The wondrous camp

The wondrous camp

In a book of bleakness and desperation, the only ray of hope is the Weedpatch Camp. The Joads have come from far in search of succor and employment, but have been unable to find either. The world seems as merciless as the dust storm that ruined their crops and forced them to move away. They get to California and enter the Weedpatch, a veritable utopia. It is a government-run facility that is clean, efficient, and orderly, a mark of the progress and modernisation that is possible under the auspices of New Deal government. It has proper showers, food, associations, and it protects migrant Oakies and Arkies and others from harassment from California policemen, agents of the banks that seek to beat down the honest, hardworking people who are merely looking for jobs.

The camp serves as a model of the greatness of government benevolence and wisdom, how efficient it is as opposed to the brutality of the Californian foremen who break promise and murder strikers. The camp is merciful, clean; a veritable haven where the dispossessed can go for a respite as they attempt to put their lives back in order. The conditions outside the camp are much more unwholesome and brutal, and the people who come back try to make the outside world as humane as it has the potential to be, and so they attempt to organise a union for better pay and working conditions. The bosses, always seeking to bring a worker down, label these folks ‘reds’ and ‘communists’ who are seeking to destroy everything in their path and they place the blame on the migrant camp for being a breeding ground for subversive ideas. The ideas espoused by camp residents seem more commonsense than radical, but the bosses’ greed keeps them from seeing the plight of the common man. The attempt to make the job like Weedpatch fails horribly, but Tom Joad promises that he’ll continue to fight for what is just and right in the world, to make the world at large like Weedpatch, a socialist paradise where workers are treated fairly and there are no bosses to be exploited by or banks to be evicted by. All are equal and the American promise is fulfilled.

'It Happened One Night'

‘It Happened One Night’

Classic cinema never ceases to amaze, in that there is plenty that was done then that now is untouchable. ‘It Happened One Night’ is chock-full of scenes that have been referenced or parodied for decades since. It has many plot similarities with the Audrey Hepburn classic ‘Roman Holiday’, not the least because it circles around a wealthy young lady who escapes her privileged life for a brief respite and ends up befriending an initially self-interested reporter-cum-love interest. The movie is engaging after all these years, and remains as witty and funny as it must have all those years ago.

The film may have been an attempt to showcase the various ways of travelling across the country, as nearly every manner of transport is represented in monochrome. One cannot but wonder if the film was a sort of government booster for travel…. The protagonists travel by boat, by car, by hitchhiking, by train, by bus, and more throughout the movie. There is a notable scene in a Greyhound bus that starkly contrasts with the contemporary experience of travelling by bus, in that in the one scene there is a musician performing in the bus to overjoyed fellow passengers who sing along; nowadays, people sit silently in the bus and barely interact with one another. The abundance of methods of travel in this movie attempt to glamorise the ability to get around, as if to say there’s more than one way to do it, and there are more than one possibility for the trip in itself. This diversity of modes of transport was relatively new at the time of filming, at least cheaply, and Capra must have been as impressed as he can be assumed to be by his zealousness in its portrayal. He shows how average Americans do and can travel about, to spread the word and entice people to move by showing how much fun the protagonists have on their own journey. It can be unglamorous, like at the roadside proto-motel with one shower for the whole camp, or it could be fun like the ride in the bus. The famous hitchhiking scene is a notable scene that parodies the eccentricities of hitchers  in their attempts to get rides, but also the callousness and inconsideration of the drivers who refuse to stop and give a body a ride that may be on their own route. The class differences between characters and locations and modes of travel make this movie (and other Capra classics) an entertaining social commentary that reflects the contemporaneous progressive ideals that sought to improve the lot of the average citizen brought low by the Depression but seeking the wealth that Ellie is able to return to at the end of the movie. While making fascinating commentary on travel and class, ‘It Happens One Night’ ends as a crowd-pleasing romance that drives away, the audience smiling the whole way.

