The Power of Steinbeck's Fiction

The Power of Steinbeck’s Fiction

In his novel, The Grapes of Wrath, John Steinbeck provides a literary interpretation of the struggles people faced and their fight for survival on the road. Basic survival needs when traveling seldom occur to the common traveller today; 80 years ago, especially during the Great Depression, basic survival (apart from hope for a better life) was the entirety of any traveller’s focus. The Dust Bowl and the mass exodus from the plains states (namely, Oklahoma) to California created a deadly procession of thousands of people with hopes, dreams, and little means to survive. Steinbeck channels this tragic historical time period into a smaller-scale situation for the reader to experience on a personal level.
In the first nine chapters of the book, before the Joad family sets off for their Western destination, Steinbeck describes how they had been financially unstable for a significant amount of time. Their farm was facing foreclosure, and they had to burn many of their belongings after fitting what they could into their one car. Already, Steinbeck creates a broad foreshadowing of the Joad family struggling to survive on their long journey, as they had several people to travel with, one car, and very few resources.

Aside from lack of money and possessions, the Joad family faces physical poverty as well and their health is constantly threatened. During the mass exodus of the Dust Bowl and The Depression, people would run out of gas, stop on the side of the road, and essentially build shantytowns until they could gather up the resources to continue moving. So many people living in such close quarters in non-hygienic environments caused death and illness. Specifically, Grandpa Joad is elderly. Rose of Sharon is pregnant. The reader is automatically set up to infer that with few resources and a lengthy crossing of the plains through the Dust Bowl, the Joads will have trouble maintaining the necessary physical conditions to travel, let alone survive. There was no access to roadside medical attention, emergency ambulance calls, or freeway exits leading directly to hospitals. Travellers either had the skills and medicine on their person, or they were out of luck. As implied early on by Steinbeck, Grandpa Joad later dies of a stroke, and Rose of Sharon’s baby is stillborn. These are two very personal, realistic literary interpretations of how health was such a detriment to travelers during the Great Depression.
Other obvious factors that made traveling and basic survival so difficult were food, water, and gasoline. In turn, since these basic needs were scarce, as was any way to afford them, travellers often became beggars. The Joads experienced hostility and skepticism from gas station attendants, café owners, and any other business owners along the road. Their only option was to either own the food they needed, or to ask for it from the few-and-far-between establishments. The gas station attendant in chapter 13 presumed the Joads were “Vagrants,” even before seeing that they actually did have some cash to obtain what they needed and provide for themselves. This culture of distrust and fear of the traveller is evident in many instances in the book. People turned on each other much more quickly with a, “Us or them,” mentality which only added to the hardships faced by everyone.

Almost immediately in the story, and throughout their journey, the Joads are exposed to the obstacles that represent the great migration as a whole. Steinbeck’s account of the Joad family provides a close-up on the larger picture. The theme of “basic survival on the road” is not a unique, original idea of Steinbeck’s. He merely provides a specific, contextualized experience for the reader to be able to relate to and learn from.

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West's "A Cool Million"

West’s “A Cool Million”

Nathanael West’s book A Cool Million is a parody of America as a land of opportunity, even in the face of the Great Depression. The book is as interesting because of its form as it is because of the time and place it was published. West’s heavy use of irony is very easily explainable by what was happening in America at the time. He would have found many readers who related with the overall message of the book because of the inherent irony of world events during the 30’s. A country that in the previous decade had been a rising and booming economy with so much opulence and wealth now had one-third unemployment in the blink of an eye. West also chooses to use an involved and inconspicuous narrator. It allows him to point out all of the irony and misfortune that befalls Lem with a type of tongue-in-cheek and “twinkle in the old man’s eye” sort of delivery. This literary device is reasonably effective, but does come across as preach-y sometimes. The combination of all of these elements makes the book very clearly satire. He could have been subtler, but this isn’t really the goal of this kind of book.

