A Changing Landscape

A Changing Landscape

I think one of the most intriguing things about this class is how the 1930s actually developed a lot of what modern America is today: the obsession with finding a place to belong, a dismantling of the American dream, the development of regional culture, and the distinct food culture of the United States. Though a truly trying time for the individuals who had to cope with it, the 1930s uprooted people who were entrenched in a monotonous daily life, forcing the United States to transition into a huge period of change and development that marks the distinct culture of today. Many scars are still being dealt with.

One of those scars is the rampant commercialization of–really, everything. The 1930s produced a culture that desperately needed to sell, and a consumer culture that had a hole to fill. Certainly a good thing because it helped pull the country out of the Depression, however, it gave Americans a sense of security in deficit spending which isn’t smart at all. Additionally, the Depression caused lifestyles to be highly constructed around advertising and appearances, encouraging a commodified culture in which everything from food to regional lifestyles began to be something to acquire and adapt as one’s own. It’s a form of commercialization that takes away from the experience for want to the sign value, shock value, or novelty value.

In a paradoxical twist, the 1930s also standardized many of the towns of America, effectively homogenizing the makeup of America, smoothing over regional differences in a superficial way. However, it’s not necessarily in a good way in that local customs and sentiments are homogenized for really no reason other than convenience.

In the line of convenience, the Depression also brought on the rise of prepackaged food and fast food, altering the food makeup of the United States as well, pushing a drive towards a food industry and away from small farms and individualized agriculture. This is a precursor for the food movements of today.

It’s interesting to see how such an immediately impactful time has lasting effects to todays culture.

Local Eats

Local Eats

While reading Gross’s piece, it reminded me of the piece that dictated how traveling was an economic construct. When Gross mentions how the guides “transform[ed] local culture into tourist culture, tourist attraction into a symbol of national loyalty” to “reproduce patriotism as a form of brandname identification,” he describes a tourist economy based on monetary incentive instead of a so-called wanderlust experience. With the standardization of gas, food, and lodging that Gross mentions, along with Emily Post’s musing that the towns she goes through are “all beginning to look the same,” comes the idea that travel wasn’t really to see what was there, but rather to view the most overblown and distorted parts of a local culture—whatever has the most ticket value as an oddity or a novelty—while staying in the same comforts that originate from nowhere. This eliminates or overlooks whatever local culture actually exists in the area. When reading the Vermont WPA, I was struck by how dully comprehensive it was: there was too much on the history of the place, the detailing of its flora and fauna, that I thought could be further broken down instead of all shoved into one little booklet. It didn’t seem necessary to the nature of the place at all. It also is striking that all the WPA’s are quite standard in appearance, with familiar formats across the board.

Gross notes that the Depression may be a cause for this standardization:

“The Great Depression exacerbated the problems of disembedding—alienation, identity crisis, loss of tradition—because it precipitated a commodity crisis after the widespread circulation of standardized products had already begun to undermine traditional communities and lifestyles,”

indicating that the role of the Depression in displacing people from their homes out of necessity had perhaps caused the American wanderlust to be slightly dulled for want of security and stability rather than the unstable migration Americans were forced to endure. It makes sense that people wouldn’t have the spirit to travel because the travel they are forced into is not fun or enlightening, but truly cruel to their well-being.

This is understandable, certainly, but what strikes me as odd is that this is the time period when American regional cuisine became known. This is the time when regional cuisine was turned into a commodity, yes, but one that strikingly captures the local area in a way that tourist attractions couldn’t. It is the food that characterized the essence of “home” in the area without sacrificing the local culture for ticket value. Even more striking is how there became a “Great Depression cuisine;” the YouTube channel, Great Depression Cooking, details some of the many ways to make the most of what was at hand in that time period, and has a huge focus on the frugality that was necessary to survive in that time period. Food, in being a basic need with a huge cultural stigma, then allows local culture to come through because the local cultures cannot be disguised through shock value of being an oddity. The foods are ordinary—for the area—which makes them something appealing.

Marketing the Experience

Marketing the Experience

It’s so intriguing how Americans don’t know what to do with vacations! I was actually laughing while reading the Berkowitz piece because people literally had to be convinced to go ‘relax.’ Considering the current stigma of Americans being lazy, it’s remarkable how Americans would, when they were offered the idea of time off, think of using it to work or they’d just stay home. The idea that they actually wanted to work hard and keep working hard is just so funny considering the current conception of America. It’s even more hilarious that the tourist industry had to be created to force people to actually do something.

