Bonnie and Clyde, the 1967 film, worked to present the couple as heroes of the Great Depression. The represent the good guys, the down and out. When Bonnie meets Clyde, instead of being put off by what he does, she is exhilarated by it. This speaks to the times: the country was in such a bad state that the idea of bank robbery felt almost heroic. Nothing seemed bad, because it seemed that everything had already gotten as bad as it could get. For Bonnie to make the transition into a criminal, however, it was necessary for her to see the kind of suffering the banks had caused. When Clyde begins to teach her to shoot, the pair meet a poor family whose house had been claimed by the government. We can see Bonnie’s face change: she is internalizing the information, and this is an important turning point for her. The two of them seal the deal when they shoot holes in the bank’s sign. There is no turning back after this point. Later, when they go to rob the bank and find that the bank has no money, they laugh hysterically. They realize how bad things are, and that they could not be worse, and for this reason they do not care what happens.
On the road, Bonnie and Clyde love to tell people that they rob banks. It is almost as if they do not care about they money they are making from the robberies, but rather their status as Robin Hoods. They believe themselves to be heroes, and the people they encounter react with a combination of shock and admiration. During this time, doing anything but sitting around and being a victim was thought of as impressive. Because of the difficulties of the time, robbing banks was not seen as criminal, but rather as being unhappy with a situation and doing something about it.
It is difficult to tell whether or not this is the influence of the late sixties (when the film came out), but there is a sense that Clyde liberates Bonnie from her ordinary, uninteresting life as a female. Whether or not this was actually true is somewhat cloudy, but in the context of the film, Clyde appears to be a positive force in Bonnie’s life in that he allows her to be something other than just a “good girl” as other men might have expected of her. He claims to see something in her that is just waiting to be released, and allows this to happen when he hands her a gun. Whether or not he was exploiting her is perhaps unknown, but in the context of the film, it seems as though he is her key to freedom. It seems that she is happy.
Additionally, I find it interesting when Bonnie and Clyde go into the movies and we see a clip of glamorous women dressed in nice clothes and jewelry singing “we’re in the money”. This is an interesting selection to use as it represents the delusion of the time – that America is actually doing fine and that there is nothing to be worried about. It inspires Americans to keep striving to make money, and to prosper. We see how easily the American idea of success can be misinterpreted: how it is a race for money, and how easily it can be misinterpreted. Bonnie appears to buy into this idea, and suddenly it becomes all about money and less about making an important political statement.
As I was reading about the WPAs during the Great Depression, I was first surprised at how much they had in common with early Nazi propaganda. Although their intentions could not necessarily be classified as evil, their methods were incredibly similar to the methods used by the Nazis in the early years. Both movements were born out of difficult, shameful times. In order to keep the people moving, it was imperative to have them unite behind one image, and that image was nationalism: “The American Guide Series is propaganda, but not in the banal sense of representing history from a pro-government perspective. Rather 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”. Nationalism, under certain circumstances, can be frightening. However, the form it took on during the depression in the 1930s was focused more on getting the American people to go out and support the national economy, unlike the form it took on in Nazi Germany. However, it is interesting to compare these considering the condition our country is in now. It is important to note how dangerous nationalist propaganda and imagery can be, especially in the face of hard times.
What I also found interesting about this article was the way in which the American Road trip was sold. In America, there is, for some reason, a feeling of originality, or of adventure accompanying the image of the “Great American Road Trip”. It is fun and exciting, and Route 66 has inspired numerous books and films. What we often hear about is the “open road”: going on a road trip means getting lost. The man is the cowboy, and his American made car is his horse. However, that image has been carefully isolated and packaged to every single American citizen. We all have the same road trip fantasies because we are all being sold the same one. We all have the same idea of where we want to go because it has been sold to us. The road trips people were going on during the Great Depression were no different than magazines or cars: they were mass produced commodities being sold to people in packages: “Automobile guide-books are simultaneously stories and instructional manuals, combining symbolic and spatial registers into a single economic imperative: drive. For formal and historical reasons they should be considered as part of the corporate process of standardization that simultaneously produced the transportation grid, assembly line manufacture, and homogeneous roadside architecture, all designed to accelerate the production, distribution, and consumption of commodities.” This commodification, this standardization, is, however, fitting for a nation such as America. The fabric of the country that seems to make America the unique place it is has, itself, been mass-produced. The unique “Main Street” architecture of American small towns is actually not unique: most of it has been bought in catalogs. The true fabric of America is standardization, because with standardization comes more economic success.
