The biggest thing I am taking away from this course is an even larger desire to travel. I have honestly wanted to leave New York my entire life and despite this course focusing on the Great Depression, there were still many exciting moments in the readings. My biggest desire in life has always just been to gain knowledge. Whether it be about literature, politics, foreign cultures, etc., I have always just wanted to know more. I have especially always wanted to know more about other people. This class gave me a great opportunity to see this time period as more than just a unit in a high school history class.
Coincidentally, I am currently in the process of planning a road trip over winter break down to Florida, with stops along the way in Nashville, Raleigh, and a few other places. I have been on a few road trips before, but nothing this long. The furthest road trip I have participated in was to SUNY Potsdam to visit a friend; 8 hours through the Adirondacks and just a half hour away from Montreal. It was sort of bleak there. However, the more magical aspects of the road trip described in the readings we had really made me want to just hop in my car and head anywhere. I especially enjoyed the perspectives of those from other countries who were traveling across the United States. Like Ilf and Petrov, or Roland Wild and his family, I want to explore this country to appreciate it as is. I feel like nowadays we are too bombarded with information to ever travel to a new location without having preconceived notions of how the experience will be.
Not to say that this was not present back then, as well. However, there was a larger aspect. There was this pure desire to experience America. There may have been expectations, but there always seemed to be a wholesome hope for the trip. Whether things were bad at one point may not have affected their luck down the road. I personally am not so sure that I believe in the “American dream”, but I do believe in exploring. I would not be searching for that lucky strike, but simply to know more. Especially since there is so much to know.
I decided to search for a WPA guide book on Long Island and was lucky enough to find one that featured my hometown, Valley Stream. Upon this discovery, I hastily signed up for a 1-day free trial to a research database in order to read what they had to say about my lovely little town. Although it wasn’t extensive, I found reading about my town from a tourist perspective to be quite strange. There were a few other surrounding towns featured as the author made their way out east that I know well and kept reading to see how these places I have known my entire life were being marketed.
In “New York: A Guide to the Empire State”, the book’s focus was to highlight some of the other features of New York State outside of New York City. I was happy to stumble upon this because living in the shadow of the greatest city in the world can sometimes make you blind to where you are. I had previously heard about how central Valley Stream was to commuters since it is right on the border of Queens, and the railroad was a central hub in this daily travel. Seeing it also mentioned in the guide made me feel a bit proud of how my town is seen as a great gateway to New York City and that there is value in it. There was also mention of the Valley Stream State Park, which I actually live just down the street from. The advertisement for something I used to walk in every day after middle school with my friends was a bit strange. I have always pictured my town as a bit of nothing. Sure, I loved my childhood and I have made the best friends of my life here. But there is a bit of a habit to hate on your own hometown, especially on Long Island (but forbid anyone else do it, then there’s trouble). Anyway, in this mindset, it was exciting to see things I thought were so menial be brought up as reasons to visit a town.
I also learned a bit of interesting information about a cemetery that I pass at least once a week, and have known of my entire life. In the town of Lynbrook, just next to Valley Stream, there is The Sandhole Cemetery, which houses the remains of those who were on the emigrant ships Bristol and Mexico that were wrecked in 1836. This bit of history gave me more of a thrill than when I watch Everybody Loves Raymond and Ray Romano mentions that he is from Lynbrook.
In “The American Guide Series: Patriotism as Brand-Name Identification”, Gross discusses the ideas that the people of Arizona had about their home state. He explained how they had to be shown the beauty that others, specifically tourists, saw in their home. I would say that I am a far ways away from saying that Valley Stream is beautiful, but it did remind me of the rare moments when I realize just how much history Long Island really has. Categorized by the upper-class culture of the Hamptons and women like that from Long Island Medium, there are definitely times when some of us can feel like we don’t understand it at all. Although there is a clear disparity in the way that the authors see Valley Stream and I do, it was interesting to see what long-lasting points of interest would be marketed to tourists.
I really enjoyed the idea Berkowitz discusses in A “New Deal” for Leisure that tourism was promoted as a way to reinforce America’s strength on the microlevel. By encouraging its people to travel, the country would ultimately strengthen based on these people’s knowledge of and pride in America. Amongst so many class and social divides, a larger unity was being promoted so that the citizens would stand together stronger. However, it is my personal opinion that this no longer exists.
