I have always been profoundly interested in space. Particularly, empty spaces, empty rooms, empty landscapes. What makes space place? What energies, gone, still linger? What layers are there that are unseen and yet hauntingly felt? What does it mean to be in a place that is a part of space? How can there be worlds upon and within worlds, in a room, a side street, an alleyway, a corner? What might it mean for one to enter space, and to cause a modest disruption? What might it mean to travel? What pushes the boundary of disappearance? What is memory or memorialization and its precarious relation to that which is storytelling, narration, and documentation?
This course, Travel Studies, has been a journey, a trek, and a challenge to see the ways in which a landscape tethered to temporality and history, molds and shapes not only itself but the very people living and moving within and through it. The Great Depression has been a focus of a force that transcends mere comprehension, and of a time that has pushed and questioned the limits of representability and of documentation. Throughout this course, much has been touched upon and given voice to, that has its roots in what it might mean to live and survive during a time of suffering and of anxiety. Of sight, vision, perspective, experience or lack thereof, narration, documentation, storytelling and curiosity of a world and land as diverse as it is paradoxical and troubled.
America. What is America? This is the question that became more and more legible during the track of this course. Really: what is America? That is the question that lingers and troubles. This question has generated much angst and even a sense of guilt with which many writers, photographers, and artists have tried to reckon with. For those who write, who journal, who document, what sort of an account is trying to be given or made sense of: what sort of personal responsibility is at work here? Moreover, how much is all of this ultimately tied to, fundamentally, a need to live, but also, more complexly, to survive, in a land populated, and further, during a time when not only the people, but the landscape of America is felt to be troubled, fragmented, and possibly tumbling forward into erasure? Despite the passing of the era known as The Great Depression, what really has been erased? Certainly not the memory of suffering and of hardship, and of “hard times” gone by, but perhaps what has been covered over is the landscape and its people as it finally emerged out of The Great Depression.
Of the countless of stories spun and woven, and told, how were this stories also embedded within a network of others, and of institutions that sought to piece America back together in a way that ultimately highlighted the enigma of what America, its people, and its landscape were, and are? The ‘knitting back together’ of America ultimately underscored the industry and consumer culture that may have led to The Great Depression in the first place and that still persistently exists and interpellates. How did this affect and effect a counterculture of rebellion and resistance? This is something that is felt even today and that should not be ignored.
I think that this course enabled much critical thinking and personal reckoning of the means of survivability in a world that indeed does produce much suffering and misery, but at the same time a world that lends its people and their vulnerabilities at and toward a living otherwise, by questioning the very norms and institutions that govern it. How to be living within such a world in a way that allows for an interruption from within a structure that structures? How to speak in a language, in a sense, of the oppressor, and to be able to see and occupy a small space that beyond, but still within it, and see toward a living otherwise while not forgetting the self and its primary relation to the other and others? These are the question that linger on and that, I feel, this course has given further impetus toward. And for that, I am profoundly, grateful. And here, I give thanks, and also courage, for and toward a world to come, its people, and the spaces and landscapes that engender and transform.
Always, in all ways, courage; and a going towards―.
“At the door of the house who will come knocking?
An open door, we enter
A closed door, a den
The world pulse beats beyond my door”
-Pierre Albert Birot from, The Poetics of Space, Gaston Bachelard.
*Note: The title of this blog post came from the chapter name from Gaston Bachelard’s, The Poetics of Space
What is a catalogue? And, how is it capable of operating under a secret agenda at the same time displacing, and practicing, a form of exclusion that cancels out its capacity to advocate for what is or, is in danger of being, marginalized? How is the marginal subject, or place, brought to the fore of a campaign that although meant to highlight diversity, actually seeks to homogenize? Why does this tend to happen; and, typically, under what norms: whose control?
The article, “The American Guide Series: Patriotism as Brand-Name Identification” by Andrew S. Gross, seeks to highlight the marginalized and desiccated landscape of the Great Depression, and potentially, what is at stake. The essential argument is, as argued by Christine Bold, “that the New Deal ‘harnessed’ the ‘generic features’ of the travel guide […] in order to accomplish ‘particular cultural work: the guaranteeing of a united, harmoniously diverse citizenry; the demarcation of a knowable (hence controllable) space within all the changes and threats of modernity; and the demonstration of cultural maturity on the international stage’.”
