The Undercurrents

The Undercurrents

I think something that really stuck with me from this course was the real and human side of the Depression. Before this class I honestly didn’t know much, just that there was one in the United States that caused many to go homeless and hungry. But the way it affected people is really way more than that, and reading these in-depth stories reveals this. Losing a job can change an entire family dynamic and how people interact with one another. I noticed this especially when I watched Wild Boys on the Road. When Tom’s father loses his job, there’s this immediate awkward atmosphere that seeps into their home. No one knows how to interact as they did normally. Human interaction is called into question when people are just trying to survive and the normal social rules don’t apply. The depression brought out a part of people that may not always have been visible– I’m not going to say it’s the dark side of humanity, but maybe just a different version. I saw this especially in Let Us Now Praise Famous Men when James and Agee were spending intimate time with the families. Obviously the families felt a bit strange to have a writer in their home observing them, but I think it became even more socially strained because these people were poor and struggling to survive. The interactions between the poor/struggling and the obviously-not poor are different in this specific time periods.

Something I also really enjoyed reading about was the raising of doubt about the American dream. People were actually questioning “the system” in their daily lives and losing hope in the future. It shows that the American dream was an actual goal that many people believe in but began to lose faith in. But at the same time, people didn’t want to let go of an idea that seemed to be so much a part of the American identity because it gave them hope. Why is a nationally-held belief hard for an individual or a family to let go of? But what could they believe in if not the guarantee that they could be successful if they just worked really hard? Then there was also the opposite reaction people had against the supposed “Communists” who criticized the capitalist system and a fierce defending of the American dream. I guess it sort of just brought history to life for me.

Hard times throw normal interactions into question and reveal the tensions between people that may not have always been visible.

Bizarreness in the Great Smoky Mountains

Bizarreness in the Great Smoky Mountains

I decided to read the “Folkways and Folklore” section in North Carolina: a guide to the old north state because my dad’s sister is from North Carolina, and it was a pretty interesting experience for me when I visited her, being that I am a native New Yorker. I chose specifically to read the “Folkways and Folklore” section because it’s all about the people in the state, which I think, for a travel guide, is particularly interesting in that someone is formulating an opinion about a group of people and then putting it in a book to give future tourists some sort of direction for what they should expect socially. I was skeptical in reading it, reminding me of a quote from the summary of Gross’ American Guide Series: “Even those generally supportive of relief projects were skeptical of the government’s ability to act as patron of the arts” (1). The travel guide that I read had plenty of factual information– geography, maps, statistics–but it also had chapters such as “The Indians”, “The Negroes”, and “The Arts”. I think there’s an unnatural connection between the government and these sorts of topics, which makes these travel guides all the more curious to read.

The chapter opens:

“Many bizarre customs and superstitions are hidden in the Great Smoky Mountains and the dunes of North Carolina’s seacoast. It is a temptation to describe them first. But it seems more important to give an impression of the folkways of North Carolina as a whole–ways of doing and acting and talking that are observed as one travels about and talks to people…” (94)

The author then goes on to claim that all Americans are very similar in nature, but still, in the south people act quite differently in their everyday actions. He describes the mannerisms and general “ways of doing and acting and talking” of people in North Carolina, comparing and contrasting the behavior of people in different social classes, discussing the presence of folklore and the “mysterious” people who live in the mountains that no one really seems to know about, except the author. The author takes on a special role here because he’s an outsider making a complete guide to the state, perpetuating the claim made in Gross’ piece that through the guide the tourist knows the state better than the inhabitant.

