Steinbeck works the idea that organizations will have to collectivize, and organize themselves into a larger unit to move forward. The end of The Grapes of Wrath sees this in the family’s involvement in the Weedpatch camp. They are seeing themselves as part of a bigger picture, as people that can actually make something happen with even the sheer amount of people that are willing to support them.
Although many were probably opposed to the collectivism preached and demonstrated with the camps, they nursed an environment that portrayed people in a positive light, giving them a community in which they might be able to thrive. Ma even says she feels human again after Jim Rawley, the camp manager, is kind when he comes to visit her. This is why I think the ending of the book—although odd—makes sense.
I can understand how collectivism plays into the story when Rose of Sharon gives the man her breast milk to keep him alive. I think she has a small smile on her face as the story closes, because she is being useful for the greater good. She is sacrificing herself and her dignity to help a dying man. Up until now, Rose of Sharon has not been a central or helpful figure in the book, and in this very last scene she switches to become a part of the whole, working to help it function. Perhaps Steinbeck is saying that even the most useless person could learn to make a great sacrifice for her fellow human if she goes through enough.
Although the ending makes sense to me, I think it is a questionable choice that Steinbeck made. Why did he not end with a proletarian, revolutionary ending with Tom going off to teach. He brings the story back momentarily when Tom tells Ma about Casy’s idea that every man’s soul is a smaller piece of a larger soul. This statement is very patriotic in a united way—it would have supported the theme of bringing people together for the greater good, for a better system and way of life. But instead, Steinbeck chooses to end on the woman’s nurturing, loving, yet still revolutionary role.
This role is not active but it is still subversive. Rose of Sharon is not leading a party to overthrow existing government. But she is helping a man survive by giving of herself—her piece of a soul. There is something to be said for the fact that this act is in itself revolutionary. The man did not even have enough to get some decent food, he had to revert to something primal, something of the beginning and regressive. Steinbeck could be making a comment on how the current conditions were setting civilization back. Whatever his reason for concluding with that scene, the end of the book is striking, yet it still fits with the revolutionary, collective feel of the rest of the end.
The foreword included an insinuation that the quotes in You Have Seen Their Faces were fabricated. Making up quotes about the subjects of the photo bends the interpretation of that photograph. If a photograph is supposed to give visual testimony to the things they write about, and supposed to be proof in and of itself of something that really happened or is really going on, then why skew interpretation with words and fake comments?
The role of the photograph is questioned in this extraordinary exploration on the human condition. “‘The roles of text and illustration are completely reversed,’ wrote one amazed critic; ‘the pictures state the theme of the book, whereas the prose serves as illustrative material.’” The foreword goes on to say that the book is “unprecedented in the scale of its pictures and its many layered relations between the pictures and the text” (v). These relationships between text and visuals give the reader/viewer an idea of a time period and the people during that time period, but do those relationships speak the truth about their subjects? Is a photograph not enough to display what is going on? Is a caption really necessary to elucidate it further? Once a caption is introduced, the artist’s influence is further inflicted upon the piece (there is already inevitable artistic influence through the work of the camera and of the artist’s general presence) and it is not as pure a photograph as it could have been.
Maybe this way of “documentary fiction” (v) was more effective than supposing to write the truth. Maybe Caldwell and Bourke-White realized they could not get away with trying to truthfully tell the stories of the people they documented. They are very aware of their presence and use their art to get their message out in a heartfelt, angry artistic protest. I wonder what the governmental response to the book was—this book that the government paid for but that worked to display a people that were suffering because of politics and economic conditions.
Perhaps in a time of untruths and manipulation and never-ending, cyclical circumstances, the only thing people would have understood was a book of this kind. It surely gives off the impression that the standard of writing was dramatic and sensational accounts of people on the road. It induces a view of the subjects of the photographs and the writings as others, people who are far away and who one reads about and pities, but still distances. There is something sinister in the photographers and writers getting paid to exploit a people suffering across America. But at the same time, these people’s stories needed to be told and documented, so there was a lot of productivity and good information that came of the projects.
Louis Adamic’s chapter from My America titled “Girl on the Road” was replete with information about the conditions of the time as well as about the people out on the road, like the lady on a ranch staying there for her health, or the communist that tried to indoctrinate Hazel. It even comments on the purpose of and effects of writings about the road at the time. The narrator tells Hazel that he’s writing a story about her, but he does not ask for her to tell him her story. He doesn’t need any facts, just a sort of feeling about her personality and what she’s been through. This is telling about the kind of article or book he would be writing. He would create a character that displayed traits about Hazel probably combined with another person he met. The goal would be not to tell her story in particular but to illustrate an idea about a certain type of person. Instead of a journalistic telling of what the narrator encountered on the road, he had the opportunity to weave tellings of the existing conditions into a character study, making the content easier to digest or relate to.