What is being effaced here in the process of this ‘cultural work’ is the landscape and all that it has went through, the people, the suffering. “Local culture becomes 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). Being considered here is the performance of the American Guide Series as it is deployed with “specific representational strategies” (1).
Who “lives” in the American Guide Series? Or, what “life” is in and is being offered and portrayed in the American Guide Series? Through the Guide’s “specific representational strategies, and the way these strategies [are] mapped onto the landscape” whatever “life” there might be is “instead focused on the tensions between New Deal political factions” (1). In this way, “life” becomes propaganda, a set of dictated norms, and in this sense a “life” that is actually a life unlivable. That is, except for the ‘target’ of whom these propagandistic guides are aimed toward: the industry of tourism. Gross states, “the Guides reproduce communities as tourist attractions in order to hold them us as idealized images of the nation” (3). The ‘tourists’ are deemed or figured to be “the consummate experts. Inhabitants, on the other hand, are often depicted as ignorant or prejudiced” (5). An example of this is offered by Gross in the following extract: “Still, it must be admitted that all but a handful of Arizonians have only the most hazy knowledge of the details of their state’s history, and little inclination to learn.” This, as it turns out is also strategically oriented. The inhabitants are like the control group whose “fixed […] ‘ignorant’ attitudes […] supply color to the local scene” (6).
Said blatantly, Gross summarizes: “The WPA American Guide Series attempted to provide economic relief by rationally managing some of the inequities of the corporate space. Their primary tool is the tour form, borrowed from automotive advertising. The tour form is paradigmatic of the nostalgic structure of consumer culture, which celebrates what it destroys: the isolated or authentic location. […] Standardization, the threat to local communities, becomes the vehicle of national identity” (9). It would not be amiss to point out that this “standardization produces a number of ‘discarded’ characters or throwaways. […] The discomfort of the road becomes a metaphor for everything wrong with a society that produces so much human misery” (3). Gross speaks for a bit about Nathan Asch, who “traveled coast to coast by bus and car ‘to try to see America’” but instead offered merely “a prelude to the Guide series” (3). “The lack of social order impacts Asch’s ability to impose narrative order on his experiences. Asch’s journey does not leave him with a coherent picture of America, but with a sense of unconnected incidents and anecdotes” (4).
Instead of leaving the disconnection and fragmentation as they are, the true account of suffering and the fragmentation of memory and speech of those who have suffered or who have went through trauma–what should not have been ‘stitched together’–, is stitched; and, what results is the radical distortion of America and its landscape. The people on the road become sucked into this dream like continuity and what results is false utopia not without its psychic ‘consequences’ or implications. Gross inserts in his article an excerpt of a conversation that Asch has struck up with “an unemployed gardener hoping to get a job in Carmel, California” (3). The gardener says,
“I began to see the entire country with its maze of road, twining, entering everywhere, I saw the million automobiles, and trains, and buses and people walking the road, all trying to get somewhere … But on this imaginary road here were no traffic rules, or cops; and the highway was not paved, and the various wagons and automobiles and trains rushed one after another, pushed each other out of the way crashed into each other, and never stopped, but continue rushing onward. And one never saw the milepost ahead, one never saw the moment that was coming, but as in a mad darkness one dazedly hurried on, and crashed again, and sometimes one got on, and again one had been run over, crushed and one was not good, discarded … (140-41)” (3-4).
How might the landscape be seen again, and through the filtered imagery of a standardized suffering? How might the WPA guides, as ‘markers of the past,’ reveal to the viewer that the past is still contested and that the landscape as it is is always changing, always already exceeds a narrative that seeks to show and represent complacency? How might Agee have written about and responded to such a distortion, while taking into account both diversity and similarity, of humanity?
— [An interesting short essay about the collapse of diversity into exclusion could be of interest: http://www.cabinetmagazine.org/contributors/doca_daniel.php].
To capture by words. To capture by photography. What do these words invoke? James Agee, in his personal account, or preamble, to Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, expresses a sense of deep unease and unrest, even rage, at the apparatus of what is the camera, or more precisely, what the photograph seeks to capture, represent, tell, and most problematically, to give. Agee writes: “It seems to me curious, not to say obscene and thoroughly terrifying, that it could occur to an association of human beings drawn together through need and chance and for profit into a company, an organ of journalism, to pry intimately into the lives of an undefended and appallingly damaged group of human beings […] for the purpose of parading the nakedness, disadvantages and humiliation of these lives before another group of human beings, in the name of science, of ‘honest journalism’ […], of humanity, of social fearlessness, for money” (7).
