It Happened One Night (1934) is based on the premise of Ellie Andrews, a socialite who marries a man against her father’s wishes. Once he finds out, he whisks her away from her husband, only for her to escape him – by jumping off their yacht – in order to find her own way back to her husband, King. This is when the real meat of the story actually begins, for, as we can already imagine with all movies of the romantic comedy genre, the heroine never truly finds love at first sight. She boards a bus, trying to reach New York and be reunited as fast as possible with King; instead, she is seated next to an aggravating man who seems intent on riling up her nerves throughout the whole journey. Evidently, the journey to New York is not a smooth one. The man, our hero – Peter Warne – is a recently fired reporter who soon discovers Ms. Andrew’s real identity and blackmails her into letting him accompanying her to New York, for the purpose of being the only exclusive story on her escape. What starts off as an antagonizing relationship – mutual, I might say – ends up being an incredible bonding experience (pardon the clichés). How so? Through the hardships found on their journey on the road, they come together as one unit. The overnight bus experiences, complete with a fully improvised swinging band at the back of the bus inevitable soften each of their demeanors. We can see imagery that very much relates the experience of the members of the bus as one of a united family. There is singing, dancing and a lot of laughter. For Ellie, who is a socialite and has never experienced travel with other people, the bus journey is similar to the bonding experience described in Reitman’s Boxcar Bertha.
While Bertha and Ellie have completely different upbringings, their experiences on the road can be seen as comparable, I think what this signifies is that when one travels in a public space with other members of the public there’s this sense of being one with not only the land but humanity itself. While Anderson writes in about the price of aristocracy – that there is a separation from them and the land – we can see Ellie’s character as being redeemed, especially since it was made during the Great Depression wherein most travel writers and artistic movements of the time, as we have seen in class, narrate about the inherent value of being one with the land.
This idea of comradeship is further exemplified when Ellie and Peter stop at an Inn. For the first time, Ellie experiences the idea of communal showers. It’s a short scene but nonetheless, I could pick up on several of the themes that are again, apparent in Boxcar Bertha, particularly with women, there is a bonding amongst them regardless of which parts of the world they are from. There is no judgment; in fact, if anything, they bond together – even temporarily – on trivial items like gossip.
Despite the struggles they face, such as finding a car to hitchhike or stealing necessary items to survive, the imagery I get from the movie as a whole, is that the travel is about sharing oneself with places and vice versa. When I think of travel in 2015, I think of the complete opposite. True, the experience of travel is far more luxurious and efficient, there is something lost by focusing on profits as the end goal. A traveler these days, can hop on a bus – say Greyhound or Megabus for instance – get from point A to point B in record time with no malfunctions and yet not know a single thing about the person sitting next to them. We must take into account electronic devices that were not invented during the 1930s being a big part in somewhat separating the travel experience from simple transportation. It raises the question, one of bigger picture, about the nature of people in contemporary times versus those back then. Are we more collective or individualistic nowadays? Which would we prefer to be?
Gross’s guide series truly does take each state, break it up into parts and reestablishes them almost as if they were not all one unified, United States of America. The states are seen almost as if they are their own characters – which in a way, I guess is still true in contemporary times. Upon browsing through the various guides, I concurred that yes, they transform “local culture into a tourist attraction, and the tourist attraction into a symbol of national loyalty.” At the heart of this dynamic, is the very real tension and struggle to balance between trying to promote and appreciate one’s culture whilst maintaining a sense of authenticity – not only to the potential tourists, but to each state respectively. Gross mentions this notion of tourism becoming attached to the connotation of a brand name. I find this concept extremely interesting as brand names usually have this certain association to appearance but nothing else substantial within it. When we look to fashion, as I studied in a class on luxury marketing last year, brand names were analyzed as a intrinsic value that cultivated everything from culture to social expectation and focused on branding rather than the product itself. In this sense, I think Gross is attempting to state that the propaganda that has emerged as a result of these tourism guides has almost taken away the ‘realness’ of each state, changing them into products merely to be sold. The luxury of each state has been eradicated, in its place, a standardized version with multiple duplicates that are ready to be distributed.
