This 1937 documentary explores the history and development of human activity in the Great Plains. It’s not a documentary about the people who moved to inhabit the plains, but rather about the plains themselves and how the presence of human activity changed them. The documentary starts with the initial settlement of the plains, when there wasn’t any human activity there yet. Then the first settlers arrive, but the narrator makes it clear from the outset how the plains were a fundamentally hostile place toward agriculture. As he continuously repeats throughout the documentary, the plains are “swept by wind, and beaten by the sun”. All of this with little rain. The images carry with them a sense of awe, which I hadn’t encountered yet at this scope so far in the class. It’s one thing to read “The Grapes of Wrath” a think about the dust bowl, but seeing continuous images of it is very different. The other striking thing aesthetically of the plains that I hadn’t realized was that the scenery and line of the horizon remains unbroken by any tree or even bush; it’s really just grass on all sides as far as the eye can see.
The initial settlement of the plains is really set as a moment of conquest for man over nature. What we see in the movie is people attempting to inhabit and somehow control this vast expanse, though unsuccessfully. This is before the Great Depression ever hits, and it’s interesting that there is already a distinct sense that this space is not hospitable to agriculture. The salvation for these people comes in the form of World War I, where the very high demands for wheat prompt a re-invigorating attempt to conquer the plains. Instead of the farmer on a horse attempting to plow the land on his own, in the movie the plain is literally invaded by machines to mow the land. The use of the word ‘invaded’ is very important, since in the imagery and logic presented by the movie, we see the trucks advancing on the plains, which is intercut with images of tanks during the war. The documentary is literally equating the war in Europe with the advance and invasion of the plains. This demonstrates a lot of the relationship between how the people thought of their relationship to the land. It was really one of almost complete hostility, of trying to dominate and beat the other. The connection between war and agriculture is also present in a direct fashion, since the demand for wheat gave the impetus to go out and conquer the plains.
But this motion of conquest subsides once the war itself subsides and what is left is an even more inhospitable space, where the farmer is even more at odds against nature. This incessant mowing of the plains eventually led to the development of the dustbowl phenomenon, eventually forcing all these people to leave the land.
The section of the essay dedicated to Arizona, and the essay as a whole, brings up the issue of dual aspect of state identity, caught in the dual process of fabrication and re-emergence. It’s interesting that some of the stories that are being brought to light by the guides were unknown to many of the people living in the place that the guide was supposed to be about. The process of creating all these guides did create the state-identities, but was born precisely out of being observed by an outsider. The material was drawn from the space itself, but it emerged through an outside lens. And furthermore not only was an external observer necessary, but through the guides a process of standardization occurred, leveling the differences between groups of people who until that point had, perhaps not been isolated, but had existed as separate entities.
The main point raised by the guides is the issue of external observing and the kind of fashioning of identity that it almost imposes. It’s easy to imagine places and spaces that until that point had basically lived, not in isolation, but in autonomy, with perhaps some traditions, but not an overblown sense of personal mythology and history. But through the guides and the whole process of ‘mapping’ that the guides undertook it was necessary for all places to come up with an identity, something identifiable, that made them not the same as the places surrounding them, and in some sense unique. But this requirement of identification exactly paved the way for fabrication, which the writer of the essay associates as actually occurring with big brands and companies becoming a part of that identity.
What’s also interesting is who this fashioning of identity was directed toward and made for. In the essay and through the guide it becomes clear that this was mainly directed toward middle class white people on the road for their two-week vacation. The whole previous issue of ‘identity’ of a town, place and state, then becomes complicated in that the ‘identity’ is fashioned not only through and outside perspective, but also through a very specific outside perspective with clear expectations that it wished to see both fulfilled and frustrated, as all expectations always desire.