I think this is definitely a persistent issue in the Federal Writers’ Project because there’s a small voice in your head asking, “but how can an outsider make such general claims to be accepted as fact?” Did everyone in North Carolina act this way during this time period? Probably not. But as someone who has traveled to a few places, I’m probably guilty of the same thing, if only just in my head, and I’m also guilty of being interested in reading the chapter, although it’s very overgeneralizing. Maybe, what makes these guides so interesting is that they have to give every state its own unique character.  In Gross’ piece, he writes, “The Guide cannot simply dismiss local belief as ignorance, however, because it is precisely the idiosyncrasies of local culture that make it worth visiting” (5). It makes me wonder what truly draws tourists to a place, and it’s obviously different for everyone. Would I, as a New Yorker, be able to write a fully comprehensive travel guide to the state that I’ve lived in all of my life? Maybe this is a job only for the tourist.

 

Travel: No Longer a Bourgeois Pastime

Travel: No Longer a Bourgeois Pastime

I find the way that tourism in America begins to “become a thing” is most interesting in that travel, before this period, was seen as a very bourgeois thing to do. Here we have the wage-earners pushing for vacation time because it improves the overall morale and health of the worker, bringing him or her new perspectives upon returning from vacation.  In Double Crossing America, Roland Wild writes,

“To a large extent, the wage-earner desire for paid vacations did represent a growing embourgeoisement of the working class” (193). So, vacation is this far-off idea, and before the 1930s, it’s really something only the wealthy can do. But slowly, as Americans realize the benefits of paid vacations– employers may be preventing possible uprisings, employees can enjoy their lives a little bit more, cities and towns can capitalize on the trend, etc– it becomes something that Americans should be able to have Even today, I think many formerly bourgeois activities are becoming more available to the non-upper classes such as cheaper flights, fast fashion, etc.. Agee writes about the restlessness of the American person and comments on the business opportunities that every new addition to the travel industry creates. Once paid vacation becomes prevalent, Wild writes about how advertising executives then realized that they needed to teach Americans how to travel by creating vacation packages and travel tips on how to save and plan and what to do when they arrived. Today, travel blogs do plenty of this and many blogs aim to make travel even less bourgeois, urging travelers not to buy ridiculous packages or go to certain destinations but to go out, explore, and not spend as much money.

I think the fact that travel and paid vacations have to have a certain benefit for all parties is very demonstrative of the relentless worker attitude of America in general, and I’m not really sure if this attitude is necessarily a positive thing. Wild mentions that the working class, at a time, fought for more stable hours and higher wages, not necessarily seeing paid vacation as a necessary benefit, whereas, as in other countries all over the world, a paid vacation is a very real and important benefit of many businesses. I’m not sure how the rest of the world measured up in this specific time period, but I know that today there is definitely a discrepancy. In America however, the theme is non-stop hard work to chase the ever-elusive American dream. A paid vacation can’t just be for the sole purpose of employee happiness. There has to be some sort of economic benefit.

The American Dream is Not So Cool

The American Dream is Not So Cool

A Cool Million reminded me a lot of Sheppard Lee by Robert Montgomery Bird as well as Cat’s Cradle by Kurt Vonnegut. All three are ridiculous adventure stories narrated in a peculiar way. Like Cat’s Cradle, A Cool Million was narrated in a very bare, to-the-point manner, and like Sheppard Lee, the narrator directly addresses the reader at certain points to make sure he or she understands why the narrator omits parts of the story. A Cool Million had such sudden twists of events that I almost became irritated while reading it.

Something I want to focus on particularly is the almost too-obvious humor and mockery of the American dream. The story is laden with metaphor and deems the American dream a silly fairy tale. It’s as if the narrator is really just writing, “Here, look at how ridiculous this plot and its characters are, and realize the failure of the American dream.”

Nowhere is this more evident than with the entire character that is Mr. Whipple. Throughout the story, he plays the role of the enforcer of the American dream. He shows up mysteriously and has ridiculous plans to open up banks and new businesses as soon as he finishes his current predicament. He shows up at very specific times, usually when Lem is in a bind (and has probably lost another body part). And somehow, Mr. Whipple manages to actually create and manage a political party that becomes miraculously victorious in the end. When Lem first goes to Mr. Whipple’s bank to ask for help, Mr. Whipple goes on an American dream tangent;

“‘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…The story of Rockefeller and of Ford is the story of every great American, and you should strive to make it your story….Like them, by honesty and industry, you cannot fail to succeed’” (7).

