My favorite readings in this class were A Cool Million, The American Guidebooks, Waiting for Nothing, and Let Us Now Praise Famous Men.
A Cool Million was actually very funny! For some reason, I really really interpreted the book visually. I could totally see this as a Coen Brothers movie, with John Goodman playing the cooky former President. The book jumped from action to action, without feeling the need to dwell overly long on Lem’s feelings or how he saw every little thing. It was very much things that happened to him. This was the book that showed me how random and unreliable was in the 1930s.
This is a stark contrast with Waiting for Nothing. In that book, the narrator goes into excruciating detail on how he handles the world around him. Unlike Lem, he seems to have a great deal of autonomy in his life. This was the book that really drove home to me how terrible and stressful life was for some men in the 1930s.
The Guidebooks were interesting to me because of the process that went behind creating them. They seem like such an obvious thing to have, so it boggles my mind to think of them as a sort of inventive idea back in the day. Having already painfully discovered in class that no text can possibly be 100% objective (based on bias, omission, and several other factors), it’s fun to read something that is trying its best to be factual! This book was the thing that made me really understand the scale of writers that were on the road in the 1930s.
Let Us Now Praise Famous Men was the most disturbing thing we read all semester. It was also the most truthful. James Agee (whose reviews I am a fan of) turns the microscope on himself as well as the American families around him. This book really captured the pain of the writer on the road.
Overall this course has made me feel bad that I can’t drive…a roadtrip across America actually sounds more than swell to me now, it sounds essential.
I looked at the guide books for New Jersey and for Miami and Dade County (in Florida). Both books were written in the 1930s, and adhere to a similar structure. The Miami book focuses on a much smaller section, so naturally it is shorter and more detailed in personal history. Several things struck me about these two books.
First off, the difference between the changes from 1938 to 2014. I was very surprised by how little the suburban areas of New Jersey have changed from the descriptions in the book. For example, near where I used to live I remember an old cannon. It is in front of a Synagogue, and near an all girls school (Kent Place) where my music group would occasionally go and sing. I was delighted to find a description of the cannon in the book, and they even noted that it is near Kent Place! Also accompanying the description was an explanation of the cannon (apparently it’s sound was used to warn revolutionaries of British attacks). Not once in my time living in New Jersey did I ever wonder about it and check it out myself. When describing my street, the book reads, “Summit Avenue, a broad, tree-lined street, represents the long-established citizens with rows of large late-Victorian mansions surrounded by ample greenery. Gradually these homes yield to a newer section distinguished by a more frequent use of brick and granite and the styling of the 1920’s.” This is still amazingly accurate! My house had been built in the 1800s, and I could see its Victorian architecture myself. The trees still line the street as well. What’s interesting to me about this description, is my personal knowledge of construction and development in Summit while I lived there. Houses and businesses constantly changed hands during my 10 years there, and it was a rare to avoid a construction sight even for a day. Memories of town hall meetings and community discussions my parents told me about come to mind. EVERY detail that this guidebook pointed out has been argued over in Summit. The trees lining Summit Ave (many of them old and threatening to fall into the road) garner an almost unbelievable amount of discussion and arguments. Half of my time in my Summit home consists of me living in a construction zone, because of changes to the house. I have no other option but to conclude that Summit is constantly going through change in discussions, but in reality nobody is changing anything, at least since 1938.
In contrast, the Miami book is outdated to the point of irrelevancy. Dade County was underdeveloped at the time, and since the 1930s, many new groups of people have taken over Miami. My own family, refugees from Cuba, are part of that new group of people that has changed Miami so much. The sheer amount of Cubans and their culture nowadays in Dade County has transformed nearly everything that the guidebook says Miami is about. They did hit the nail on the head, when they said that Miami is synonymous with “play”. It’s a sentiment I’m familiar with, considering the raised eyebrows people give me when I say I’m going home to Miami. They just don’t realize I’m going to talk to my kid brother and grandparents the whole time.