The idea of regional branding being an attempt to force tourism instead of some idea of nationalism is just absolutely hilarious. But, to me, the most interesting part of regional branding is the food aspect. Most of the towns seem pretty similar, especially with those traveling cabin camps. There’s not a lot of variation between the endlessly similar roads stretching through America, but through the Agee piece, it seems like the food is something worth traveling for. People go to get a literal taste of the different regions of America.

Something a little troubling is how Americans really aren’t innately curious or interested in traveling. The fact that a traveling industry had to be created, branded, and heavily marketing to make Americans even vaguely interested is problematic. Similarly, the idea expressed in the Jackle piece of Americans trying to equate maximizing distance to maximizing the experience. Together, this suggests an extreme affiliation between Americans, money, and the resultant consumer culture. Americans want something with quantifiable worth, something that they can measure up against what other people have. This explains why they didn’t see the need to do anything on their time off: there’s no monetary gain in a vacation. The commodification of the vacation experience offers Americans the initiative to travel because it lets them quantify the experience and compare it with other people’s experiences.

It seems kind of paradoxical. If Americans are working hard constantly to make money to buy more expensive things to prove their worth, what happens when they succeed and make all of the money necessary to not work anymore? Given that a paid vacation suggests time for them to do nothing, it just seems like they’d do more nothing. Which is fine, if they were actually enjoying it—which seems doubtful.

American Nightmare

American Nightmare

After reading a few pages of A Cool Million, I read Nathanael West’s biography to see exactly what I was getting into. Upon reading that the book would be a satirical look at the concept of the American Dream, I definitely got more interested in reading it; however, I didn’t expect it to be so cheerful in how brutal it was.

There always seems to be some kind of hopeless optimism for Lemuel Pitkin despite the fact that he is literally losing himself to the great fundamentalist ideals that Shagpoke Whipple forces into his head. Pitkin doesn’t do anything wrong, per se, but no matter what he does or doesn’t do—which are all in accordance to American ideals of good, clean, hard work and perseverance—he gets treated horribly by those who don’t adhere to those same ideals and instead choose to be completely underhanded. These are the people who have gotten ahead in the America presented in A Cool Million.

As a book written in the 1930s, this could be largely what the hardworking farm folk displaced by the Depression are feeling. They are forced into degrading physical conditions and jobs that don’t allow them to fulfill the American hardworking lifestyle that they’ve been brought up to believe in. The ideals that they have been taught since the beginning don’t actually exist in the real world where they are forced to ingratiate themselves for very little personal gain. Indeed, Pitkin is thrown into jail, forced into a strange job of pretending to lose his glass eye, and when he does something good he is punished for it: he loses his eye when rescuing a gentleman from a runaway carriage and he loses his leg when trying to protect Betty Prail.

It seems to me that this time period was only the beginning of the unraveling of the American Dream. The immigrants of the Industrial Revolution already figured it out at this point with disgusting factory jobs, deplorable living conditions, and corrupt salesmen drove them into poverty and kept them there (ex. Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle). In this era, it’s the beginning when even more Americans begin to figure it out. The Joad family, despite how long they’ve lived on that plot of land, is forced to realize that the American Dream doesn’t mean anything when they don’t have any money or respect. Pitkin, unfortunately, never realizes it. He slogs through unaware that nothing he could do would help him out of his position because the system is designed for him to fail. The worst part is that Shagpoke Whipple, who has blinded Pitkin into his way of thinking and has mislead him into horrible situations that cost him his family, his body, his freedom, and his life, uses him as the posterboy for his political campaign. Pitkin was designed to be a martyr for a useless cause.

Background Noise

Background Noise

When watching It Happened One Night, the movie itself didn’t strike me as much as what appeared to be happening in the background. Did the old woman who bought Ellie’s bus ticket need that money that Ellie paid her? Were the people on the bus singing out of joy or to distract themselves from the Depression? Did the person who stole Ellie’s bag need what was in them? Did Peter send the telegram collect and call collect because he didn’t have the money to spend?

The plot itself was a rather elaborate romantic escapism from the reality of the Depression. There were no bums anywhere to be seen; flophouses weren’t mentioned at all and neither were soup kitchens. Missions didn’t appear at all. The movie even has a ridiculously elaborate wedding, funding by Ellie’s incredibly rich father–who is this man in comparison to the millions struck by the Depression? Where are the people who are actually affected by the Depression? Where are the people whose lives were torn part by the economic trauma? Where is their plight? While Ellie and Peter and roaming around gaily skipping through mild discomfort, there are real people going through absolute hell that are being ignored for the sake of escapism.