Something worth noting was that the narrator was well off, maybe not wealthy, but could support himself. He had a new car, multiple jackets for different purposes or occasions, and was able to stop off for gas and support himself and his companion. He mentioned that he had been on the bum himself, however, after the war. It is interesting that he had been on the bum but was doing well because of his writing career, and was now out cataloguing the experiences of other people on the bum. Did that make him more sympathetic to other people because he knew what they were going through? One could critique his writing about them as creating a spectacle out of innocent people, using their stories to support himself. Even though he offers to pay the girl’s way, and give her money for being the inspiration to his story, his profession could be looked at as still exploiting the stories and conditions of the people he meets in order to make money.
The narrator records conversations in dialect, which is indicative of his ethnographer’s sort of position in his travels. He is a part of the conversation, but the story and the traits are focused on his subject, young Hazel. Writing her speech in dialect shows how much he wants to create a journalistic, informative type of story with accurate depictions of character. But at the same time, he denies her story at first and does not ask her details like a journalist would. He calls himself a writer and not a reporter, and so I don’t think we should expect him to create a clear version of goings on or of his characters.
One quote that stood out to me was the truck driver’s exclamation that “‘This useta be a free country,’ he said. ‘Look at it now!’…” (512). This particular truck driver yelled this after he and Hazel were beat up for trying to smuggle her across the state border to California. How does this match up with smuggling over the line now? Are there different politics, different things at stake? Or is the situation much the same at its core? Is it a “mattera luck, mattera gettin’ a break, the right kinda schoolin’ ’n’ upbringin’” as it is according to Hazel (513)? Why are people out on the road? Whose fault is it and what are authorities doing about it to make the situation better?
Because of this class, I learned a great deal about an era that I only had a surface understanding of before. I learned a new way of thinking about people and about travel. I have always been fascinated with the idea of being in a different place and learning about what is there, so reading about people who did so for different reasons has been illuminating. I have always loved Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, and our discussion about Agee’s methods and his possible inherent failure in the product of the task he set out to do was very interesting. It helped put into perspective the era for me, and the consequence of all the writing about it. On a grander scheme, it has raised questions for me about writings about history and ethnographic works, and the writer or historian’s role in truth telling or story telling.
I also enjoyed watching It Happened One Night. That film would be an interesting one to analyze further, because it seems to have many layers, some of subversion, some that adhered to the norms of the time. The performances were really great, as well as the story behind it, and it shows how something so great and full could come out of a time of lack and gloom. I also like how, from a filmmaking and story-telling perspective, Capra designed it in such a way as to embed the story in a picture of America at the time. The film is a great example of a film that sampled ideas of America and posted the story upon those ideas.
I really appreciated the multitude of personalities and types of works we had the opportunity to explore. Guthrie’s folksy character was a nice contrast to someone like Agee, a satirical tone like A Cool Million, or informational works like the WPA guides. I found it interesting how each voice was not completely true, even if it seemed so. For example, Boxcar Bertha’s story seemed to be true, but she was a fictional character. Much like what I learned from Agee’s attempt to capture the human essence, Bertha’s story was an amalgamation of many others’ but was not as concerned about truth as he was, than with portraying a feeling and occurrences of a time. The differing personalities and different types of works we read seem to have been all getting at displaying a certain character of the time or a certain circumstance. Whether they were truthful or not, they expressed the feeling of a time, and were created with the energies that came out of the era. This class has put a new perspective on writing for me, and on what one gleans from traveling.
Andrew Gross’s “The American Guide Series: Patriotism as Brand-Name Identification” details the rise of consumerism and standardization and the paradoxical use of regional particularities in this process. He writes of the role travel guides played in fashioning patriotism into a brand. The travel guides were put together by artists and writers hired by the government under the Roosevelt administration’s Federal Project Number One. These guides were meant to spark interest and give instruction on how to tour the United States. The rise of efficiency and the change of travel culture is also evident in these guides. They revealed how space became managed in a changing America. In promoting a cultural national identity through sightseeing and educational tourism, the guides took on “the tour form, which spatializes difference, distributing conflict along a trajectory that can be managed, visited, and ultimately defined” (Gross 3). They detailed regional differences in a neat, efficient, visitable way with the goal of creating a national identity that could be controlled.