What I found interesting about the WPA guides themselves is, and I guess fittingly, how similar they all seem to sound. Depending on which state’s WPA you pick up, you will find some interesting facts about the topography along with many activities you can do in any other city (this speaks to my earlier point about standardization). For example, golf will be offered anywhere you choose to travel. It is for this reason that I don’t think it was important where you were going on your road trip, but rather that you were going at all, and that you would just keep driving.
American Tourism during the Great Depression is perhaps one of the most interesting and successful marketing ploys of all time. It is the perfect example of a capitalist, Laissez-Faire system actually benefitting the country by benefitting the economy for all. Humans are not “born with the ‘travel habit’”. An entire population did not just wake up one day and spend millions of dollars to travel. It was a well-crafted, meticulous strategy that did more than just get people to spend money. By the time the depression rolled around, tourism ads were being recycled, the messages being replaced: instead of saying “look how great a vacation could be for you”, they began to say “look how a vacation could make you a better citizen of the country and could make you contribute to the national economy”. It was a genius way of improving the American economy with money that already existed in America. As Agee-Evans writes, “…the Great American Roadside…is incomparably the most hugely extensive market the human race has ever set up to tease and tempt and take money from the human race”. Although this could usually be seen as a sly and malicious endeavor, this was an incredibly exceptional moment in history. People were being sold vacations, and the more they traveled, the more money they would spend in more places. It was a very literal way of spreading the wealth around, and unintentionally displayed motives of a socialist nation.
Additionally, Tourism during this time just got people out of their houses. It got people to see what was going on in the country firsthand, whether or not they were willing to accept it. Perhaps seeing the disparity around the country would make a worker feel more grateful for his/her job, and therefore perform better. It was also a way of getting people to see the beauty this country has to offer, and to re-instill hope to the hopeless. It was a way of saying, “see how great this country could be again? With only a little help from you?”. And, as we learn from Agee-Evans, tourism did help: the American roadside market collectively grossed around 3 million dollars in just one year.
Although Tourism during this time could be seen as beneficial, it also can be viewed as…well…the elephant in the room. Although it generated money and got Americans out of their homes, it was still an unsettlingly indulgent way of living alongside fellow American citizens who were suffering and struggling to stay alive. Americans would travel on top of the roads that had been paved during the Depression, that had been paved with long hours of labor and starvation. And there upper class people were, driving on top of them in their fancy cars, utterly unaware of the pain that had gone into the American infrastructure. While tourism could make a person a better citizen of the country, it could also make a person a more delusional one. Tourism hardly helped the poor, the jobless: but it helped the rich forget their “hardships” and deny the very real hardships of others.
As A Cool Million goes on, we see our “hero”, Lemuel, falling apart along the way. Before he runs off with Mr. Whipple, Mr. Whipple keeps appearing to him in times of need. Lem follows a pattern of coming across a bit of luck, only for that luck to turn sour and leave him unluckier than he was to begin with. Each time something bad happens, Mr. Whipple appears and tells him that “the wheel will turn, for that is the nature of wheels”. In the beginning of the novel, Mr. Whipple symbolizes the American government, constantly telling Lem that his luck will change and that he can pull himself up by his bootstraps if he wishes to. Later on, Mr. Whipple will chuck this persona and join him on his unlucky journey.
A Cool Million, although very grave, is almost impossible not to take as a parody. It is laughable how unlucky Lem is at times, and there are many scenarios in which his actions are terribly misunderstood and a domino effect of bad luck ensues (like the part in which he saves the man from the horses and the man believes it to be his fault so he yells at Lem. Lem cannot defend himself because his false teeth fall out, and he has false teeth because he went to jail because he was wrongly accused of theft). Lem’s current situation at any point in the book can be traced back to its roots on one long, unlucky strand. The novel successfully uses humor to highlight the difficulties that many faced during the Great Depression. Its absurdity is what comes across so well: whatever can go wrong will go wrong. Although this makes the novel a good work of writing, it also makes it a poignant political piece.
