My Great American Road Trip

My Great American Road Trip

My biggest takeaway from this class is a heightened sense of awareness of the role of the “road trip” in the Great Depression. It is something that takes many forms varying from the migrant workers’ cross-country job search, to the middle class leisure adventure. I had no idea that the government and businessmen had such a huge influence on travel and shaping the American view on it in the 30s.

I have had a road trip planned for January since before this class started. I will be driving from Boston, Massachusetts to Austin, Texas and back, over the course of two weeks. I really feel that this class has given me a new perspective on what it means to have the luxury to do this.  My original motivation behind this journey is that I wanted to see the south. I’ve never really been more southern than D.C., and I feel that there is so much of the country I haven’t seen.  When thinking about this, I keep coming back to the description of the differences between travelling by bus, train, and automobile and how this relates to the “right way to travel”.

Why do I want to go on this road trip? I originally didn’t agree witu Erksine Caldwell’s sentiment “What is worth traveling thousands of miles for is the people and their activity” (4). I thought of my trip as more of an individual transformation (though I won’t be driving alone). I will be driving my car, not taking a bus, because I felt that the travel is more in my control through my own car. I know it won’t be as social as taking the bus would be, but I am okay with that. I think when traveling for such a long period of time it’s important to have some privacy and reflection.

But as I’ve thought about my motivation for this trip, my inner anthropologist kept coming back to the same word: culture. I want to see the culture of the south. To me this means, food, sites, customs, and so much more. People make culture. With this thought in mind, I have realized that I do align with Caldwell’s quote in some ways now. If I don’t interact with the locals then my trip will feel too “touristy”.

The Great American Road Trip is already a historically influenced tourism trap in many ways, as I learned from Michael Berkowitz’s A ‘New Deal’ For Leisure. It was not a personal revelation that caused me to plan this road trip, but the external influence of road trip movies, travel books, and the national portrayal of the South as a “different world”.

This class has only made me more excited to see new parts of the country, but it will be a nice reminder, about half way through my trip when I am exhausted from driving, that it is a privilege to travel because I want to travel, and that I should always make an effort to observe local culture and not just sites.

Why do we want to travel?

Why do we want to travel?

James Agee discusses the travel landscape of the United States in his article The American Roadside. With a description filled of glory and astonishment, he says the 900,000 mile American highway is “by very considerable odds the greatest road the human race has ever built”, while the roadside, “is incomparably the most hugely extensive market the human race has ever set up”(Agee 43).  These are sources of national pride, and are strongly associated with the American people. The staples of the American Road Trip weren’t just built miraculously one day, but are the result of the wanderlust and struggle of Americans. For lower socioeconomic classes during the Great Depression travel was not a choice, but the only option. The middleclass was introduced to wanderlust around this same time. The desire for travel increased as it become more accessible and less expensive to the general public.

Michael Berkowitz explains that the automobile and paid vacation gave the wanderlust of the American people a more accessible outlet in A ‘New Deal’ For Leisure.  Employers insisted that if their workers were to get paid time off, they better use it to rejuvenate themselves by traveling and seeing new things. This was not seen as a natural inclination at first for those of the middle-class working world. The desire to spend one’s money on travel was something that, for many, had to be learned. Not only were employers pushing for leisurely travel, but so were businesses. “Cultivating the ‘travel habit’ was by a diffuse yet aggressive network of tourism promotion organizations that emerged coincident with the effort to provide American workers with paid vacations” (Berkowitz 194). Travel also became a business ploy. Americans spending their money, and creating some change during the Great Depression motivated the travel hunger. Agee connects the automobile with the surge of paid vacation and travel promotion as well. The automobile “became a hypnosis…the opium of the American people (Agee 44). The automobile provided freedom and possibility; it is the tool that feeds the travel habit.  All of these elements coming together provided the perfect environment for leisurely travel to grow. A habit that appeared to be organic actually appears to have a lot of outside influence.

When I think about the reasons that I like to travel, none of these culturally specific historical contexts come to mind. A lot of Americans associate the want to travel with wanderlust and curiosity, and not with institutional influence. It’s a bit depressing for me to think of travel as a business ploy, though I know tourism can be the driving economic force of some countries. I travel to see the world, and while it often feels like a personal, individualistic decision, Agee and Berkowitz had very strong arguments to show that my desire has long been shaped by history.