West is not a bystander on the events he sees. He is extremely critical of the political stance held by the wealthy during the depression. Characters such as the early Mr. Whipple and many people he meets embody the ideas of, “the land of opportunity,” “pull yourself up by your bootstraps,” “they’re on welfare because they’re lazy,” and “the communists/Jews caused the downturn and are un-American.” Mr. Whipple himself embodies some of these stances early in the book. He says at various times throughout the first half of the book that, “America… is the land of opportunity. She takes care of the honest and industrious and never fails them as long as they are both. This is not a matter of opinion, it is one of faith. On the day that Americans stop believing it, on that day will America be lost.” (7) He also says that, “America is still a young country… and like all young countries, it is rough and unsettled. Here a man is a millionaire one day and a pauper the next, but no one thinks the worse of him. The wheel will turn, for that is the nature of wheels. Don’t believe the fools who tell you that the poor man hasn’t got a chance to get rich any more because the country is full of chain stores. Office boys still marry their employers’ daughters. Shipping clerks are still becoming presidents of railroads. Why, only the other day, I read where an elevator operator won a hundred thousand dollars in a sweepstake and was made a partner in a brokerage house. Despite the Communists and their vile propaganda against individualism, this is still the golden land of opportunity. Oil wells are still found in people’s back yards. There are still gold mines hidden away in our mountain fastnesses.” (28) He is, as far as the book and Lem are concerned, the biggest perpetrator of the Myth of America, a myth that gets Lem repeatedly beaten down and taken advantage of.

While clear in its intent and at certain points funny, sad and discouraging (when Lem and Betty meet and ask each other for money on page 61), I would argue that the book overall, by nature of the kind of work it is, only has a small appeal to the general reading populace. It would certainly have found its admirers amongst the disenfranchised intellectuals of the day, but I feel that works that more accurately and less ironically depicted hardships of the depression, such as Nelson Algren’s Somebody in Boots, would have found wider appeal and incited more sympathy and action amongst readership.

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Gross and the WPA Guide Series

Gross and the WPA Guide Series

In his article, “The American Guide Series: Patriotism as Brand-Name Identification,” Andrew S Gross is critical of, as the title suggests, the WPA Guide series and all of the ways he says they manipulated tourists, culture and economic activity.

Some of Gross’ main assertions, as stated in the abstract, are that: “[the Guide Series] 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.” (1) He gets these points from three points he states later in the article, three points which I believe more accurately represent the intent of the American Guide Series. These statements about the Series are that: “1) by mapping trajectories of consumption (tour routes) according to a progressive political narrative, thus suggesting that government could manage the economy where business failed; 2) by reproducing the region… as a tourist attraction or locus of consumption; and 3) by fashioning the citizen as a tourist or consumer and not simply as a member of a local community.” (2) I feel that these three bullets are much closer to being an objective representation of the WPA’s mission by publishing the Guide books, although the wording is still Gross-ly negative.

The reasons I disagree with Gross, with reference to the first three points I listed, the ones from the abstract, are numerous. Gross’ first point, that the Guides transform culture into tourist attractions is misleading. I don’t think that the Guides sought to transform culture into an attraction because seeing and experiencing other cultures is inherently interesting and worth traveling to see. Perhaps I am coming at this issue from a different angle, but to me, that is the whole point of tourism – to expose yourself to other ways of life, other customs, to eat different food, listen to different music and try to understand that culture (because to truly “know” another culture as a local is impossible. You’ll always be a tourist, an outsider). I believe the guides are pointing to other cultures within America, making people aware of them and directing tourist traffic if the desire is there, not turning culture into an attraction or directing people toward certain “spectacles.” There wasn’t any malicious intent to misrepresent various cultures. It wasn’t like the WPA brought “natives” into a giant zoo to be ogled at and it wasn’t like there was reference to “savages” or use of other derogatory terms. From what I’ve seen the Guides seem to be relatively progressive and socially balanced for their time.

I also disagree with the second point that tourism was used as a new symbol of national identity. Tourism is more the tool to understand America and therefore strengthen national and state identity, not replace it with a tourist identity. Being American is being American, not being a tourist is being American. Even if American identity at the time revolved partially around tourism and tour culture, that isn’t really a creation of the WPA or the Guide Series, it was more the environment in which they operated. The auto industry had long advocated touring and driving as Gross himself cites in his article with Horatio Nelson Jackson’s “From Ocean to Ocean in a Winton.” (1903) This travel, tour-from book came 34 years before the guides and advocated travel so as to sell cars. National identity was already centered, in part, around cars and things to do and consume with and in them.