Another topic that is explored in A Cool Million is a simple example of injustice on an institutional level. When Lem finds out that Wu Fong is enslaving Betty, he goes to the policeman only to discover that the policeman has an agreement with Wu Fong. Ironically, Lem ends up in jail for trying to do the right thing. The reader might find this comical (it is so absurdly ironic), and then be left to reflect on the absurdity of such a situation…a situation that happens all too often in the real world.
A Cool Million also takes care to visit in on the Native Americans during the period of the Great Depression. They, very appropriately, are bitter and unsympathetic about the current situation of the country. They express satisfaction that what the white man has created with his stolen land (stuff, essentially) has failed so miserably. This was interesting because it was the first time I had read a piece about the Great Depression that did not express scorn or sadness. Instead, the Native Americans, or “Injuns”, decide that this would be a great time to reclaim their land, and to overtake the white man. I found this part to be interesting because it finally offered a different perspective of this period of time.
By the second half of the book, the Joad’s, as Casy foreshadowed in the beginning, begin to adopt this sense of “free love”. Their conventional family unit begins to break down and shape shift until it no longer exists in its original form. As the Joads begin to weave themselves into the fabric of Route 66 and of the collective pilgrimage to California, their construct of the typical American family is completely eradicated: Rose of Sharon’s husband has left her (pregnant), the family has lost two members, and we begin to see the other families on the road becoming part of the family. In chapter 23, this idea is cemented as Ma sees that finally they are in the company of “her kinda people” – the people of the road must join together to survive. This chapter is about survival, and survival through recreation. Although they have all just met, there is an immediate bond as they realize that they are all the same. To survive, they must help each other out. They must lighten the load, they must sing, dance, be happy, and entertain. This is a common thread I have noticed throughout travel literature: if you are on the road, you belong to an unspoken community of others who are alone but also not.
In this section, Steinbeck continues to write in his ultra-omniscient style. Although typically this writing style would be frowned upon, (in the same way a voice over in a movie would be frowned upon) it works for this particular novel, because it gives it the aura of an epic. Because of its historical significance, this novel is rightly formatted in this way, because not only is it aiming to be an important work of art, it is aiming to make a radical political statement against the capitalist system. The novel weaves in and out of the story of the Joad family, alternating between their experiences on the road and the collective voice of the people. As the book goes on, the narrative of the people becomes more and more tense, as if we are to expect something big at any point. We are seeing the Joads risk everything to get to California, while at the same time glimpsing the horrible conditions there. We are watching the Joads march to their death; there will be nothing for them at the end of the road and the reader is forced to slowly watch it unfold.
I of course appreciated the extreme irony at the end of the novel, when it finally rains, and rains so hard that the boxcar floods and it becomes dangerous. It seems as though all the rain they had been hoping for comes at once, in one grand, dramatic stroke, yet the thing they needed most this whole time is what is flooding their shelter and keeping them from picking cotton. Although Rosasharn’s baby is born still, we end the novel on her, as she offers her breastmilk to a dying man. The book ends with life, and that is why Rose of Sharon smiles.
In true Steinbeck fashion, the Grapes of Wrath is filled with beautiful, heavily descriptive imagery. Although many have criticized Steinbeck for being overly descriptive, this sort of writing works incredibly well for a novel on this topic. In the first chapter, we are struck by the contrast between the dead, cracked land and the beautiful description of it. Steinbeck sets his novel up as a sort of play, with the land, or the set, being the most important character. He will later introduce characters to inhabit his set, but by making the land the focal point, he sets up the novel theatrically, as a sort of epic. It is as though Steinbeck is the omniscient chorus in his own greek tragedy, a tragedy in which the audience already knows the ending but reads anyway (the ending is never the point). Steinbeck comments and muses on the events transpiring, floating elsewhere, knowing everything, speaking directly to the reader.