So, according to Mr. Whipple, all one needs is honesty and industry, and the American dream is a sure fire plan for success. If you do it right, you cannot fail. This method of success is demonstrated purely throughout the whole story. Lem, with his honest intentions of hard work and goals for success, endures ups and downs as he simply tries to make “ a cool million,” which he really thinks he can make in no time.

The narrator always makes a note of Lem’s positive attitude, who is “our hero”. When he meets the bandit who poses as the New York City mayor’s son, in two instances, the author makes sure to include a remark about Lem’s morale:

“‘Oh, I can take care of myself, I guess,’ said Lem with the confidence of youth…I could never afford it–that is, at first.’ And our hero laughed with the incurable optimism of youth” (16).

Over and over, Lem takes what the plot throws at him and pushes forward, losing his eye, his teeth, his scalp, and one of his legs, eventually being shot at the end only to be exalted on a national holiday in his remembrance as a martyr or the American dream and the restoration of the country.

Mr. Whipple preaches, “Alas, Lemuel Pitkin did not have this chance, but instead was dismantled by the enemy…But he did not live or die in vain. Through his martyrdom the National Revolutionary Party triumphed,… and America became again American” (95).

And so, Mr. Whipple, the enforcer of the true American dream and our faithful guide throughout the story, concludes the adventure.

Wild Boys

Wild Boys

Wild Boys of the Road, though made during and based on the depression, demonstrates a utopian, almost pure kind of representation of kids during the era. Eddie, an affluent young adolescent is best friends with Tommy, a working class adolescent who lives with his mother as his father has passed. When Eddie’s father loses his job, Eddie is immediately affected by the changing family dynamic with his parents–his mother has been crying, and his father feels embarrassed that he is sitting around at home with no job, unable to pay the bills that keep racking up. Eddie promises he’ll “cut down on everything” and even sells his car (under the pretense that he was just bored with it) to make it easier on his father. Eddie’s approach to this tough family issue portrays a very youthful, upbeat, and spirited response to the economic turmoil. The trailer, below, shows this heroic and youthful theme that the film takes on.

Wild Boys of the Road (1933) trailer

Eddie and Tommy then decide to run away to Chicago and New York, and while bumming it on the rails, they meet Sally, a young girl who wants to go stay with her wealthy aunt in Chicago, as well as a huge group of kids who ride the rails together. Whenever the train makes a stop, groups of men (who seem to be villains–one of them rapes Sally) try and clear the kids off the trains. However, at one train stop, a miscellaneous old man makes the point that all of the kids outnumber the men, so at every train stop, the kids band together in a mass mob and knock the men off of the train, even starting a food fight to get the men away.

This kind of united group spirit is, I think, a really pure representation of childhood behavior for kids in the depression: ready to take on the world, find a job, make ‘tons of money’ for their parents, save the day, etc. All of the events in the film where the group of kids band together victoriously are epic and unrealistic, but I think it really captures the child in everyone in the period, simply hoping that they will make it and that they will be okay.

Towards the end of the film, Eddie gets arrested in New York because of some con men. Tommy and Sally accompany him to court where the judge, who has a child himself, feels very strongly for the plight of the kids and promises that he will get them all jobs so that they can make money to go back home to their parents. The judge promises, “We’ll find a spot for you, you’ll be given a chance.” The kids are escorted out by an officer in a car to their seemingly brighter future. Everything works out for them.

The movie ends rather abruptly right here. It has a simple plot where the characters are doing okay, encounter some sort of crises that they continuously fight, and end up on top. Even though the plot is somewhat lacking and pretty unrealistic, I think the fact that the film consists mostly of children is uplifting: these are just two “wild boys” who take off on the railroads to try and survive so their parents don’t have to worry about them. Their passion is real and true and matches the attitudes of, for example, the Joads in The Grapes of Wrath when they meet the two men who say there’s nothing out there in California. The Joads insist to themselves that things will be different for them, and this is the exact way of thinking that the kids in Wild Boys of the Road embody, representing a fresh young take on the depression era.