When analyzing Arizona in particular, Gross talks about how local interest groups would have definitely not appreciated the vernacular that could be found within the guides. Why? Because they essentially dehumanize the members of that state who are predominantly comprised of Indians, Mexicans and what is perceived as the typical ‘American’. Not only does the guide demean the locals there, implying that they are ignorant of their own culture and history, they profit from this very fact. Since there is such a lack of unity within the state itself, they pose the locals almost as characters to satire and make a mockery. In the Arizona state guide, they write, “Arizona is too new as an American state to boast of a homogenous population.”; they must include all of those Indians and Americans who “have crossed the international line only yesterday as an immigrant.” What’s somewhat comical to me is how the language of the guide assimilates such a narrative while talking about Arizonans being “warm-hearted and hospitable”, as if to say that one must be reassured that the state is worth visiting after all despite their lack of unity within themselves.
This issue of a state without homogeneity can be seen as a microcosm for today’s macrocosm of America as a whole. As an international student, I’ve been observant of the multitude of cultures and ethnicities not only in New York but in other parts of America – specifically those vicinities around educational institutions. Back home in Thailand, the narrative of going to America for the purposes of education or finding employment can be compared to that of the travel guides used in the 1930s. When schools come to recruit students or potential employees, they definitely speak about the culture, landscape, etc surrounding said destination. There’s always this sense of selling a product that seems to be inescapable in any aspect of the world, particularly with America, particularly with the capitalist system very much synonymous with its nation.
If I had not read the article Being Elsewhere by Michael Berkowitz, never would I have ever thought that mass tourism had its roots in the Great Depression. Yet, having connected the dots, the argument is an extremely plausible one that is rarely focused on, probably due to the nature of history that likes to focus its attention on failures. The new deal era called for a revitalizing of the American economy via social harmony, thus, the birth of mass tourism. Here we can find the roots of paid vacations likewise. It’s intriguing to out where our course name, The Travel Habit, emerged from. Berkowitz goes on to say, “the travel habit was not born with most Americans. It’s an acquired taste and one which must be religious and patiently cultivated by the seller” (194). This idea of travel being a culture directly relates to why it was initially – and still is – an exclusive benefit for middle class office workers and the likes. While there is paid vacation for wage workers, they receive less vacations days as the system rationalizes that those who use brain activity as opposed to manual labor need a more relaxed environment to recuperate whereas those who use their hands to work merely need a good days sleep.
The advertisements were always promoting America and how one should travel to “visit southern California and see the world” or take “a trip abroad in your own united states”. The language with which these ads employed sheds light on perhaps why America is seen as a destination country, not just a land of the free, but a land with freedom in travels. The narrative of the ads insinuates that because America is so great, there is no need to leave the country. It makes me think to the startling fact that less than half the American population have a passport true this is a far cry from the occasional myth that only 10% of americans have passport, but for less than half to hold a passport (and probably less who use it after immigration into the country) I wonder if there is a strong connection to the nature of how mass tourism was promoted during the 1930s.
James Agee then goes onto talk about the great American roadside being the vital organism that holds together the metaphor that is America. Usually, when people travelled for vacations they would stop at a camp that would have around 10-15 cabins. Agee’s point about the success of these individual camps is how they are a product of their own entrepreneurs meaning that the cabin man nor the chain hotelman could put each other out of business as respectively had a niche in the economy. The niche of the cabin man immediately made me draw connection to today’s version of the roadside cabin: Airbnb. The reason that is so successful these days is because people yearn for a travel experience that is not rich and luxurious but one that is authentic and can truly give the traveller a sense of being a local – being one with nature. When staying at an Airbnb, it is more than just about finding a place to lie down for the night. There is a connection with the host who is familiar with that area of the country – for he or she is a local. By living in their house, we can see a different side of America through the eyes of someone who lives there and that is something that one cannot find in a chain hotel regardless of how many stars or reviews it has. It brings me back to the phrase that has been used in class many times already, ‘be a traveller not a tourist’.