Tom is introduced quickly as the tragic hero, who is flawed as an ex-convict but overall showing admirable qualities. Soon after he is introduced, another equally important character comes on the scene: the turtle. The turtle, whether it is meant to be real or not, will serve as an important literary tool to both introduce the rest of the characters and foreshadow. Steinbeck’s way of highlighting the importance of something is by describing it to great lengths, and this is exactly what he does with the turtle. Here we have Steinbeck, the chorus, pointing out this seemingly unimportant, unrelated character to the reader. We follow the turtle as walks for a while and comes in contact with the other part of the developing story, the part in which Tom and Casy exist. The turtle is slowly making its way to wherever it is going when it is hit by a truck and thrown off course. It lands on its back and, after a while, gets on its feet again. It continues on its journey. This turtle will represent the stream of people on their way to California in search of a better life, constantly encountering obstacles and pushing on somehow. Even though the turtle moves painfully slowly, and has the cards stacked against him, he will continue to push on because he must survive. It is his only option. When Tom sees the turtle and realizes what they have in common, he picks it up. Later, when Tom can no longer carry it, he sets the turtle back down and it continues on its way, in the same direction it was going before. It has the will to survive, to do anything that will help keep it alive.
As the reader is introduced with this idea of the painful, immovable will of survival, the theme of sacrifice will become more and more apparent. Each character is constantly making sacrifices to do whatever they need to survive. Casy must sacrifice his faith and believe in free love; he must adapt to his current situation in order to survive, to not be disillusioned by now empty beliefs. The Joad’s former neighbor takes a job bulldozing the houses and land of his friends in order to survive. What does wholly sacrificing ones’ own morals do to a person? When the family is crossing the desert, Ma must make the decision not to inform them that Granma has died, knowing that if they don’t push on, more could die. Suddenly these characters are challenged in ways they never have been before. When the family sells all of their belongings, they are throwing away their memories, their beliefs, their identities. They must lose any sort of identity they have to make themselves adaptable enough to survive.
According to Walker Evans, James Agee was an incredibly special man. He was, one might say, the ideal American man, especially during his time: he was not wealthy, not poor, and in his humble presentation of himself gained the respect of the poor, yet his intelligent, “Elizabethan” way of speaking granted him the respect and the interest of the wealthy. According to Evans, Agee was a sight to behold, and would have been able to be well liked by any sort of person. He is full of contradictions: he is both intelligent (Harvard educated) and humble, speaks both eloquently and colloquially, and is a “talking” writer who also writes things down. He is either the ideal man, or is able to remain slightly anonymous within his contradictions. Either way, his unique way of being lends itself to his role as a writer.
Agee says that the two “immediate” instruments for telling a history are the camera and the written word, but in his opinion, “the governing instrument – which is also one of the centers of the subject – is individual, anti-authoritative human consciousness”. Him and his partner are commissioned to capture the stories of American farmers using the two immediate tools, but Agee his able to recognize that despite the official government commission, the governing tool in telling the stories of these farmers will always be his voice. Agee’s voice and perspective cannot be removed from the stories of the farmers, but is an equally important component to the telling of those stories. It is woven into the fabric of them. Through this claim, Agee is, for the most part, successfully able to walk the line of personal and objective.
In a segment called “Money”, Agee lays out detailed information on the difference between sharecroppers and tenants. His descriptions intentionally draw some serious comparisons to medieval feudalism, in which the sharecropper does not own anything, but merely is always in debt to his landlord for letting him exist. A sharecropper by the name of Grudger owns neither his land nor his animals, and must rent both from his landlord. At the end of the month, he owes his landlord half of everything he makes, plus portions from his half to cover extra charges. In the off-season, he must support his family to survive in any way possible. Usually he will live off of whatever money he has leftover from the year, but it is rare that he will have anything left. Grudger’s family is no anecdote, and Agee makes that clear. Grudger is, in fact, a real person, but he could also represent any man during this time.
The theme of feudalism is continued later on, when he discusses the idea of the family unit and how it functions around the concept of work. Agee talks about how children were created for very practical reasons: to help and support the family. Children are trained from a young age to work: “…A child’s life work begins as play. Among his first imitative gestures are gestures of work, and the whole imitative course of his maturing and biologic envy is a stepladder of the learning of physical tasks and skills.” Everything he will do or learn will lead up to a very simple, straightforward purpose: to work, and the work itself is simple and straightforward. For anyone with intelligence past that of a “simple child”, Agee points out, such work can be bad for the human psyche. It can be utterly soul crushing.