Travel has always seemed like a scary thing to me. Don’t be mistaken. Moving from place to place, even across a far distance is no problem. I like commuting, I don’t mind (anymore) taking a plane, and dramamine has solved my bus issues. Travel, however, is different thing. Travel implies adventure, and some sort of journey into the unknown. I worked up a good sweat reading Double-Crossing America. I have avoided recreational travel for the very reason that Wild ends his intro with, “We did not see much of America, for our eyes were on the ground.” (21). Although it is only the intro, Wild implies that the fruits of his travels were not much, considering they had to spend so much thought and effort on organizing themselves. (interesting to note just how not fun he says it is. Is travel naturally supposed to be fun?)
Some may argue that Wild and his family did in fact succeed in some way, for they were able to understand the peril of living day to day just trying to make it all work, like so many Americans were doing in the Great Depression. I would disagree. Worrying about dishes and where your nanny is going to sleep are hardly problems that would be common (none of these situations occurred in Waiting for Nothing, a book that rings true in its descriptions of trouble). But Wild outlines a good point in his intro that resonates true with me; the nature of travel can be so complicated and confusing that it can hardly be called worthy of a vacation at all. Which is why it’s surprising to me that it was basically created at the same time!
The creation of the tourism industry in the United States in the 1930s seems remarkably similar to Lem’s situation in A Cool Million. Though Lem is dismembered, and given fake limbs and eyes, he is marketed as such. Gone are the days of his usefulness as a good honest worker, now he is a freak in a zoo cage, and all of America is grabbing at the bars to get a peek. Was the tourism industry inadvertently doing the same thing? Quite the opposite, actually. The idea behind traveling in the 1930s was marketed to seem as if it was an escape from the Depression, not a tour of it. We can see that this did not quite work for the family in Double-Crossing America. Who’s to say whether or not it “worked” for anybody?
The dismantling of Lem is more physical that I would have believed. Throughout the story he not only gets robbed of his money, but his eye, teeth, thumb, and leg are stolen as well. His pursuit of wealth ends up hurting and crippling him on a direct level.This dark humor persists throughout the entire book, but it didn’t really seem that crazy until after the book was over. Although the book ends with Lem being called a hero, and that his life and death mean something, the content of the previous chapters can’t help but make you feel how pointless and unimportant Lem’s death actually is. He merely was a kid from Vermont who went to New York and got beat up until he gets shot and dies. Maybe for some people that means he really is a symbol of revolution, but the way the book is structured, it only seems like another thing that Lem gets roped into.
You would think that an ex-President of the United States would be fiscally well off, but that is not so in this book. Mr. Whipple begins as an older, American soul that gives advice to Lem, the hero. He is, in essence, acting as the Obi Wan of the story: a wise older man who gives the hero what he needs to start his quest into the wilderness. Whipple seems tapped into the consciousness of America, and his speeches are rousing to young Lem.
What makes this book funny for me is the treatment of this wizard archetype. Lem is only barely started on his journey before he winds up in prison. Who does he find there but Whipple, not as a prisoner, but as a janitor! He has switched jobs extremely quickly and adapted smoothly. The cruel irony of the book is that the wise older wizard character, Whipple, is just as helpless and clueless as Lem. Time and time again, Lem runs into Whipple who is always worse off than before, and with another theory for staying alive. Maybe he’s supposed to represent the honorable American, who throws himself wholeheartedly into every job he can until he has no choice but to lead a revolution. To me, Whipple is no different than Lem. They’re both lost. Bums who have hit the road.
It is not difficult to see the comparisons that Nathaniel West is making. The con man who robs Lem immediately put up a front of wealth and opportunity, but is as desperate as Lem himself. The second con man sitting across from Lem, appears to provide an easy solution (easy “out”), but in reality is screwing over Lem in his own special way. This leads to Lem being thrown in jail for conspiracy, where he loses all of his teeth.
The symbolism behind the two conmen can be examined on a personal level, as the other readings have made it abundantly clear that this incident is an entirely realistic scenario. Perhaps it is also a metaphor for the gutting that the banks and the country pulled on the poorest saps. For however far Lem traveled, and the difference in quality of people he meets, whether they be terrible or honorable, they are all poor. Nobody robs the rich.