Without having to read that much into the novel, it is already blatantly obvious that West takes a jab the American dream as well as the man who believes in it. The fact that he calls Lem ‘our hero’ throughout the story already says many a thing about the political statement West intends to encapsulate. A hero is someone who starts often from bottom of the social food chain, so to speak, overcomes hardships and somehow triumphs at the end of the story. In a reality, this hero can easily slip into the narrative that matches that of the American dream, whether it is a migrant moving to find work or an immigrant who arrives in America and eventually makes his fortune. This is certainly true for Lem, or what West purposely mocks, for Lem at least attempts to be this hero. The very point that he is ‘our’ hero indicates that not only is Lem a hero in this story, he is the representation of what the American people look to for hope; whether it is reality or not, the myth, the illusion created by the American dream is almost like false hope that keeps America running for it is the very definition of America, without it, there would be no unity. Capitalism is synonymous with the American dream. Furthermore, because Lem is our hero, West takes his satire one step further by involving the readers engagement and participation; he purposely draws us in by insinuating that this hero could be anyone of us.
One particular instance struck me as especially relevant and could be easily applied even now, roughly eight decades later, to the American system. When Lem encounters Mr. Mape on his way to New York, we can interpret several parallels between then and now. Firstly, the notion of New York being a destination whereby all dreams come true can still be very pertinent; “…if you can’t make money in New York, you can’t make money anywhere.” This fact is still true. New York City is the melting pot of the melting pot – the ultimate melting pot, if you will. We walk around and there is such an amalgamation of ethnicities, races, classes, etc. This metropolitan is a hyper-microcosm of the American dream.
Next, we have the issue of Mr. Mape. Lem’s conversation with Mr. Mape is nothing out of the ordinary, at first, and we find ourselves believing everything that comes out of Mr. Mape’s mouth, as Lem does. However, the situation quickly turns sour, leading to the discovery that Mr. Mape is in fact not the nephew of the Mayor of New York; he is merely a pickpockt who has stolen all the money Lem had on him. The swift manner in which Mr. Mape transforms from someone we aim to associate ourselves with to someone to avoid is comparable to the wheels of fortune that is also alluded to later on. You can be a millionaire one day and a pauper the next and vice versa.
I think the significance of this unfortunate encounter can be interpreted to suggest that there is something unnatural or not quite right about a seemingly perfect person, a person who has had the better end of the wheel of fortune. A man with smooth manners, fancy clothes, an even fancier car has something to hide. In my opinion, West here makes a statement that is similar to that of other Great Depression era writers – working with the land and being one with nature is the most authentic way to live. Although West may not have explicated stated such a thing, I find that he has subtle hints throughout the book towards the illusion of the American dream and the evils of capitalism.
While my first post about the beginning half of The Grapes of Wrath was somewhat skeptical towards Steinbeck’s portrayal of men working and living from the land, the opening of chapter 25 is so poignantly written, it is impossible to be unaffected. We see just why the migrants all headed towards California in the first place, there is almost a sense of coming full circle; that the journey was not fruitless.
What truly evoked this sense of a journey fulfilled, was the way Steinbeck described the workers in the valley, picking at grapes. While we may have this perception that the working class are not skilled, that their work is monotonous and machine-like at times, the opposite can be said for the fruits of their labor – wine. Wine is typically associated with culture and by extension, the people who acquire it and drink it. In illustrating the imagery of the processes of wine, from the root of its origin whereby “men work carefully and endlessly to perfect the seed.” He goes so far as to compare the workers as doctors, or more accurately, surgeons, and chemists of the grapes. The two professions could not be any further apart in the spectrum of income or status, yet, if we think about it, they operate much in the same way. A surgeon must be “tender and delicate” when operating on a body, much like the delicate and tender nature the men must possesses in handling barks and grafts. In equating the two spheres into one, Steinbeck has essentially lessened the gap between classes. And the common denominator bringing about an ideal, utopian world? Grapes. More specifically however, I would like to think he is hinting at what the grapes represent: the land.
The description of the dust bowl is such a stark contrast in terms of imagery with those conjured by Steinbeck in the valleys of California. There is a sense of man being one with the land and vice versa. Man must tend to the land in such a way that he tends to a person that must be taken care of. Perhaps, we can think of the dust bowl or the deserted dry land in Oklahoma in Chapter 1 as a harbinger for what could potentially occur if we were not to respect the land. The two-way relationship is crucial for the success of the grapes, the welfare of the migrants and in macrocosm, the state of America’s economy.