But there were traces strewn throughout that suggest that even though the film was meant to be an escape from the Depression, it was still seeping through. When Peter and Ellie revert to backcountry slang to throw off the detectives, they use a lot of the language that we’ve read in previous works. Peter and Ellie have to stay in a barn at a portion; Peter must find food for her and returns with a handful of carrots. They are forced to hitchhike as well. However, in the film, these are plot devices make them fall deeper in love with each other while they try to get Ellie back to ‘King’ Westley. In the end, they don’t mean anything about the Depression.

This doesn’t seem right. Even if the movie is an escape from the Depression, who is that escape for? The people who could afford to watch movies surely didn’t have the same economic situation as the ‘Okies’ and displaced tenement farmers from The Grapes of Wrath and the other works we’ve read. The people we’ve previously read about were more concerned about getting through each day with the necessities: i.e. food and shelter. They most certainly didn’t have the time, energy, and especially funds to watch movies. They didn’t have the luxury of escapism.

Feral

Feral

The thing that struck me most about this part of The Grapes of Wrath was the how tightly woven the Depression struck communities were. Weedpatch was especially striking in that it was such a different world than the previous camp they were in. Weedpatch was almost idyllic—not only did the Joad family get treated with the respect and dignity that made them feel like people (not bums), but the little community was like a small town. The dance was almost out of place. It seemed like such a stark difference from what they were used to, but it was probably quite similar to what they experienced before the Depression.

The ‘Okies’ ended up acting with much more decorum and humility than the richer folk give them credit for. Most striking was when Mr. Thomas noted that people were trying to shut areas like Weedpatch down because people were “getting used to being treated like humans.” It strikes me that being treated like humans is such a huge thing—it just makes the case that the big businesses and big farmers aren’t interested in having humans work for them; rather, they exploit the people to use them cheaply for hard labor, almost like machines instead of living beings.

Poverty is treated as a mark of inhumanity—the Depression struck people are not treated with kindness or civility. This is particularly apparent when Ma Joad receives the Weedpatch manager with suspicion. She is so used to unkind and unfair treatment that she almost doesn’t know what to do when she is treated like a normal person. Ma Joad repeats this motif often: she claims that Ruthie and Winfield are growing wild from not being around other children in a positive manner, and she mentions how Purty Boy Floyd wasn’t bad, but was backed into a corner.

Motor Oil

Motor Oil

One of the most striking aspects of Grapes of Wrath so far was the function of the automobile. The first glimpse of it, with Tom Joad hitching a ride with the truck driver, has the truck driver stating that the truck life makes him “goddamn sick of going,” referring to the endless journey with no real point. But the Joad family has a purpose for their travels: to get to California. And yet, such an introduction to the world of travel gives an ominous feel for what the Joads will go through.

The automobile ends up being broken down as a false promise. In the scene with the car salesmen, they explicitly reveal how the need for transportation is exploited. Car salesmen add sawdust to the engine to make it seem like it runs smoother and they replace the car batteries with older ones. They even trick the poverty-stricken farmers into paying exorbitant prices, leaving them rich and the farmers at an acute disadvantage. They are not only tricked out of the money that they need, but are given a hollow hope of prosperity. The literal vehicle they need to get to opportunity is flawed in itself.

Travel is not given a positive connotation in the book. While travel holds the promise of opportunity for the Joads, it ultimately comes with horrible omens: the death of the family dog acts as a precursor to Granpa’s and Granma’s, the car salesmen use travel as a premise for selling broken down and useless vehicles to desperate people, and the loss of Noah and Connie. Worse still, “Okies” are discriminated against as a migrant people and travel camps are broken up as they are seen by the money wielding society as areas for bums.

The Joad family faces an incredibly difficult journey along the road with actual car troubles as well as the disconnection of their familial unit. While Casy preaches the importance of connection and stability within the unity of community, the journey causes the family to fragment as the stress of travel becomes too much and the opportunity promised in California becomes more and more of a pipe dream. The journey is doomed from the start with so many signs of failure—including the Joad family explicitly being told that there is no work in California over and over again. The promise keeps them blundering through the obvious failure ahead of them; a testament to the American Dream that so contradicts the nature of the country itself. Grapes of Wrath constantly criticizes the American system that promises advancement but has systems in place to ensure that many do not make it. Indeed, the harshly detrimental journey of the Joad family and the horrible things they face do not deter them from the promise of jobs in California. However, there must be a point at which the family realizes that hope is futile; that the promise of jobs will not be fulfilled and that they will not be able to retain the family unity regardless of—and especially because of—the circumstances.

Immediacy

Immediacy

When reading Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, I was struck by the style of writing against the images. The writing itself is thick and heavy, contrasting with a lot of what we’ve read so far—especially Waiting for Nothing, which was short, concise, and repetitive. Let Us Now Praise Famous Men is full of punctuation, with long winding sentences stuffed with detailed descriptions of surroundings and people. This is so vastly different from what we’ve read, presumably because this book is written from the perspective of government workers: people who have jobs and job security. While the impoverished tenement farmers they survey can only think about the day-to-day life of work, poverty, and hunger, the government workers have the scope and leisure to be superfluous in their writing styles.