This unease is transferred to Agee’s writing in Let Us Now Praise Famous Men in an interesting way; namely, of how he seeks, as if out of a certain shame, to give an account of the other who he and Walker are trying to represent, and to give an account for. His descriptions of the ‘subjects’ to be photographed and interviewed are as disarming as they are rich, and full of impossible detail. For instance, a snapshot of what Agee writes of a family that he and Walker encounter: “[…] and your two daughters, standing there in the crowding porch, yielding and leaning their heads profound against the pulling and entanglements, each let down their long black hair in hasted and combed and rearrayed it (but Walker made a picture of this; you didn’t know; you thought he was still testing around; there you all are, the mother as before a firing squad, the children standing like columns of an exquisite temple, their eyes straying, and behind, both girls, bent deep in the dark shadow somehow as if listening and as if in a dance, attending like harps the black flags of their hair” (364-5).
It is paradoxically obvious, here, that the photograph is not only invasive, but also that it is radically lacking in its any attempt at capturing, when it cannot give the narration itself of those who seek to represent and ‘capture’ in the first place. What then is Agee, in writing, trying to supplement or give to the ‘criminal photograph’ by writing of it unfolding in such a tumultuous way, as if he, Agee, himself were also seeking for a certain forgiveness that has and will not ever be uttered? Agee writes of Walker himself, setting up the apparatus of the camera, as “a witchcraft preparing, colder than keenest ice, and incalculably cruel” (364), and yet the photograph is taken anyway, the writing takes place anyway, what cannot be captured is captured anyway. How is Agee trying to give voice to personal anguish at the impossibility of understanding and fully relating to an other?
Is Agee trying to understand his own complicity, his own capacity of the cruelty that he so aptly describes? He writes of meeting the family who for the day are the subjects of documentary: “You had come down to see if you could get relief or relief work, but there is none for your kind, you are technically employed; and now we all stood there, having introduced ourselves, talking a little, and the eyes of people on us, and you gained a little confidence in us when I met your eyes with a comic-contemptuous stare and a sneering smile; and we drove you out home: out to your home, Ricketts, the furthest along that branch road” (362).
Of his own failure and accomplishment, Agee notes, without really giving an answer to the problematics of documentation, of the impossibility of representation, and of a perilously uncertain appropriation: “If I could do it, I’d do no writing at all here. It would be photographs; the rest would be fragments of cloth, bits of cotton, lumps of earth, records of speech, pieces of wood and iron, phials of odors, plates of food and of excrement” (13). So, in the end, what is photography most capable of doing while undoing its capacity to represent when there is a cameraman behind the production of the photograph? Who and what is writer, who and what is the photographer, who and what is the writer that writes the photograph? How does Agee interpret his role as that of one that can give voice to what is finally and ultimately silent in a typical book of pictures? Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, is an interesting attempt and document(ing) of these questions that linger and haunt, of a time, that indeed has passed, but that has not been let go of.
“Past is Prologue. […] In its time American Exodus was a pioneering effort to combine words and photographs. […] Perhaps by enabling us to turn to the past as to a rearview mirror, it will help us to find clues for moderating the harshness of the impact of further exodus from the land upon people in cities” – Paul Schuster Taylor and Dorothea Lange, An American Exodus
“The memory stored in You Have Seen Their Faces remains potent, but what sort of memory is it?” – Alan Trachtenberg, You Have Seen Their Faces
“This kind of road has its own special designation: a scenic road―a picturesque road. Roads like this are laid out with a specific goal: to show nature to travelers, to show it so that they don’t have to scramble around on the cliffs in search of a convenient observation point, so that they can get the entire required quantity of emotions without ever leaving their automobile.” -Ilya Ilf and Evgeny Petrov, American Road Trip
What is memory? How is memory unique when seen as a documentary or as a mode toward documenting ‘a time worth remembering’ or paying attention to. For instance, the Great Depression. What about the nuance of the Great Depression as a period of time that allowed or made it such an ideal ‘specimen’ to be preserved, presented, and given dimension via the form of writing, and more prominently, photography and the combination of photograph and writing, with photo as text and the writing as supplement. In the “Foreword” to one of the photo-textbooks on the Great Depression on Erskine Caldwell and Margaret Bourke-White’s You Have Seen Their Faces, Alan Trachtenberg notes: “You Have Seen Their Faces had helped shape a public discourse, a consensus in the 1930s regarding rural poverty, race relations in the South, and how artists should speak publicly of these issues in words and images. It was the first of a prominent group of documentary picture-texts to appear in the following years” (vi).