Agee’s writing style is generally straightforward and to-the-point, when he wants it to be. He will add in a paragraph or two that is solely personal, dealing only with his connection to the subject matter. This is important because, as a writer, one can never be subjective. He makes his personal experience just as much a part of the story as everything else. The rest of his writing, I noticed, reads somewhat like a lawyer very clearly laying out a case in court. He provides points, one after another, to help his reader come to his personal conclusion. This writing style is successful because it does not pretend to be less involved with the subject matter than it actually is: it lets it be personal and does not make such a fuss about it.
This reading was particularly interesting because it fused the art of image capturing with text to attempt to deliver a message about this time in history. For such an important moment in American history, photography seems to be the most appropriate medium: “The camera alone gives credible reality to a people who are no longer here, to an environment that is changed, and to an art that is increasingly dependent on photo-screen transfer”. By capturing an image—especially during a time before photoshop, when the photograph was the ultimate symbol of truth—one was forcing these stories to be told, and forcing this time in history to be seen and remain seen for years to come. The writer speaks of this in the foreword, stating that this collection of images remains relevant three decades later (when this book was published) because “In the stream of time the rural and the urban, although separable, merge almost completely. Indeed while they are passing from one into the other—one setting the stage for the other—they continue to flow side by side”. This is an important time in History and is therefore always relevant to the current day.
Dorothea Lange specifically is successful in her photojournalism because she is extremely good at the “candid cam”—her subjects were “largely oblivious to her camera”—she was masterful at keeping herself unseen so as to capture the best and truest picture she could. However, it is possible that by photographing these people “candidly”, it gave her more of an opportunity to portray them how she wanted them to be portrayed. It is interesting that she did not allow them to pose, thereby allowing them to represent themselves and tell their own stories through their photographs. After all, as a photographer traveling through the country during this time, I feel that Lange has some sort of responsibility not to report back on what she sees necessarily (because again, this can easily get tied up in what she wants to see) but rather to report on the workers and on the way they tell their stories. Additionally along these lines, she uses bits of dialogue she overhears to compliment her photographs, and although she does interview people, it is both interesting and potentially problematic that she chooses to use these as a focal point. It does not allow the people to represent themselves, but is more to allow the academic to interpret them through the lens of another academic. Nonetheless, the images she is able to capture are incredible and are some of the most important images in history.
In Dorothea Lange’s images, she successfully delivers this notion of the country as a machine: she photographs cotton to look like it is being processed on a factory, and photographs the hands of the workers and their tired faces. These photographs are so successful because they look inspired by the medieval, feudalistic times. The text compliments these images by discussing the ever-present caste system during the great depression, and of the destruction of the middle class. In Dorothea Lange’s images, the workers are made to look like parts of a large, corrupt machine. During this time, the president’s committee on farm tenancy stated that their “examination of the agricultural ladder has indicated an increasing tendency for the rungs of the ladder to become bars—forcing imprisonment in a fixed social status from which it is increasingly difficult to escape”. The machine enslaves and mistreats the very workers that keep it running, trapping them inside their tier of the caste system and making it impossible to get out of. This reading does a great job of marrying the text with Dorothea Lange’s images to create a complete and well-executed analysis of this crucial period of history.
During a time such as the Great Depression, when everyone is put at the same level, the societal roles of men and women go to the wayside. Suddenly these arbitrary structures that have been put in place are no longer relevant, and women are just people like everyone else. As “Box Car Bertha” describes from her childhood, the “men never thought of changing their conversation in front of us”. Her life role as a woman is no longer relevant, because everyone is struggling in the same ways.
Bertha’s mother is key in her development into the incredible person she becomes. She instills her with the “wanderlust” that is spoken of, common in women: the disease of restlessness. If the house, to a woman, is synonymous with a prison, travel is the best option. Men spend their lives living, bending and breaking the rules. Women, however, are meant to behave and stay faithful to men. At a certain point, the wanderlust is bound to kick in…the desire to break the rules after so many years of following them. Her mother exercises Wanderlust by constantly moving around, giving her children many different fathers. Although some may think this is irresponsible of a mother, it ends up teaching Bertha a wonderful lesson: to be your own person and to not accept a situation you are not completely happy in. Never become a slave to a man. When she leaves a man, she is always taking her children with her. They operate as one unit, never depending on a man, and eventually settle in one place to open up a home for other travelers. They do this without the help of a man.