Steinbeck is indeed utilizing his novel as more than just entertainment purposes, more than just an informational translation of migrant land; he is, telling us who we should look towards as the essence of America in more ways than one. In chapter 23, the small interlude about the migrant life when they are not working on the fields’ ties into this theme of a simplistic way of living that should be commended. People would gather around and play music and find amusement in speech and speech alone. The allusion to migrant like to folk culture is unmistakable; yet, there is something to be said for the ease in which these people can be happy without much money nor material possessions. They were content with their stories and the people in which they shared such stories with. The cliché ‘less is more’ comes to mind when reading this chapter but we can definitely link that into Steinbeck’s insinuations throughout the novel about the importance of the land to man’s livelihood because what is less or more simple than the ground beneath our feet?
While Grapes of Wrath predominantly focuses in on the theme of the plight of migrant workers during the Great Depression, Steinbeck writes about the unity of humanity at a time when unity has never been needed more. In doing so, I feel that the novel has thus inadvertently romanticized the idea of manual labor, which brings to mind the saying, ‘hard work pays off’.
When contemporary readers revisit the themes in this novel, we get a sense that there is a protagonist to hero narrative (as there is in almost every novel); yet, Tom Joad as a character has somehow redeemed himself in the eyes of both Steinbeck, the characters in the novel as well as, yes, us as the readers. Why? Despite the fact that he has a criminal history he adopts into this mindframe of moving forward as a way to atone his sins which definitely gets integrated with this idea of religion and doing good. With the aid of characters like Jim, the notion of ‘good work’ thus becomes synonymous with that of ‘hard work’ whereby there is no good in preaching good values if one does not participate in them to begin with, such is the reason for why Jim has turned his back on preaching.
Steinbeck emphasizes how vital the relationship is between man and the land – and man and other men likewise. We return to a grassroots sort of idea that reverses the discourse of capitalism completely even though the very reason for the migration to California in the beginning was due to need of employment. The effect here is that there seems to be a shift in priorities or a moment of realization whereby Steinbeck employs both Tom and Jim as instruments in divulging the message: manual labor is the key to a good life. To be considered a man in the eyes of god and reach self-actualization, such a man must live “To build a wall, to build a house, a dam, and in the wall and house and dam to put something of Manself…” This imagery of man working with his hands is so ingrained in the mentality of the Great Depression. It’s particularly a theme that has been prominently featured in novels and articles by writers of the time. Perhaps they have seen, throughout their travels, the beauty in the simplicity of life before capitalism took over. Seeing as capitalism is unpredictable in its nature, we can see that manual labor is in fact the opposite of such a system – but really, we should question just how reliable the work of man is. When there is a drought or when natural disasters such as the Dust Bowl occur, what happens to the land and the livelihood of man then?
Most definitely my reading of this novel and by extension, other works during the Great Depression, is pessimistic in nature. Steinbeck shines light on the essence of principles that America runs on like life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. There is always an intimation towards the purity and integrity of a man who lives and works on the land. My critique manual labor being romanticized is that often, the reality of such a life was about survival. I can’t empathize with the lives of those during the Great Depression nor with the working class but the novel – even writing about the lives of civilians – has spun the day to day life of migrant workers into a rags to riches narrative. There are characters who have died due to migration (Granma, Grampa, Jim, Sairy, or Connie who decides that the tough life is too tough to tolerate and abandons wife and child). These are the lives who don’t get a happy ending. And there are more. What about the migrant workers who don’t have bigger dreams? What about those in the working class who hate the land they live and work on? Where do they fit into this romanticized narrative that perhaps is inaccurately imposed on them?
“The immediate instruments are two: the motionless camera, and the printed word” (xiv) This quote, I found, was much like that of the relationship between Agee and Evans. The work produced by their symbiotic and seemingly complimentary relationship is evident in the way they talk about each other’s work. One component that they both agree to be essential to their work, is stillness (299). The writing and the documentary style photographs of southern farmers attempt to “embrace the density and completeness of a still moment or scene” (299). What I understood from this was the very fact that what these artists hoped to portray is nothing more or less than the situation itself. They do not wish to exaggerate or draw meaning from the situation at hand, because if one is to properly assimilate oneself into the role of an artist, it is to accurately portray truth – as can be seen from the entirety of a complete moment, pure and untouched.