Not only was the image-text combination a new and promising medium toward expression and documenting, it was also, in the case of Ilf and Petrov’s American Road Trip: The Travelogue of two Soviet Writers Ilya Ilf and Evgeny Petrov, illuminating toward the cultural relations between the Soviet Union and America before the onset of the Cold War.
As illuminating as the promising new medium of photographs coupled with text was, there was, not to mention, a more specific agenda behind the chosen medium of the Great Depression to be photography and the subsequent resurrection and careful preservation of such photography and the writing that accompanied them. There was in documentation the yearning for a better of America, of diagnosing the, it would seem, cyclic problem of the people being pushed out of their land by the forces of industry and sharecropping. There was the idea that photographs could elicit emotions and give others viewing them the push toward understanding the past – in this instance, the time of the Great Depression – and to think of ways to improve quality of life as well as accept, and honor those who have suffered.
Using the camera in the 1930s, writes Dorothea Lange and Paul Schuster Taylor in “Focus” section of their picture textbook An American Exodus: A Record of Human Erosion in the Thirties was moreover “a tool of research” (15). Lange and Taylor write that they used the camera “in proportions and relations designed to convey understanding easily, clearly, and vividly. […] Upon a tripod of photographs, captions, and text we rest themes evolved out of long observations in the field. We adhere to the standards of documentary photography” (15). At a later point in the book, in a section titled “The Forties: Nonstatistical Notes from the Field,” the authors recounts how documentary photography sometimes do not provide adequate data as there are no usually no averages or numbers in photographs. The authors writes: “My statistician friends seem to love averages … if it isn’t average it isn’t typical, and it’s only the typical that counts” (136). In response to this comes the statement that supports the medium of photography to document a time in America capitalized with suffering, grief, and hope: “Maybe I’m not interested for the moment in averages. Maybe I’m looking for trends and don’t want to cancel out the very item where I think I see the ‘future’ foreshadowed by ‘history,’ by averaging it with another where the ‘future’ has not yet struck” (136).
Fiction or nonfiction? And yet, still, the telling of a story from a distance, from a vantage point, or from the privilege of having experienced the time of depression whether first or second-hand. The voices of Nelson Algren, in his story, Somebody in Boots and of Woody Guthrie in Bound for Glory differ and merge in interesting ways.
Algren’s Somebody in Boots rings of a bleakness that like a semi-permanent fog, refuses to lift. The main character, Cass, depicted seems not to have a thread of hope despite his continuing forth and moving out and onward, from town to town. There appears to be a resignation in the seeming flow of days, of tiredness, of not being able to find some food to eat, or a place to flop. The narrator recounts, when Cass encounters the cops who arrest him on account of his pal, Matches: “Cass wasn’t afraid, somehow. He was a little too tired to be ariad. Going to jail was all a part of this life; no one escaped it for very long and he’d been pretty lucky for a long time now” (345).
In contrast, in Guthrie’s autobiographical account of his time on the road, there is in Bound for Glory still a flicker of life in the curiosity and tenacity Guthrie indicates about the very reality of being on the road. For instance, he writes of walking: “I was always a big hand to walk along and look at things along the side of the road. Too curious to stand and wait for a ride. Too nervous to set down and rest. Too struck with the travelling fever to wait. While the other long strings of hitch-hikers was taking it easy in the shade back in the town, I’d be tugging and walking myself to depth over the curves, wondering what was just around the next bend; walking to see some distant object, which turned out to be just a big rock, or knoll, from which you could see and wonder about other distant objects. Blisters on your feet, shoes as hot as a horse’s hide. Still tearing along” (199).
