bursts of artistic expression and enigmatic language, followed by dry descriptions of demographics, and sections of statistics on land size and annual events. I think of these guides like box scores of a baseball game. They provide all the relevant information, and even a little excitement, but don’t come anywhere near the actual experience they chronicle, despite how detailed and meticulous they are.
I also have to wonder how the writer’s felt when they compiled these guides. Were they glad for the work? Were they frustrated at the stifling of their creativity? Or did they enjoy channeling their passion into something more practical for a change? There are many events and experiences from this era that fascinate me, but this program, and this unexpected combination of tourism and literature may very well be the most intriguing historical tidbit I’ve encountered so far.
One of the things that intrigues me most about early America is this idea of “discovering America” as if it was never fully understood or experienced, no matter what you did. Nowadays, the primary motivation for tourism is relaxation or recreation, and while these were certainly driving motives in Depression-era America, I would say the primary motives were exploration and education. Back then; people knew far less about the areas of America that they didn’t call home. I found myself often trying to comprehend just how different the process of travel was back during the Depression throughout my time in this course, and this group of readings has urged me to try and understand it even more.
Roland Wild’s “Double-Crossing America” begins from such a relatable and familiar space, and I became fascinated when I was reminded that it was written in an entirely different era. These opening lines of “Double-Crossing America” provoked me to think quite a bit about how travel has evolved in some ways, and yet stayed the same in others:
“Sometimes you make plans so desirable and fantastic that in self-defence (sic) you erect barriers, almost impregnable, that must be torn down before your plans can come to anything. Thus you make alibis for yourself, so that you can always blame circumstances. You work out all the details because you know it is a hundred to one against your having to put them into practice. You want circumstances to make a decision for you” (9).
This passage interested me because it’s going against what motivated many of the families and travelers we’ve studied in this course. For many during the Depression, travel was motivated by necessity. When the Joads went West, they did so because they had no other choice. It’s nice to see travel once again from another perspective.
It’s also engaging to think of America in the way that many saw it during this time: as an experience as much as a place. As said in “Double-Crossing America,” “It would be mortifying to slide into destruction the day, the first week, the first month out of New York. I would then be a traveller who had been to New York—but not to America” (14). I enjoy the concept that one must experience a place in its entirety to claim to understand it or be a part of it, and it’s one that I wish was more prevalent today.
Reading Nathanael West’s novel, A Cool Million, I was confused by something that I later found out is a common critique of the book: it seems too direct a parody/societal critique to be a novel. However, as I continued to do more reading, and a bit of outside research on the novel, I realized that perhaps it is one of those books that fits better outside of traditional or more simplistic categories. I started approaching the rest of A Cool Million from the perspective of it being a hybrid of different categories, and found that I enjoyed it much more when I wasn’t trying to pigeonhole the book.
Something I really enjoyed about A Cool Million was its ability to present to me the heavily-treaded grounds of the American Dream in a fresh and interesting way. In fact, as Naomi Kubo points out in her article, “America as a ‘Proper Receptacle’: Nathanael West’s A Cool Million: or, The Dismantling of Lemuél Pitkin” there are themes in West’s novel concerning the American Dream that have barely even been touched on.
One of the most interesting themes for me in A Cool Million was the idea of commodification. I understood a bit about the term prior to my reading this novel due to some exposure to Marxist philosophy, but came to understand it much better as I read A Cool Million and Naomi Kubo’s article.
As Kubo says,
“The novel’s plot and repeated motifs consistently reveal a system of commodification based on consumption-oriented values, which tend to deform and diminish the commodified objects’ inherent values. In this sense, the utilized things can be treated merely as vehicles of consumption-oriented values. In terms of the treatment of the things as such vehicles, the range which A Cool Million investigates is not limited to an economic aspect. It includes an ideological aspect, focusing on the use of the word “America,” which makes A Cool Million not only a critique of consumerism in general but also a critique of a social condition peculiar to America.”