First, with the use of technology, anyone with an Internet connection can see just exactly what it looks like in towns across all 50 states. Along with this ease of access, it is also easier to pick apart the differences between people when you do not have to see them in person. I think that this leads to more disjointedness amongst people since they can make judgments from media without the face-to-face repercussions. Taking a look at many of the current social issues going on, it is clearly evident on social media just how this divides many regions across the United States. As a result of this, we then will have reservations about traveling to certain areas based on our preconceived notions from other outlets.
Furthermore, this incessant use of technology has hindered the travel experience itself. In Roland Wild’s Double-Crossing America, we see the bumbling adventure of a family and their nanny trying to make it across the United States. As this family struggles with their trailer and taking their young daughter away from her home, they barely make it out of the Northeast in a month and focus too much on the complications of the travel. Wild very appropriately states that “We did not see much of America, for our eyes were on the ground” (21). Similarly, with the advent of social media sites and photo sharing, I think that many people now lose focus on their vacations because they are focusing too much on taking pictures to share with the world. This is usually immediately followed by opening up said social media site to post it with a great caption. How do we quantify the value lost in an experience when it is seen mostly through a camera screen?
I do not believe that the travel habit among Americans has died whatsoever, but the quality has simply diminished. Obviously, I do not wish to generalize this to all people, but in my experience I have witnessed this decline in actually paying attention. Whereas tourism used to be promoted to stimulate the economy and encourage pride in the nation, it now seems to be focused on feeding egos.
Is Nathanael West’s A Cool Million meant to be a satire? Is he provoking thoughts that the “American dream” is a myth? If Lemuel Pitkin is any example to go by, then yes. No matter how hard one tries and works and believes, sometimes it ends in tragedy. His entire presence in the novel is characterized by denials and misgivings. His death in the end could be West’s way of telling Americans to wake up to change and let go of the pipe dreams. Yet despite all of this, Lem goes forward until he can’t anymore.
I found the most interesting character in the novel to be Mr. Nathan “Shagpoke” Whipple. His well-timed appearances always seem to intercept our protagonist before he reaches rock bottom. The hilarity of a former president of the United States trudging across the country looking for work is well contrasted against his relentless hope. Shagpoke is Lem’s voice of reason, encouraging him to pursue in the face of disaster.
At his first reappearance in the prison infirmary, I thought that perhaps Lem was dreaming or hallucinating. I thought that it seemed too uncanny that he would be there at that exact moment. However, as I kept reading, I realized that his exact purpose was to be there at uncanny moments. As he easily hops from one line of work to another, he takes Lem along with him. He helps Lem believe that he is capable of working all trades.
This did not mean that I discounted his possibly phantom nature. I kept wondering how much of this was supposed to be an internal representation of Lem’s dreams of making it big. Barring the fact that it is likely impossible for Mr. Whipple to have run into Lem all of those times, his presence is more of an ethereal one. In the same way that he seems to act an expert in many trades, he operates outside of social bounds.
“He was sitting in the dining room of the ‘Fifth Avenue Special’ en route to Chicago, where he and the party he was travling with were to change to ‘The Chief,’ crack train of the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe, and continue on to the high Sierras” (139).
I’m curious as to how a party of four paid for their fares among a train named the “Fifth Avenue Special” and are dining in its restaurant. Back in New York, Whipple claimed he did not have money to pay for the meal he invited Lem to. Yet now, they are on an express train across the country. Shagpoke’s presence seemed meant more for Lem’s own well-being. Which made me wonder if he were not a figment of Lem’s own imagination. His precise timing, incessant hopefulness, and mysterious resources served to alleviate some of Lem’s failures. As this teenager consistently fails every endeavor, Mr. Whipple is there to reassure him that all will be well.
His characterization by West is seamlessly done so it may seem to be in the reader’s own head. He never gives too much detail. He vaguely supports Lem, no matter the idea or task. He is Lem’s cheerleader that he can recall every time he feels he is about to give up. In this way, West immerses the reader in this type of thinking, too. He creates an atmosphere that encloses the reader in that idea of hope and forces them to not only think about the “American dream” as it exists out there, but as it does in our own goals and minds, as well.
It Happened One Night has been a long-time favorite of mine. If not for the comedic storytelling, then mostly for Clark Gable and his devilish good looks. However, while watching the movie with a different perspective in mind, I found a much more interesting narrative going on than just what is on the surface. It is obviously a funny, romantic comedy that showcases the idea that “opposites attract”. Yet it is this exact idea that I viewed quite differently while watching the movie in the context of this course.
