One of the big takeaways from the course was the broad and personal nature of travel. The word means very different things to very different people. It could mean landing in a place you’ve never been and exploiting it, or visiting a place you are fond of and respecting all it has to over. It could also mean something in between the two extremes. Additionally, travel is as much about the people you are with as the place you are in. It’s about what you do in that place often more so than the place itself. Simply put, travel, although it is often thought of as this external quest, is really about you as an individual, and how you experience and process it.
Along similar lines, travel can also change when you are writing about it, both from a storytelling prospective and from an experience prospective. When you’re on call, you’re looking at things differently, for better or worse than when you are just living and experiencing life. And when that work is then published or read to someone, it takes on another level of meaning, since it has now passed through the writer’s brain, onto the page, and then into someone else’s mind. That’s three levels of transformation, where they story changes and adapts along each new stage. This isn’t necessarily good or bad, but a side effect of fixing tour travels in a medium beyond your brain.
Finally, I’ve continued to learn that travel doesn’t always mean flying as far away from where you’re currently standing or living to a far away place. You can travel locally, as much as you can globally. There is always something to find, as the WPA guides can attest. You just have to be looking.
A few things stuck out to me in the Gross reading. First, he talks about the guides as a “cultural-political innovation.” This is a pretty interesting and descriptive term that is representative of the political atmosphere the guides came out of. Because of the unprosperous nature of the time, politicians began looking to all aspects of life to produce economic value. This continued down to places and cities themselves, which were supposed to be communized to product value for the country. As Gross puts it, “it transforms local culture into a tourist attraction, and the tourist attraction into a symbol of national loyalty, in order to reproduce patriotism as a form of brandname identification.”
Although tourism is often thought of as a nuisance and unwanted development, it really is a logical extension of the brand that any place have. When someone moves somewhere they are often moving there because of the qualities of the place, be they economic, cultural, or political. The brandname identification already exists. Tourism, then, is a logical progression of the brand, possibly even an overextended progression. But it’s a progression nonetheless.
One of the interesting factors in the guide books is how they treated land. The goal behind the guides was to get people traveling, taking advantage of unused or underused space in America, with the hopes of dispatching travelers to put it to use. One way to look at it is the government trying to redistribute gentrification, taking land that is a commodity and turning it into something scarce. And in this vein, it’s easy to see how the government tried to weaponize the writers who made these guides into catalysts for economic activity.
Another paradox of the guides was both the local and national identity that politicians were trying to build. Tourism requires both a strong national identity to get people into the country, and then a strong local identity to get people to the town you are advocating for. The tension between these two seems to be crucial to succeeding at tourism, where the national identity is strong enough to get people interested but the local identity is stronger, so they actually end up visiting. But the local identity can’t be too strong or aggressive that it turns people off from visiting the country and even the other towns near by.
Finally, the focus on nostalgia was key to the program. Although the current and past times were beyond tough, the heritage and memories of those times try to become a driver for the future. Navigating this line is pretty hard, and its interesting to see the results of it, some of which were successful and others that were not.
One of the things that struck me about the reading was the inherent history in travel objects. The road, tires, trailers, and especially people along the way are full of stories, tales and lessons. If you car has 100,000 miles on it, there must be so some many stories and experiences contained in all of those miles. Or that tire resting on the side of the road; there is definitely a story behind that, an experience, and likely a person. There is almost a shadow language that one can derive if he or she looks closely enough from objects that are used to help one travel. In “Double Crossing into America”, there was a murder in the trailer, it was used as a post office, a radio station, as the list continues (p15-16). One of the more interesting results of travel, especially with limited resources, is that it forces people to be crafty, and the results of this often end up being quite fruitful.
On top of this, travelers have to contend with the unfamiliarity of their surrounds, hoping to become familiar with the always unfamiliar. On page 18 of the same reading, the line “We wrestled with the beds, and would have slept well anywhere” is particularly indicative of the unknown that travelers experience. And in this quote, the unknown is almost humanized, as it is a variable that humans have little control over and are influenced by, even if it is something as mundane as a mattress.
And then “A “New Deal” for Leisure-Making Mass Tourism during the Great Depression” tackles the paradox of growing leisure tourism during the depression. Interestingly, financially-strapped locales looked to tourism as possible solution to their economic problems, hoping to bring in the purchasing power of foreigners to revitalize their own economy and expand tourism beyond just upper and middle class citizens (187). The other driver was promotion on the federal level, which was ramped up after years of Congress failing to appropriate funds. The large campaign and creation of the United States Travel Bureau seemed to pay dividends, proving that much of the issue was an awareness and image problem.