This then was the job of the guides: to meet these expectations for a very specific subset of the population, while still giving them enough room to observe how ‘interesting’ and ‘quaint’ the places that they were encountering were, while still keeping them in the sphere of the ‘familial’ so as not to be actually shocking. It’s curious to think what a lot of these places would have been if they had been uncontaminated, incidentally Levi-Strauss has something to say about this in ‘Myth and Meaning’ where he posits that because of the world tendency in his time, the 70’s, to have cultural intercommunication, there can occur a standardization of thought which can become very detrimental to the development of new ideas, in that they’re not allowed to grow the way they normally would. They emerge straight into a context into which they are absorbed.
The American is restive; this according to Agee. But this restiveness is not tied to a necessity of any kind. It’s simply an urge to move, present in even the most docile creature. But for Agee this is fundamentally American trait, not only not tied to exterior conditions of wealth etc., but not even to a desire for adventure, more than anything it’s a desire to move.
This is something that I personally find fascinating of American culture and for this blog post I will allow myself to digress a bit into the American mythology of the existential driver, the car and the road, specifically in film. Agee himself brings up these issues before discussing more economic aspects of on the road travelling. He mentions the arterial constructs of highways in America and the whole created by the interaction of “this American continent; this American people; the automobile; the Great American Road, and– the Great American Roadside”. The connection of all these different topoi form a cultural whole that has time and time again been a part of the American imagination. To an outsider the narrative of the American on the road, moving for the sake of moving has a mythical quality to it.
A crystalized example of this comes from Sarafian’s 1971 movie ‘Vanishing Point’, from which the picture is taken. What is the movie about? The simple act of motion in a car through the American Roadside. The main characters are three, and they are essentially identical to the components identified by Agee: the driver, the car and the roadside. The movie has a much more existential quality to it than Agee’s seeming conception. In the movie, why does the driver drive? Because it’s the only thing he can do, emerging more out of the sphere of the noir film than anything else. This is only one declination of the ‘restiveness’ Agee talks about, one way to understand it.
Another declination of ‘restiveness’ in movies is the 1969 cult movie ‘Easy Rider’. Here the ‘restiveness’ is understood as a desire to be on the road and reach New Orleans, in the process seeing all kinds of aspects of America. But this outward search is really (as always) an inward search for the main characters.
Yet in both movies they to some extent oppose the second view presented by Agee, which is of the comfort provided by the cabin and motels along the way. These movies are dealing with the 60’s in which the backlash toward consumer culture might have been at it’s peak, but it’s interesting how for Agee the restive driver and the motel create a kind of unit. The latter emerging out of the necessity of the first. And beyond a necessity, this restiveness was then identified as the possibility for economic gain throughout America. In one case the restiveness can be interpreted as an attempt to escape the consumer world, and in the other the restiveness precisely gives rise to one aspect of the consumer culture, the consumer on the road, the ‘restive’ consumer, which in the 60’s might have been a paradox, but not for Agee.
The ending to the disaster movie that is Lemuel Pitkin’s life is ironically fitting. In the end his story is paraded by Mr. Whipple as the prime example of the right of every American boy to go into the world and make his way. The ultimate irony lies in the fact that in the same way that Lem could never control the events around and was always subject to them, always just along for the ride, in the same way even his death is a mistreatment. His story is once again warped, outside of his control and elevated or lowered to some sense of purpose.
The desire ‘to make a story’ can’t be stopped and neither West nor Mr. Whipple shy away from this. Mr. Whipple punctuates and dictates the rhythm of narration, providing almost a quasi skeleton on which Lem’s story can fall and rest upon. But even more than this he keeps tantalizing and encouraging Lem with classical ‘American’ narratives that he should pursue. The impetus he gives Lem is not just one of ‘making money’. It’s that Lem will come to embody the narrative of success. It’s never just about the money. It’s about this wider fulfillment in which Lem could then rest.
And yet he never fulfills this narrative. At times it seems that he could but all the narrative does is take him apart, literally one piece at a time. The interesting inversion that occurs at the end is that precisely this absence of fulfillment becomes the new narrative. Lem has fulfilled the anti-narrative of the narrative that was expected of him. This failure becomes his success.