Nevertheless, despite the difference in tone and outlook, there is a similarity relevant to both Algren and Guthrie’s narratives. This has to do with the depiction of the landscape, the decaying away, bit by bit; and the people who seem to also fleck and disappear away, like the dust blowing ceaselessly in the never-ending wind. Algren opens his piece: “The people were moving about. […] Sometimes it seemed … that men were all, somehow, blind; that they went from city to city in darkness” (320). In Guthrie’s account, a dialogue exchange is depicted to show how a city is depleting. Says the driver of the truck to Guthrie: “I seen th’ day when there was more folks than that goin’ to th’ picture shows! She’s really shrivelin’ up!” (192). Whether there is travel craze or a movement of people in search of life, some work, some food, the Great Depression seems to have caught up, by whirlwind, the capacity of the peoples’ ability, need, and desire to have a story to tell.
It could be an ancient narrative that binds each wanderer to the other: “An old white-headed man spoke close to me and said, ‘Well, boys, I was on the bum, I suppose, before any of you was born into the world.’ Everybody looked around mostly because he was talking so quiet, interrupting his eating. ‘All of this talking about what’s up in the sky, or down in hell, for that matter, isn’t half as important as what’s right here, right now, right in front of your eyes. Things are tough. Folks broke. Kids hungry. Sick. Everything. 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). And that, against the racism, oppression, and violence of that other colonialist narrative.
“Have you ever seen a freshly plowed field, just after the soil is turned, and it is all black and rich-looking, with no vegetation at all? Well, that’s what a cornfield looks like after the hoppers are finished” (Pyle 52).
Ernie Pyle, Home Country
What is travel? More specifically, what is travel during the period of the Great Depression and the Drought Bowl? There seems to be so much turmoil to how the writers on the road respond and narrate their time and experiences. It seems like no matter what the ultimate objective, or “objective,” is for the writers on the road, whether they are travelling the country and through different landscapes to see, to document, or to experience, or all of the above, there is never just one reaction or habit of travelling. Throughout the myriad accounts given by the different writers, there always seems to be a mixture of reaction; and, perhaps the key of travel is in the reaction, the responding to, that involves and pushes the writer to reckon with sight, opinions, worry, angst, and their own bodily presence and human limitations in a land and landscape that is, as Ernie Pyle puts it in his book Home Country, “slashed and ruined,” and also (not to mention) beyond complete comprehension (50).
With this being said,, Pyle, nevertheless, still believes in something; and particularly, this belief and substance lies in travel and, paradoxically, within the decline, the possibly of growth. He writes: “Travel, they say, is educational. And so we have found out in our first five years of constant wandering.” (462). However, would Pyle still ‘believe in something,’ in constancy and continuity‒and not all for the better‒for instance, if he had not been on the road for the sake of writing? Pyle continues, “the reason we have done all this travelling is to make a living by writing a piece a day for the Scripps-Howard newspapers and some others” (463). What if it were only for this writing that there is even a story to tell, a story to tell amidst devastation, ruin, and a certain hopelessness?
In One Third of a Nation, Lorena Hickok’s reports on the Great Depression, she writes that “four years ago, to the writer, they [the storytellers] were not really people at all. They had no faces. They were just ‘the unemployed.’ Muffled figures, backs curved against the wind, selling apples on the street corners of New York” (ix, my emphasis). Ever since these people ‘became people,’ so to speak, the emphasis have not just been on the ruined landscape, but on the workings within the Great Depression as it unfolds, of the people ensconced and wrapped within political change, a changing landscape, and insecurity. In One Third of a Nation, Hickok gives a very statistical report of just how the state and federal governments are handling and dealing with their necessary job to provide and offer relief, or, in other words, handle “the biggest community relief job on earth” and how the effects of the great and serious job, when it is quite impossible, effects and affects, the people (44). She writes: “There they are, all thrown together into a vast pit of human misery, from which a city, dazed, still only half awake to the situation, is trying to extricate them” (45). There is much cynicism here, and the more poetic voices of the travelling writer on the road is replaced by a very direct and frank voice that echoes with the authority of the reporter documenting upon the governments’ failing job at keeping the ‘down-and-out’ housed and fed, let alone employed, or in the process of attaining employment.