The transition in focus (especially in America) from use or exchange-value to sign-value is something that has always interested me, and Kubo’s article really helped me become cognizant of that theme in A Cool Million, which I had hardly picked up on during my first read through. The underlying principle that sign-value relies on is having a unified symbol or metaphor that represents something positive or desirable, and A Cool Million shows that in America, if something has potential sign-value, it can quickly be watered down, simplified, and sold. Indeed, in Wu Fong’s brothel, the prostitutes are advertised just as much for their country of origin as they are for their physical characteristics. Their entire heritage and history is boiled down into a few images, trinkets, and room decorations, and made into a cheapened and marketable “brand” of prostitute.
Nathanael West’s image of the prostitutes ethnicities being bastardized made me think about the history of stereotypes and prejudice in America. Has this sign-value way of thinking dominated our thinking to such a degree that we no longer care about use-value? Do we prefer to see people, places and objects are simple, singular symbols rather than entities with a complex and unique history? Many works in this class have exposed me to the truth and terror of the Great Depression, but A Cool Million was the first piece that truly made me understand how the effects of those hard times are still influencing our society today.
Preston Sturge’s 1942 film Sullivan’s Travels is one that I’ve respected for a long time because of the moral it presents: that comedy and laughter aren’t just cheap entertainment, they’re a fundamental element of the human experience, and often our best coping mechanism. The film itself also acts as an example of this moral, as it is a comedy that presents a powerful message. Much like its title’s inspiration—Gulliver’s Travel—this is a brilliant satire, one that provokes a laugh, and leaves the audience with plenty of food for thought.
Director John L. Sullivan suffers from an urge that many of us have experienced at some point in our lives—namely, the desire to share our thoughts and observations with the world in a magnificent, intelligent, and dramatic fashion. However, this urge can quickly become an affliction when we strive to force drama and intrigue on everyday events, and it ends up feeling inauthentic. It’s an unfortunate truth that many noble, dramatic stories can quickly become cheesy or cliché; one that the story of the Great Depression has fallen victim to more than once.
It is tempting to take tragic or terrifying events and present them in the darkest, starkest light in order to draw people’s attention, and recognize the emotional gravity that they possess. However, when you tell the story of an entire era (such as the Great Depression) that involves the events of so many lives, it is impossible to do so and have the story be one hundred percent dignified or serious or sad. Life is both funny and sad in every single moment, and very rarely is there a catastrophe without a bit of strangeness, or a joke without a twinge of sadness. People often deride comedy as an art form, but it is just as much a part of the human experience as drama is. And drama, even used for noble purposes, isn’t always the best way to help those in need.
For those who are constantly suffering, such as the impoverished in the Great Depression, it is nice to have their story told, but it doesn’t dispel the sadness and pain they fell. Only happiness can do that. The story of John L. Sullivan teaches us that sometimes we don’t always understand the right way to help those we want to help, and we have to be open to suggestion and inspiration. Sullivan believes a serious, hard-hitting drama is the best use of his time, but throughout his entire odyssey in the shoes of a hobo, the most powerful force he encounters is a simple cartoon. His simple comedies may not have been Oscar winners, but they provide people with a much-needed sense of escape, comfort, and silliness. Indeed, in times of tragedy the world needs people to tell the stories of the less fortunate, and open our eyes to the struggles of others, but we also need comedians, those people who can cheer us up during the dark times when a lasting solution isn’t present.
The movie ends with a powerful yet subtle image: a montage of laughing faces. It shows that a silly, satirical film can do exactly what a powerful drama can do: leave the audience with a strong, lasting message. Sometimes we learn through sorrow and sadness, but sometimes we learn through happiness and hope.