The third point, that the identity of a tourist was patriotic and a form of brand advocacy or recognition, is a tricky one. As with the last point, I don’t believe that the Guide Series was advocating travel as a patriotic duty or action, more just as something that many people already did, so why not give them a uniform way to assess where they want to go and what they want to do. It seems like Gross thinks that an American organization advocating for travel in America so as to stimulate the American economy is a bad thing. I don’t see the problem.

Finally, there are two other small reasons I disagree with Gross and his critique of the WPA and the Guide Series. First, he is critical of the standardized and centralized bureaucracy that produced the guides. He argues that the bureaucracy would misrepresent the states, represent them poorly, or merely standardized everything so as to create culture and make the states knowable and controllable to outsiders. I find this to be an extremely cynical view of the government overall and the Guide Series. The Iowa guide, published in 1938, refutes these assertions. I know that citing the government-produced document isn’t going to be anti-government or anti-New Deal, but I still do think it is important to pay attention to. The preface to the Iowa guide states that, “ Soon, from one border to the other, the book-in-the-making came to be regarded as a state enterprise, a job to be done with patriotic devotion.” Iowans provided the WPA with the information about their state they were proud of, what they wanted others to visit and interpret as Iowan. Also, standardization, as far as form and general content of the books was concerned, could only be beneficial for the reader, tourist or “consumer,” however you want to think of them. I believe that this was more influential in the standardization of the books than some attempt to coerce and subjugate each state under federal, white-man power. Second, Gross is critical of advocating “consuming.” The term comes up throughout the essay with a negative slant; that the production of the Guides so as to foster consumption was their and the WPA’s real “evil.” To me, this is the most frustrating insinuation that Gross makes. The way to get out of economic downturn is spending money, injecting cash into the economy and forcing a return of confidence to businesses and individuals. Those critical of the New Deal and its subsidiary projects such as the Guide Series, often argue that it wasn’t this injection of cash that helped the economy recover, World War II was the real reason for economic improvement. Their point is logical up until the reason why is examined. The government started spending and receiving (mainly from Britain) massive amounts of money with the outbreak of war. If it wasn’t the New Deal, then it was WWII, but both essentially were the same thing as far as the economy was concerned.

I want to end in saying that if there was something I misunderstood about the article, leading to my vehement disagreement with Gross and his writing, it is because the writing is bad. His diction is impenetrable and arduous to read. There is a difference in writing academically and writing in a pretentiously, overly intellectual manner. The Iowa installment of the Guide Series was a pleasure to read comparatively.

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Easy Living (1937)

Easy Living (1937)

For my final post I decided to watch the 1937 movie Easy Living. I chose this movie because of the excellent song by Billie Holliday with the same name, and the extreme irony inherent in the title. Given the widespread unemployment and hardship across America at the time, many people were not living easily at all.

The movie is a screwball comedy about how Mary Smith gets tangled up in the affairs of the rich and powerful Ball family. Mr. Ball, angry that his wife spent $58,000 on a fur coat, throws it off the roof of their apartment building hitting Mary in the street below. When she tries to return the coat Mr. Ball tells her to keep it and buys her a hat to match – he’s nice because he has the money to be. Many people start to think Mary is Mr. Ball’s mistress leading to wild interest in her from everyone from sales clerks to Wall Street stockbrokers. One such stockbroker, thinking that she’ll be able to get an inside scoop from Mr. Ball, asks her what will happen with steel on the market. She goes back into her hotel room, furnished to her because she will supposedly be able to put in a good word for the hotel owner with Mr. Ball, and asks Ball Jr. (the two met in poverty and became friends, hanging out throughout the movie) who haphazardly and off the cuff answers that it will go down. This triggers a fire sale of steel stock, devaluing the shares and threatening to throw the whole economy into a mess, into a depression. When all of the characters of the movie find themselves in a room together, they realize what has happened and act quickly to make things right. They call up the speculative stockbroker and tell him that in fact, steel stock is going up. People immediately start buying steel stock, largely from Ball who had previously bought it all. Ball Sr. makes a lot of money, the economy is saved, Ball Jr. and Mary fall in love and marry and all is right in the world.