James Rorty, in Where Life is Better: An American Unsentimental Journey gives voice to his opinions of America and its people not knowing how to help themselves; or, the 95% of people who “were untouched by by socialist, communist, or pacifist education” and that were “merely resigned,” “being unable to think through or act through any program for the solution of the domestic dilemma in its intransigently difficult terms” (31). Although concerned with the “paradox of the American situation,” as Rorty puts it and the ailing people, he seems also to reminisce about the act of travel itself and that if it weren’t for the fact that he had “to justify some fifteen thousand miles of travel” he would have embraced travelling for the sake of travelling more. In fact, he writes “it would be good to travel over American again and do nothing but look, listen, and learn: not from politicians, ‘planners,’ officials and other microscopically informed and harassed people, but merely from the natural and human landscape” (51). He even voices that “the landscape was fed up with [him]” for his trouble (52).
So what is travel then? If to travel is to, as Rorty puts it, “do nothing but look, listen, and learn … merely from the natural and human landscape,” when is travelling really possible and how is it redefined in a state of crises, or decline? In fact, what story does the unspeakable, but not necessarily the silent‒the landscape‒have to tell? And to whom? More importantly, how is one to listen to the landscape without the (added) burden of politics and planning? Additionally, if there were to be a from a travel without the need or want to document issues worth reckoning with, how is travel then, different from tourism? One similarity, however, and not a very happy one, is that in some form or another both travelling and tourism, at least during the Great Depression served to oftentimes put upon the travelling writer on the road and the tourist, the weight of stigma from under the strain of those who are in no place to travel, but must fight for living so that they may be able to hold a way of life, again.
Throughout this collection of selected pieces (which include: the “Introduction” to Sherwood Anderson’s Puzzled America, the “Forward” and “Chapter 1” of Nathan Asch’s The Road: In Search of America, selections titled “Advertisement,” “Saturday Night in Marysville,” “A Country That Moves,” and “Welcome Home,” from Erskine Caldwell’s Some American People, selections from The Anxious Years, America in the Nineteen Thirties: A Collection of Contemporary Writings, edited by Louis Filler, and finally, a chapter entitled “Girl on the Road” from Louis Adamac’s My America), a certain sense of anxiety and unease seems to permeate and spread forth enough to touch the reader.
There is an overarching tone expressing a sort of loss, a sort of slipping away … of identity; or more precisely, a collective slipping away of a sense of place and identity. This sense of un-sense, if I may, is encountered by everyone it would seem, of the period known as The Great Depression. Whether this person is a writer, a bum, or revolutionary, all seem to be caught up in a whirlwind of unease. This whirlwind of unease touching each soul, depending on ‘where’ they are or where their place is as recognized by the society at the time, all attempt toward a need for expression whether that be through the act of travelling, observing, and writing, through being a part of a movement, or through simply living ‘as a bum,’ or with the means of a ‘bum,’
This dissolving sense of identity leads, perhaps as a sort of ‘defense’, toward a crystallization, a crystallization of a makeshift center, each center coming with its own set of ‘sides,’ or rules. These different ‘sides’ are apparent in each narrative or fragment, and especially obvious in “No Comrade,” by Lauren Gilfillan; her account of being a writer, neither strictly speaking a capitalist or a communist, within a camp of people identified with communism. (Gilfillan’s account is present in a short passage within Louis Filler’s book The Anxious Years: America in the Nineteen Thirties: A collection of Contemporary Writings.)
An interesting description of a lost and slightly tattered America can be idealized in writer Louis Adamac’s description of a “Girl on the Road.” This “Girl on the Road” is actually the title of Adamac’s short recount of a girl he encountered whilst, as a writer, driving towards New York. Adamac encounters this girl, almost as an apparition one early morning when driving along and after just having swung around a turn, “noticed a little figure‒woman or girl‒moving across the top of a slight rise in the road. Stumbling and staggering under the wind’s impact […]” (496). This slight rise could be the cause for a certain tension, the wind a torrent of challenge at the same time challenging those on the road and making things just a bit harder and also blurred. Nevertheless, as one reads on, not only in this narrative, but in the other narratives as well, there is also an interesting undercurrent of hope, or the ideation that there is something (still) worth fighting for. There is a purpose to each and every person on the road travelling or travelling to write in an attempts to understand. The travelling that is happening is not, as Erskine Caldwell writes, travelling in the sense of sightseeing: to see and “once seen, [the] Grand Views [to be] relegated to the catalogue merely used to summon up topics for small talk” (4). [Nevertheless, can this view (of the non traveler) be applied to the writers of the period who write for the sake of spectacle? In “No Comrade,” by Sherwood Anderson, there is short passage toward the end of the fragment recounting the words of an old man, a transient worker in a small print shop, describing a writer who “went on speaking about people as you are now doing,” and “Do you know what?” … “sold the article he had written for a hundred and seventy-five dollars” (39). The old man continues, “Think of all the booklets I could print and distribute for all of that money … I could get my new party started at last” (39).]