Ellie Andrews, played by Claudette Colbert, is an heiress to a wealthy Wall Street magnate who runs away from home to be with the man her father disapproves of. On this journey she meets Peter Warne, played by Clark Gable, who is a journalist on the brink of losing his job. As Ellie’s disappearance is being covered in all of the newspapers, a chance to find her in person is one that is highly coveted. Peter quickly realizes that Ellie is quite incapable of taking care of herself on the road and takes it upon himself to ride along with her, with hopes of getting a story out of it upon realizing her true identity.
One theme commonly touched upon in what we’ve read so far is that of the rich not being willing to help the poor. We have encountered many people who were broke and travelling across the country learning the hard way that those with the most money are the least likely to help. That’s why I found it interesting that in this film, we have a very wealthy heiress who is completely dependent on a working-class man. Without Peter, Ellie would have spent all of her money in the first half hour of the film and gone no further than Jacksonville. Instead, we see her eat crow as Peter informs her when her bag is stolen and helps her fend off unwanted advances from men like Mr. Shapely, believe you me.
About 20 minutes into the film, Peter finds out Ellie’s true identity and she quickly offers him money not to call her father. In this scene, Peter puts Ellie in her place by calling out her reliance on money and informs her that all she need do is humbly ask for help. “Ever hear of the word ‘humility’?” he asks her. Instead of the rich telling the poor to get a job or try harder for work, we have a man (albeit not a poor one) telling a very wealthy woman how to act. Flipping this protocol on its head, we see a new power dynamic that stems from Peter’s street smarts. It could be said that the streets belong to the poor, for they are the ones who live there. When the rich come onto them, they are sorely at a loss.
There are countless instances in which Ellie believes that her high-class privilege will allow exceptions on her behalf. For example, when the pair are staying at an auto camp for the night, Ellie is quick to cut the line for the showers without a second thought. She is surprised to find that there is a woman already in there who yells at her for opening the door. Her genuine shock at the lack of submissive behavior illustrates how green she is in the eyes of the world. Is this the reason for their lacking in tendencies to help others? Perhaps the bubble of wealth is what contributes to their shutting off the philanthropy tap. It is only when Ms. Andrews is viewed as a regular citizen like the rest of her travel companions that she sees the true value of compassion, and not money.
Ellie also expresses her desire to run away from her life by saying that she would rather trade lives with a plumber’s daughter any day. Is this statement meant to be blanketed in ignorance? Or is it simply a lighthearted way of showing the world that the rich have it rough too? Ellie recounts tales of ditching bodyguards just to go shopping and running into random cars to avoid them. Yet she’s had all of the privileges in the world while her fellow citizens are living in squalor. It would seem that the purpose of her friendship, and subsequent romance, with Peter is to serve as an example of what the rich can learn from those without, especially in times of desperation and hopelessness.
The second half of The Grapes of Wrath really struck me with the stable sense of community throughout it. As the Joads make their way through a few different camps, I felt the strongest presence of others than in anything we have read so far. In writers like Kromer, Agee, and Anderson, I felt slightly more disconnected from the characters we met. This is probably partly due to the benefit of being a fiction novel. But I would like to assume that Steinbeck did attempt to remain historically accurate.
The scenes in the Weedpatch Camp convey a strong sense of camaraderie and co-dependence. However, I was largely struck by the large presence of desperation. This self-governing group of migrants seemed untrustworthy to me at first. When the Joads were being introduced to the Weedpatch Camp, the incessant questioning brought up a feeling of unease. The strong religious presence also made the people at the camp seem untrustworthy. After the first camp is burned down,
“’The sinners is awful strong aroun’ here. You come to a awful place. They’s wickedness all around about. Wicket people, wicket goin’s-on that a lamb’-blood Christian jes’ can’t hardly stan’. They’s sinners all around us.’” (320)
Even though the people seemed happy and well taken care of, Lisbeth’s judgment of Ma Joad made sure to remind the reader that there might be bigger forces at play. As the Joads move to the peach camp, we see the harsh reality of people forced to come together out of necessity. The violence is seen in Casy’s death as what these high tensions can result in. There is too much tension and the stakes are too high for this camp to operate peacefully. As factions form, the religious theme really reveals itself. The flooding of the camp seems biblical as it invades the camp. Its plague creates even more conflict as Tom heroically goes out to continue Casy’s work.