Additionally, travel is important for women so that they can learn for themselves: her mother always used to say, “the more you hear, the more you learn, the more you learn, the better you will be to judge for yourself”. Without travel, women are forced to learn about the world through books or through newspapers (both dominated by men) and are never in a position to learn for themselves about the world and to take from it what they will. That is why, even in the midst of an economic and social crisis, there is a small victory to be had.
Box Car Bertha does find her own personal victory during this time. She decides to devote her life to helping other women of her kind: women on the road, trying to find a life for themselves on their own. She travels around the country working for various relief organizations, but after a while, she catches a bad case of the wanderlust, as her mother always had, and moves onto the next place. As a woman during this period, wanderlust is crucial: it keeps her from settling into a role that is not worthy of her. It encourages her to push on and find something better.
Waiting for Nothing (by Tom Kromer), unlike other essays we have read thus far, attempts to tell the story of the depression through the lens of a vagrant, or, as the narrator would say, a stiff. This is the first time we get to read from such a perspective, and, although it is a novel, I find that it paints a better picture of the time than any of the nonfiction we have read so far. Throughout the book, the reader only knows as much as the narrator, who is also named Tom Kromer, will tell him/her, yet it is moving in a way that Sherwood Anderson’s essays could never be.
One aspect of the novel that is hugely successful is the formatting. It really is a collection of stories, with every chapter being its own little vignette. Usually each chapter only covers a day in Kromer’s life, which is successful in communicating the immediacy of the hunger and need of a struggling man during this time. We see a man whose entire lifetime could easily be in one day: he wakes up, battles to find food, and if he goes to sleep that night, he has survived. The vagrant during this time lives day-to-day, with nothing else in mind other than where he will eat and sleep for the next twenty-four hours. If he can concentrate on just the next twenty-four hours, it is easier to forget why he is trying so hard to survive in the first place. The last line of the book perfectly sums up this idea: “Day after day, week after week, year after year, always the same – three hots and a flop.” The entire novel comes down to this one line, the closing remark, because this is what life is reduced to for a vagrant. There is no need to be concerned with art or money or sex or politics. Suddenly life becomes about only the most basic human needs.
Another way in which the formatting is successful is through its communication of the solitude of the vagrant. Although it becomes evident throughout the novel that the vagrants are all involved in an unspoken, national community with its own type of language (shown in the stiff with the chicken wire under his arm who offered pointers to Kromer, or the stiffs at the fireside by the jungle telling their stories) that community is based mostly on a common, shared narrative. The vagrants themselves, however, are lone rangers. In one chapter, Kromer is sitting in an apartment with his friends Werner and Karl, and in the next he will be alone again and Werner and Karl will not be mentioned once after that. In one chapter, Kromer meets a girl, Yvonne, who he seems to like. The chapter ends with Yvonne saying to him, “I like you…you can stay here…until the landlady kicks us out”. The reader might be under the impression that Yvonne and Kromer will travel together from now on, yet this is the last we hear of Yvonne. This is because Yvonne is not important, and neither are Karl or Werner. They are simply other people going through the same stuff: “I look at [Yvonne]. She looks at me. We are two people in the world. We are the same. We know that we are the same. Our gnawing bellies and our sleepy eyes have brought us together”. Yvonne could be anyone. Anyone in this novel about could be anyone. The page turns and you are, once again, alone.
This country was not built for women. Women were not a part of the founding of the country, and were not originally meant to vote. This country was also built on capitalism, not communism: it was not designed to function under the stress that was the Great Depression. The mess that was the relief program was hugely underfunded, and the employees of the relief system were, themselves, on the relief system. The process of getting onto the relief system alone was difficult, and once on it the results were always precarious. Some days there was not enough funding to give everyone food. Additionally, the system did not work well for women, as they had needs surpassing groceries that were not being met. At a time when women were wholly dependent on their husbands to survive, what was the single woman to do? How was she to survive?