Seeing New York

Seeing New York

Looking at the New York City WPA Guide, it is amazing to see how such a widely-sourced project came together in a cohesive, informative, and useful book. While it is over 600 pages in length, it is small enough to tuck under one’s arm and carry on the streets and consult as necessary. It presents to the tourist condensed histories of certain New York City neighbourhoods, with the emphasis being, as usual, on Manhattan, and giving lists and descriptions of notable sights and places to eat or sleep in the city. It explains the hectic subway system to newcomers, even though it is doubtful that they’d be able to grasp the subtleties of it functioning as a local would. The book does a great job of presenting to out of towners the vagaries of NYC life as best as possible, and presents a palatable image of the city to tourists.

The WPA guide is not just useful for the guide aspect, but because New York City has changed drastically since its initial publication in 1939, the book is a time capsule. The neighbourhoods as they exist in the book are no longer what they were, especially in the outer boroughs like Queens or Brooklyn, which were still mostly open land, mostly farms. It paints a somewhat quaint and enchanting picture of New York, portraying it as a place where anything can (and does) happen and can be found within the city limits. The writers of the book- perhaps native New Yorkers- are immensely proud of the city and do not hesitate to point out even the most mundane aspects of city life, including the description and lauding of a hospital. The guide works as a bit of touristic propaganda in that way, making everything seem like something that ought to be visited, and boosting the revenue and reputation of the city in the long run. The writers also make it easy to enter the cultural life of the city, pointing at certain notable institutions and publications that are well worth exploring for one’s own edification. They openly mention leftist activities pervasively throughout the book, as if expecting the readers to seek out the Movement while travelling and sightseeing. The pointers to choice eating spots are a plus, being that a good bite to eat is always something that tourists will look for, even if they will want to go to the more famous spots for bragging rights.

The book is littered with minutiae on New York City and noteworthy sites throughout the five boroughs that make for a history buff’s dream. The photographs and paintings in the book offer perspectives on New York that are little-seen or minded by most people, even locals themselves. Locals may find this book helpful in discovering things about their neighborhood and city that they may have overlooked their whole lives. To know one’s city is to respect it, I say.

On the highways, in the hedges

On the highways, in the hedges

Travelling is infectious. I’ve always been one for travelling about, mostly around the Northeast of the USA, and anything to stoke an appreciation for the vagaries and quirks of travel. I’m particularly fond of travelogues that have a sort of historical or radical bent, to inform how other people perceive the things they see when they’re moving around, and perhaps I can add it to my long list of places to visit and see. As well, travelling is an opportunity to open one’s mind and see things that one usually wouldn’t, whether that be huge expanses of countryside, notable attractions, or how others live out their lives. The travelling writers of the 30s used the newfound ease of travel to document, experience, and spread the stories of those who were hit by the Great Depression. They saw travel as not only a leisurely activity, something exciting and novel, but as part of their social mission to enlighten the minds of their neighbours and seek to improve the lot of all of their fellow citizens. Some people were more honest in their methods and truthful in their recountings, but they all wanted to get an impression of the hardships facing average Americans and to inspire calls for change in order to improve the society as a whole.

Travel was and remains a tool for learning. One travels to learn about somewhere else, even if it is something as banal as seeing some kitschy roadside attraction- one is going to see something new in an unfamiliar place, and one will learn at least something from it. When one travels and talks to the people one meets, or peeks in a guidebook for information about a particular place, one is allowing one’s self to be open to the new, to all the amazing possibilities and idiosyncrasies of the place, allowing one’s Self to be subsumed by the excitement of being in a new place (unless that place is actually awful- then go somewhere else!) Travel exposes one to the marvels of the world, as well as its injustices. Many a writer has been spurred to join the Movement by what they had seen somewhere and dedicated themselves to fighting against it, towards furthering it and creating a more just society. This is partly why I travel and will continue to do so money permitting. Travel is fun, but it has never been, and ain’t cheap.