Sullivan’s Travels is a comedy movie from 1941. It was written and directed by Preston Sturges. The story follows Hollywood director John Sullivan. Sullivan is famous for directing comedies, but he wants to direct a great big drama now (the unmade movie is called, “O Brother, Where Art Thou”. For inspiration, he disguises himself as a hobo and intends to live on the road and rails. On the way, he meets Veronica Lake, his romantic interest. The title, Sullivan’s Travels, is a play on Gulliver’s Travels. Both Sullivan and Gulliver venture into a world that they do not know, nor belong.
The movie is a comedy, and it pokes fun, but it is a biting critique of other Depression era works of art. The high-minded artist, or goofy clown of a director cannot understand the simple, struggling American. In essence, these trips out on the road to understand what America is are nothing more than selfish acts of foolery. Sullivan hits to the road to create a film that can really confront the country (and shy away from his comedic fame), but his source material is already so far from what people in suffering truly experience. (The phrase, O Brother Where Art Thou, sounds Shakespearean and far removed from hobos in the 1930s)
Though Sullivan tries to get away from Hollywood and see what’s real, he is pulled repeatedly back for many different reasons. Each time he returns is comedic, and when he sets out again each time, the movie puts a fun genre spin on each of his attempts. But this constant return to Hollywood is more than just funny. It’s an allegory for the constant pull of the artist’s world, or their rich, intellectual life during their “humble” journey. Though artists try their best, they can never change who they are fundamentally so quickly and so will never be able to understand other simple human being’s suffering.
The movie calls into question the morality of those artists who claimed to be working for the people. Though Sullivan really does seem to have noble intentions, the rest of Hollywood tries to follow along with him on an extravagant bus to track his progress. Is this similar to the constant updates that the writers in the Great Depression had to send back to their bosses? No matter what, the movie makes it clear that Sullivan is “using” these people’s suffering for his own selfish reasons.
There is a scene near the end of the movie that can be called Sullivan’s epiphany. He is sitting in a theater filled with inmates. They are watching a Disney cartoon. The prisoners are laughing hysterically. It is at this moment that Sullivan realizes he wants to direct comedy films again. His stupid drama film may not have any sort of effect on these people if they would ever see it. Nor would it be likely to spur the rich intellectuals into helping the poor.
Sullivan is the only artist so far (fictional he may be) that is making his art for the people suffering, not the safe upper class.. Therefore, is it more important for art to be a distraction rather than an informative tool?
The final chapters of the Grapes of Wrath are memorable, especially in imagery. The final sequence of the book is very visually appealing, and almost religious. Rose, who treats a dying man, is almost certainly meant to evoke a gentle mother figure in the final passages. The child is now a 50 year old man who starved to keep his son alive. Is he a hero for sacrificing so much to save his progeny? Is Ma a hero, for going above and beyond taking care of her family to be concerned with another man and his son’s (as well as her daughter’s privacy, which she is cognisant of with the sheets and bidding the family out)? Is Rose, with her gentle smile, a hero for turning the circumstances of her misfortune to charity towards others? Can there be a hero in such a bleak situation as the Joad’s, especially when it is unlikely that the 50 year old man will live.
Steinbeck doesn’t make it easy for us. Though Rose acts as a mother in the end, she is in fact not a mother at all. Her child’s death before her life began with it puts her in an uncomfortable space between motherhood and being a little girl. She very much remains under the wing of Ma. Her act of kindness in the end is all at the behest of Ma. This moment at the end feels like her coming of age. She too, will be able to sacrifice everything to help her fellow human being.
Does Mother Earth always have a solution? The breast-feeding, if it worked at all, is only a temporary fix to the problem. Mother Earth certainly did not provide throughout the Grapes of Wrath. It acts more as a villain. The flood (of “biblical” proportions) at the end is almost a mockery of the dust bowl that caused the Joads to get in their car and start driving. Should I be looking at Rose as a different entity from mother nature, because she is human and, again, not actually a mother? Is she smiling at the hopelessness of it all, or at the opportunity to help? This ending, like the rest of the book, can be interpreted as optimistic or negative. It’s no surprise that the book was widely debated (and it still is).
Consider the following quote from The Grapes of Wrath.