What’s interesting to me is also the dynamic between Evans and Agee and their attitude towards their work when on the road. It is very apparent that they are curious about human life as they point out. The harmony between the photographs and the accompanied texts is to show a side of journalism, if you will, that has never been told through such lens. They call this honest work (9). They deem it is defending the helpless and bringing to light those stories that have had the misfortune of remaining in silence.
Not only do they set about their documentation with such a purpose, they do so by drawing the reader inextricably into the text, almost as if the choice is inevitable. How do they do this? By writing in second person. It’s about you, you and you. Although, the question remains, who is the ‘you’ that they wish to address and who is the ‘you’ that actually reads the words. According to the authors, this is up for interpretation.
For instance, when talking about ‘work’ and the culture of work life that predominantly revolves around the agricultural system, I find that there is a deeper metaphor insinuated in between the lines. The authors write about work as being “as natural as breathing air to them”, seeing as it the concept of using one’s strength for another man’s benefit was a cyclical process in which lower class and those of minorities were subjected to since the beginning of time (153). As such, the monotonous nature of farming can be compared to the family unit that is typical for one such farmer.
In three small, compact stages, you can map out his life. He’s born into a family unit with a mother and father – he lives under their house and works to aid their efforts. Next, he works for himself, although this notion of independence can be mistaken for there is never a time where the farmer is separate from his work. Then, finally, he becomes a family man of his own – his work is now to provide for his wife and children while under the employment of his landlord (155). True, this predictable lifestyle may be congruous with the necessity for survival during the Great Depression, yet, what Agee and Evans manage to do, is convert this plainness of rural life into one that makes it both extraordinary to write and read likewise (153). With especially long and complex sentences, the authors manage to convey the extraordinary within the ordinary, the nuances of each individual life within a seemingly well-oiled machine-like system.
When comparing the Great Depression era’s portrayal through photography, a recent article I read came to mind. The Lab, presented by none other than photography industry’s leading brands Canon, six people were invited to photographer a man whereby each person was told different facts about the man. For instance, for one session, the photographer was told they would be photographing an ex-con whilst another session, the photographer was told they would be photographing a millionaire. As a result, the pictures produced at the end of the experiment differed from one another exponentially. The short YouTube clip ends with the quote, “A photograph is shaped more by the person behind the camera than by what is in front of it”. That is to say, framing, caption, angles, etc are just as, if not more, important in the process of photography. Like with any media example, a seeing isn’t necessarily believing; a picture made be used as evidence but to what extent is it reality? To what extent can it be equated to truth?
Dorothea Lange and Paul Taylor in American Exodus do a great job in answering this question. In her introduction, she stresses the fact that there will always be something lost when one shows to focus on a particular subject, area or moment in time. Yet, she maintains the fact that “the gain in sharpness of focus reveals better the nature of the changes themselves.” (15). With the majority of photos taken during the Great Depression era, specifically those by socially concerned photographers, I’ve noticed that they tend to focus more on the mundane, everyday aspects of life. They zoom in on a person, a movement, a corner that may not seem interesting but in actuality tells a lot about the way in which reality had taken its toll on the everyday man.
Her photograph titled Hoe Culture is one that I find particularly intriguing, but not in the way one might think. The picture is of a farmer in his or her element; the shot is focused on the body so we cannot see his or her head. Instead, we seem tired hands, work clothes and what seems to be a shovel. At first glance, there is nothing interesting that stands out except the obvious. The caption, however, is what draws me to the picture. It implies that there is a ‘culture’ to be had around this mundane occupation, one that Erskine Caldwell and Margaret Bourke-White in You Have Seen Their Faces state as nonexistent.