One of the things I enjoyed about this reading was the narrator. First, the narrative was rather conversational, rather than inherently didactic. The brings the reader into the story, opening it up and making it more accessible. This type of narrative also exhibits humility, as the narrator is basically saying that they don’t know everything, and are learning and experiencing the story along with the readers. I haven’t seen this done before to this extent and it was very interesting to watch unfold.
Additionally, the structure of the book was also unique. Instead of being artificially linear, as many books often are, the structure here unfolded more organically, out of order, as life often does. A theme or plot point was introduced, and then the book seemingly moved on, only to bring the latter point back to help build upon the former. This type of structure is evolutionary and uses the length of the book to deliver the inherent complexity in a natural progression. This also keeps the reader engaged, as the book doesn’t drone on about a singular topic. Instead, it builds in pieces that come in all shapes and sizes.
Additionally, the pace of the narrative is also striking. It’s fast and lean, void of fat and unnecessary description. As a result, the book flows fast, verging on the speed of a thriller, even though the incidents in the book are not thriller material. But this gives the impression that Lem (and us, the reader) are on a never-ending journey together. And the narrator is always a step ahead of us, pushing the book forward.
On page 27, Mr. Whipple says, “I once told you that you had an almost certain chance to succeed because you were born poor and on a farm. Let me now tell you that your chance is even better because you have been in prison.” This is a pretty interesting passage. It’s pretty easy to think (and understand) how those who are better off than you financially tend to have a better chance at succeeding. But the logic is flipped here, and it makes a certain amount of sense. Wealth, when treated incorrectly, can often be a handicap, binding its owner to a predetermined legacy, often decided by the creator of the wealth. But when you come from nothing, your values are different and you have much less to lose. Instead, you have just about everything to gain.
Now, it does seem as if Lem, at this point, has dug himself a deeper hole by ending up in prison, on top of his lack of fortune. But both having no access to money and being in prison are in a weird way institutions that shape one’s values, sometimes for the better and sometimes for the worse. So there is absolutely the possibility that Lem can come out of this situation on top, using them as guidance opposed to a setback.
A few things stuck out in The Coen Brother’s “O Brother, Where Art Thou” regarding what we’ve been discussing so far this semester. First, and the most impactful, was the lack of a specific setting or local in the film. Usually there’s a place the film and that the characters in it can call home. But in this film there wasn’t. Instead, the road was their home as they traversed from place to place, one looking like the next. Although the characters moved through different physical locations at a rapid clip, these locales began to blur into something along the lines of “not home” or “somewhere else”—also known as ‘the other.” Part of this also might be a function of the never-ending plains that comprise most of the landscape: they are descript in their nondescriptness.
Many of the characters in the film also enter and leave as frequently as easily as the landscapes do. They come in, serve their purpose, and then exit. These use of vignette-like scenes is something the Coen Brothers have done before, but it resonated more given the fickle nature of the times. The lack of permanence is clear, yet the characters seem used to it, never blinking an eye at the instability of the people and places in their lives. After being exposed to something for a long enough time it becomes normal, and this on-to-the-next-one mentality seems to be the default for the travelers during this time.
One of the more interesting characters in the film was Big Dan, played by John Goodman. He ends up being a robber, but introduces himself saying, “Sales, Mr. McGill, sales! And what do I sell? The Truth! Ever’ blessed word of it, from Genesee on down to Revelations! That’s right, the word of God, which let me add there is damn good money in during these days of woe and want! Folks’re lookin’ for answers and Big Dan Teague sells the only book that’s got ‘em!” This is a rather striking quote. Big Dan decided to take up religion because it’s what people wanted, and he thought he could exploit it. This is pretty terrible, more so given the time and the dire conditions people were suffering through. But the flipside is that if this is how he figured out how to survive, is this okay? If it’s every man for himself, is it sufficient for Big Dan to live off of the fake healing and real sorrows of another? It’s an interesting dilemma, for sure. And it reminds me of similar cases of people exploiting the bad for their own gain, from simply being crafty to stock traders shorting the airline companies after 9/11. Where this line is drawn isn’t so clear.
