Takeaway: Tourism, Vagrants, and Depression-era Films

Takeaway: Tourism, Vagrants, and Depression-era Films

I’m really glad that I took this course because I have studied the Great Depression before in history classes but those lessons would often only briefly examine the causes and effects of this event, without including other aspects which we touched upon in this class. For example, I had no idea that a tourism economy had existed during this time period because I was under the impression that most Americans were financially devastated by the Depression and would not have been able to afford to travel at all. Additionally, I had previously learned about the WPA’s work with interviewing and documenting the lives of ex-slaves but I was not aware of their work with the American Guide Series which has almost an entirely different sentiment to it.

It was also interesting to read the different types of works that came out in the 1930s and to see the variations in writing styles of the authors. I enjoyed reading Tom Kromer’s Waiting for Nothing the most because the writing style was unique and the story itself was very intriguing. From the reading, I learned quite a bit about the experiences of vagrants during the Depression such as the resourcefulness of some characters who found various ways to make the most out of their situations (example: the guy who taught Kromer the doughnut trick). Moreover, I would still like to know more about the queer culture during this time period and to see whether Kromer’s portrayal of their connection with vagrants is exaggerated or not.

Furthermore, I was happy that I finally got the chance to read The Grapes of Wrath because it is a highly sentimental novel which skillfully illustrates the plight of tenant farmers during the Depression. After reading the novel, I wondered if it would have been just as good if Steinbeck had only focused on the story of the Joad family rather than include the inter-chapters which were more focused on a general view of what was happening to other people. However, I enjoyed reading the inter-chapters because it complemented and helped enhance the Joad’s story such that the reader is able to be more sympathetic with their situation and with individual family members.

Lastly, it was interesting to read about the various movies and documentaries that other people watched for their posts because the films all took a different approach of looking at the Depression. For instance, even though cinema provided an escape for millions of Americans through screwball comedies such as It Happened One Night, films also showcased the actualities of what was happening to different groups of people as a result of economic problems. Documentaries such as The Plow That Broke the Plains and The River are two examples of how the government was trying to work together with the film industry to neutralize the adverse effects of the Depression on America and its inhabitants. Thus, these films would have had an emotional impact on the viewers, while presenting important insights into American society in the 1930s.

The Resourcefulness of the American Guide Series and America Eats

The Resourcefulness of the American Guide Series and America Eats

The American Guide Series had two objectives – it was produced by the Federal Writers’ Project to “aid in fostering a sense of national pride during a difficult time in U.S. history,” in the hopes that “the guides would promote tourism by serving as a motivation for people to visit other areas by car.” Thus, it is interesting to see how the guides served the dual purpose of glorifying America while encouraging Americans to travel and spend money to help revitalize the economy.

Even though “each of the 48 states was responsible for producing its own guide, and each followed a basic format” in which they offered standard information, I found that the authors of the guides were able to find ways to integrate trivial facts which made their state unique. For instance, in the Nevada guide, it says that “[A] Nevada trait is an addiction to eating at counters. It is doubtful whether there is a restaurant in the State without one; even the smartest places feature counters.” Therefore, this passage highlights a distinctive feature of the state which could persuade a reader to visit Nevada so that they could try eating at one of these ‘counter’ restaurants.

Since these guide books were so detailed and could have been heavy, it is hard to imagine that it was easy for travelers to carry them around if they were planning to visit those places. Hence, I think that the guides are good for readers who are interested in learning about a state’s history but not feasible to be used as travel guides that are more commonly used nowadays which indicate where the best restaurants are located and which places provide the best accommodations.

However, the task of compiling this sort of information would have definitely been more difficult for Depression-era writers who did not have the convenience that we have today to assess places of interest before we visit. For those writers, they would have had to personally stay at a place before they could evaluate whether it was good or bad. Contrastingly, today we have the advantage of going on the Internet to consider and compare people’s reviews of their experiences in restaurants and hotels before we even settle on where our vacation destination should be. Furthermore, web pages have the advantage over printed travel guides such that it is much easier for the former to update and keep up with the closing and opening of venues; thus, I feel very fortunate that I am able to enjoy these conveniences through the modernizing effect of the travel guide.