Though not directly about travel, I felt Easy Living was an appropriate movie to look at when regarding escape. People often traveled the country to escape hardships as much as they did to find opportunity – the two are merely opposite sides the same coin. The movies were an extremely popular form of a less literal escape. The movie appealed to poorer people in several ways. As I mentioned, it was an escape from their daily troubles. They also had a character to relate to in Mary. She is fired from her job, down on her luck and struggles to eat – she has to smash a piggy bank just to find a nickel to eat and also has to have Ball Jr. give her food for free when they meet. Yet, despite her struggles her apartment is nicely furnished, she is a pretty woman and if it weren’t made obvious, hardly looks poor at all. Hers is a glamorized poverty. She is a much prettier poor than the reality for thousands of Americans. Her rise to wealth and glamour by the end of the movie, with people handing her thousands of dollars, imperial hotel suites, cars, etc., would have been an extremely romantic and intoxicating notion to poorer viewers. With just a little luck, everyone could strike it rich in the blink of an eye. The movie would have also appealed to a wider audience, both rich and poor. The way that the economy is fixed in the movie is so simply and whimsical that it would have provided viewers with hope that it could be that easy in real life. The movie also has a reassuring message that everything will work out in the end. It certainly does for Mary, the Ball family, and the economy, it will for you too. Finally, laughter is universal and the lightheartedness of the movie would have been a welcome reprieve from serious daily life.

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Problems in Pictures

Problems in Pictures

Both You Have Seen Their Faces by Erskine Caldwell and Margaret Bourke-White and 12 Million Black Voices by Richard Wright and Edwin Rosskam fit into the, at the time during the 1930’s, new style of photo journalism book. Both books speak mainly through the images with the text existing for clarification or specificity – the story is written in the faces of the photographed. Both also make it seem that the caption or accompanying text is spoken word from those pictured and depicted. The books, because of their basis in images, are seen to be objective depictions of the “Truth” with regard to poor sharecroppers or the plight of African Americans in the south respectively.

I find the books to be powerful in their portrayal of both issues. The institution of sharecropping is unveiled to be no better than the “plantation” (slavery) system before it, and the struggles and injustice that black people faced are laid bare. However, I do agree with Alan Trachtenberg in the forward to You Have Seen Their Faces. I agree that this sort of photo journalistic book, comes across in this day and age as a little manipulative. Even if most of the stories, in one form or another – factually, sentimentally, anecdotally – are true, it is unfair to me or any other reader that we can’t actually know what is going on in any of the pictures. We can’t go back and ask the person so we are at the mercy of the authors and photographers. I am not accusing the authors of blatant manipulation, I just believe that especially now, many years later, the books have lost a little of their value as accurate historical documentation.

I do though, think that despite these short comings in actual accuracy, the books still have a lot to offer, and in much the same way as they originally did and were intended. The books are more about depicting the unfairness of poverty, in one form or another, either in the south or with regards to African Americans, than they are the “Truth.” The reader or viewer is meant to feel sad for the mother who keeps having kids but might not be able to feed them. We are supposed to feel mad at the black man being held by a rabid group of white men, bat raised in the air or the shack that has no space for a garden because the landlord demands that cotton is grown all the way up to his door. These kinds of images are supposed to illicit a reaction in order to get the reader to do something, to think something. This isn’t like Lorena Hickok’s writing to her boss full of numbers and her personal reaction so that action can be taken. This is about the reader being disgusted in a visceral and personal way. The south is unjust. Being black isn’t fair. The Great Depression was exacerbating these issues and it needed to be known about, discussed and taken care of. Pictures books such as these two were trying to help garner that reaction leading to action. For these reasons, any discord between image and caption is acceptable. Caldwell, Bourke-White, Wright and Rosskam aren’t showing us individual cases, they are showing us problems that needed to be fixed.