Finally, the cinematography in the film is worth diving into, especially given the color and saturation decisions, which were vivid to say the least. This is somewhat startling because I’m used to thinking of this time period in black and white, with a bit of sepia, not a full gamut of color. Obviously, the world wasn’t black and white. But the conditions and the way I’ve experienced the history, mainly through photos, lead me to expect very little color and a lot of black and grey. And the color choices in the film might have been a reaction to this, wanting to show more color and the beauty of the time.
One of the interesting things about the end of the book, in contrast to the beginning, is how the women view the men breaking, and how that would come about. In the beginning, the lack of basic needs, from food to work, are deemed cause for the men to break. Yet at the end, the women believe the savior from the men breaking is rage. This is quite a paradox, that the path that usually leads to one breaking is in fact the thing stopping the men from actually breaking. This says a few things. First, this shows that people are generally strong and it takes quite a lot to get to people. But it also alludes to the short tempers some people have. Yet this short temper seems to have a marginal effect on their break-ability. In the end, it’s all a balance, a fight between the man and the world he lives in to not fall behind.
And the final scene in the book supports this strength. In a time as desolate as they come, Rose does what is needed for another living person, regardless of the taboo associated with it. And the biblical references, even on the surface, embolden the scene, bringing in stories and motifs bigger than any single person, zooming out towards greater humanity. The hopeful note, especially given the terrible conditions of the time, leads one to believe that if these people can cope, anyone can. While the lifestyle has deteriorated throughout the book, the characters, as people, have generally improved, a journey consistent with ones in the bible and other religious texts.
Possibly the most striking thing about the “Grapes of Wrath” is the unbelievable level of description, coupled with the effect this description has in terms of bringing the reader into the fold. “When the night came again it was black night, for the stars could not pierce the dust to get down, and the window lights could not even spread beyond their own yards” (Chapter 1). The latter clause is vivid. Light, one of the more powerful things on this earth, was stopped by a storm that wreaked havoc in multiple areas. This one sentence alone would allow the reader to understand the severity of the situation, but this is only the beginning.
Another striking image comes up early on as well. “The surface of the earth crusted, a thin hard crust, and as the sky became pale, so the earth became pale, pink in the red country and white in the gray country” (Chapter 1). This quote touches upon the chain reaction that the dust storms had during this time. They affected every facet of life for both humans, and for mother nature. The lack of control people around at this time had is pretty hard to fathom. Not that we have any more control now—although science has advanced—the feeling of helplessness is relatable regardless of the time period.
Later on, the story turns from mother nature to the people, in an equally vivid way. “And the women came out of the houses to stand beside their men—to feel whether this time the men would break. The women studied the men’s faces secretly, for the corn could go, as long as something else remained. The children stood near by, drawing figures in the dust with bare toes, and the children sent exploring senses out to see whether men and women would break.” This chunk tells quite a story. It speaks to the pressure on families, specifically men during this time. It speaks to the patriarchal system that ruled this age (and still does in many ways today). It also speaks to the domino affect that happens often in life, where you are relying on things you often can’t control. And the idea of “breaking” humanizes the extensive struggle that seemed like it would never end. Below the surface, it wasn’t a struggle for food or water or employment, it was about attrition and inner strength. This conflicts with the idea that you can’t control many facets of your life. You may not be able to, but you can control how you react to those events, and those reactions were what mattered.
Further into the book, the relationship between man and machine comes up. The context of this is of course in a post-industrialized world, where there is sufficient familiarity, but not blind faith. “He did not know or own or trust or beseech the land. If a seed dropped did not germinate, it was nothing. If the young thrusting plant withered in drought or drowned in a flood of rain, it was no more to the driver than to the tractor” (Chapter 5). On the surface, this points to the black and white view many had at the time. When you need to survive, you don’t have time for the grey. But this ends up creating a bit of parity between the machine, which has no morality, and the human, which could have morality, but choses to side with practicality. This is a very real debate that continues to this day, but the conditions at the time put it under a microscope. Things were either good or bad. If they were bad, you had to figure out how to make them good.
And mother nature at this time operated in what seemed like a similar way. Either there was no rain or too much rain. No dust or too much dust. The people during this time couldn’t catch a break. So it’s not surprising that people viewed the world in black and white. When it seems like there’s only a right way or a wrong way, it’s hard to not let that mentality seep into your own thinking.