Lastly, “America Eats” was another project which was taken on by the Federal Writers’ Project that “included information on the roots of American cuisine, and explored the development of regional specialties.” Similar to the trivial facts that were found in the books of the American Guide Series, the authors found recipes and special traditions which made a certain dish or cuisine unique to certain parts of America. Furthermore, in the anecdotes and photos that were collected from this endeavor, the reader gets the sense that cooking was a uniting and collective activity. Thus, this project helped create solidarity between communities by showing how people cooked together and helped each other out through activities such as “picking the meat from the chicken bones” or “removing the barbeque beef from the pits.”

Mass Tourism and the ‘Real’ America

Mass Tourism and the ‘Real’ America

In Roland Wild’s Double-Crossing America, Wild has a strong desire to visit the city of San Francisco after traveling from Europe to America. He says, “I did not mind disaster and ignominious retreat, so long as we got there” and if he could not reach this destination, he “would then be a traveller who had been to New York— but not to America” (14). Since Wild does not indicate exactly why San Francisco is more representative of the ‘real’ America than New York, I was left wondering why he had this belief. I personally don’t think it is possible to consider only one city as being the embodiment of America or the American city. On the other hand, I could also argue that New York City is a better representation of America because it is usually one of the first places where immigrants are able to experience new opportunities and freedoms, in hopes of being successful and prosperous in the future.

Another observation that I had was the difference between Wild’s portrayal of traveling as a hassle rather than a fun and exciting activity as was described in both Nathan Asch’s The Road: In Search of America and Ernie Pyle’s Home Country. For instance, Wild describes the difficulties of traveling in a trailer which “was always overcrowded” and inconvenient for women to be productive in completing their chores because they “were always conscious that in an hour or so, there was a sordid business of asking for hot water in a bucket, and bringing it to the trailer, and handling greasy dishes and cups and knives” (19). Thus, Wild illustrates a less glamorous view of traveling such that the travelers were more occupied with finding ways to make themselves feel comfortable in the confined space of a trailer instead of enjoying the different places that they went to. Consequently, he disappointedly states, “We did not see much of America, for our eyes were on the ground” (21).

While Wild’s narrative is about his travel experience in America, Michael Berkowitz’s A “New Deal” for Leisure discusses reasons why mass tourism increased during the Depression era. One reason for this growth was due to the rise of paid vacations for white-collar workers so that they could have “the opportunity to recuperate from their demanding mental tasks while enhancing the productivity of American business and industry” (188). Employers believed that physical labor was “less demanding” than mental labor; therefore, manual workers were “less deserving of vacation time” (189). However, paid vacations eventually did expand to the working class who “had come to accept the idea that vacationing should be a central component of their standard of living” (193).

Thus, I think that this rise in paid vacations is one way in which the Depression helped equalize the opportunities for leisure activities offered to both the middle- and the working-class. Additionally, since the increase in the promotion of tourism also helped fuel the interest of going to see what other American cities had to offer, all classes of people could see how their fellow Americans lived. Therefore, the travelers could meet and sympathize with others who are experiencing the same circumstances as they were and not feel alone in their financial struggles.

What is the American Dream?

What is the American Dream?

Before I started reading A Cool Million, I decided to read Nathanael West’s biography beforehand and learned that he intended the novel to be “an attack on the optimistic rags-to riches ideal” which is commonly found in Horatio Alger’s novels. With that in mind, I anticipated the story to be highly dramatic and fantastical, which it turned out to be. In the novel, the protagonist Lemuel Pitkin is encouraged to leave his hometown by the ex-President Shagpoke Whipple, so that he could earn enough money to save his home from being foreclosed. Believing Whipple’s every word about how America is “the land of opportunity,” Lemuel immediately sets off to go to New York (13).