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The Immediacy of Hunger, Regardless of Color

The Immediacy of Hunger, Regardless of Color

I couldn’t tell whether Somebody in Boots by Nelson Algren was autobiographical, fiction based on personal experience or fiction based on other depictions of the Great Depression. The piece was extremely powerful nonetheless because of how raw it was in its depiction of the struggles faced by those “out on the bum.” I found myself pulling my eyes away from the page and taking breaks from the reading because of how shockingly horrible parts of the story were.

This piece contrasted sharply with other works we have read, particularly Sherwood Anderson’s silver lining take on the dust bowl ridden farmers of South Dakota. Anderson is optimistic that Americans will pull through and choses to relay the farmers cagey spirit and desire to be left alone – to not be pitied. Algren on the other hand goes out of his way to make the reader’s stomach turn. From rancid meat in an oily broth that almost smells off the page, to Cass sticking his hand in shit while rummaging through a trashcan, to, and possibly the most disturbing thing we have read so far, the miscarriage of a baby in a boxcar, Algren doesn’t pull any punches (as Lorena Hickok was instructed to do). Whereas the people Anderson meets seem stoic in their suffering and Hickok’s account of the Depression is laced with numbers and her imploring of change, both Cass and the people he meets are suffering viscerally. Cass can’t stand up too quickly because he is so hungry that if he does he will get dizzy and fall over. A man he meets named Carl Jusitska was duped into coming to the US from Latvia and now misses his wife and kids, all the while fearing that she has moved on and has started sleeping with someone else. Gone is the fighting spirit of some of the miners Anderson met. What takes its place is a sense, coming from both Cass and his companion, “Matches,” that “Bummin’ takes everythin’ out of a feller, don’t it?” (344) The reader comes to feel how hungry, tired and hopeless the situation is for the poor of the early 1930’s.

Algren’s depiction of the Great Depression is also one that includes race. In our previous readings the suffering of the poor was depicted indiscriminately of race, although it was always assumed to be the suffering of poor white people. This reading shows that, just like everyone else, black people faced poverty as well but with the added obstacle of racism. I was under the impression that Cass and Matches were friends, if not because they enjoyed each other’s character or company, then because of necessity. This notion was shattered when they get arrested at the end. Cass is indignant to be thrown into the police van with Matches and reaffirms many times, his protests falling on deaf ears, that “Ah’m not no nigger.” (349) Regardless of whether or not Cass felt Matches’ arrest was just, it doesn’t appear he cares very much except for the fact that he was also taken into custody. Some of the crowd did protest that the cops were beating and arresting him, clearly aware of his struggles and taking pity on him. Nothing became of the protest though. This section of the reading got me thinking about how horrible it must have been to go through the slop, the trash wading, the boxcar riding just as your fellow man, but then to be treated with such contempt and inhumanity that was Jim Crow America. Each and every struggle would have been two fold.

With the other pieces appealing to your sense of optimism, your sense of justice, or in some cases the writer’s boss, this piece hit home because of how visceral the struggle seemed. Being optimistic and waiting for the fat of the land to turn the economy right side up wasn’t something these people could afford to do – they needed their next meal or their next bed and they needed it fast.

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How'd Hickok Do?

How’d Hickok Do?

While many other people traveled during the Great Depression to try and find a job, Lorena Hickok traveled because of work. She also didn’t travel due to self proclaimed work like the writers of the day, many of which we looked at last week. She travelled because she was commissioned by Harry Hopkins to “go out around the country and look this thing over. I don’t want statistic from you. I don’t want the social-worker angle. I just want your own reaction as an ordinary citizen. Go talk with preachers and teachers, businessmen, workers, farmers. Go talk with the unemployed, those who are on relief and those who aren’t. And when you talk with them don’t ever forget that but for the grace of God you, I, any of our friends might be in their shoes. Tell me what you see and hear. All of it. Don’t ever pull your punches.” (ix-x)

I think Hickok does a relatively good job of accomplishing her mission. She doesn’t simply focus on the negative, although there is much more of it when discussing the depression. Her inquiries and interviews, at least in the given section, range from people on relief in New York City to citrus farmers in Florida. The positive aspects she manages to hit on are all about the Miami tourism business, but even a bit of negativity manages to shine through. Though she writes about how the early months of 1933 seem like they are going to be a good tourism season, she also writes, “Why must tourists, especially tourists from New York City be so damned arrogant?” (167) Though annoying, it is surely a side note to everything else that is going on around the country.