The guides aimed to preserve towns and regions in a changing time by turning them into tourist attractions. They were meant to inspire an identity, but that identity turned into a brand-name patriotism—something packaged and sold as an all-inclusive trip. The question of the guides became how would they “mobilize consumer culture to supplement a commodity deficit in posttraditional (disembedded) space? The compensatory strategy turned out to be identical to the crisis: disembedding. The American Guide Series uses the tour form to transform the erosion of regional difference into the basis of common national identity” (Gross 2).
I looked at the guide to Erie, and did not get very far into it before noticing a blatant claim to authenticity. The foreword ends with a statement claiming that “Erie: A Guide to the City and County is a book about Erie written by Erie citizens.” Is this a defense against critiques of the veracity of the content? Or an assurance that the good people of Erie were being employed? To me it implicates them in the standardization and commodification of their town. The obsession with authenticity is a subject to be studied more in depth elsewhere, but it relates to the purpose and effect of the WPA guides because authenticity implies responsibility. If the guide to Erie was written by citizens of Erie, then the citizens were the ones responsible for the effect of their guides. How does this fare with Gross’s argument?
I think that there is also something to be said for the yearning for authenticity while also yearning for efficient standardization. Gross writes of this on the second page of his article:
Standardization opened up the countryside to drivers who knew they would be able to find gas, food, lodging, and parts almost anywhere. However, it also reduced regional variation and consumer choice….This tension between standardization and local difference is at the heart of the driving experience, and at the heart of the guidebook as a genre. This same tension manifests itself in the American Guide series as the conflict between Federal bureaucracy and local interests….Contemporary sociologists like Don Slater and Anthony Giddens consider consumer culture and modernity to be the twin products of commercial and geographical standardization, emerging at the moment when identity is “disembedded” from the region and reattached to transregional symbolic systems like money, commodities, and brand names.
Identity, commodity, and authenticity meet at this point of tension. Regional variation is sacrificed for standardization and promoted in the culture of which the guides were a part. Yet the guides also used that variation to create identity—a disembedded, commodified, singularizing one. Tourism and the guide books that led it certainly did memorialize the local differences they ended up standardizing.
Agee calls the Great American Roadside an expression of something not well defined, something that means a new way of life in a new institution, “the ultimate expression of the conspiracy that produced it” (42). He says that the cause of all this is simply for the sake of “restiveness” (44), that Americans moved on the road for the sake of moving. What does this say about the hobos and poor and people who could not afford to just tour? Where is the connection between them and our new unit on the middle class? Is there one?
Part of this new institution Agee writes of is the culture of individual initiatives and the pride found in efficiency. Using cabin camps as the example of a changing market and business model, Agee writes that they “provide their promoter first with a living, second with a sense of accomplishment, of having created something” (Agee 50). The promoter of a cabin camp is someone we have seen many times in various movies and books so far. They are often catalysts for the story, and, as is the case in It Happened One Night, adhere strictly to their rules and ways of functioning. Efficiency and an honest living are of great value to these characters.
These characters have made a business out of the sake of restiveness that Agee claims takes over the American road in this time period. They may be the connection to the hobos and transients because they are the ones who did adapt to the changing world and the country’s changing market. They used the constant motion of those who took leisurely advantage of the Great American Roadside to escape the fate of those who could not travel so leisurely. These people that help transport tourists from place to place are the ones who found a place in transience, escaping poverty and ironically remaining still.
Nathanael West’s sparse and seemingly honest language is perfect for a story as outrageous as this one. He writes in a manner that seems not to hold anything back and to tell the honest, face-value truth, but which in fact holds much more between the lines. In his simple statements are often embedded dark humor, morbid political outlooks, or layers beneath a presumed reality. He is quite self conscious in his writing, pulling the reader into the story while at the same time acknowledging that it is in fact a story. The way in which West structures his story lets the reader know that he has agency in the reader’s perception of the story, so while his plain text appears honest his consciousness and presence as a writer belies a creativity and pointedness in the true purpose of his story.
Is this short story meant to be an allegory or a satire or another type of representative work? What comes of the dismemberment and eventual worshipping of Lem Pitkin? What does he represent and why is he the hero? West’s writing about the different factions in America and the fact that Lem is the hero that is constantly imposed upon, given hope, pushed around, and dismembered, give the impression that the story is about the American dream. West’s writing is a simple style on the surface about a concept that is simple on the surface. The American dream takes on many different forms in the story, and each form has an effect on Lem, the enactor of the original dream in the story.