The world that West creates sets up this situation. It is no sense a real world. It’s unclear whether we are getting a world filtered through Lem’s innocent eyes, or through West’s conniving narrator; probably a mixture of both. It is a world punctuated and saturated with West’s irony driven propaganda. Mr. Whipple and the small number of other recurring characters create a system and rhythm in which Lem is completely trapped. There is nearly no way in which he could fulfill the demands of the elaborate structure set up around him, and indeed he continuously fails.
West’s narrative demands a character who can’t cope, who has no will of his own, which is exactly what emerges. But in driving home this propaganda point, West perhaps misses the strongest tool in the toolbox for convincing an audience member of his position, namely of not just giving us a toy main character. Because Lem, as well as every other person in the story is a flat, zero-dimensional puppet orchestrated by West in his make-believe ‘America’ comprised of ten people, constructed to teach the reader a lesson about the reality of the American condition.
With regards to the questions raised in class about whether something is art or propaganda or both, this book is propaganda. For what? It’s unclear, but the book hits one note over and over again, without any real distinction. If I can read ten pages of a book and the rest of the book is a just a repetition of those ten pages then the writer has failed, because why should I as a reader keep going?
The Grapes of Wrath is a story occurring on two planes. The first is the plane of the actual narration, of the Joads and their journey. The other is a more abstract plane, devoid of characters, in which Steinbeck freely explores the landscape, stories and world that all add to the actual story being narrated, but also stand above the story, in a different space. Here Steinbeck can explore and provide metaphorical commentary on the events of the story, adding a dimension of self-reflection to it.
One of these instances is in chapter 23, which on the surface seems to simply be about seeking pleasure in a migrant camp, but the little anecdotes being described are actually a commentary of the text not only on itself, but on the reader as well.
The first is the story of the execution of the ‘Injun’ by the crowd of people. They unwillingly execute him, but after they realize they’ve spoiled something in themselves that they can’t get back and that the ‘Injun’ then “looked big–as God” (326). There is an elevation that occurs through suffering, where oppressor loses something in themselves, is lowered, and the oppressed is heightened, endowed with martyr-like and divine qualities. This is what happens in The Grapes of Wrath as a whole. The Joads and other migrants are oppressed, mistreated from most sides, but in the logic of the text they emerge as the moral victors.
The second episode narrated is one migrant recounting the story of a movie he has just seen. In it, a rich man and woman pose as poor people because “they’re tired of being rich”. They get put in jail because they attended “some kind a radical meetin’” by mistake. They reveal themselves to actually be rich, get released, marry, and all the people that mistreated them nearly faint seeing them now. There is a lot going on here in terms of layers of allusions. It can be read as the middle class fantasy of exploring being poor. There is also the notion of ‘poor’ and ‘rich’ as fundamental attributes of identity, which shift people’s perspectives completely. There is the strange inception of a rich reader reading about a poor man going to watch two rich people pretend to be poor. One immediate conclusion being that the reader is in fact the two rich people in the movie immersing themselves with the poor, with the fundamental knowledge that they can get out of it at any moment.
One further reflection is on the drunk man under the night sky. He is drunk, and yet in his reflections have a poetically uplifting quality, in which the life of the migrant, which is one only of struggle and suffering, is given a moment of catharsis. The sky comes close; the drunk joins the “brotherhood of the worlds”; and in the way the Injun becomes God, at this moment he becomes holy, but not through the suffering of another being, or by being oppressed; this is a moment of pure uplifting. But this uplifting is not a moment of direct happiness or pleasure. The drunk ponders “And the stars down so close, and sadness and pleasure so close together”. Whatever the world of the Joads may be, Steinbeck creates metaphysical pockets from which to observe the wider world and reader.
The Grapes of Wrath is about disintegration. This happens on many levels. It happens on the level of the family, which bleeds members over the course of the journey; it happens on the physical level of the spaces and houses the families leave behind, which decay over time and it happens on the plane of the relationships between, not only people, but people and their surroundings, their land.