West's Secular Calvinism

West’s Secular Calvinism

Nathanael West’s A Cool Million is a novel filled with dark humor. Michael Dunne analyzes West’s Calvinist sense of humor in Nathanael West: ‘Gloriously Funny’”. He explains that by growing up in America at the time that West did, he was influenced by the Genesis Story that is based in Calvin’s philosophy. He has an obsession with humans that “seem decidedly to be fallen from some putatively superior state” (Dunne). His Calvinism is more secular than religious, but follows the repetitive fallen history that can be seen in the biblical stories of Adam, Cain, and Babel. His character of Lemuel Pitkin is “the target of his Calvinist humor” as he shows through the satirically dark plot of A Cool Million (Dunne).

West builds up his Calvinist humor by creating a relationship between the reader and “our hero”, and then in the end disappoints the reader by killing of the main character before he reaches success. Lemuel Pitkin starts out fallen when his mother’s house is in foreclosure, but West still evokes sympathy in the reader.  By referring to Lemuel, as “our hero, only seventeen years old, was a strong, spirited lad” the reader becomes invested in him as the underdog (Chapter 1). West uses a first and second person writing style, with “I” and “our”, to further pull the reader in as if they are there and apart of the story.  Once we are invested in Lem’s success, West starts to poke fun at “our hero” in his Calvinist style.  In Chapter 2, Lem turns to Mr. Whipple, a former President and exemplary citizen, for financial help.  Mr. Whipple rejects Lem’s loan request because he is “too young to borrow”, but then ironically tells him to go on a journey elsewhere to obtain the money. This is where West’s dark humor truly starts to show.

The situation that occurred between Mr. Whipple and Lem is harsh, but still satirically funny and drew a laugh from me. As A Cool Million continues, I stopped laughing with West and began to become upset by the plot. Dunne quotes Warwick Wadlington describing this strange change as a reader, sharply stating, “we teeter precariously between apocalyptic outrage and terrible laughter”. This teetering is exactly what West wants to keep us doing until the big finish, where the hero has truly fallen and all hope is lost.

By including the reader in the story with his narrative style, West gives his audience a false sense of hope. Though Lem is foolish, I rooted for him and read as he literally was dismantled limb by limb. He falls deeper and deeper, and then even upon his death the National Revolutionary Party further exploits him.

West’s Calvinist humor and writing style is dramatic and ridiculous at times. Though his Calvinism is secular, there is a sense that he is trying to preach, or rather teach, to the reader about the ridiculousness of the reality of the American Dream.

The Rich on the Road

The Rich on the Road

Frank Capra’s critically acclaimed It Happened One Night is a romanticized, glamorized version of the Great Depression road trip. The movie chronicles a budding romance between Peter Warren the newspaper reporter, played by Clark Gable, and Ellie Andrews the spoiled heiress, played by Claudette Colbert. Ellie runs away from her wealthy oppressive father, and unexpectedly ropes Peter into her undercover journey. By the end of the road trip, the two have fallen madly in love. The movie doesn’t really grasp the poverty of the time, and has more of a focus on middle class leisure travel. Both protagonists start to run low on money, but they never reach the level of desperation that we have seen so much in the literature of this class. Though this movie differed so greatly from most representations of life during the Great Depression that we have been looking at, there were still some overlapping themes such as the existence of the reporter and camaraderie through travel.

Peter Warren’s job as a newspaper reporter was extremely important to the movie’s plot. But instead of documenting the poor, as Lorena Hickock, Erskine Caldwell, and many other real reporters did, fictional Peter Warren followed the journey of the rich on the run. This subject matter seems completely opposite to what most reporters were focused on during this time period. These people weren’t on the road because of the force of unemployment, but rather by choice; for leisure.

I found a more significant parallel between the scenes on the bus and Nathan Asch’s descriptions of bus travel in The Road. Asch describes bus travel as more casual and social, and the preferred method if you truly want to see America. The scenes of bus travel in It Happened One Night were what fueled the romance between the two main characters. It was also where they had the most social interaction and fun. There is a memorable scene of a group sing-a-long to the song “The Trapeze Man” with all the riders on the bus, evoking a true sense of camaraderie. Frank Capra’s depiction of travel aligns with Nathan Asch’s preference for bus rides and Erskine Caldwell’s assertions that, “What is worth traveling thousands of miles to see and know are people” (Some American People, 4).

It was interesting to see a middle class view on travel during the Great Depression. It is often hard to remember that not every person was affected by the striking poverty of this time period. I really enjoyed watching this movie, and found myself very invested in the love story. I can see how this movie would be a source of distraction and pleasure for many suffering during the 1930s. The plot is timeless, and lends itself to the romantic dream of falling in love while traveling. Though It Happened One Night has very little to do with many of the themes and the people we have been studying in class, I was able to find connections that were embedded in the motif of travel.