The communities created at these camps seemed much stronger than any we have seen in boxcars or at any mission locations. These families that are pushed and forced together are not meant to co-exist. And as they realize what is not being done for them, we see the superficiality amongst them.
John Steinbeck is not only a master at creating an incredibly vivid environment, but The Grapes of Wrath showcases just how dependent these people are on it. His descriptions of countless wives and children watching on as their husbands desperately cling on to their farmland really illustrates the loss and hopelessness that defines this time period. It seems like he creates a somewhat dystopian world when he describes the tractors that come in to move the tenant farmers out as monsters.
“The man sitting in the iron seat did not look like a man; gloved, goggled, rubber dust mask over nose and mouth, he was a part of the monster, a robot in the seat” (35).
Steinbeck’s descriptions of the land at times seem more alive than the characters do. His focus on describing the desolation left behind after the Dust Bowl creates the same sense of despair that his characters are feeling at the moment. He does not just focus on what it looked like, but the relationship between man and his land. It is by this land that they live, and now by it that they may die. So far, we have read a lot of accounts of writers who were either assigned to, or already out on, the road. Here in this novel, we have an account of the feeling of being driven to it. Perhaps this is the benefit of fiction, but his talent for portraying emotion strongly characterizes the relationship between these farmers and their land. Even as the Joad family ventures out onto the road, they are still bound to the land. Whether they are looking for it or traveling on it, there is never an instant where you forget that property is what it’s all about.
“66 is the path of people in flight, refugees from dust and shrinking land, from the thunder of tractors and shrinking ownership… From all of these the people are in flight, and they come into 66 from the tributary side roads, from the wagon tracks and the rutted country roads. 66 is the mother road, the road of flight” (118).
This relationship of man and land extends far beyond losing one’s farm and home. Everyone knows about Route 66 and it is this road that creates a sense of hope for the displaced. Venturing out to California, the Joad family is bound to a route to get there. They are restricted to certain lands, and are traveling out to the one they think is filled with the most opportunity. In chapter five, we hear from a tenant farmer describing how a man’s property is him. They are one and the same, and it even makes the man bigger. He is his land, and his land is him. That is, until it is taken away from him.
“This you may say of man – when theories change and crash, when schools, philosophies, when narrow dark alleys of thought, national, religious, economic, grow and disintegrate, man reaches, stumbles forward, painfully, mistakenly sometimes” (150).
Yet I find it interesting that in this segment, Steinbeck chooses to focus on the intangible things that crash. Here his characters are, displaced by their [now lack of] property, and he chooses to isolate those that we cannot physically see. These families are so bound to their income in land, but they do not get angry at it. Even when Tom is expressing how the United States is not that big and that there is not that much land in the entire country anyway, he never criticizes what is there. To be so desperate for a place to live, work, and sleep, he seemed awfully aloof about what he thought was a small piece of land for this nation of those in need.
I was really surprised by the casual style employed by Agee in his writing. His stories read more like letters or journal entries. The way he specifically wrote addressing the characters he met really struck me. In relation to You Have Seen Their Faces, I was struck by the unapologetic force of showing these people to the public. However, Agee’s portrayal of them seems more aloof just by the fact that he writes like he is speaking only to them. He creates a sense of privacy, inclusion, and uniqueness for these people by solely focusing his attention on them for a good portion of the second section. It seemed to me that he made them appear important.
“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.”
Agee’s own description of Let Us Praise Famous Men really lends to the strength of his writing style. He is explicit on the idea that this is a participatory, equal process. What I took away from this technique is that it is up to the individual to take the initiative to be both socially and self-aware.
I found Agee’s obsession with finding a girl both interesting and quite comical. As we are exposed to his inner thoughts on multiple occasions, we see just how desperate he is for both physical and intellectual love. His desire to be around people is unrelenting, and I was surprised to see just how often he focused on the opposite sex. Contrasting Kromer’s description of his encounter with Mrs. Carter, Agee describes a genuine desire for some company. I think it’s interesting to consider how the stress of the economic downfall affected people’s interpersonal ties. So far, we have seen a lot of loneliness and short-lived friendships along the road. These connections never last more than the next town over or a train ride across state lines. Yet Agee describes his interactions as heartfelt, appreciative encounters. I wonder if he is naturally compassionate or hamming it up for the audience. I dare to hope for the former.