We see this in chapter 11, where the alienation between the new workers sent in and the land is exemplified. They drive their tractors, which give only a momentary sense of life. Once their duty is done they go away from the soil and land they are supposed to be cultivating. This is in direct contrast to the work depicted by the horse, which is a continually living being, even after the pure function of working the land has been carried out. In a similar way for the people who would live and work on the same land, there was an interdependence and continuity between themselves and the land, which was then broken.
But this sense of disintegration is contrasted in a particular way by the communities that form among the migrants as they’re making their way west. In the evening, after having been on the road for the whole day, the travelling families would search for a place to sleep. In doing so they would gather into communities. These would only exist in that time and place for one night, the next one everyone moving on and perhaps meeting again. But these communities, despite their very brief existence, developed over time very strict sets of rules that were to be observed by everyone settling into it. But these unwritten, though very clear, rules would develop and be understood by a family only over time.
These gatherings would be space in which the migrants would come together, recognize each other, feel empathy for each other, and in general would be moments of creation, not of disintegration. Though these weren’t spaces were the grief could be escaped, but they were places where the grief was shared and understood. Familial units would unload the burdens of their own individual journey into a shared collective. But as much as these communities were organized and had structure, they would only last the night. They were shared, agreed-upon spaces of solidarity, but a solidarity that could not endure into the day and the real conditions with which all these families were built. Yes, these communities would form, but they would collapse back into the fundamental unit, which itself was degrading over time: the family.
James Agee is the main character of his own writing. Not only of his own, but of other people’s as well. But this is not a comment on narcissism or egocentrism. It is a comment on the very peculiar and unique perspective that Agee decides to have with respect to the people he is living with and watching. It is in stark contrast with most of the readings done until now. It is diametrically opposed to the ‘objectivity’ and implied claim to truth of much of the first week’s readings and it doesn’t try to become one of the people it is describing. Agee decides and remains completely rooted in his own subjectivity to describe the lives of the three families he engages with. But the story is about the families and his filter of them.
The emphasis is heavily placed on the importance and recognition of the filters that stand between the observer and the plane of what is actually happening. This is clear even in the way the text Let Us Now Praise Famous Men. There a number of introductions and prefaces, each creating a new layer of removal and indirection, creating more and more barriers to the actual event. Both Agee and Evans are struggling with the fundamental question: how are we going to tell this story? Not even that: how are we going to tell of the lives of these people after we have lived with them for some time and seen them not as passing objects and impressions that we can abstract away from, but as human beings we have come into direct contact with? And won’t our intention of depicting these people in a real way be impeded with by notions of representation and ‘Art’?
Neither Agee nor Evans provide clear answers to these questions and instead decide to put down and make evident their whole process of deliberation. They display all their doubt and fears about their own role and perspective and how these will affect what is being told. But there is a double mechanism at work here. They emphasize all the lenses and perspectives through which they will be telling the stories. Pointing to all the places where subjective interpretation will come in. But the focus remains on the actuality on the reality that they are dealing with and wish to represent. But they not only wish to depict, but also to draw in and create an active participation into what is happening. They want the reader to be aware of all the lenses to then allow the reader to actively invert the mechanism and be able to arrive at the actuality of the condition they are describing.
But what’s interesting is that Agee then proceeds (not in all sections of the book, but in many) to use his most subjective and poetic tone in the depiction of these people’s lives. This is not a description of their lives. It is his feelings and thoughts about these people, who to him are first and foremost real. The underlying operating basis for Agee is that if he is going to describe these people in the realest way possible, it will be in the way that they were real to him, in his perception, which is exactly what we get. The truth and reality of their situation lies in his own uncertainty in being able to depict it.
“By the time you statisticians know the numbers, what I’m trying to tell you in advance will be history, and you’ll be too late” (American Exodus, 136). American Exodus deals extensively and explicitly with the problem of subjective reporting. What is the role of the reporter? To describe what they are witnessing ‘objectively’? Or to attempt to be ‘objective’? This is the issue raised by the statisticians who would want Lange and Taylor to adopt some more structured way of collecting information. But this is rejected completely. They argue that what they’re doing is not a retroactive study and building of history and the past, but that they have a direct presence in moment. There is a distinct sense of immediacy and urgency that they are describing. Though in the introduction Taylor claims that they were simply observing the people in those moments and none of their naturalness was taken away, which is very debatable, his discussion on the future and history gives a different understanding. He is precisely rejecting history, but in the process of taking these pictures and fixating these moments he and she are generating history. They are the ones creating a known history; an understanding of a condition that will extend to people existing beyond the scope of that singular condition and for whom then that condition will begin to signify a state of things somewhere else. They both raise awareness, with that sense of immediacy and urgency and simultaneously, by necessity, generate history.