Small Pleasures on the Road

Small Pleasures on the Road

John Steinbeck creates a very detailed story about the lives of migrant farm workers during the Great Depression through the Joad family. The Grapes of Wrath is filled with so much struggle and poverty, that it is easy to get lost in its hopelessness. There is an overwhelming feeling that humanity has been broken and that people have lost their sense of self during their journeys. Though each story is so complicated and depressing, Steinbeck shows that the way in which these workers and their families feel human again, even if it is just for a few minutes, is quite simple. Chapter 23 focuses on the “pleasure on the roads” and how this is found through acts of kindness, humor, stories, alcohol, and music.

There were people that had lost so much, and thus always had to have survival on their mind. But every once in a while, when food and shelter was taken care of, they were able to feel human again through simple pleasures. In Chapter 22, the camp manager, Jim Rawley, shows Ma the first genuine kindness she’s seen in a while. He simply checks in on the family, offers to have their campsite cleaned, and then continues on his way. At first, she is very suspicious of him, but when she realizes how genuine he is, she is “fought with a desire to cry” (Chapter 22). Steinbeck is showing that all it takes is some true kindness for a struggling person to feel human.

Alcohol is also a source of pleasure for the migrants, though it does not make them feel human again. This substance acted as a temporary mind eraser, in which “failure was dulled and the future was no threat” (Chapter 23). There is still a simple pleasure in being able to forget your hardships to truly enjoy yourself, even if it doesn’t make you feel human again.

It seems that music is more of a distraction, than as true pleasure as the narrator describes it. He explains the sentimental difference between a harmonica, guitar, and fiddle—though they can all come together to create pleasure. The harmonica is cheap, and provides you with quick and easy chords. The guitar is more precious and more difficult to learn, but sounds beautiful when played with other instruments. According to the narrator, the fiddle is the most rare of all of the instruments discussed. But when all three instruments are played together, it creates an infectious environment, “People have to move close. They can’t help it” (Chapter 23). Steinbeck shows music as a distraction and a skill, that can be simultaneously independent and social. Distraction through the infectious environment that music creates seems to be pleasurable as well.

The scale of Steinbeck’s narrative often jumps from micro to macro and back again. This constantly changing scale demonstrates the small and large effects the Great Depression had on people and their environment. By zooming in on things as simple as sipping on whiskey and strumming a guitar, Steinbeck shows that though the migrant families were experiencing hugely destructive situations, there were small, simple ways to find pleasure and get through it.

Fictitious Literature or Historical Account?

Fictitious Literature or Historical Account?

John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath is an extremely detailed, personalized account of the plight of the migrant farm worker during the Great Depression. Steinbeck’s work is fictitious but represents a very real journey and struggle endured by many families at the time. The Grapes of Wrath follows the Joad family as they are forced to leave their farm due to the California drought. Steinbeck pulls on the reader’s heartstrings so that they side with the down-and-out Joads, who wouldn’t have had much sympathy during the time that this was taking place. There is a theme of the good in humanity and pride in facing human struggle. The Joads are characterized with “muscles aching to work, minds aching to create beyond the single need”, as a greater reflection of humanity struggling at the time. This overarching sense of “relatable-ness” is what makes the Joads so human, even though they are not real.

Life Magazine agrees that Steinbeck provides an incrediblely realistic portrayal by citing his work with photographer Horace Bristol in The “True” Story. Bristol and Steinbeck originally set out to collaborate on The Grapes of Wrath, though in the end Bristol’s photographs did not accompany the original novel. Later, a photo-essay with their planned collaboration followed and the work was a huge success. Life Magazine quotes an anonymous author reiterating the realism the two portrayed, saying, “Never before had the facts behind a great work of fiction been so carefully researched by the newscamera” (42). There were many opposing responses as well, claiming that Steinbeck’s portrayal wasn’t as realistic as first believed. There were claims that the Joads experience was too positive and that there were not families typically as large as they were (45). But whatever the interpretations of accuracy may be, I think this book still holds a lot of valuable insight as literature and historical context.

I first read The Grapes of Wrath in high school, and my teacher did not give us any background historical context. We analyzed The Grapes of Wrath solely as a literary novel; focusing on its motifs, symbols, and writing style. Personally, I did not enjoy reading the book in high school and felt that I didn’t take away much from it. Now that I am taking a second look at it in The Travel Habit, with a focus on literature from the Great Depression, I am finding it much more interesting. The Grapes of Wrath is a legendary novel on its own, but without its historical context, it doesn’t hold quite as much meaning. If this book is going to be taught to high school students, it needs to be in English and in History class. Whether the portrayal is “100% accurate” is not important, because it is known as a work of fiction that has realistic plot points and historical context. I am not sure if I completely agree with the anonymous author on the “never before seen” accuracy of the book, but I do think that Steinbeck’s representation of the migrant farm worker is realistic enough to be associated with the real farm workers of the 1930s, and should be taught with historical value.