In my opinion, her most compelling depiction of the suffering she witnesses comes in her introduction. I can’t help but feel the pain of the woman she meets in Bakersfield, California who is at the end of her wits. This poor woman tries everything she can to stand by her husband but doesn’t have enough money for movies to distract him from his failures and sex is sometimes the only way she can think of to keep him sane and happy. Because she or they can’t afford protection, they keep having kids and find themselves sinking ever deeper into a financial hole. Another reason that I find this so compelling is because it is from a woman writer focusing on a woman’s perspective to the crisis – it is an interesting and different take than the man who is depressed because he can’t afford to take care of his family.

Lorena Hickok doesn’t do a perfect job however. She was tasked with reporting events as she saw them and with her reaction to them. Hopkins didn’t want any “facts or statistics.” However, in the first letter provided in the reading, about New York City, the first couple pages are full of numbers and statistics. The whole section is about how much money is going to how many families and how much more would help how much. To her credit, her emotion does shine through as she often comes across as annoyed or exasperated with the things she is seeing and reporting on. She manages to turn the analytical into a slightly rawer and visceral account, which I hope managed to satisfy her boss. Overall I found Lorena Hickok’s reporting to be level headed and impartial. She manages to report on the crisis without sensationalizing it but also doesn’t white-wash anything or minimize it in importance.

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Tom Kromer - A Faceless Symptom of The Depression

Tom Kromer – A Faceless Symptom of The Depression

In the various readings either by or about Tom Kromer, we see a very interesting and sad transformation from individual naïve college student, to a devastated face in the crowd; merely symptoms of the Great Depression. During his days at Marshall College in 1929 he wrote the piece titled “Pity the Poor Panhandler; $2 an hour is all he gets.” The title is as condemning as his journalistic findings. He walked around and found it easy to get quite a substantial amount of money off of people on the street, particularly young men on dates who wanted to show off. His success was so forthcoming that he estimated it possible to make $5,000 a year panhandling in Huntington, West Virginia – no small sum in that day and age. Initially critical of people who would try such a “scam, ” it appears that the apparent ease of such a life style persuaded Kromer to try it out for himself and in the summer and fall of 1929 he set out to be a bum.

With Waiting for Nothing as a self-reported record of his travels, it is abundantly clear that the lifestyle of a bum is not an easy one and I’m sure one that Kromer wouldn’t wish upon anyone. By the end of the book, we have seen him hop around from mission to mission, boxcar to boxcar with nothing progressing in his life, merely his escape from the jaws of hunger and starvation on a daily basis. It is with this context that the last chapter, where the book gets its name, culminates in a sort of morbid juxtaposition from college Kromer to “stiff” Kromer.

Chapter 12 takes place in a mission with thousands of stiffs lying stacked on lice-ridden, triple-decker cots. There is a stiff near Kromer rattling loudly with every breath, his eyes bouncing around wildly in their sockets. There is another stiff who complains about the racket. Kromer, a stiff amongst many, asks the mission stiff to call an ambulance. Other stiffs rest in the doorway since they can’t get a cot but just need a place to stay regardless. Everyone is a stiff without a past or a future, merely the present. Their present is all part of the same life story, just with some of them at either more or less advanced stages of life than the rest. When one dies, a newer stiff takes their place with the dead being a forecast for the rest of them down the road. Kromer then wonders if he will die in such a way, or whether it will come in the corner of a boxcar or some other random, insignificant place in the life of a stiff on the road. None of them are individuals. They are all symptoms of the Great Depression.