However, even before he arrives at his destination, he already runs into trouble which gets him arrested at the town of Stamford and results in him losing all of his teeth in prison. Thus, at the outset, West already foreshadows a miserable future for Lemuel, who had the unfortunate fate of running into a pickpocket and a con-man. From this incident, I think West is criticizing overly optimistic people like Lemuel who believe that just because they leave one American city to find work in another, they will easily achieve the ‘American dream’ through honest means. However, his encounters with the pickpocket and the con-man show how there are many dishonest people who use trickery to get rich quick and that it isn’t them who end up getting punished – it is the good guys like Lemuel who have to suffer the consequences.

Therefore, I believe that West is also criticizing the older generations like Mr. Whipple because he was the one who motivated Lemuel to “Go out into the world and win your way” (13). Using the rags-to riches stories of John D. Rockefeller and Henry Ford as examples, he had told Lemuel that “Like them, by honesty and industry, you cannot fail to succeed” (15). Yet, although men like Whipple, Rockefeller and Ford were able to achieve prosperity and success by following those policies, West is saying that it is an outdated idea that needs to be changed because the world itself has changed ideologically. Furthermore, it is also possible that the downfall of people like Lemuel is due to the entrenched belief of ‘honesty and industry’ as the key to success because this makes them easy targets for others who have developed alternative ways to be prosperous.

Lastly, it is interesting that West often refers to Lemuel as the ‘hero’ of the story because his misfortunes throughout the novel depict him as more of a loser than what one might normally think of when they picture the image of a hero. Even at the end of the novel, after his death, his birthday has become a national holiday and he is being celebrated by “the youth of America” (137). Therefore, I think that Lemuel is a ‘hero’ in the sense that even though he went through a series of unfortunate events that resulted in him losing several body parts, he stands for the tenacity of the American spirit which continues to fight on despite the obstacles that are in one’s way and the never-ending motivation to live the American Dream.

Wild Boys of the Road

Wild Boys of the Road

Wild Boys of the Road is an interesting film because the Great Depression is being seen from the perspective of adolescents. The film focuses on how young people were directly affected when their parents lost their jobs and couldn’t find work during this time period. For some teenagers like Tommy, he has to drop out of school in order to look for work to help support his family. On the other hand, when his friend Eddie learns that his father had lost his job, Eddie decides to sacrifice the luxury of having his own car so that he could contribute and help his parents pay the bills. The sacrifices that both characters make are both admirable and distressing – while its clear that they have the best interest of their families at heart, having to give up an education and the freedom that a car can provide for a young adult would surely have a major impact on their childhoods.

Another way in which young adults were able to help their families out was by simply leaving their homes to find jobs elsewhere, relieving their parents of the extra burden of having to feed them. Tommy and Eddie take to riding the rails, illegally hopping aboard freight trains, which was a risky thing to do. For one thing, being able to get onto the train itself was a formidable task. From reading Kromer’s Waiting for Nothing, we have seen how a miscalculation of the train’s speed can send one flying off the train and injuring, or possibly killing oneself, from the impact of hitting the ground. Thus, this shows one way in which traveling (illegally) was a skill that many ‘veteran’ migrants gradually learned and carefully followed, or else they would suffer from adverse circumstances.

Another reason why riding the rails was a dangerous activity was because there would often be police officers waiting to question these transients on their intentions of entering the city. If their reason was to find work in the city, the police officers would tell them that there was no work there and then proceed to put them into detention. Yet, in the scene where Tommy and Eddie arrive in Chicago on a freight train, they are able to escape the fate of going to detention by pretending to be Sally’s cousins, a girl they had recently befriended. She wanted to escape her poverty-stricken family by staying with her wealthy aunt in Chicago so after she showed the officer a letter sent to her by her aunt, Sally and her pals were allowed to enter the city; moreover, shortly after Sally is reunited with her aunt, she is offered a whole chocolate cake to eat. Therefore, this scenario highlights that even within families, class distinctions had a major impact on people’s experiences during the Depression.