These photographs serve as beautiful, haunting reminders of what this sort of ruin can inflict on the human race. It is a sad truth in this world that if we do not see it, we do not believe it. Documenting this time through text allows us to soak in the details and nuances of a life like this. Pictures allow us to feel it. The photographs captured by these varied photographers not only show us the visual representation of their narratives, but lend to its strength. We are seeing moments that the photographer felt important enough to capture and this in itself sets a tone for their writing.
I found this to be especially true in Ilf and Petrov’s account of their adventure across America. The image of two Soviets on a road trip through the states is comical and intriguing at the same time. Their completely unique perspective of what is important and what’s not in the U.S. is perfectly complemented by the pictures that they published.
“He cleans the car windshield with a rag… But now, softened up by service, the traveler himself doesn’t want to leave” (Ilf & Petrov, 7).
Not only does this line evoke a very clear image of how these two perceived the men at the gas stations along the highway, but their photographs of the station give us the face to the name. In figure 4, we see the car owner sort of smiling as he watches the attendant work on his car. The inclusion of both text and photo only makes these accounts stronger in their narration.
Caldwell and Bourke-White show us the working side of these visual accounts. Perhaps more haunting than pictures of road signs and gas stations, these two authors and photographers get into the so-called grittier situations concerning this time period. This is where “I’ll believe it when I see it” really applies. Thinking about when upper-class readers saw these books, I wonder whether they reacted similarly to other pieces of literature. Published in 1937, this novel was representative of its current time period. With each portrait and scenery, the readers are exposed to the real, live faces of poverty. Would they have reacted to the realization that they could no longer pretend they didn’t know these people?
I cannot help but compare this with photography and its use with social media today. Almost every day, we are bombarded with information and pictures from around the world. There is no shortage of new things to learn about and it is so easy for us to access genuine photos of these things. Are we as a society more passionate about these sorts of issues? Are we more apt to help or at least feel inclined to? The availability of these books during the Great Depression was a limitation in itself, being that only upper-class people would be able to purchase them, most of whom probably wouldn’t care enough to help. However, when we have unlimited access to resources and people, what do we do with that power?
Dorothea Lange discusses what she calls a “contemporary exodus”. She captures the downfall of the plantations and the faces enduring the loss of everything. Her portraits serve a purpose of making us see the pain that is in these struggles. However, what/where is the call to action? Is it up to us to decide to take that on? Perhaps it is because we are thrown so much information on a daily basis that we are experts at picking and choosing what to focus on. But does its presence then become meaningless? Especially in a generation that is so comfortable behind its screens.
Something new has come up in this batch of readings that I haven’t really seen yet: social support, if not some semblance of friendship. Although Kromer discusses his brief interactions with people, he never cares for any of them. Writers like Anderson, Rorty, Asch, etc. never wrote about those people who not only helped along the way, but also held more than a momentary occupancy in their minds. In both “Boxcar Bertha” and “Bound for Glory”, we see more meaningful encounters than any we’ve seen yet.
Right from the outset, we see Guthrie get a ride out of town with someone he grew up with. This comfortable dialogue immediately put me at ease. After reading stories of such horror and poverty, being greeted by an old friend was a pleasant surprise. Even in Guthrie’s traveling companions, we see a more uplifting picture of life along the rails. When Guthrie befriends the African-American passenger on the train, there is an immediate comfort in the two of them. For someone they just met, they share a joyous, meaningful friendship.
Boxcar Bertha’s story is similarly filled with this sort of compassion. Her experience in social work opens up the lines of communication. In the other readings, we scratched the surface on interpersonal relationships during this time. The intimacy with which we learn about women like State Street Blondie exemplifies their dire situations. I was very surprised when reading the Afterword to find out that this was a fictional account written by Reitman. His fluidity and ease when writing this from a female’s perspective really shines through. But above all, I remember the focus on social interactions and illustrating the setting through them.
As a psychology major, I am constantly thinking in terms of “suggestions for future research”. I cannot help but apply the same idea to this reading. Concerning Guthrie’s interaction with the African-American traveler, I would want to see more examples of these kinds of interactions. Not only is there oppression of the poor, but when you layer race onto that, it becomes a whole lot more complicated. I find it interesting that during a time of nationwide economic ruin, there was a whole subset of people flourishing in their art. The Harlem Renaissance saw creative growth and gave a new voice to the African-American community. I am unsure of the exact extent to which these two overlapped, but I find it to be an interesting juxtaposition between the two iconic time periods.