The fact that Lem is dismembered and constantly given hope and having it smashed reveals West’s ideas about the fate of the American dream. But he ends it with a mythology about Lem. “Our hero” becomes a patriotic symbol, a martyr. The American dream is preserved and gives yet another group hope. The fact that the Leather Shirts are the ones to use Lem as an idol in the end hints at a sort of Marxist, dialectical inclination in the story. Is West saying that every minority faction thinks it is right in opposing the existing power structure, and although an uprising is inevitable, they will still hold as an ideal an “American dream” that is in actuality a myth?
I understood West as insinuating in a satirical way that the American dream really was an amalgamation of many different peoples from different backgrounds together in one place. All of the characters who fought for unity were hypocritically separating themselves from the unit by creating a separate faction and fighting for their own solution. This may be my twenty first century point of view, but maybe he was actually calling to attention the point that in fighting for unity some actually misrepresent the real America which at its core is a diverse population together in one country with the uncommon right to voice their individual concerns in the hope of unity.
A hypothesis of this sort may be overruled by the fact that the American dream is commodified in “A Cool Million.” It is made into something that can supposedly be bought, be fought for, a sort of panacea. West’s language leaves his story rife with possibilities for interpretation. It is sparse enough that it gives the reader the facts but also allows for manipulation of the facts to a certain relative truth—much like the myth of the American dream.
Frank Capra’s It Happened One Night follows the story of a rich young woman, Ellen Andrews, who runs from her father to go elope with her lover. She meets a newspaper man, Peter Warne, who ends up taking care of the naive young woman. They fall in love on their journey from Miami to New York, but run into trouble when they finally get North and reality hits.
Capra uses the circumstances of traveling on the road during that time to mold their story. The two are influenced by occurrences similar to those that we have encountered in our previous readings. In some of the auto camps there seems to be a sense of community in utter desolation as there was in The Grapes of Wrath. But there are also jaded characters suspicious of everyone and just trying to get by. There is poverty present everywhere in the movie—Ellen and Peter give their own last dollar to a boy whose mother fainted from hunger. They are in a poor state because a thief steals Ellen’s bag from her. Peter has to teach Ellen, who has always had everything readily available to her, how to budget but out of his love for her even ends up selling his own items and sacrificing quite a lot to help her. In this way, even though the film is a great display of conditions on the road, it is also a bit subversive.
Capra’s exploration of gender relationships and power relationships overlap each other in this film. Ellen always complains of having been told what to do all her life. Her father has dictated everything for her, and what he mandates has always been the opposite of what she really wants. She tries to have some adventure in her life, and tries to break from her father’s dictatorship, but she cannot. On the road, she is yet again controlled by Peter, who knows what is best for her, but who presents her with a different type of life, full of adventure and activity. The film is subversive at times because on occasion, Ellen has the power in their relationship when she dumfounds Peter and causes him to change. She even wears his clothes and visually disrupts gender roles. But Capra mostly shows how the power relationships between men and women remain the same even on the road.
He also illustrates the power relationships between richer and poorer. Juxtaposed with the utter poverty present in the film, there are many displays of and comments on extreme wealth. Ellen is from a wealthy family—her father works on Wall Street. Peter criticizes her in the beginning for being used to having her money fix everything. Her father pays everyone off and expects excellent treatment because of his money. This is disrupted when Peter comes in to ask for a small amount of money based on principle, to pay back what traveling with Ellen has cost him. He does not expect the original cash reward her father was offering to anyone who found her and turned her over to him; he does not want to take her father’s money like so many others would have. Though a bit goofy, he uses principle and basic values to negotiate and get what he wants instead of playing the role of a greedy, lower class man. Peter wins out over Ellen’s father because he is not paid off, but ends up getting what he wants in the end. There are many interactions in the film concerning money that showed what was valued during this time and how creative someone could be in getting or giving money.
This film is a different one than any we have seen before in class, and it is different than any of the books we have read, in that it is mainly a comedy and a love story. But it is a film from which one can learn a lot about conditions during the Great Depression. Capra normalizes the circumstances by hinting at themes of travel literature or films as the setting or the shaping conditions of the story. He also displays and questions standards as they were questioned in such an odd time. This is a different film but also useful for understanding how pervasive the road was to mainstream culture in that time and the questions explored in mainstream film.
Steinbeck does much of the same work that Agee and Evans does but he works it into a different form. His was a study of humanity as Agee’s was, and he set out to write about these people in such a way that he would elucidate their way of life for others in the dark about their conditions.