Lastly, transients would also encounter henchmen who were hired by the railroad companies to kick people off the trains and were not afraid to use force to punish the trespassers; sometimes, these encounters would result in violent fights between the two parties. However, in one scene, the teenagers rebel and successfully fought back against these authority figures to fend them off. This was a glorious victory for the teenagers because they were able to collectively work together to escape the cruelty of the henchmen and to continue to stay on the train. Thus, I think this scene was symbolic because on the one hand, it conveys the message that the less fortunate could overcome their circumstances (and oppressors) if they worked together; contrastingly, even though the teenagers are able to stay on the train (for the time being), it indicates that they are stuck living a nomadic life and that it will be a never-ending cycle of constantly fighting back for their right to look for work and to create some future stability.

Finding a New Lifestyle

Finding a New Lifestyle

In the second half of The Grapes of Wrath, it was interesting to read about the adopted lifestyles of the tenant farmers-turned-migrant families who were on the road. For instance, migrant people “looked always for pleasure” as a way to temporarily escape from their daily hardships (325). However, since they could not afford popular Depression-time activities such as movie-going, they had to come up with other ways to entertain themselves, such as by singing, dancing, and telling stories. Thus, Steinbeck shows how, in a way, the migration of people during this time period enabled the fusion of different folk cultures to create a new, vibrant culture that migrant people found pleasure in participating in because it helped alleviate their situations.

As I was reading about the Joad family’s experience in the Weedpatch camp, I wanted to know how accurate these portrayals were. So, after doing some research, I found a description of similar camps, which said that they “would be constructed to provide migratory families with minimum decencies: a healthful site, a pure water supply, sanitary facilities of all kinds, and other simple amenities.” Furthermore, the government-built camps were also described as “a place of shelter and protection for the desperate migrants who were often unwelcome in California and frequently exploited and abused.”

Yet, these camps were only temporary solutions for migrant families like the Joads, who eventually had to leave and go to find work in other places. Nonetheless, even though the experiences in these camps were short-lived, some family members expressed their disappointment in having to leave. For instance, Pa says that, “We hate to go… Folks been so nice here — an’ the toilets an’ all… We had a bath ever’ day here. Never was so clean in my life” (356). Therefore, I felt that in this novel, the government was portrayed in a slightly better light than in the other writings we have read about because these migrant camps were able to temporarily alleviate the problems that migrant families faced by providing basic necessities and boosting the morale of migrants.

Lastly, chapter 27 was intriguing because in contrast to the passive role that the tenant farmers played in the beginning of the book, when they were often swindled by car salesmen and pawnbrokers, the cotton pickers are portrayed as being more aggressive and assertive when they’re negotiating with the owners for pay. Furthermore, the migrant workers even went so far as to put rocks into their sacks in order to counter the rigged scales that were used to weigh them: “Scale man says you got rocks to make weight. How ‘bout him? His scales is fixed. Sometimes he’s right, you got rocks in the sack. Sometimes you’re right, the scales is crooked. Sometimes both; rocks an’ crooked scales” (407). The strategy that the migrant workers employed can arguably be seen as a negative portrayal of them since they are stooping down to the dishonest level of their employers; however, it can also be seen as an ingenious way of fighting back against the corrupt owners and of helping them achieve a more stable and prosperous future.

From Farm Men to Migrant Men

From Farm Men to Migrant Men

In The Grapes of Wrath, I really enjoyed how John Steinbeck skillfully weaved the story of the Joad family’s struggles as tenant farmers within a bigger picture of what was happening to other tenant farmers during the Great Depression. For example, as we have read and discussed for previous classes, the weather conditions in the Midwest devastated both the land and the livelihood of the people farming it. However, in chapter 5, Steinbeck complicates the matter by illustrating how the tenant farmers were being forcefully evicted by the landowners and their agents, even though the families did not want to leave. Thus, this highlights a theme that has been examined before which is the displacement of people from their homes.

Despite the fact that the land was no longer able to produce enough to sustain farmers and their families, they still wanted to stay because of ancestral ties: “Grampa took up the land, and he had to kill the Indians and drive them away. And Pa was born here, and he killed weeds and snakes” (33). In this way, the farmers were romanticizing the past and holding onto the belief that things would turn around because in comparison, what was happening was not as bad as what happened back then. Yet, even the most sympathetic landowners were ultimately pressured to remove the farmers because “all of them were caught in something larger than themselves” (31). Therefore, the novel also indicates a hierarchy of power and the vulnerability of the ‘weak’ against their authority figures in two folds: the obligations that the tenant farmers had to the landowners and the obligations of the landowners to the banks.