Caldwell and Bourke-White talk about the South’s agricultural system in derogatory terms, almost as a dead end that leads nowhere – much like the soil itself. Those who work on the farms are forced to live there “where the ordinary will do, where the makeshift is good enough (1). They say that the new tenants concentrate on maintain the wealth of the land, “who are determined that no culture shall exist” (6). This reading therefore contradicts with the picture in American Exodus about the topic of culture. Another photograph in You Have Seen Their Faces taken in Maiden lane, Georgia, portrays a man and woman standing, gazing into the distant. If there was no caption, we could have assumed that the photo illustrated a couple during the Great Depression as there is no landscape to the picture. However, the accompanied quote that comes from the man states that, “A man learns not to expect much after he’s farmed cotton most of his life.” After reading this, I immediately had a different perspective of the photograph, I felt sympathy at the bluntness of his words that carried with them a finality about life. It leads me to wonder, who holds more power then – the photographer, the subject, or the caption?
Bertha, as portrayed by Reitman, is a character I found ambiguous to say the least, much like her wandering soul. There were times that I felt extremely empathetic towards her and times I simply could not fathom how she could have done the things she said she did. The boxcar is a symbol that is inherent throughout the piece; not only does it accurately act as the prominent vehicle for Bertha to travel around the country, it seems to imply how easy it is for her to move from one place to another without any regard, any baggage or any regret.
From the beginning, we begin to see Bertha’s upbringing and how that contributed to the way in which she continued to live her life. The words ‘free spirit’ would be an understatement. Her mother and grandfather both stood for a lifestyle that was contradictory to the normative ideals of society. As a result, it’s easy to understand why Bertha would feel as if her ideas of normal include the homeless, the polygamous mother, the unwed parents, the thiefs, the vagabonds, etc.
I found that there was a paradoxical theme with regards to these vagabond women especially, both those that she grew up with and those she later on encountered on the road. Most of them were unwed mothers, yet they commanded respect from me and were not treated badly. I don’t recall Reitman including any instances of violence or extreme violence in Bertha’s interactions either. Instead, she said, “It seemed natural to me that she should be going to a man or away from a man. And not important” (12). The fact those women’s lives had always revolved around men in some form or another juxtaposed with the latter sentence. It suggests that, despite being influenced or influencing men, women did not put men on a pedestal. They had bigger aspirations in life than that – food, shelter, community. This is where I start to see her feminist tendencies forming.
Yet, as I read on, I started to question Bertha’s priorities. Did her mother instill upon her a sense of restlessness that could not be contained? Could there be a negative connotation to wanderlust? In my opinion, yes. It seems to me that it became her life’s mission to hitchhike across the country, finding jobs in mission shelters or women’s houses in order to aid them towards a better life. The irony does not escape me that she attempts to achieve a normative lifestyle for others when she herself has not and does not want that very lifestyle. At least, not until she talks to Lowell Schroeder who catalyzes her moment of epiphany. He tells her, “You’re a religions mystic, a Christian anarchist riding in a boxcar to find god” (197). What resonated here was the notion that even those who appear to live without religion or belief, are equally as passionate about something. Everybody has a religion. The conversation then leads Bertha to realize she must return to her daughter.
What Reitman insinuates here, is that Bertha’s attempt to find god (so to speak) has already been accomplished; she’s achieved what she has set out to find even if she didn’t necessarily know what she was looking for. I would argue differently. Perhaps her wanderlust was what made her go back on the road, yet somewhere along the way, as she flitted (or was fired) from job after job, her travels became more of a restless meandering. She was lost, in a way, like a box car that ended up with too much cargo unknowingly.
Unlike the other writers that we have read, there was something extremely poignant about the lack of pretense with which Kromer tells his story. The blunt tone that maintains throughout the novel evoked particularly strong emotions, especially when describing certain situations that we take for granted. From the beginning, we see an insight into how those ‘on the bum’ live. By being in the stream of consciousness of the stiff, it becomes painfully evident that those down on their luck are stripped of qualities we hold so much value to: ego, pride, etc.
There is such a contrast between when he describes how hungry he is and the restaurant he looks into.“The knives and forks on the table are silver. I can tell that they are pure silver from where I am standing on the street. They shine so bright. I cannot go in there.” Of course, the literal takeaway from this, is that he is not in a condition to go into such a fancy restaurant, he is not appropriately attired nor does he have the kind of money to spend. Subversively though, the fact that they “shine so bright’, we can associate those who are down on their luck with darkness, somberness – those who are viewed negatively.