The writing style, again, is incredibly flowery when placed alongside the stark images. The images are so bare that it seems as if the writing overwhelms them, flooding them with analysis and a kind of desperate beauty that’s really unneeded. Given the fact that the narrator states that he is uninterested in art, that he’s uninterested in altering their lives for the purpose of making something striking that seems more meaningful than their actual lives, it seems a little counterintuitive to be crafting such a heavy handed portrait of the tenement farmers’ lives.

The narrative, while incredibly detailed and raw, still does not seem to give the same or a similar impact that the previous narratives have evoked. I am not left with the same pains as any of the other narratives. While I can see the images evoked in the writing, it does not give the same sense of immediacy that the other pieces have. Instead, this piece drags on and lingers; perhaps this works to its advantage in how the Depression seems never ending.

Replacement

Replacement

The displacement of millions of Americans makes it clear that the uprooting of the cemented lives and social makeup of the country revealed a deep disconnect of American life as well as a desperate need for change.

Caldwell’s “Have You Seen Their Faces?” is a prime example of this. By explaining the plantation system’s effects on the 1930s agriculture, he sets up a problem that is only further exacerbated by the Depression: the sharecropping system, already doomed to fail, acts as a way to keep the African Americans who were once subject to the slave system in a system that acts purposefully to keep them tied to land that refuses to yield an escape for them. What’s more is that the destroyed land drains them of whatever resources they have and drains their families of any opportunity of escape by keeping them tied to the land.

Once they are forced from that land, they are forced to confront not only a new unstable environment, but the fact that the one that they were in wasn’t stable either. Along with this, a new set of racial tensions arise, mainly that of the great race fluctuations in which African Americans would move towards cities and white Americans would move away from them (Exodus 12).

This initial break from the land is that primary cause of movement. In Ilf and Petrov’s road trip, they state that what they found to be the true America is the expanse of roads connecting the states and the gas stations where they found hospitality and service.

Funnily enough, that same interconnectivity that allows Americans to project an image of openness, adventure, and coherence is the very thing that lacks within the economy. The job market is completely collapsed and impossible to navigate, social status is shattered and yet remains an underlying feature of tension among the misfortunate.

The 1930s marks a time where America is forced to reevaluate its culture as the heavy handed capitalist structure destroyed the walls holding back social change and development. The displacement of so many Americans acts as a microcosm for the America was identified as to the outside world. No longer was it the supposed skyscrapers that Ilf and Petrov expected, but a web of easily discernable roads that connected an incredibly wide variety of people. By connecting a vast amount of individualized faces and stories, the photo representations of the Depression allow the American people of the time to be cohesive in their national tragedy.

Money and Morality

Money and Morality

Reading Boxcar Bertha’s “autobiography” was really interesting, as the morality complex that appears so often in the other works rises here, too. Bertha gets let go from so many of her social work positions because she has a “social disease” (not 100% sure what that means) and a criminal record. But as she—and so many others that we’ve read—explains, it’s quite difficult to avoid prison because the police are so heavy handed in slapping them with vagrancy and sending them off to jail.

Throughout most of what we’ve read so far, there’s been a distinct divide between those with money and those without, but the divide is not money so much as the social stigma of morality attached to it. The affluent assume (somehow) that those without it lack the morals that they hold and attempt to force it upon them through missions, police brutality, and even social work. Missions offer the hungry food in exchange for a declaration of their salvation—which really just fuel their ego, using the spectacle as proof that they have changed somebody’s life for the better and according to their own moral code. The police reassure the affluent that they, not the poor, are of higher moral caliber, as only bad people go to jail. And the social workers are convinced of doing good deeds by sending people (especially women) back to their families, which is not always an act of kindness as proven by the young girl from Alabama who sobs that she’ll “never get away from [the relief] if they send me back” (Reitman 181).

This hierarchy of morality stops Bertha from actually doing good, helpful work. She is not able to continue her social work, and is fired over and over again simply for doing what she had to do to survive as a homeless, penniless person. Similarly, it hinders Tom Kromer from being able to stay alive when people look down on him for begging and prostituting himself, even though that is what he absolutely had to do given the complete lack of jobs. The same goes for State Street Blondie: she explicitly states that she knows “it’s wrong to rob people,” but she “can’t get work” (Reitman 191). Many of the displaced people who have been struck by the Depression have the same morals of those who got lucky, but judgment keeps them stuck in poverty.

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