Another example of an undercurrent of hope could be said to be seen in the telling of stories and also the not telling of stores. These choices define a certain action or persistence to (or towards) some idea of a perceived norm and possibility of representation in an America currently burdened with depression, fear, anger, and suspicion; and hope.
Nevertheless, this hope. is subversively undercut by the choice, after all, of those who write, of those of are caught within the action, or web, of representing. When there is devastation, pain, and loss, what is unspeakable; or in fact, becomes speakable? How is freedom of expression allowing for and at the same time disavowing a certain sense of understanding, the understanding of what it really feels to be starving, hungry, beat up, in pain, or near death, of how it feels to be unforgiveably angry and noticeably, more angered, upon realizing that there is no strictly concrete or tangible thing to blame but something called and spoken of as, “the Government,” (as referred to in Caldwell’s short piece “Saturday Night in Marysville”). Of how it feels to be on the precipice of giving up; but in an attempt at life, and of living a dream (and possibly more), to will up the determination, courage, and resilience to choose to keep on going.
What is motion? Moreover, what is, in James Agee’s words ‒ in his article entitled “The American Roadside” ‒ “motion with the least possible interruption” (Agee 47). And what of this motion when it is inevitable as for those on the road for reasons of being ‘hit hard’ by the Great Depression, and when it is a choice (or ‘choice’), at least in the manufactured sense that Michael Berkowitz, in his piece “A ‘New Deal’ for Leisure: Making Mass Tourism during the Great Depression,” puts eloquently by putting into context that “during the interwar period, and particularly during the depression, this task of cultivating ‘the travel habit’ was assumed by a diffuse yet aggressive network of tourism promotion organizations that emerged coincident with the effort to provide American workers with paid vacations” (Berkowitz 194).
To what extent did the suffering and ‘lifestyle’ of those during the Great Depression engender in “this American people; the automobile; the Great American Road, and— the Great American Roadside” an almost romantic notion of being ‘on the road’ and as if in the throes of travel and movement a new or more ‘enlightened’ consciousness or layer of experience can be ‘had’ or achieved’ (Agee 42). As Berkowitz states: “The crises of the depression was ultimately responsible for completing the transformation of tourism into a mass phenomenon”— a mass phenomenon recklessly bordering on but more likely supporting a “consumerist ideology” wherein even the suffering of human people can be exploited and put at a distance enough to resemble a narrative or a story capable of evoking a romantic notion of ‘travel’ strong enough to demand and foster the growth of this strange, insidious brand of consumerism.
What is more scary here; that human suffering can be branded for the prosperity of an inhuman industry; or that given the state of how indifferent norms can be, the human people have to, to a certain extent, ‘numb’ the self to certain events or scenes / ‘images’ that be traumatic or even violent, in order to go on living somehow? As a quick quote that may engender curiosity: Jacques Lacan regards that “trauma reveals itself as a constant part of experience that must be accepted as such by human beings in order for them to avoid future surprises or traumatic events.”
Reading Nathaniel West’s A Cool Million was like wading through a terrain filled with tight corners, sudden seeming dead-ends, and long and empty corridors that ultimately disintegrate into a haze, a spot, a word.
I was struck by the violence embedded in A Cool Million and also by West’s description of, as well as embodiment of, it in the text — the way the violence (not just physical, but also psychological and structural) is strung along within the narrative and somehow also outside like an external force that acts upon the characters; namely, the hero and the heroine and all those who swirl around them in the course of the story. There seems to be a distance to West’s portrayal and telling of the story even when he depicts and narrates scenes of macabre and injustice; but in this distance lies a strong undercurrent that seems to want to draw itself (the distance) closer to its own core: the fact that it is (or could be) distance itself, the fear of it and the need for it, that sometimes is the cause and also the effect of just how cruel people can be toward and for, in relation to, each other. This especially when removed from (simply) ‘being’ to being put into a role of embodying some power, force, influence that is as imaginary as the unseen systems and institutions that seem to govern the fate of every character within his or her own story within a bigger story.