“The sun lay on the grass and warmed it, and in the shade under the grass the insects moved, ants and ant lions to set traps for them, grasshoppers to jump into the air and flick their yellow wings for a second, sow bugs like little armadillos, plodding restlessly on many tender feet. And over the grass at the roadside a land turtle crawled, turning aside for nothing, dragging his high-domed shell over the grass: His hard legs and yellow-nailed feet threshed slowly through the grass, not really walking, but boosting and dragging his shell along. The barley beards slid off his shell, and the clover burrs fell on him and rolled to the ground.” (Steinbeck, 11).
This passage lies in chapter 3 of the novel, and it shows a stark difference between the chapters that bookend it. Why has Steinbeck chosen to alternate between poetic descriptions of this miniscule nature, and the eerily realistic story of Tom Joad? He is giving equal power to the insects, and is careful enough to differentiate between ants and antlions. Tiny, inconspicuous things like a grasshopper flicking its yellow wings for a second seem so unimportant and small that they can barely be said to have happened at all. (credit to Watchmen for the phrase!). Steinbeck writes them with precision, and even a touch of respect. He goes even further than that too. He anthropomorphizes the sun, the bugs and insects, and the turtles. Is he saying that humans are now on their level because of the depression and the dust bowl? Even the turtle, which is turning aside for nothing, dragging his shell with him is just as important as the American man. Though Joad and most others struggle with their situation (eventually trying to rise up) their actions are just as fruitless as the turtle. The main difference between them is that animals can’t look at themselves, but humans treat themselves a certain way.
“Joad chuckled again while he brushed the bits of broken insect from his fingertips. “You got me wrong, mister,” he said. “I ain’t keepin’ quiet about it. Sure I been in McAlester. Been there four years. Sure these is the clothes they give me when I come out. I don’t give a damn who knows it. An’ I’m goin’ to my old man’s place so I don’t have to lie to get a job.” The driver said, “Well—that ain’t none of my business. I ain’t a nosy guy.” (Steinbeck, 10) The world as they know it may be gone (though at this point in time, Joad believes his father’s farm is still there), these two men treat each other with respect. This follows a similar strain of pride that had been seen in the all the other week’s readings. The delusion of man is that they consider themselves more important than grasshopper or the ants. What Steinbeck does in these chapters by focusing on the tiny, insignificant actions of bugs and animals is equate that to the actions of the humans in the book, foolishly migrating towards California under a false hope.
The intensely sexual tone from Let Us Now Praise Famous Men is a nice change of pace from previous readings. In addition to a more “prose” style of writing, James Agee has many other features as a writer that sets him apart.
Though most of the literature of travel during this time included the author as a character, none do so quite to the extent that Agee does. Many sections (pages) go on without end. Literally, the first period in the excerpt is many paragraphs in. This makes the writing feel not so much natural as it does believable. It’s as if Agee cannot keep his mouth shut, and his thoughts flow on the page in the flowery grotesque way that our imagination works in. This obnoxious style of writing is the furthest from the invisible narrator/writer that you can get. Agee dominates the piece. As he should, being that all he can ever experience or see will be invariably from his perspective. The embrace of this face in the writing creates what feels like a more honest piece. A narrow point of view, but an honest narrator.
There are many sections where Agee describes what is going on before a family takes a photo. Often times, he is certain that his face or very presence makes a significant impact on how the family presents itself. Obviously this is another example of the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle. But perhaps this is also a better, more honest approach than merely trying to be invisible, or lying about who you are to people.
There’s advice in acting that I’ve heard often before: when playing a character who is drunk, do not “play drunk”. Actors stumble over the words and cross legs when making steps and they look foolish. In reality, drunks are doing everything they can to “play sober”. The actor arrives at the truth of the scene when he plays a more immediate desire of the character; to be seen a certain way. By knowing that the families bathed their children, or changed their clothes, or even insisted on a certain side or angle of their home, the reader is offered an even more intimate look into the psyche of the American family at the time. It says a lot about their pride that they want to be seen a certain way rather than project across the country what they’re used to.