Case in point, Kromer describes how one afternoon he witnesses a fellow stiff outsmarting a man with coin in his pocket. The stiff asks for some money. As usual, the first response, is always “Why don’t you get a job and go to work?” Kromer makes sure to include this question into several of his examples, almost as if wanting his reader to contemplate the question themselves. I wonder though, if perhaps he does it more so for rhetorical reasons, for condescending reasons, almost as if mocking these richer men for their naivety. In macrocosm, he mocks the system itself, for the system is the reason to blame for all of those ‘down on their luck’.
If getting a job were so easy, there would be no bums on the streets. Yet the stiff who outsmarts the richer man, does so by appealing to the qualities, those more fortunate still cling onto: ego. The stiff makes sure that the woman on the man’s arm engages in sympathy. Thus, the richer man, who prioritized ego before all else, parts with his money eventually in order to save face in front of his woman. In contrast, the example of Mrs. Carter epitomizes how stiffs will do just about anything for a place to sleep and some food. Despite the fact that Mrs. Carter is actually a queer and the narrative feels “ashamed” and “sick in the stomach” for thinking about even going to sleep with Mrs. Carter, he ultimately comes to the conclusion that he must, for “a stiff has got to live.” The attitude here, in comparison to the attitude of the rich man, illustrates perfectly the spectrum of people during the Great Depression. It’s such a mind-boggling juxtaposition that it makes a person question if the stiffs are even considered part of society, as they treated like objects, dehumanized and without base human emotions, relying solely on the will to live.
The contrast is quite stark when you pit the experiences of a man on the road to that of a woman’s. While on the whole it is safe to say that the men were treated with respect, going so far as to say awe even, women writers were seen as little more than a nuisance. Louis Adamic’s chapter on the girl he encountered on the road alluded to the way in which society in the 1930s perceived women whereas we get a different viewpoint when Lauren Gilfillan tells her side of the story from a writer’s stance.
I was entranced from the beginning of Adamic’s description of the girl, he so deftly paints a picture of her helplessness, almost dehumanizing her with the adjectives he uses. By the time the two initiate dialogue, he has garnered the readers sympathy, converting them into his stream of consciousness. As a result, he inadvertently pardons himself when he later admits to feeling “a mixture of revulsion and pity and shame – shame at the revulsion that pulsed through me; but I could not help feeling as I did” (Adamic, 497). I felt as if this small confession is representative of the reactions circling the great depression era, for people were amidst tragedy right before their very eyes – as they walked down the streets or went to the gas station – but they were either helpless to help themselves or helpless to help others. The situation reminds of the homeless right now in New York City. New Yorkers walk past these faces everyday, the ones sitting in the corners of the streets or in front of the subway, with cardboard signs, and yet, we walk past them and continue on in our day as if it somehow hasn’t affect us. What Adamic hints at, which I feel can be applied to our contemporary example, is that humility still remains – it is what makes us human, after all. However the problem is that we choose deliberately not to acknowledge them for the very same reason he felt shame and revulsion at the girl on the road: helplessness.
We can definitely see that there are attempts to bring this girl back to the same level of humanism. The conversations between the two are odd at times, both on her part but more so on his, nonetheless he makes sure to emphasize that despite being ‘a bum’ she has not lost the will to fight. What’s also interesting to me is her reaction to him being a writer. Once she opens up to him about her life, it becomes clear that she is comfortable in being depicted as a subject for a story – one can perhaps view this as a form of artistic display – and yet when Adamic asks her about her life (prior to divulging the fact that he’s a writer) she hesitates.