Since many tenant farmers were being forced to leave their land, they looked towards the West, namely California, in search of prosperity. However, in order to get to the desired destination, families must do two things: sell their belongings and buy a car as a means of transportation. Both of these actions were unfavorable for them because the families were often scammed and ripped off by the prices offered to them. For instance, the used car salesmen had numerous tricks to hide the poor conditions of the cars that they were trying to sell and preyed on the naivety of the farmers. Furthermore, farmers often received the short end of the stick when they tried to bargain with others for their belongings and had to settle with getting a fraction of what they had originally paid for: “Fifty cents isn’t enough to get for a good plow. That seeder cost thirty-eight dollars. Two dollars isn’t enough. Can’t haul it all back — Well, take it, and a bitterness with it.” (86). Moreover, families frequently had to part with priceless possessions that had been passed down from their ancestors. This separation parallels their displacement such that they were leaving behind their past and traditional lifestyles for a new beginning and hopefully, a better future.

Lastly, it was interesting to read about Highway 66 because we have mainly been reading texts that are focused on migrants who traveled by buses or rails, and the novel’s inclusion of “the main migrant road” demonstrates the importance and extensiveness of the highway system (118).  I felt that Steinbeck’s descriptive passages of this road suggest a nation that is more intertwined than in the readings by Sherwood Anderson and Nathan Asch. For example, families that were on Highway 66 were all fleeing from the miseries brought upon them by the worn-out land and corrupt and greedy figures; moreover, they shared the common goal of finding work and a new life in California, and this hope resonated deeply within them.

Through the Camera's Lens

Through the Camera’s Lens

In James Agee and Walker Evans’ book Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, the writer and photographer are interested in exploring the subject of “North American cotton tenantry” by examining the “daily living of three representative white tenant families” (xiv). In comparison to other photo-books like You Have Seen Their Faces, this book offers a different approach to presenting and understanding the lifestyles of tenant farmers.

For instance, while reading the excerpts from this book, I felt that Agee’s writing style is more observational and that his style makes it seem as if the reader themselves are interacting with the characters in the book, or are even in their shoes. Agee writes, “you gained a little confidence in us when I met these eyes with a comic-contemptuous stare and a sneering smile… you showed us your drought corn, for you could not get it out of your head that we were Government men, who could help you” (362). Through his usage of the second-person narrative style, Agee seems to be incorporating the reader into this interaction that he has with a tenant farmer. Similarly, while Agee is trying to create a level of trust between him and the farmer, he is also doing the same thing to the reader.

Another difference between these two books is that rather than criticize the tenants for their impoverished lifestyles, Agee and Evans portray them in more uplifting ways. For example, before having their photo taken, a mother anxiously preps her family in an attempt to make them look nice and Agee says, “you washed the faces of your children swiftly and violently with rainwater, so that their faces were suddenly luminous stuck out of the holes of their clothes” (364). This portrayal of the mother with her children highlights her maternal instincts, and her desire for her to children to be presented in the best light.

Moreover, Agee and Evans show how the financial situations of people are not an indication that they are any less of a human being since they are also concerned with appearances, even if their lifestyles are not as glamorous as others. Thus, rather than view the situations of poor tenant farmers in a patronizing way, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men presents a more sympathetic way to look at their situation.

The Power of Photography

The Power of Photography

In the photographic book You Have Seen Their Faces, Erskine Caldwell says that he wanted to “show that the fiction [he] was writing was authentically based on contemporary life in the South” (v). As a result, he teamed up with Margaret Bourke-White who was “already one of the best-known magazine photographers in the country,” in order to qualify his written work with thought-provoking images that would jointly address issues such as “rural poverty” and “race relations in the South” (v-vi). Thus, this book shows how Caldwell’s words and Bourke-White’s photographs were able to complement each other by supporting and reinforcing the messages that they were trying to convey.