Agee and Evans take a respectful, distanced view, observing and aware of their subjects’ potential for human divinity. Steinbeck does the same at some points, describing in the utmost detail a small event or image. But he also brings the reader in shamelessly. He switches verb tense to the second person at some points, implicating the reader in what is going on, giving the reader the problems of the story to experience. Agee works himself into his writing, salaciously, because he is aware of the intrusive and exploitative nature of the study on the people he is staying with. Steinbeck does not have to worry about being so self conscious because he is writing a novel, but even in his history does he have the strong confidence of telling the truth.
Agee’s and Evans’ study of people does not only differ because they wrote about people that were stationary. It differs in how they took to task the singularity of their goal. There is a quote from Steinbeck’s journal copied in the introduction to Grapes of Wrath in which he writes that he is ignorant, constantly struggling and pushing against his lack of ability and knowledge. But the narrator of his novel confidently provides his subjects with a historicity that comes from an ever-shifting narrator—one that exposes his reader to a variety of perspectives and voices. He gives the reader a view of migrant life that is sociological as well as heart-wrenching and relatable. He weaves politics, family relations, and many other themes into a classic Dust Bowl story, capturing the motion and impossibility of blame and the ever-shifting conditions of the migrant life.
As long and overly-detailed Let Us Now Praise Famous Men is, it is limited in its goal and in its approach. It takes to task human divinity and uses the tools of writing and photography and human consciousness to do it. But it does not allow for the complexity that Steinbeck allows his characters and his story. Let Us Now Praise Famous Men gets in the way of itself because it tries to create complexity in the simplest way. Agee does not allow for the space between the literal and the human consciousness. Steinbeck allows his reader to participate in his story and in his history. He allows them the responsibility of dealing with the detail he gives. Although he is self-conscious in his journal he is not self-conscious in his writing.
Image Source: A Drifting Cowboy
Is Agee telling us to deal with his and Evans’ content in interpretive ways, and not take it too seriously? Even though the descriptions of these three families are not weighed down with supposed and inferred meaning, and the photographs are supposed to be clear, true records, Agee wants his readers to read as “journalists, sociologists, politicians, entertainers, humanitarians, priests, or artists,” and not “seriously” (Agee xv). Is he saying in this section that Let Us Now Praise Famous Men is supposed to be read and viewed as a work that is not completely descriptive, but presumptive as well? With this declaration combined with the fact that human consciousness is his subject and human divinity is the topic of his inquiry, how successful is his presentation of these subjects?
He writes that his tools are the motionless camera and the printed word. Both tools fall short of being able to completely and wholly represent human divinity, which is itself a challenge to perceive. Agee admits to being terrified at and confused by himself and Evans because they agreed to undertake the work in the first place. He knows how impossible the huge responsibility they accepted was, and how intimate and humiliating it would be for the subjects towards whom they were supposed to be honest. And he knows how inadequate the tools he uses are in achieving this daunting, curious task.
Let Us Now Praise Famous Men was at first intended to be a journalistic effort, but Agee and Evans shied away from that type of portrayal because of its inherent inadequacy in representing a subject completely and wholly. While he maintains that a photograph is “incapable of recording anything but absolute, dry truth” (206), Agee says that “the very blood and semen of journalism, on the contrary, is a broad and successful form of lying” (207). When one tries to use words to describe any experience he has had, the experience inevitably becomes muddled. The audience is removed several degrees from the reality of the experience that the words are describing. The truth becomes too relative to the author’s perception to convey the reality of the subject. Journalism would not have been an adequate form for relating these families’ lives—language limits their humanity. But can the air and energy of their lives—the nature of movements, habits, influence, the feel of a touch—be seen through photographs alone?
Representing humans with both image and text in this way is more digestible to an audience, and the knowledge of certain aspects, no matter how they are presented, is a step towards the knowledge of the humanity of these beings. Even if the audience is not getting the nature of the divinity of the subjects in full, it is made more aware, and people perceive everything differently regardless of the medium through which it is presented.
Agee says that their task is to show the human divinity of a person, but their method, conscious and thorough as it is, only gets us so far. However, asking these types of questions about the subjects of the photographs sparks interest in the viewers. Agee and Evans were sent on a mission to journal and document the lives of sharecroppers. They raised awareness of this way of life even though they could not achieve the goal of representing fully “normal predicaments of human divinity” with the tools they had (Agee xiv). They scratched at how divine these human beings were, using the positive aspects of their tools, and raising questions with the aspects that left gaps in the information.