Part of this concern is to not be interested in averages, but rather though this is not stated, with individual conditions, which in some sense are always irreconcilable with averages. This rings true in general, but especially at this moment, where from many readings it’s clear that there isn’t any singular experience which will be indicative of or revelatory of wider conditions. There is always an average but the question becomes about the breadth of the spectrum that is being used for that average.
The way then that information is presented becomes a tricky matter for Lange and Taylor. A very curious example is on page 135, where Lange recounts snippets of conversation overheard. These create an undifferentiated mass of thoughts, which reflect the sensation of immediacy. They are inarticulate in the sense of not being bound and not presented with the entire surrounding context, which especially to a statistician would be crucial. This removal has the effect of give a sense of, not timelessness, but that all these moments are happening at that moment; that those voices are talking at that moment. It is precisely a rejection of history. There is no surrounding voice, or explanation but only the presence of these words, even divorced from their original speakers. The curious effect is that they then seem to be spoken, by the same person, or an undifferentiated mass.
Woody, like so many others we’ve read so far, travels across America, but why? Yes, like so many others he starts from his hometown, making his way West, looking for a job, but, though this might seem unfair and isn’t even a completely articulated thought, there is a sense in which his travelling is not simply dictated by a material condition.
In the first readings the East Coast journalists were venturing West to find ‘America’, ‘reality’, all terms that an outsider would attempt to use. The more recent readings focus on inside perspectives on all this moving around. Whereas before it seemed the journalists were the ones moving, observing, now it is the ‘stiffs’ and homeless who embark on a similar venture, though seemingly for different reasons.
What complicates the previous notion of simply looking for work, is the perspective with which Woody observes the world and environment around him as he makes his way West. More than simply searching for food or a job, it seems he’s enjoying his position as an observer and in certain cases this almost goes as far as experimenting with certain situations. One such example is when he’s in the divided town of Tuscan, where’s he warned not to go to the rich people, since they won’t even pay attention to him and this might only get him in trouble. He’s told this, he clearly understands and yet he still decides to go to the rich part first.
What really makes this complication of Woody’s condition clear is if it is compared to Kromer’s stiff in Waiting for Nothing. In Waiting, Tom’s perspective always shapes the world around him in such a way that it almost always seems to an extension and projection of his own condition. His own state of homelessness and hunger generates a world that is bleak, cramped, that requires him sacrificing himself, that requires his suffering.
The world presented by Woody is very different. While not directly hospitable and welcoming, it nonetheless remains a beautiful world, in which he manages to make his way. There are numerous descriptions of Woody observing the beauty of the houses, of the landscape of his interaction with people. The moments of his ride on the train are filled with a sense of comradery, of unity with others. His unwinding on the top of the train carries with it a distinct sense of freedom. What he’s enjoying is the motion. He and his friend Wheeler, who has already been back and forth country seemingly a number of times, don’t discuss the actual condition of trying to get a job. It seems they are more taken with the mere act of motion, and of reaching a goal, without considering the reality of that goal. Woody arrives in Los Angeles and leaves very quickly thereafter.
The key difference with Waiting for Nothing is the tone that the whole piece has. In Waiting for Nothing there is mainly isolation and bleakness, no real sense of place, only of alienation, whereas in Woody’s story there is a very recurrent feeling of friendship and understanding. This is reflected upon distinctly in the final section of the chapter when an old man speaks after having listened to all the young people, “And people has just got to have more faith in one another, believe in each other. There’s a spirit of some kind we’ve all got. That’s got to draw us all together” (230). Woody’s world is one of possibility.