 

On the Run

On the Run

While reading the second half of the book I was still thinking about the theme I discussed on my last post- the glorification of California that pushes the Joad family to leave their home. Now, I think California can be substituted with “the next place”. It’s interesting to me because every place seems to be just as bleak as the last, but maybe the fact that the next place is more unknown to them is what keeps them going. In chapter thirty, the phrase “we should go” (or some version of it) is repeated over and over throughout the chapter. The Joad family could be heading to somewhere way worse than they were to begin with, but I think the slim possibility of ending up somewhere where they finally make enough money to survive and be comfortable is what pushes them. If something isn’t working, “just going” is always an option and it almost starts to become a go-to remedy for them. I wouldn’t exactly say that they were running away from their problems or that they should have stayed where they are, but I think it’s noteworthy that being able to leave always seems to be the best and easiest option.

I think this theme of “just going” could be extended as a theme that runs throughout the entire novel. Tom finds himself in many situations where he cuts ties and leaves. The Joads up and leave where they are on a moment’s notice, even if they really did like where they were staying (ie- the government camp). This relates back to many of the books and pieces we’ve read where the characters form temporary ties to people and places but, with survival first in mind, must end these temporary relationships and move forward. However, I cannot say if they are truly moving forward, since each place they move on to is just another version of the last place, but just a different kind of terrible.

On a slightly different note, I thought the death of Casy was very iconic. I hadn’t really picked up on the religious theme throughout the novel until someone had written about it, and I thought the way that he died was very much in a religious, martyr-like fashion. Once again, Tom is able to escape trouble because of Casy’s sacrifice for him, as if Casy was a stand-in for Jesus Christ although he did not call himself a man of God. Additionally, Tom is able to escape the attackers, get back to his family and “just go”.

 

The Land of Endless Oranges and Grapes

The Land of Endless Oranges and Grapes

Something that struck me in this novel was the glorification of California migration that echoes the American dream ideal during the Depression. Everything will be just fine, even better than fine, just as soon as they get some work going. The Joads had their perfect plan set in stone: drive to California, find easy work (as advertised in the flyers), settle down and enjoy a better life in the California sunshine…

“Jus’ let me get out to California where I can pick me an orange when I want it. Or grapes… Gonna get me a whole big bunch of grapes off a bush, or whatever, an’ I’m gonna squash ‘em on my face an’ let ‘em run offen my chin” (56), says Grampa.

“Course it’ll be all different out there—plenty work, an’ ever’thing nice an’ green, an’ little white houses an’ oranges growin’ aroun’” (73) says Pa.

This attitude and assurance that everyone has about migrating to California is quickly adjusted when they actually arrive and can’t find work. When they run into the two men on the way who say they are going back home because they’d rather starve in their own home with people they know, I think the reality of migration really comes to light. The Joads are taking whatever tip they can get and creating an ideal of an easier life. It’s interesting how the image of sunshine and abundance makes the migration all the more desirable, as if even if there weren’t any work, at least the weather was always perfect. Floyd, who had been living in the tent camp where the Joads stop to settle, echoes the voice of reality for the Joads when he is talking to Tom about the disparity: “An’ besides, you don’ look nice, livin’ in old tents; an’ it’s a pretty country, but you stink it up” (167), suggesting that it doesn’t really matter where they migrate, because if there’s no work, they can’t really enjoy it that much anyway.

This adherence to the ideal of California and being able to make life better swings both ways. One on end of the spectrum, we have the Joads insisting that they move on to search for a better opportunity, and then there are characters like Grampa and Muley who insist on staying where they are. Grampa goes on and on about not leaving his land and they have to get him drunk on medicine so that they can take him with them, and Muley, for a reason still not fully explained, will not leave, even though his family is in California. He seems to be ashamed of this, calling himself a “damn ol’ graveyard ghos’” (75) who knows he won’t ever leave because he would freak out at the very last minute before doing so.