Although the answer is simply “not easily”, it comes with a host of less simple outcomes. Single women were to either find work by luck (yet still remained unprotected from their employers), or depend on the kindness of strangers, and, from the story of Hazel in “Girl on the Road” by Louis Adamic, most of these strangers would be men looking for something in return. The third option would be to starve to death. In any case, the solution was not easy. Hazel speaks of one of her husbands, who ran away with her money and car. In such desperate times, some men may choose to only look out for themselves, leaving their wives behind to either starve to death or struggle to stay alive. Regardless, the women are at the utmost disadvantage. Both their physical and mental strengths are put to the test.
There is another side to this coin, however, which is, unfortunately, positive. It is positive because it is during this time that women are liberated to live and take care of one another, travel wherever they like, and operate as free agents. The reason I say this is unfortunate is because it is unfortunate that this freedom only comes to women in times of despair (this happens again during World War II, when women are put to work). Even though it is a hard life as a woman during this time, it is also freeing: women are literally forced out of their houses, and let us keep in mind that the woman has an extremely different relationship to the house than the man does. Even though the times are hard, and eviction is never good, it cannot be ignored that the woman is liberated from her typical roles in society or as a wife. At a time when people of all social class, race, and gender are suffering together in a “pit of misery” (Lorena Hickok, One Third of a Nation) the playing field is leveled. All people are forced to fend for themselves, and women are no longer treated as creatures to be owned by their husbands. Unfortunately, this liberation must be associated with such dark times.
In conclusion, the Depression was, for the most part, an incredibly different experience for a woman than it was for a man. For a man, who always had freedom, it seemed to be purely suffering. For a woman, it perhaps, in some strange way, inspired conflicting emotions. It perhaps was viewed as a time of both enormous suffering and also incredible freedom. This is not to say that the Depression was good for anyone, and it was without a doubt harder on women than it was on men, but in some ways, it was not without a small victory: the victory as a woman to be struggling, but getting by on her own accord.
Although it is slightly difficult to dig through Sherwood Anderson’s layers of removal as a successful novelist being driven around the country (more on this later) he is still able to capture a certain beauty in many of the people he meets. One generality that he captures well is the role of masculinity during the Great Depression.
The ideal image of the United States is one of prosperity, hope, and, above all, masculinity. It is a country made for the man, a country that promises that if he is good, hardworking, and honest, he can be successful and provide for his family. But what is the American man to do when his country as a whole is in the midst of an identity crisis? Surely the very ground beneath his feet will feel shaky. He has lost his job, his house, his fortune – all the things that make him feel like a man. His masculinity is challenged, resulting in a silly (but also kind of beautiful) return to simpler times.
Suddenly land, physical land, becomes incredibly important to these men. They have lost everything but still manage to maintain a sense of masculinity in something so primal, so tangible. Suddenly everything is about the coal, the corn, and the soil. The man’s nationality is replaced with state pride, and the land becomes as sacred to him as his own children. He does not need the frivolities of the rich, but takes solace in the coal beneath his feet and in the ownership of a shack or a tent. The image of the masculine man shifts from a businessperson to a cowboy. It is for this reason, perhaps, that the Great Depression is so romanticized by the novelists of its time, including the very Sherwood Anderson himself.
What Sherwood Anderson’s writings lack is, ironically, the voice of anyone other than himself. As a writer, it is difficult to remain objective; in fact, it is impossible. Any piece of writing will be colored by the author’s own experiences or opinions. In Anderson’s case, his writing is colored by his stubbornness. Before Anderson even sets out on his journey, he has undoubtedly already developed an idea in his head about what he will discover on it. In one chapter entitled “Revolt in South Dakota”, Anderson is telling a man from South Dakota about how he departed on his journey with his mind “already half made up” because he had been reading a novel about the “bitterness of men and women on farms” (17). This confession shows in his writing: in one chapter entitled “At the Mine Mouth” he talks to countless miners, yet he heavily implies that they all seem to share a collective story, and have a collective voice. He calls them “Jim and Frank and Joe and Tom”, they are just average Joes looking for some honest work. A man in South Dakota, clearly insulted by Anderson’s patronizing trope, notes a trope of his own: the eastern journalist travelling through “gritty” America to write books and profit off of them. To this, Anderson kind of admits he had been wrong in making so many assumptions. This comes in the form of him concluding: “These people are right to be proud of what their land can do in a good year” (36).