Keeping in mind what we spoke about in class on Tuesday, I continued to read Grapes of Wrath, paying particular attention to Steinbeck’s process, both in his tone and in the way he structured the chapters of the novel. With this objective in mind, I also perused some of the additional readings, and found this very interesting excerpt for Nicholas Visser’s essay, Audience and Closure in The Grapes of Wrath:
“The wish to influence public opinion makes it all the more urgent for Steinbeck to ensure that his project does not fail to reach its audience. Public opinion, after all, can equally be influenced to ignore or reject his message. One of the devices he employs to overcome the expected difficulties is attempting to gain control over the operative definitions of the words “Okies” and “reds.” To reach his audience, Steinbeck had to find some way of bridging the social and cultural distance between them and his characters. An anthropological mode of discourse can create and even sustain interest in unknown social groups, but Steinbeck required more than interest. For his project to succeed he needed active sympathy: he needed his readers to wish so wholeheartedly for the amelioration of the conditions suffered by the migrants that public opinion would be swayed in their favor” (3)
I had never previously considered the urgency that must have been driving Steinbeck while he wrote this book. I thought of it a bit in class when the video we watched touched on how for Steinbeck, this was a proving point, and that if he couldn’t write this novel, it would prove that he wasn’t an author. At the time, I didn’t think too much of that caveat, but in the context of Visser’s essay, I realized not only how passionate Steinbeck was about this novel, but how terrifying and immense the undertaking must have felt to him.
I can’t help but wonder exactly how much responsibility Steinbeck felt was on his shoulders as he wrote The Grapes of Wrath. Did he feel as if his writing was to be the defining call to action for the upper and middle classes? I often wonder to what degree great writers were able to predict the success of their works. Did Steinbeck know The Grapes of Wrath was going to be his magnum opus, or was he constantly worrying about his success, even after it was published?
Steinbeck often gets lumped in with the classic high school mandatory reading crowd, but I believe his experience when writing The Grapes of Wrath must have been quite different than Hemingway’s when writing The Old Man and The Sea, or Faulkner’s when he wrote The Sound and The Fury. For Steinbeck, writing The Grapes of Wrath was fulfilling an unspoken promise to all the poor and beaten down that he encountered on his journey through Depression-era America.
I don’t know to what degree Steinbeck felt responsible for the down and out during the Depression, or how passionate he was when writing The Grapes of Wrath, but I do know that there was something driving his writing process that doesn’t drive the average author. Yet I still have to wonder how he felt about his goal, and its probability of success. I like to believe that Steinbeck had hope for his novel, and its ability to galvanize the upper classes. It’s hard to tell from the end of the novel, when Rose of Sharon is breast-feeding the starving man. Is this an image of ultimate kindness and selflessness, or a reminder that even the kindest and noblest people can’t always save themselves by doing the right thing?
“I’m learnin’ one thing good,” she said. “Learnin’ it all a time, ever’ day. If you’re in trouble or hurt or need—go to poor people. They’re the only ones that’ll help—the only ones” (258). This quote, spoken by Ma Joad in John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath, highlights one of the themes we’ve brought up many times in class so far: the generosity and empathy of the less fortunate and impoverished. Many of the works we’ve encountered so far have touched on or focused on the kindness of the less fortunate, but The Grapes of Wrath is the first one we’ve read that also contrasts the generosity of the poor with the greediness and corruption of the wealthy and powerful of the time.
The Joads encounter plenty of corruption and selfishness throughout the novel, and while Steinbeck makes it clear that this cruelty has a few main causes, there is one that towered above all others at the time: institutional power. In the first Hooverville the Joads come to, a contractor and his deputies try and extort the travelers, or “Okies” into giving manual labor in exchange for negligible pay. When people try to protest, they threaten them with violence and false charges. Beginning here and continuing throughout the Joad’s odyssey, people with institutional power—whether they be bankers or industrial farmers—are the quickest to take advantage of the less fortunate in order to increase their own power and profit. Ironically, all of the cruelest, most manipulative people in The Grapes of Wrath are those who are best suited to aid the less fortunate.
Common sense would seem to dictate that generosity would be more prevalent in the fortunate as they have more to give, so why is that not the case in The Grapes of Wrath (and during the time the book is based on)? I’m not sure if Steinbeck gives us a direct answer to that (I’m not sure if there is one), but there are some inferences that can be drawn from Steinbeck’s work, in order to help us understand exactly why corruption was so omnipresent in the wealthy and powerful of the period.