Just as Kromer himself is a juxtaposition between those that have and those that don’t, between individuals and the faceless many in Great Depression America, his book indicates a departure from the standard progression of literature and more accurately resembles that of life:

“‘The main facts in human life are five,” E. M. Forster tells us: ‘birth, food, sleep, love and death.’ If one accepts his list as accurate, then one must ask how most novelists treat these immediate needs in their fiction. How does what Forster calls ‘homo fictus‘ compare to homo sapiens? Forster’s homo fictus is usually born off stage, is capable of dying on stage, needs very little food or sleep, and is ‘tirelessly occupied with human relationships’ (p. 87). Forster thinks that novelists are concerned more with love (usually sexual) and death than with birth, food, and sleep. The inversion of this traditional emphasis makes Tom Kromer’s Waiting for Nothing a singular book. In the world of Depression-era ‘skid row’ bums, there is little time for human relationships, sexual or otherwise; life on the stem is reduced to an endless daily struggle to find food and sleep, a search for ‘three hots and a flop.’ Kromer’s universe aligns itself perfectly with what Abraham Maslow calls the ‘hierarchy of human needs.’ The economic and social upheaval of the Depression traps Kromer’s characters on the lowest rung of Maslow’s ladder of self-actualization—the physiological. Their needs—air, water, food, shelter, sleep—are ‘survival needs: a concern for immediate existence; to be able to eat, breathe, live at this moment.’20 The immediacy of these bodily necessities makes Waiting for Nothing disturbing and powerful. Kromer’s book forcibly returns the typical reader to a primitive fight for existence.” (Afterword: In Search of Tom Kromer, 279)

Through his travels during the 1930’s, Kromer discovered this himself. He realized that the bum he had pretended to be in 1929 was concerned with making easy money, and the bum he was in actuality for half of a decade, was concerned with simply staying alive. It is this realization that, in lieu of any actual suggestion to fix the broken system, would have been the relevant and important take away from the book when it was published.

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From Dust to a Silver Lining

From Dust to a Silver Lining

Sherwood Anderson had the wonderful quality of being able to see the silver lining of even the darkest of hardships during his travels through 1930’s America. Whether through the mining towns and dust bowl of South Dakota or the volatile politics of the country, Anderson always seems to come to the same level headed and optimistic conclusions. Echoing the latent sentiment of most of the people he meets, he believes that, “We’ve got a chance.” (Mine 12)

Of course, Anderson couldn’t help but cover the actual sadness and suffering going on around the country at the time. In Revolution in South Dakota, he shows us the dust storms, the baked and dead ground and a decaying church – the one sanctuary supposed to answer people’s questions and fulfill their hopes and prayers. But the people are resilient. They had to be to settle the area in the first place. Anderson notes that, “In South Dakota they would have had to bring in the timber for all of the buildings, hauling it for hundreds of miles.” (Revolution 36) They were resilient in settling there, and they were resilient when the traveling writers of the period wandered through. In fact, the single thing that breaks their spirits most isn’t living through hardships but hearing others cast pity down on them for their perceived suffering, especially from back east. One farmer tells Anderson that, “On the whole… I think we’d rather you writers let us alone.” (Revolution 36)

Another example of this resilience in the face of hardship comes from Anderson’s trip to a down and out mining valley. Whilst there, he spoke with a peg-legged half miner, half preacher who was abandoned by his union and fellow miners. When they told him not to work and to go on relief he said, “To hell with relief… I don’t want no man’s relief. A man’s a man.” (Mine 14) This sort of steadfastness and determination that Anderson observed in Midwesterners was contagious and led him to believe that through it all, “there is an air of cheerfulness … they didn’t seem too much discouraged. I could have seen many sadder-looking more beaten men in any industrial town of the east.” (Revolution 34)

During his travels through the Dakotas, Anderson also hears talk of specific revolution in South Dakota, one man’s desire to form a new political party and the more general presence of communism during the “red decade.” Perhaps the farmer’s wish for writers to mind their own business should have been better heeded. The immanent revolution of South Dakota had exactly one attendant – there wasn’t much critical mass there – and accordingly, never got off the ground and was never even newsworthy. As for the threat of communism, Anderson believes this to be overblown in a very similar way and again pulls out a silver lining. Through interviewing people about whether communism would become a serious threat to the political status quo in America he hears that people “would not expect [Roosevelt] to come through to perfection. If he would but lead us along the road far enough so that we know that our feet are upon the road – that at least we are going somewhere,” (Mine 11) then everything would be all right. This kind of tempered response is what Anderson wants to show the American people (and actually a mirroring of his natural constitution as well). Through all the doom and gloom, America is a rich land with stable and resilient people. “We’ve got a chance.”

 

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