Monsters of industry

Monsters of industry

“The man sitting in the iron seat did not look like a man; gloved, goggled, rubber dust mask over nose and mouth, he was a part of the monster, a robot in the seat…. A twitch at the controls could control the cat’, but the driver’s hands could not twitch because the monster that had built the tractor, the monster that sent the tractor out, had somehow got into the driver’s hands, had goggled and muzzled him- goggled his mind, muzzled his speech, goggled his perception, muzzled his protest.” (Chapter 5)

Throughout The Grapes of Wrath, the importance of the land and one’s ownership and connection to it is stressed again and again. The Okies, while poor, have lived on and with the land for long enough to consider it their own. They are essentially a part of it, and the violence act of evicting these tenant farmers from their land fails to sever this link. They are people of the earth, and Steinbeck is blatantly sympathetic with the Völkisch sentiments that such a connection entails; since they have lived for so long, they deserve  to keep this land.

The agents of the banks, however, have no such sense of ownership. They are mechanical, following the words on the paper, and doing what they are sent to do without considering morals- money does not work in such ways. They do what they must to be paid, even when that entails the eviction of farmers who have nowhere else to go- if they are able to cultivate the land themselves or if they can sell the land to someone willing to buy the tracts of land, all the better. These agents are almost like robots, following a directive that was given to them by some suit in an East Coast city who has no idea of what is happening in Oklahoma other than the fact that they are losing or gaining money.

Herein lies the great difference between the workings of the capitalist system and the justice that the Okies are expecting from the system. The Okies believe that their hard work at tending their land will give them their due, that is de facto ownership of it, without having to pay too much. The banks have no heart and no soul, so such ideas are not even considered- they are out for profit, and nothing will get in the way of their wanton accumulation of green paper. Their strategy is cold and logical, written on paper and not derived from any stirrings of human sympathy. The system is stacked in dollar bills against the poor tenant farmers who lost everything in the Dust Bowl, and their will be no succour from the State or the rich; they must seek it themselves and acquire it by the work of their own hands. They must move on.

No need to slow down!

No need to slow down!

The newfound ability to travel great distances with the car changed the way that people travelled and how they related to the places they saw and visited. Whereas before a cross-country trip could take weeks, people could now traverse the immensity of the continental USA in a couple of days. No longer did people have to be beholden to train schedules or have to spend extended amounts of time in between their departing and arrival points. The point is to cover ground, and to cover ground fast, to see as much and to cross as many state borders as possible. Travelling thus becomes something novel, something that one ‘does’ as much as someone goes for a walk in the park, although something one can brag about by collecting stickers, or having travelled to the ‘farthest reaches’ of the country. The speed of the car makes the act of travelling itself an adventure- one can move fast, speed in fact, on roads that were until recently unpaved or non-existent. One can thus revel in the power and magic of the car, in its ability to break the confines of normal speed if one were on foot- it is an intimately personal, if not individualistic, experience that contrasts with the close-quarters and possibility for interaction with strangers on a train or bus. “Time and space are at your beck and call, your freedom is complete”, Elon Jessup wrote, and this what the advent of the personal automobile has brought. It makes the landscape and the experience of travel something that is controlled and rigidly oriented by the desires and will of the traveller, by following the hard asphalt of the highway or the stark lines on the map, going from point A to point B as efficiently and as quickly as possible. Such an approach leaves little time or place for spontaneity in travel, and there are yet many places that cars couldn’t reach, but the human foot could. Travel was commodified and packaged, something that was safe and fun for the whole family; all one needed was the car.

"You cannot fail to succeed"

“You cannot fail to succeed”

“America,” he said with great seriousness, “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 Americans stop believing it, on that day America will be lost…. The story of Rockefeller and Ford is the story of every great American, and you should strive to make it your story. Like them, you were born poor and on a farm. Like them, by honesty and industry, you cannot fail to succeed.”