I wonder if this attachment to home has any connection with the small chapter (11) about the farmers who become disassociated with the land as farming becomes more efficient with chemicals and machines. They are no longer in awe of the land; Steinbeck writes, “But the machine man, driving a dead tractor on land he does not know and love, understands only chemistry; and he is contemptuous of the land and of himself” (79). Farmers who’ve known their land are more reluctant to leave it because they are much more emotionally involved with the earth they possess. How could they leave the very land they were raised on and took care of for so many years? And when work turns into this wonder-less labor, does the farmer lose his sense of self? I think this land pride is a prominent theme for migrants who have to make the decision whether they should leave and search for something else (perhaps just an ideal) or stay on their land that they know so well and hope for better times.

 

Double Sided Documentary

Double Sided Documentary

The beginning of this book where Walker Evans is describing James Agee is really important for understanding Agee’s writing style in the excerpts we read. It’s actually funny to me because the whole point of the book (government work to document cotton farmers) kind of goes out the window, the project even gets rejected when they are done. Evans goes on rambling tangents with whole pages filled with commas and little or no periods. However, I appreciate his strange approach because if the book was this thick and written in a straight-forward manner, it would be excruciating to read.

Evans writes, “After a while, in a round-about way, you discovered that, to him, human beings were at least possibly immortal and literally sacred souls” (xii).

I think it’s interesting how Agee really seems to involve himself in the documentation, and this quote speaks to that. He has formed a deep attachment with the people he’s spending his time with, and even doubts his own motivations. I would even say he’s almost too involved at some points. For example, his eye contact relationship with Louise and how he decides that he would love her is very much bringing himself into the story. Agee and Evans are not so much documenting the cotton farmer family’s lives as they are documenting the impact of their presence in it. One specific quote highlights the ethical issue with this type of Depression-era journalism:

“It seems to me curious, not to say obscene and thoroughly terrifying, that it could occur to an association of human beings drawn together through need and chance and for profit into a company…to pry intimately into the lives of an undefended and appallingly damaged group of human beings…in the name of science, of “honest journalism”…All of this, I repeat, seems to me curious, obscene, terrifying, and unfathomably mysterious” (7-8).

And yet, the entire book was written anyway. Every emotion and physical feeling is documented, transforming the book from writing from the perspective of the writer’s eyes to writing from the perspective of the writer’s emotional bias. Interestingly enough, even though the book is obviously biased and subjective, it, at the same time, takes on this really honest tone because the writers are acknowledging the problematic nature of their endeavour but admitting that they did it anyway, in my opinion, for some kind of enjoyment– not enjoyment in a fun or happy kind of way, but in a mind and heart opening way.

Searching for The Typical

Searching for The Typical

“American Pastoral,” by Jonathan Raban for The New York Review of Books refers to a quote by William Empson that discusses American Pastoral, calling it ‘“a beautiful relation between the rich and poor” by making “simple people express strong feelings…in learned and fashionable language”’ (Raban). It’s interesting that he notes some sort of relation between the rich, who are these writers and poets, forming with the poor Americans that they are engaging with. What exactly is beautiful here? Perhaps it’s all of the human emotion, concentrated in a set of photographs? I think calling the relation “beautiful” is almost sadistic in a way.

Lange and Taylor write a small disclaimer for American Exodus: “We use the camera as a tool of research. Upon a tripod of photographs, captions, and text we rest themes evolved out of long observations in the field” (Lange and Taylor, 15).