It is pretty astonishing to imagine that a book that focused primarily on photography was such a revolution back in the 1930’s. Nowadays, the vast majority of our media is absorbed through images or film. The photos are not at their best quality here, but I can tell that they’re pretty powerful. The photo of the older woman bending over in her home from the You Have Seen Their Faces (a pretty damning and guilt-inducing title at the time, I’m sure. It is somewhat painful to watch a woman so old bend over so fully. Though this doesn’t relate directly to the Depression, you can see the point the photographer is making) and the picture, Hoe Culture, were the most striking for me. (Hoe Culture, in terms of symbolism is quite interesting. The head of the man in the photo is cut off, and the hoe sits in his hands as if it had always belonged there)
Consider the similarities between the NYU popular blog, Humans of New York, and Now You Have Seen Their Faces. Both use photography, mostly of people, to communicate. When there is writing, it is a quote, or insight into that particular person. Often times, it is of a deeply personal nature, though that doesn’t mean the thought is complex. It can be quite simple, such as, “Just sitting in the sun, watching the Mississippi go by”.
What is the purpose of these quotes? They are nearly all specific towards the subject to the point of irrelevancy to anybody else. If you stop digging deep for answers, the meaning of these small quotes will come to you. The men just sitting in the sun, watching the river flow are inactive and still. They might have had hopes and dreams, but now, all they’re doing is sitting there. This is the effect that the Depression has had. They don’t even use the soapbox opportunity of the photo to beg for help. They sit there in complete complacentness.
What is the meaning of not naming the men and women whose words are being used? Instead, every quote is credited to a town and state. This feels like a bit of an erasure of the identities of these people. My instinct is to say that this is not good since part of the problem of the Depression is the total eradication of individualism. Thinking about it, however, leads me to believe it is necessary to credit the quotes as a place, and not as names. The specificity of what they are saying, and the clothes and wrinkles they wear are enough. Furthermore, the crediting of the places rather than the people blows the problem that the picture presents to another extreme. The photos say this: It’s a communal suffering that we all must endure, and this is how it kills us individually.
For some reason, photographs have a more innocent reputation than writing. Photos are seen as more truthful and objective, as opposed to words that spring from a single brain. In reality, the man/woman behind the photo has as much influence into the public digestion of the art as a writer would his own novel. Where the camera is pointed, how much has been arranged, what time of day, and to what extent the camera tells the full story are all things that the photographer can use to insert themselves into the art.
In Waiting for Nothing, Tom Kromer speaks with a distinct, simplistic voice. Although it contradicts itself many times, it is decisive and strong in every sentence. Also of note is the use of the present tense to create the endless feeling of hunger and dissatisfaction.
This is markedly different from the readings this week. Most importantly, the past is a strong theme in Boxcar Bertha, Somebody in Boots, and Bound for Glory. All three writers talk about their personal past, as well as touching upon the past of the country. They also seem to find importance in establishing setting, which Kromer threw away as useless. It’s refreshing to see a timeline and the name of a city in writing!
In Somebody in Boots, the narrator, Cass, spends a lot of time in his head. But he is more confused than Kromer was in his novel. Kromer never recalled anything, only had these flash forwards that gave insight into his life. Cass can’t even remember if the name he is thinking of is Thomas Clancy or Thomas Clay! He spends much time pondering how it is he and the country got into this whole situation. This distances Cass from what it is he is going through. Whether it is a coping mechanism or a symptom of shock is another question.
In Bound for Glory, Woody Guthrie talks about how he managed before. “I had always played music, painted signs, and managed to do some kind of work to get a hold of a piece of money, with which I could walk in to town legal, and buy anything I wanted to eat or drink.” (Guthrie, 201). Although he is not very specific about his past, the use of past tense, and the lightness of the language gives this a much different, more positive feel. Kromer would have spent a whole chapter on any one of those tasks, and it would have been a struggle. By writing about the past, Guthrie almost trivializes it, though he only does so to raise the stakes of the next situation.
In Boxcar Bertha, the past is more obviously present. The writer goes into extensive detail on what their upbringing was like.
All in all, the readings this week created a much more positive feeling than Waiting for Nothing. Besides the use of the past tense (which is huge), the coherency and “distance” from the situation makes it all look optimistic. I’m just not sure which way is more proper.