A Photo-Story Book

A Photo-Story Book

Let Us Now Praise Famous Men is a photo-text book documenting white tenant families in the south during the Great Depression. This photo-text book is very different from the others that we have read so far, because Walker Evans and James Agee’s goal wasn’t to produce a detailed report on places, people, and numbers, but rather to tell a story. Agee and Evans break down the traditional boundaries between the subject and the writer, and the book and the reader by asserting, “This is a book only by necessity. More seriously, it is an effort in human actuality, in which the reader is no less centrally involved than the authors and those of whom they tell” (xvi). They didn’t want to be limited by their traditional roles, and didn’t want to limit the tenant families by representing them with bias.

Agee acknowledges how much power a writer has in representation, and explains, “In a novel, a house or person has his meaning, his existence, entirely through the writer” (12). Other photo-text books have such a big emphasis on portraying and reporting on what is accurate, but Agee and Evans undermine that by showing outsiders’ inherent inaccuracy. They combat this by inserting the reader and the viewer into the lives of the tenant families.

The style of writing in Let Us Now Praise Famous Men is entirely first and second person narrative. Viewers are introduced to people, and brought into their lives through vivid descriptions such as this; “And then, too, you yourself gave it away, Louise, for your skin was a special quiet glowing gold color, which can never come up in the skin of nicely made little girls in towns and cities, but only to those who come straight out of the earth…toughening into work” (367). The situations Agee describes put the reader inside of the tenant families’ houses and lives. It is as if they are a part of the story.

Though at times it was hard to follow Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, I felt as through I was being told a story. The personalized narrative reminds the reader that these are people, with families and needs, and that this documentation of the poor was about real lives. Agee and Walker assert that it was impossible to explore the whole world of white tenant farmers solely by observing one family, and that this lifestyle touched a numerous amount. They simultaneously personalize the experience of the white tenant farmer family, but also acknowledge that it took shape in various forms.

Walker Evan’s photographs are very heavily influenced by portraiture. It is as if he is building references for the “characters” that are discussed in the book. There is an intimate feel of desperation that feels specific to the subject of the portrait but also more generalized to all who were suffering. He does not glamorize or pity the tenant families, but just provides a window into their lives by showing their faces. The photographs perfectly combine with the intimate written scenes, and add to the story that Agee and Walker want to tell.



A Visual History

A Visual History

An American Exodus: A Record of Human Erosion in the Thirties by Dorothea Lange and Paul Schuster Taylor is a combination of text and photography documenting the migration patterns taking place during the 1930s. Lange created sympathetic portraits of migrants and farm workers in order to capture the essence of “living participants, who can speak” (15). The combination of visual and written elements is seen as essential in Lange and Taylor’s portrayal of the people; the photographs and text together bring a more holistic understanding.

Lange and Schuster also emphasize the importance of seeing the “camera as a tool of research” (15). Just like cultural anthropologists, they were documenting a culture that was different from their own and wanted to provide a visual history for outsiders. Analysis of this work from the University of Virginia asserts that An American Exodus had the purpose of locating “these migrations within a larger history and tradition of American migration…this renders the challenges of the thirties surmountable…by putting an end in sight, and by offering some historical distance”. Lange and Schuster explain the migration origins, document its happenings, and then place it within a greater history of America.

I don’t feel that Lange and Schuster are normalizing the migrants’ struggles by placing it within a greater historical context. Rather, they seem to be showing sympathy and respect to these people that are down on their luck and enduring an American struggle. The direct-quote captions they use create a sense of genuine authenticity of the people and their stories.

There is not only a focus on people, but their land as well, which can be seen through the photographs of the fields, roads, and tractors. The history they provide on the erosion of the land further explains why the issues people were dealing with were occurring. The documentation of people working in the field shows how the struggle was equally about people and the land. This provides historical context for the time period.

Dorothea Lange is now seen as a historical figure of the Great Depression because of her photography. There is something very enticing about having visual documentation. Writing and reporting are extremely important in historical discourse, but photography offers a specific, detailed account of one person or one situation by bringing it to life.

As a student studying Anthropology and Studio Art, I was very interested in how the combination of written and visual elements was used to document the Great Depression, and what this combination evoked. A lot of what occurred during the Great Depression is completely unrelated to me, and often difficult to visualize. The historic explanation in supplement with the visual images gave me a better understanding of the land condition, historical migration, and individual and collective human struggle. I have really enjoyed all of the readings we have done so far, but this week’s photo-text books have been my favorite, because they add a visual, personal, and historical element.