Possibly the most interesting part about “Let Us Now Praise Famous Men” is the premise that it was constructed under. “The effort is to recognize the stature of a portion of unimagined existence, and to contrive techniques proper to its recording , communication, analysis, and defense. More essentially, this is an independent inquiry into certain normal predicaments of human divinity” (xiv). This is somewhat rare for a photo essay, let alone a project of a similar size, mainly because of the focus on the normal. First off, defining what normal is tends to be a task on its own. When looking at humanity, it’s rather hard to decipher the normal from the unique. But it’s also rare to find the normal as interesting. Usually people are fascinated with the exceptions, not the rule. But the photos seem to get at what normal was during this time. Photos of beds, houses, and people are pretty simple, verging on mundane. If one can define what normal is, then a paradox abounds: the normal is boring to look at, but this might mean normal life is also boring. Through this lens, the photos then force the viewer to contrast his or her own life with the life depicted in the images. The other thing worth pondering is the title. It’s pretty clear that the subjects of the images are in no way famous people, although they do exhibit similar disdain towards the camera that modern day celebrities to towards paparazzi. But just like the images call into question what normal is, they also spark debate on what famous is and means. Are the famous people in the images famous because they are normal, turning into the poster children of this generation? Are they normal because this time led to a lot of generalization and statistical simplification, but therefore famous? The images raise many questions like these, which are a bit rare considering the interplay of famous and normal, two very opposite words.
One of the more interesting ideas in the piece about “You Have Seen Their Faces” is how integral the economic and social suffering at the time was to opening up the possibilities of a medium. “It’s difficult to say just what combination of factors created photography’s role as the most influential public medium and public art form during the 1930s, but the social disaster of the Depression played a key role” (vi-vii).
A few reasons come to mind about how this happened. First, people were struggling in many ways and maybe didn’t want ideal notions of like, and instead wanted the comfort that other people were experiencing similar troubles; they wanted the reassurance that it wasn’t just their fault. Second, from a journalism perspective, photography enabled publications to put faces and images to the words they were writing. Additionally, in a time—similar to today—economic writing often turns into numbers on numbers, and it all tends to blur into the ether. Photography, conversely, puts a face directly on the matter. This could be seen as exploitative, but a story takes on another level when there is someone to attach it to, or at least see it through their lens.
The piece then goes on to talk about the importance of black and white photography during the time. Black and white, because of the technology of cameras at the time, was the only option, or at least the most modern. But beyond this default, the lack of color drove home the implication that life was harsh and often binary. Although there was obviously color in real life, emotionally and economically it was basically a black and white world. Life was gloomy and the photography at the time reflected that.
Then comes the captions, which often took some liberty with fictionalization. Given the hard times, there likely was, contrary to the quest for non-stop realism, some want to escape and look to the future. If the reader understands the captions this should be totally fine. However, it sounds like some detractors called this out as mixing fact and fiction, to a fault. It seems that these objectors then put too much value in the truth of a photography, ignoring the controls and decisions the photographer makes to produce the finished image. In a way, the picture is as much fiction as the caption, and both should be taken with a grain of salt. And this detachment from truth doesn’t necessarily negate the value of the images. If so, fictional movies would be worthless, as would anything that was edited or enhanced.
The final thing to note about the images, in congruence with everything discussed above, is that they are presented, along with the captions, as slice-of-life vignettes. This might have been an early attempt at something along the lines of Humans of New York, which shares similar qualities, including the images and the use of editorialized captions.
One of the more interesting distinctions that came up in “Boxcar Bertha” was the similarity between why women leave home and why mean leave home. “The most frequent reason they leave is economic and they usually come from broken or poverty stricken homes” (13). On one level, this makes sense. Money was a huge factor during this time and people made life decisions based off of it. But this is also surprising within the lens of gender. It seems that a man leaves home much more often than a woman today, where the responsibilities fall on the woman to figure everything out.
But if both genders were leaving home during this time for similar reasons, this affected families quite differently. For one, if the woman leaves they seem to bring their family during this time, in contrast to today when most of the homeless seem to be single, lonely people. However, this indeed is perception. Today in American there are tons of homeless families who might not look homeless in the traditional sense, but indeed don’t have a steady home. Additionally, the literary skills of these people back then seem to top those of today. I wouldn’t expect some of the guys who hand out in Union Square to pen a detailed book on the minutia of an unstable life. So the terms homeless, hobo and vagrant, to name a few, seemed to connote a certain amount of respect that dwarfs how we view these people today.