And so Pitkin first hears the American dream, which he has not dreamt of until being told it by Whipple. He has been suckered into a scheme that will not benefit himself as much as it will Whipple. He has been lured by false promises and the accounts of famously lucky men. Whipple has charmed him with the story so hopeful and enthralling that it can’t not be true. One does not seek failure in life, but success, usually in a monetary sense, even though very few people acquire the wealth they so yearn for. It is the American dream, after all, so one has to be asleep to believe it.

Pitkin finds out that the world is not quite as conducive to his success and well-being, as have many before and since the publication of A Cool Million in 1934. Many people work hard at thankless jobs every day for hours on end, and yet they are not able to achieve the success they so desire, but make just enough to get by. Any day they can be fired from their jobs for no reason or thrown onto the street and in jail by a cold and heartless system. That the story is written in the style of Horatio Alger’s contrived rags-to-riches story is all the more scathing in its criticism of the capitalist narrative of its own benevolence. Capitalist America will eat you up and spit you out alive- as Pitkin finds out, it will tear him apart and use him body and soul, dead or alive. You’ll be beaten and robbed and dissected and all you can do is limp on and try to survive on the meagre bits you have left.

There are many wrongs, but the solution is always at a loss. There is always a scapegoat to be sought, in this case the international Jewish-Bolshevik banking conspiracy which seeks to bring America to its knees (regardless that communism and capitalism are, in theory, bitterly opposed to one another), that seems so broad and wide-ranging that it sounds too ridiculous to not be true. Therein lay the big lie which the fascists won over Europe and exacted a terrible victory upon the people. West is afraid that Americans will descend into fascism because it is easy enough to blame our problems, our failures on the despised ‘Other’ and leave the problem-solving in the hands of a maniac who says ‘all the right things’ and attacks and blames all the right people and brings the people as a whole back together. It’s chilling, yes, but it’s a short step from being maddened and victimising others to yelling “Hail!” at a mass rally. That is a path that West was prescient enough to fear.

Hitting the road

Hitting the road

The possibilities of seeing how other people live has always been of interest to the socially-minded and radical persuasion. It offered a way to see how the ‘real’ proletariat lived, outside of books of Marxist theory, to get one’s hands dirty in the struggle, or at the very least to get interesting material for a forthcoming book or article. The budding writer-activist-voyeur sees travel as the way to see America, as Asch writes in his foreword to  The Road.

One cannot see truths or make judgements without taking into account that there are more people in the world than those in one’s immediate area. This is especially necessary for activists and revolutionaries who seek to change the country and the world; if you don’t understand how others think, work, and live, how are you supposed to gain their support at all? On the other side of the equation, the images and descriptions of the lives of others and their plight can be used to garner support within political parties and social movements for the call for reform or revolution (preferably revolution). An uninformed decision or position could end up alienating those that are targeted for assistance or agitation, and doing a sort of intellectual reconnaissance is a worthy attempt of keeping such mistakes at bay. What may end up happening, however, is that the investigators enter the scene with their own expectations and agendas that distort the truth of what they report. They reinforce their own and the general society’s perception of the poor, the dispossessed of the Depression.

What is needed, then, is impartiality on the part of the reporters. They must make themselves into Emerson’s “transparent eyeball”, so to speak, in order to give voice to the voiceless to report things as they are, as they occur in reality. They mis be dispassionate about their own views if they are not based on their actual experiences or what they have learnt from their subjects. They have come to learn, after all, to find something after having travelled so far. Seeing objectively allows the experiences of people to reveal themselves- one watches and notices, but also listens to what people have to say and ask questions for clarification. Seeing with the eyes does not fully flesh out a situation or a place as much as actually hearing from people themselves, to learn about their struggles, frustrations, hopes, aspirations, and so forth. People talk about their thoughts on issues, and what works best for them rises up from the amalgamation. The writer must use what they learn for the benefit of the people they have visited and written about, seeking to ameliorate their conditions, or garner support for their struggles. The valid argument posed by an aggravated militant in Gilfillan’s “No Comrade” is more than justified when taken into consideration: “Art is divided into three classes: he kind which presents a system toward truth and reform. This is the kind that lasts…. There is the kind of art which shows conditions and offers no remedy…. Then there is the class you belong to, the Ivory Tower- art for art’s sake!” To the folks struggling daily, there is no use for art or writing if it does nothing for them in their actual lives and just collects dust on shelves. The investigative traveller must then take into account what type of story they are spreading and hope that it reaches sympathetic and radical ears.