Being Down and Out Together

Being Down and Out Together

It seems that something as debilitating as the Great Depression would bring the true, raw human nature out of the people that were down and out. Through all of the readings we have done so far, and particularly those of Nelson Algren and Woody Guthrie from this week, I was interested in the constantly changing sense of camaraderie between those in equally bad situations.

Algren’s Somebody in Boots follows the migrant character of Cass from a distancing third person perspective, and watches as he forms a relationship with a fellow bum, Matches. The two meet each other in a disturbingly gory and unfortunate situation, but decide to continue their journey together to keep each other company. After spending a significant amount of time together, a true camaraderie forms, and a dependent relationship is described, “…before he had almost feared this boy; now there plodded besides him…[he] depended on him, Cass, to lead him about and to put his shoes on…Cass felt something of a mild responsibility” (345). And just as quickly as Cass bonded with this man, he was able to completely separate himself from him when the police made a remark on their camaraderie. Cass was deeply offended when the cops collectively called him and Matches by a racial slur, aggressively repeating, “Ah’m not no nigger” (345). He clearly wants to separate himself from Matches after this situation occurs, so much so that he stands at a distance while Matches get assaulted. Just when you think the down-and-outters have formed an alliance, there is always something to quickly come between them.

I felt like this was present in Woody Guthrie’s work as well. In this beginning of Bound for Glory, he catches a ride from a group of boys on all on their way to California, and begins to try and make conversation with them. It seems he is trying to hone in on the down and out camaraderie too, but he is quickly shut down and is told, “we could ride together better if we asked each other less questions” (196). Despite this, there is still a sense of community amongst the passengers that Guthrie evokes as their truck is running out of gas. With a strong group mentality, he states, “It was the only motor we had. We wanted more than anything else in the world to hear it purr along, and we didn’t care how people laughed…” (196). Though the boys in the truck initially didn’t want to welcome Guthrie, it seems that their travel together is still able to create a sense of camaraderie.

It’s interesting to see the flux in relationships that occur in these extremely straining circumstances. It is equally as natural for humans to feel connected to each other, as it is push people away? Even though there is a lot of anger and violence present, I would like to think that those truly down on their luck would reach out to each other, instead of isolating themselves further.

Truly accurate?

Truly accurate?

Tom Kromer’s Waiting for Nothing differs from the other authors we have read so far because his book is from the perspective of the voiceless. All the others authors’ works were from the point of view of the writer, artist, or government worker as they try to document the life of the traveling migrants. Though these authors are desperately trying to show the true stories of the Great Depression, their works are full of their own bias. By using their own voice for the voiceless, they are filtering the truth.

Kromer’s novel is from the perspective of a hungry, out of work traveler. There is no middleman voicing the story. Waiting for Nothing appears more authentic because of this, especially because of its first person narrative style. Each chapter highlights the true desperation and violence of the time, not leaving out any details unlike other writers. Kromer details every gritty situation from staring at rich people eating knowing “I cannot go in there. It is too classy, and besides there are too many people. They will laugh at my seedy clothes” to finally being given a meal by a man who wants to show off his graciousness (7). He discusses denying a prostitute’s service, and watching a man seize in his bed while “the rest of the stiffs do not pay any attention to him” (17). Kromer also highlights the intense police brutality of the time, featuring scenes of his waking up to violence, “A man can’t even sleep…I feel his first smash into my mouth. I feel the blood that oozes from my lips” (22). All of these images create a more realistic portrayal of life for a down-on-their-luck, unemployed person of this time.

There is not much known about Tom Kromer’s life, but he had the opportunity to be a writer, signifying his place in at least the middle class. I have seen on one or two sources online that Waiting for Nothing is theorized to be semi-autobiographical, but without much knowledge of Kromer’s life it is hard to know the truth. I think the gory details of Waiting for Nothing mask the fact that it could be a work of fiction. Though his narrative is in the first person and realistic, do we know how true it really is? Is possible to get a completely accurate picture of the life of a vagrant during the 1930s?

Waiting for Nothing seems to be universally described as a realistic account, but is that solely based on the graphic descriptions or what is thought to be the author’s true experiences? Without more information, it’s difficult to decide. I appreciate Kromer’s effort to give a rational voice to the voiceless, but it seems likely that his account could be used to replace the experience of a true, traveling, unemployed migrant. Kromer’s work is very important in describing life during the Great Depression, but if it is viewed as true experience, that could potentially lead to some questions in accurate representation.


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