On the other hand, writers like Lauren Gilfillan make it no secret that she’s a writer. The difference though, is that instead of being revered for it, she’s ostracized and viewed at with skepticism. Her purpose, insinuating herself and living with the miners, is so that she can get an insight into what the truth is – what truly happens at the lowest levels of America’s industry. For me, her interactions with the miners and communist group members are more insightful than the information she finds for her writing. A woman even accuses her of being “an adventuress who wants excitement”, someone who writes about “art for art’s sake!” (Gilfillan, 75). Because she is a woman, she is stripped of her intellectual capacity – at least amongst the miners. What this reveals about the great depression is a somber truth we all probably already know which is that art – in any shape of form – was considered irrelevant and a waste of time. With matters more urgent like food and shelter, there was no time to think about the greater philosophical questions that both Gilfillan or Adamic are in search of. Even Adamic’s girl on the road – Hazel – can be grouped with Gilfillan’s miners when she immediately asked him for cigarettes, and proceeded to do so until she received them, as if to mimic the middle class for their worries. The fact that he ends his chapter telling the readers that she never did contact him after they parted ways illustrates that each section of society has their own needs to fill and that one is not necessarily better than the other.
It would seem that one discovery of America is simply not adequate; for a country so vast and so complicated, American writers during the Great Depression felt an unsettling need to re-learn about the country they called home. For a majority of great writers, experience is key for inspiration, or in this case, accurate portrayals of reality. Anderson, Asch, Caldwell and Rorty all took to the road with the hope of sating the burning questions each had posed for themselves. What does it mean to be American? What is America, geographically, demographically, economically?
The first myth, or sorts, was quickly debunked when Anderson immediately starts his account by exposing the fact that writers are all puzzled as the rest of us. His humbled acknowledgement of his knowledge, or lack thereof, automatically places him in a status similar to that of the normal, everyday man – the very subject of his travels. Such is the account and its startlingly unpolished manner of narrative does Anderson and the other writers make clear that the focus of the writing is not actually on stylistic accomplishment at all; the contents of each writer’s focus is simple yet there is power in the mundane, for, as we later learn, America is built on the everyday man who somehow gets left behind in translation.
During his travels, Anderson talks of how one can comprehend, even on an airplane, when one begins to enter a different state. There is this sense of disconnect, as he narrates his prior expectations, comparable of travelling to a foreign country and not simply crossing state borders. It illustrates how America, in focusing on its capitalistic and individualistic ways, has by default, become divided – there is no feeling of being the United States of America.
We can look to Caldwell’s account in Some American People; his first statement is a bold one, yet it resonates deeply with the truth of America’s culture that people tend to avoid. He says, “Americans with means of traveling do not know how to travel”; that Americans were somehow “confusing travel with sheer motion.” (Caldwell, 3). While his tone is explicit in its frustration with the American people and their willingness to remain ignorant, the narrative turns didactic eventually, alluding to the societal structures and the system at large and how one cannot solely place the blame upon oneself. A favorite anecdote of mine was his chapter on the Saturday night in Marysville. Bill, owner of Bill’s Garage, responds to a colleague’s remark that someone with a well-kept car and five dollars must have a good job by saying that, “A lot more of us would have a five-dollar bill, if we had a forty-cents-an-hour job like he’s got.” (Caldwell, 77). My interpretation of this was that there wasn’t anything to mysteriously complex in terms of wealth distribution – a person simply had more income to spend on leisure materials when they had better income-sourced jobs. What Bill refrained from saying, but can be extrapolated, is that not everyone received the same opportunities, despite the fact that America is built on the ideological foundation whereby everyone had equal opportunity and thus, equal opportunity for success.
James Rorty further explains this notion when he writes about his discovery, by estimate, of the percentage of American people who did not understand the central dilemma that was causal of the Great Depression; a measly five percent (comprised of writers, artists, intellectuals, etc.,) were aware and concerned with the “failure of the capitalist mode of production for profit to finance consumption or to make possible a world at peace” (Rorty, 5). In addition, I find that Rorty makes the same connection as Caldwell because he mentions that while Americans “work harder, fight harder,” they do it “less and less intelligently” (Rorty, 24). The people don’t read anymore. They don’t travel – at least not in the sense of truly discovering other people and their activities, or really looking into landscape and nature. They suffer, unknowingly, which according to Rorty, is the worst sort for they do not even realize the extent of the dilemma in which they have stumbled into. In cases such as these, the system is at play and people – the laborers, miners, garage workers of Kansas cities like Marysville – are representing the death of the American spirit.
This circles us back to the beginning, for if the American spirit is no longer viable, what does being American mean anymore?