Towards the beginning of West’s Cool Million, the exchange of conversation / imparting of information between Mr. Slemp (“the wealthy village lawyer”) and Mrs. Pitkin about the imminent foreclosing of Mrs. Pitkin’s home, is striking:
“[…] ‘Ah, yes, Mrs. Pitkin, I fear that the business may be unpleasant for you, but you will remember, I am sure, that I act in this matter as agent for another.’” (West 68).
And then, the darkly humorous (or not), departure of Mr. Slemp, as he “took his hat and bowed politely, leaving the widow alone with her tears,” all speak to the operation of a frightening distance that not only is implied by the narrative account given by the narrator, but also with the distance each character has assumed with respect to him or herself, into the role or the character of what they are supposed to be or act and do on account for the institution or system that they ‘belong’ to in working for (West 69).
Lastly, the way that Mr. Slemp treats Lem, upon Lem asking Mr. Slemp as he was leaving the Pitkins’ “humble dwelling” what he (Slemp) has been saying to make his mother cry, in a way that is so randomly violent is jarring: “He [Mr. Slemp] pushed Lem with such great force that the poor lad fell off the porch steps into the cellar, the door of which was unfortunately open” (West 69).
Relating these accounts of a paradoxical distance and acts of ‘random’ violence to a statement in James F. Light’s article titled “Violence, Dreams, and Dostoevsky: The Art of Nathaniel West” is interesting to the effect that for Light “the violent core of West’s writing is largely unmotivated by individual psychologizing is not to say that there is no motivation. There is. This motivation consists of a mass rage against the cheat that is life. This mass rage‒the roots of which are unknown by the mob‒explains why violence is idiomatic in America” (Light 208).
Watching Ironweed was a strange experience. The characters being portrayed seem very distant not only to themselves but also to the screen. The very opening of Ironweed evokes a jarring sort of juxtaposition. After the opening credits, there is a scene where what is seen at first on screen is the blue sky, some birds flying off off-screen; and the camera still moving. Soon after, the blue sky is interrupted by a blackness that makes up the top of some sort of wall or barrier. As the camera continues to pan down and also outwards, the blue sky eventually disappears and what is seen is a grey, dark green dull montage of colors that make up the wall / barrier / side wall of a derelict building where it would appear the wind is blowing sullenly at the debris and trash lingering on the streets. The debris take on a strange quality of indifferent and steely but half-hearted resistance.
Finally, with the camera having zoomed out, there is a pause of sorts; and in the center is a heap of what it seems to be a pile of papery debris blowing listlessly and yet retaining a counterweight of its own, against the wind. With all the infinitesimal movement what with all the specks of dust, the movement of the papery pile seems to be just another motion caused by the ceaseless morning wind. Nevertheless, the camera stays focused and still upon this scene and soon enough, what emerges from out of, or rather, under, the pile, is a man.
Considering the the era this film was set in and supposed to represent, this introductory scene with ‘the lone man’ rising from the abandoned and derelict manufactured landscape and almost as if transforming himself out of the debris, is of a way poignant and yet also a dramatization and slight romanticization of the caricature of ‘the bum’ especially in the medium of film, of stories, and even of accounts of the past given in a form that blends or stretches the form or accuracy of event(s) to blend with a larger fabric that is coherent to the mind and body of the person undergoing (or not!) the Great Depression whether on a first-hand or second-hand account. Yet, to speak of form and accuracy in the face of human suffering and pain is strange and nonfinite given the uniquely singular way each person undergoes and experiences his or her own individual suffering no matter how deeply embedded this suffering is to a certain era, age, time, or way of representation.
In representing the character of ‘the bum’ in this heroically lonesome and yet wryly sarcastic and tenaciously courageous of ways, what myth or ‘image’ is being perpetuated in the uncanniness of the memory of the Great Depression evoked in the minds of both those that have lived and lived through and lived on through it as well as for those who seek to represent that depressed period by either reliving past experiences in the way of listening, hearing, reading and writing about stories passed on (and on)?