Waiting for Nothing doesn’t present a classical narrative structure or a classical main character. This is because it becomes quickly clear that what is being presented is not a classical story. It reminds me almost more of an art installation composed of different parts with recurring themes always shot from the same perspective. The only main difference is that in this kind of installation you could choose in which order to discover the story, and while Waiting for Nothing is composed of various disconnected episodes that only refer to each other minimally, there is still a sense in which the actual order is unimportant in a similar way as the installation. This is not only because these single events are unrelated, but also because they seemed to have happened a thousand times over to the main character, always before and after others, to the point where the order has become irrelevant. What this achieves is a very particular sense of time, very unlike normal narratives or even daily life. The events of the story seem to be happening at the same time. They are all different, and yet they are all part of state of being in which the main character is trapped. There is no sense of progression anywhere. The main character, no matter what the final events of the previous story, is always in the same basic state at the beginning of each new one: a hungry stiff.
The structure then complements perfectly the main character, Tom and our perception of him. By having the story be so discontinuous and simultaneous, we also get a main character that shares the same features. We do hear and feel all his thoughts and emotions, but there is a certain unshakable anonymous quality to both. They could stand in for anyone else. It’s somewhat reminiscent of existentialist writers, by embedding this anonymous quality into its main character. Tom is a stiff, but the main character of the story is not Tom, it’s the stiff and the other stiffs he meets. Tom shares his thoughts, but he never shares his past. In one of the final sections of the book when Tom and others are sitting around the fire in a moment of reflection Tom says, “We have to talk. That is the only way we can get our thoughts out of our minds” (119). But Tom never talks. Others do. Others tell of their past, of what they’ve searched out from their past. But Tom never does. In an odd way he exists almost outside of time. There is only one brief instant where he reflects on his past, but only to realize that is seems too far away, almost part of a different life or mode of time altogether, to which he fundamentally doesn’t belong to anymore. Another stiff has a similar reflection when after being in jail for 15 years he gets out goes to visit his hometown, sees his mother’s grave and leaves. The world that existed for him before doesn’t anymore, both in terms of the place not being the same for him, as well as the disconnect in time. This shows the second part of the state of the stiffs; they exist beyond space as well. They are always moving through space, jumping on trains, observing people who belong, whereas they are always external. The only place they belong to is missions, and these present them with a stark sense of their alienation and isolation that they immediately get out. Stiffs then exist outside time and space, in a continuous state of alienation and anonymity.
Hickok begins by describing how for her, as well as for other writers, the people on relief during the Great Depression, were “not really people ate all. They had no faces” (ix). The beginning point of departure for the writer embarking on the journey through America was one of complete disconnect. She then remarks that “they emerged- individuals. People, with voices, faces, eyes” (x). From an undefined state they become real people, present to her. But while this may seem to accompanied by a purely positive note of recognition, of bridging a disconnect, the dynamic between the one seeking out and recognizing and the one being sought and recognized is more complex.
In the other two texts, by Adamic and Gilfillan, we find two inverse processes of recognition and acceptance. In Adamic the interaction between himself and the woman is a discovery of empathy for the other person. But while the development of the sympathy between the two is gradual, the revelation on her part occurs in bursts, which she can’t suppress and to which she seemingly succumbs by constantly falling asleep. As Adamic himself notes, she would talk “as though there were in her an hysterical necessity to talk, almost as if to reassure herself that she could talk and there was someone to listen to her” (500). The process of disclosure of herself is tied to the need for recognition, almost as if her own very existence depended on it. But while she is almost torrential in her outpouring, she constantly checks that she is in fact revealing herself to someone that will have empathy for her and understand her situation. She constantly repeats, “I bet you think I’m bad”, always seemingly testing him, to see whether he will in fact be able to empathize with her, and every time he passes a test she reveals more and more. She is allowing him to recognize, but due to her own pride despite her situation she keeps testing him, not allowing herself to be too bare to someone who won’t understand her condition. But this is complicated by her own constant projection onto Wallis Simpson, with whom she identifies, by swapping names and by stating that the only difference in their positions is due to fortune.