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"Art... has nothing to do with Life"

“Art… has nothing to do with Life”

James Agee seeks for his words to be the equivalent of the photographs and film that are so inexorably dominating the documentation of the lives of those hard-hit by the Depression. The task of capturing a moment in words is daunting, to say the least, as words are so much less fluidly able to capture the nuances of form and light and colour without some degree of awkwardness, if not artificiality. Agee, though, tries his darnedest, and pretty much succeeds in this endeavour. He employs long, rambling sentences that detail the light in the room, the clothes being worn, what the subjects are doing or how they are posing, the odds and ends in the room that can or can’t be seen. He sets out to create the character of the room as well as of the people. He sets the scene and describes it as if he were shooting on a set; he is ‘taking’, as it were, a shot of the lives of these average people, capturing the most minute details of their lives so as to allow the reader to transpose themselves into the lives of those being described. This verbal ‘filming’ as it were is an attempt to capture the transient nature of a moment, of something that can only be seen once, yet must be seen over and over again by a large audience as fast as possible. It must then be digestible, but realistic, if not hyper-realistic, enough to catch the reader’s attention and simulate the scene enough that they will feel that they are as present as Agee was when he was or re-imagined himself to be there when he wrote. He realises that nitrate will not do a good enough job at capturing what words can, albeit through long, detailed, and awkward description. But it works- one is transported back in time into the moment in the lives of the people of the Depression, and it’s almost as if one is there in the flesh.

Truth of the word

Truth of the word

The question of the veracity of the writers’ prose has been brought up many times in class, and it is one that must be posed repeatedly as we read recountings that are supposedly based on the real-life exploits of the writers. As writers, ultimately, their goal is to sell copies of their work and make money, and the ‘realest’ and ‘rawest’ pieces are the ones that are eaten up by the public. This book-buying public is mostly made up of middle-class consumers who seek salacious or exciting stories to bring them to places and experience things that they would never without the physical book taking away from their home lives and jobs. The travel narrative exists for vicariousness, to allow others to see the lives of others, to feel the ‘thrill’ of travel, or its hardships. It also helps if the writer has an ‘exotic’ story behind them: for example, Woody Guthrie was a travelling folksinger, and “Boxcar Bertha” was a female hobo. There is no mundanity in their artistic profiles, and their stories are full of unconventional, if not somewhat socially-transgressive, anecdotes.

In order to achieve the effect of honest prose, the writer must affect, or write the affectation of, a spoken vernacular, whether that be in a transcribed accent or the simplicity of sentence structure. Guthrie, for example, writes very simple sentences that ramble about as if in conversation, but his narration is in ‘correct’ English, whereas his dialogue is in the spoken vernacular. He preserves the image of a ‘man of the people’ that he has created through his songs, but it must be remembered that Guthrie is not an academic, but an autodidact who knows the value of words and their dissemination into the world. As well, Bertha’s prose is simple and affects someone telling a story, rambling as it is felt to be necessary, but these are not exactly Bertha’s own words that are being read; rather they are ostensibly her story as recorded by Ben Reitman, a traveller on the rails himself. The self-advertising of the book as the work of a female hobo merely taps into the novelty of the concept, and thus lures in a readership. That is not to mock or question the value or quality of the experiences recorded therein- they are no less valid, even though they are written down in order to be spread and sold. Indeed, this is the only way that those of us unable to share in the experience can eke out a faint impression of the lives in question and other lives that remain unrecorded for posterity.

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