The first—and simplest—motivator of corruption is fear. More so than any other time period in America, the Depression showed everyone what true poverty was, and how quickly it could overwhelm people. Much like the plague, poverty and bankruptcy came to be seen as unstoppable, ineffable forces during the Depression, capable of attacking anyone at any time. This constant fear and pressure make it very easy to grow hostile and fearful of one’s neighbors, especially when they are labeled as “Okies,” a title exclusively possessed by some of the poorest people at the time.
The other—and more directly noticeable—motivator of cruelty and corruption in The Grapes of Wrath is dehumanization. When one has money, safety, and shelter (and fears losing these things) it becomes easy to distance oneself from those who have lost these essentials. It’s also far smoother on one’s conscience to label people as poor, or hobos, or “Okies” instead of acknowledging them as individuals just like you except for a stroke of bad luck.
Money fuels these motivators, and therefore one it’s gone, there is nothing motivating people to be cruel, and manipulate those less fortunate. When people are forced to live without money, they lose one of the main drives behind their most negative emotions. It also becomes that much easier to relate to someone when you’re shouldering the same burdens as they are. And, as Steinbeck shows, the empathy and kindness of the “Okies” is far more important and noble than any amount of money. Those who were fearful of running out of money during the Depression allowed that fear to cloud their priorities, and they became something far worse than impoverished in the process.
Observing these collections of photography and writing from this time period, I find myself incredibly intrigued not only by the mercurial relationship between image and text, but the author’s ability to take a straightforward journalistic (or governmental in the case of Bourke-White, Caldwell, etc.) assignment, and turn it into a representation of the time period that would endure for decades to come.
Indeed, the assignment that Agee and Evans embarked on was a curious, but simple one. They were to prepare “and article on cotton tenantry in the United States, in the form of a photographic and verbal record of the daily living and environment of an average white family of tenant farmers” (xiii). However, as time passed, Agee was able to take this simple assignment and approach it on such a grand scale that it would far, far, beyond its original task. Agee himself said that his work (that would eventually become Let Us Now Praise Famous Men) would come to be “an independent inquiry into certain normal predicaments of human divinity”—an impressive foresight into the legacy of his work.
I often wonder if these writers and photographers knew the importance of their work in the moment. When Agee and Evans were living with these struggling families, and documenting their experiences, did they have a sense of what the records of their experiences would come to be, and how long they would persist? I think of that moment in the Margaret Bourke-White documentary we watched in class in which she attests to simply following a gut feeling, and driving into an off-road camp. The fact that such a simple instinct lead her to what was arguably the greatest photograph of her career is mind-blowing to me, and I wonder how many of these other writers and photographers followed similar instincts while in the field.
Another possible clue to these writers possessing some sort of understanding of what their work would go on to represent is in the very title of Agee and Evans’ collection. The title, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, is excerpted from a passage (44:1) in the Wisdom of Sirach (a section of the Tanakh, or Hebrew Bible) that in its entirety reads, “let us now praise famous men, and our fathers that begat us.” I can’t help but wonder (although I feel a bit silly doing so) if the title is a two fold meaning: a homage to the struggling individuals of America at the time, as well as a message to readers in the distant future, to not forget the lessons that we learned from the Depression and its aftermath.
I firmly believe that true, earnest empathy can be accomplished through writing. However, it can be extremely difficult to empathize with circumstances entirely removed from one’s life experiences, such as those many people encountered during the Depression. Therefore, in terms of understanding these experiences, the photography books produced during this time, such as You Have Seen Their Faces by Erskine Caldwell and Margaret Bourke-White and An American Exodus by Dorothea Lange and Paul Schuster Taylor are an excellent aid, not just because they show the time period in a visual medium, but because they focus on the stories of individuals.