When I was reading the book, I noticed that the names of the tenant farmers who were telling their personal stories to Caldwell were left out; additionally, the names of the people depicted in Bourke-White’s photographs were also omitted. One reason why I think this was purposely done by the authors is because the elimination of people’s names would make it easier for others reading this book to sympathize with them. For instance, a middle-class woman who sees an image of an unnamed mother and child sitting on the steps of a rundown house could sympathize with the mother’s situation through her own maternal instincts.

Furthermore, another reason to explain this omission is because the authors wanted to convey the extensive impact of the Great Depression on the South and the impoverished sharecroppers. Since millions of people were affected by the worn-out land and small crop yields that were ubiquitous throughout the rural South, they became engaged in a constant cycle of debt with the landowners. It was not easy for them to escape from their financial situations because as Caldwell says, “[the sharecropper] does move from farm to farm from time to time, but only rarely can he improve his status” (6). Consequently, the book shows how the Depression created a countless number of nameless victims who had an increasingly difficult time trying to make a living.

However, even though these victims of the sharecropping system were struggling to survive, they were also not actively trying to break away from this mode of production. Caldwell contends that it is because “there is cotton to be raised, and [the sharecropper] has trained himself to raise it. That is his speciality” (6). Furthermore, in the caption of one of Bourke-White’s images of a male sharecropper and his wife, it says, “A man learns not to expect much after he’s farmed cotton most of his life” (xii). Thus, the sharecroppers are being portrayed as passively accepting their circumstances because farming is what they know how to do and even if they are engaged in a constant cycle of debt, they seem reluctant to learn and engage in new trades.

Lastly, I found the juxtaposition of the images of white and black sharecroppers really intriguing because they illustrate how the sharecropping system entrapped both poor whites and blacks. Yet, Caldwell’s writings indicate a prevailing sense of racism that landowners had towards their tenants such that “white tenant farmers…will acquire their own land, and that Negro tenant farmers do not need anything more than a bare living” (44). But it would be hard to interpret these racial discriminations simply by looking at Bourke-White’s images. Therefore, I think that the strength of this type of book is that it effectively utilizes two mediums of communication such that the use of written words, in conjunction with photographs, are able to convey messages that one or the other might lack the means of doing by itself.

Migrant Women During the Great Depression

Migrant Women During the Great Depression

While Sister of the Road is a fictional story, I believe it still addresses real problems and events that were happening throughout the country during the Great Depression. For example, the story highlights the traumatic childhoods that were experienced by many children who frequently had to go days or weeks on empty stomachs and were constantly hungry. They also grew up in unstable environments in which their families slowly began to disintegrate as fathers often times left their homes in search of work or to find ways to feed his family. Thus, I feel as if this generation of kids experienced a ‘lost childhood’ and that many of them were desensitized early on in their lives to certain horrors such as prostitution which “seemed like any other business” (14).

However, children still found ways to have a fun and engaging childhood. While many children were unable to purchase items such as “dolls or toys,” there were other opportunities to have “plenty of excitement” (8). For example, when Bertha was a child, she would use “the river for swimming and washing,” listen to “tales of the gandy dances, and of the bundle stiffs,” invent “games that made [her and the other kids] walk the tracks,” along with other activities that were unusual and unique to their situations (8-9). Therefore, these descriptions show how children from poor or migrant families made do with what they had and found ways to enjoy themselves in spite of their circumstances.

The story also illustrates the travel patterns during this time period; men tended to be the first ones to hit the road while women stayed behind with children. However, as time went on, the number of women hoboes began to increase so considerably that “one out of every twenty persons on the road [was] a woman” (8). More importantly, I think the narrative brings up an interesting question of whether women hoboes had it ‘easier’ than male hoboes. For instance, Bertha encountered women hoboes who said that when they were traveling alone, they “could get rides from men in cars easier than if they were with men” and even “food and shelter and a little money now and then came easier that way” (13). Thus, I wonder if the Depression encouraged a percentage of women to be more independent, and was perhaps an early stimulus that would later spur the second-wave feminist movement in the 1960s. Overall, I really enjoyed reading Sister of the Road because it offered a closer look into the lives of children and migrant women during the Depression.


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