Referring to the camera as the tool of research, I think, attempts to create an air of objectivity. The camera is capturing these people, and the authors are simply writing down what they say, and whoever reads the book can take what they want from it. But I don’t think the air of objectivity is necessarily successful. From reading American Exodus,there is an obvious critique of the sharecropping system, which basically leaves the tenants in perpetual debt, victim to the rich landowners who have no real responsibility to treat the tenants fairly. American Exodus offers many different perspectives on why the state of affairs for sharecroppers were so bad– the system is useless, people should have planned ahead, the government caused this, the landowners did that– all in search of some sort of solution or conclusion, which ends up being that all of these things should be talked about.

I think the same critique runs true in You Have Seen Their Faces, but something I wonder about is the title used. When they (Caldwell and Bourke-White) say, “You have seen their faces,” I see two possible meanings, and there could potentially be many more. The first is in a more general sense–these are people whose faces you’ve seen, you know these people. The other is more pushy: now we, the authors, have shown you these faces, so what will you (or we collectively) do about the situation? I would definitely say that American Exodus and You Have Seen Their Faces as calls to action, a shedding of light on the Southern sharecropper disposition.

Ilf and Petrov’s American Road Trip does not so much shed light on the poor man’s disposition as it does kick American pride right where it hurts. It’s funny to me that Ilf and Petrov are so objective and critical of American pride (and obviously capitalism) but at the same time are subjective in that they come from the Soviet Union, a communist state. Ilf and Petrov are searching for an understanding of America which is apparently not in New York or Washington D.C. I liken their search for America to the other authors’ search for an average. Lange and Taylor write, “Average of what? I ask myself. Typical of what? Aren’t there many averages and many types?” (Lange and Taylor, 136). But the picture brought forth by all of the authors was just that. It may not be accurate, but it is their understanding of the average. Is the average not just the most typical or usual? It is exactly this average that Ilf and Petrov dislike about America. It suddenly becomes the most uninteresting place to be, filled with all too similar cities; “Even the smell of all American cities is the same. It’s the smell of exhaust” (Ilf and Petrov, 18). America is too average, and it’s because of the atrocious capitalist system.

"And that's all I have to say about that."

“And that’s all I have to say about that.”

Compared to Waiting for Nothing, these three stories, which I immediately made a note of being written in the past, had a markedly more optimistic tone. I think it partly attributes to the past tense itself. It already happened, it is done with, the narrator has survived, etc. The writing is more poetic and much more descriptive of the general surroundings of the narrators. It’s almost amusing to read about the ups and downs of the narrators (with the exception of a few events). Additionally, I think the way that Bound for Glory and Somebody in Boots were written in an almost comical, easy-going tone, as if Forrest Gump was narrating:

“I spent my last four-bit piece on a little two-by-four room, and slept in a good warm bed. If it had cockroaches, alligators, or snapping turtles in it, I was too sleepy to stay awake and argue with them” (Guthrie, 195).

Something else I noticed was a split between Somebody in Boots and Bound for Glory (those two as a pair) and Sister of the Road. In the pair, the events that were going on around the narrators seemed to roll right off of their shoulders. They didn’t really seem all too horrified. For example, Cass falls onto a pregnant twenty year-old woman and kills her baby. Perhaps because of the overall tone of the piece, he seemed so not completely shaken by what happened, and after he ends up in another town, it doesn’t seem to affect him that much. There is almost a humorous attitude to it, especially when Matches hands Cass a cigarette that Matches took from the woman because he felt they deserved it after trying so hard to help her. I wouldn’t say he just accepted it as much as I would say that he seems somewhat unaware, unhardened by the world around him.

I’d say the narrator in the Sister of the Road piece can easily be summed up in this quote:

“Police and pinches, bughouses, and joints seem to have been always a part of my life….it all seemed natural to me, an attitude given me by my mother, to whom nothing was ever terrible, vulgar, or nasty. Our family never had any hard luck… All my life I have lived with hungry and lonely people” (Reitman, 7).

Boxcar Bertha isn’t really unaware of what is going on around her but has an acceptance and tolerance for it because she is so used to it, and even makes her life work about helping other hobo-ing women, whereas Cass and Woody are these easy riders who see everything that they see and continue on, kind of unaffected.

 

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