The combination of social activism and art can elicit very strong responses from people who might have otherwise remained apathetic or unaware of certain crises (in the present or the past). Indeed, these “photo-books” were initially critiqued because they presented material in a way that hadn’t been done before, but they have stood the test of time for a reason. As Alan Trachtenberg writes in the introduction to You Have Seen Their Faces, “Whatever shortcomings new readers may find in the book, its evidence of a passion for justice joined with a passion for artistic communication makes an irresistible claim on our respect.”
It’s hard to look at these collections without thinking of a very similar modern parallel, the website Humans of New York curated by photographer Brandon Stanton. Stanton posts pictures of people he meets on the street to his website (and social media) and pairs them with a brief excerpt from the quick interviews he does with each of his subjects. Stanton’s work has been met with critical acclaim because of its ability to connect people emotionally who otherwise would never know anything about each other due to socioeconomic, cultural, or geographic circumstances. I can’t help but wonder if Stanton was inspired directly by artists like Caldwell, Lange, and Bourke-White.
These collections work so well because they poke at the profound mystery of the sonder we all feel when surrounded by a bustling crowd, or looking at the faces of hundreds of poverty-stricken individuals during the Depression. Understanding the thoughts and behaviors of others intrigues everyone on one level or another, and these collections provide us with just enough information to glimpse a portion of these people’s lives, and plenty of room to wonder about the rest.
One of the most wonderful qualities of these collections is their relative neutrality. It doesn’t feel like Caldwell, Bourke-White, Lange and Taylor are composing these collections to incite some kind of social and cultural revolution. Rather, they seem to say, “Look at how these people live. Think about them. Remember them. They deserve your attention.” Indeed, the title You Have Seen Their Faces sticks with you as you browse the collection. You as a reader have been given a look into these people’s lives, and they deserve your recognition. It’s ironically easy to ignore a group of people going through hardship, but it becomes much more difficult when you see them as individuals undergoing hardship. These collections do just that, and now that I’ve seen these faces, and read their stories, they’ll be much harder to forget.
Reading the excerpt from Somebody in Boots by Nelson Algren, I was immediately struck by the difference in tone between this piece and the other Depression-era writings we’ve encountered so far in this class. While this time period is unquestionably bleak, even the more in depth accounts such as Waiting for Nothing never went into the level of visceral—and at times disturbing—detail that Somebody in Boots does. It particularly hit me when Cass describes the sordid state of the meat they serve at the mission: “Cass looked down at his plate. The thing upon it was formed like a meat-ball, and it well might have been all of that; but it wambled (sic) about in a thin yellow swill, a kind of diarrheal brown gravy. Cass thought of cow-dung dropped thinly and long” (324) Of all the detailed descriptions of living conditions for hobos and vagrants during this time period that we’ve read in this class, none have stuck with my quite so long, or provoked such a strong reaction (in my heart as well as my stomach). Most of the writings we’ve encountered so far offer a realistic, unembellished account of the conditions during the Depression. However, if all of our readings so far were to be placed on a spectrum, most of them would lean towards the positive; they all attempt to convey a message of endurance, survivability, and empathy. Somebody in Boots on the other hand, leans much more toward the negative end of the spectrum. This excerpt shares an objective with the other readings in this class insofar as it attempts to throw the reader into the life of a Depression-era vagrant as comprehensively as possible. However, as a reader, my experience in the shoes of a vagrant was much different in this story than in any of the previous readings. Everything seems a little darker in Somebody in Boots, and I am grateful for it. I feel that to truly empathize with any one person, or with any class of people, I have to experience the world just as they did, without any agenda or censorship. Indeed, Somebody in Boots disconcerted me much more than any of our previous readings in this class, but it also pulled me into the world of a hobo during the Depression that much more. Seeing the line outside the mission “worming” its way back and forth, and hearing of the coal oil being sprayed on the trashcans, I felt a little more knowledgeable in my attempts to empathize with these individuals during this time of unimaginable hardship. It can be difficult to read stories like this, but the darker, bleak messages of history are just as important as the hopeful ones.