In the Gilfillan text a very different dynamic of recognition is presented. She is an outsider, who – in the beginning of the text – has, to the extent that she can, been accepted by the community of miners. But the community, despite its acceptance towards her, when it comes to real political positions cannot allow her to be a part of them, however much she may try. It almost seems like they’ve been indulging her, allowing her to mingle with them, to play tough like them, with the full knowledge that for her this is a condition she will exit quickly, and to which is not bound. There’s an interesting contrast between the Gilfillan and Adamic text regarding this point. Gilfillan’s character attempts to immerse herself as much as she can with the people, by going into the mines, going drinking, attending meetings, but while this might seem, and perhaps to her even is a way to bridge the distance, the miners and Shirley sense a fundamental untruthfulness on her part. At the same time she tries to hide her identity as a writer. But all this doesn’t work for her. Adamic on the other hand is very open about his own intentions of using the girl’s story, which to a person suffering might on the surface seem like a way of taking advantage their own position. Furthermore he doesn’t make any real attempts to pry anything out of the girl, replying in pleasant, but not all to involved tones. There is no condescension on his part to her, which is what she is constantly testing when she asks him if she’s bad, when she wants him to repeat that she did not ask him to buy her meals, or give her money, etc. There are the tests he passes.
The writers deciding to go out ‘into America’ wanted to not only discover and display the Great Depression as a social, cultural, economic event, but through it they desired to find something else: the spirit of America. Sherwood, Asch, Caldwell and Rorty all set out with this objective of discovering that underlying spirit. Something about the Great Depression as a moment triggered in them a sense of possible revelation of what America is, even before they had actually gone out and explored the country. Besides the obvious fact that they were going out with the expectation of finding something, what made them think that this was the moment to look for it, or that it was even there? This is an impossible question to answer completely, but Sherwood gives a partial answer from personal experience, when he says, “I have always, when broke, been more alive to others, more aware of others”. Expanding this logic to ‘America’, in this moment of crisis individuals recognized that many others around them were experiencing the same condition of poverty and misfortune.
This sentiment is not to be immediately mistaken as one of solidarity and fraternity, but rather as a shared condition, in which individuals are brought to reflect not only on their single lives, but on the lives of all the other people in their own position. In trying to understand how the current condition came about, individuals search for causes, starting at a small scale and since no direct cause can be found, this search expands from the microscopic situation of individuals, to the macroscopic scale, ultimately reaching America.
The writers going out are dealing with this issue and tension: how are they to represent this wide sentiment that seems to transcend individual cases, putting to question the macroscopic notion of what is America, when that sentiment originates from individuals whose direct, individual suffering cannot be simply quantified and summed up with all the others to try and achieve a macroscopic understanding of America. They are constantly confronted with single people, with a variety of backstories and experiences, through which they are tasked to expand to a consciousness of America.
All the above writers use a similar approach. They understand that they can’t simply discuss overarching notions of America, but all decide to explore ‘America’, through stories on the small scale of individuals, with the ‘realist’ objective of letting these stories talk for themselves. In the stories themselves (not the introductions) they avoid almost any kind of wider observation, in favor of descriptions of what they saw here and there. These descriptions have a kind of ambient empty sensation about them, seeming to be mere direct observation, but they are not empty. There is an underlying drive of looking for something. The writers present empty scenes, which precisely because they seem to be empty drive the reader and writer to look for something in them. The writers seem to be saying, “Look at this empty scene, these mere observations, descriptions of people and conversations, which seem meaningless taken singularly. But look through and past them, and you will see America”. But what ‘America’ is escapes the writers. They seem to have a notion of it in their introductions, but through their journey they are constantly being confronted with wider and wider understandings, with the sheer scale of America, which ultimately seems to overwhelm their capacity for comprehension, forcing them to give small descriptions. And yet all these small scenes contribute, each infinitesimally, to this wider notion. And the writers feel this, though they can’t reach this final, all-encompassing understanding.