The novella's main character, Lemuel Pitkin, is a wide-eyed all-American youngster whose misadventures in the pursuit of happiness are reminiscent of the stories of Voltaire's Candide. Similarly, Lem maintains a naïve faith that America is "the best of all possible worlds" despite repeated tortures, from his mother's foreclosure to his wrongful imprisonment to his repeated encounters with shady figures from America's underbelly. Through it all, "our hero" maintains a noble foolishness, even after his physical "dismantling" at the hands of Chief Satinpenny. Despite his purity and his relentless efforts to lift himself up by his bootstraps, Depression-era America picks Lem apart rather than rewarding him.
Perhaps most interesting is what transpires after Lem meets Shagpoke Whipple, a manipulative former president who rescues Lem from Satinpenny's bear trap and shows him off as a traveling tent show. After Lem's assassination, Whipple continues to exploit him, using him as a martyr to advance the cause of his National Revolutionary Party. This anti-immigrant, anti-"sophistication" party promotes a nationalist agenda with Pitkin as their poster boy. The reader is left to realize that this party's platform, reminiscent of Know-Nothing and other conservative platforms in American history, is entirely contrary to the meaning of Lem's life. Using Lem to promote the virtues of self-help is patently absurd to those familiar with him. West contends that in the Depression, no person can achieve success on their own, since the country was a desperate, often hostile place. However, as we see in the novel, questioning the validity of individualism and the American Dream, is not advantageous for politicians. In West's perspective, these politicians further cloud our judgment and dismantle the falsely propagated hopes of America. While this understanding of America--a country filled with liars, thieves, hucksters, and the gullible innocents they defraud--is certainly a negative and perhaps overly pessimistic one, it is impossible to say that Alger's optimism was any more valid. We can only learn from West that perhaps America in the Depression was a more complicated place than our common understanding of American stories could tell us.
Then I saw just how big the guide was. 796 pages. Would that even fit in a glove compartment? As I flipped through, I was shocked at how detailed its descriptions of landmarks were, how thorough its histories of each town. Much of what was in the guidebook sounded familiar, and some of it was nostalgic. The chapter on Lowell’s sites and history reminded me of the numerous summer camp days I spent at the Lowell Mills and the Salem walking tour felt like an incredibly detailed and familiar description of my memories of the town. Incredibly, it felt like I was rediscovering my own state in a new way. The guide was taking hundreds, even thousands of tiny fragments of experiences and weaving them together in a colossal conceptual patchwork. For the first time, I saw my experiences as Massachusetts experiences. Without resorting to the tactics of a simplistic, objectifying tourism advertisement, the guide had condensed all of Massachusetts—its people, his history, its places—into a cohesive and singular text.
Then it hit me: this was one book on one state in a series that went state-by-state and region-by-region. Looking through the South Dakota guidebook was like reading about a foreign country. But I realized that there were South Dakotans who would be reading that book with the same personal fascination I had when reading about my own state. People today could be looking at photos of The Burr Oaks in Washington, Mississippi with the same personal fascination I felt when reading about the Somerville Powder House, which would strike them as exotic and distant—and perhaps worth exploring. This was, I think, the real power of the WPA in their time. As the country sank deep into Depression, questioning its own identity and ability to survive, these guides reminded readers that America remained a worthwhile place. Even in the worst of times, Americans still had something to be proud of as well as a near-infinite stretch of land, people, and traditions that one person could only begin to explore.
For most of my adult life, we’ve been hearing omnipresent comparisons between the current state of the nation’s economy and the Great Depression. This has made me wonder: Is America in the middle of an identity crisis?
In thinking about this question I find it interesting, and perhaps convenient, to compare the sort of rhetoric coming out of each “wing” of the country. What are they saying about how the Great Recession started and how they believe we can end it? And, more importantly, who are we, and who do we need to become? The story told by many about how the recession happened involved millions of families feeling entitled to a way of life more affluent than that of their childhood with less of the work, consuming endlessly on excessive lines of credit (Not true. Check out this ridiculous segment from Fox's Your World if you feel like getting angry at people for owning microwaves). This story seems rather appealing given can be applied on a micro- or macroeconomic scale; conservatives love to point to the excessive spending of the government as a sign that Americans are lazy types who would rather have than work. Further, they imply that the American poor are responsible for their own poverty according to an economic vision that motivation in is the only necessary and sufficient cause of growth. Thus, ensuring the poor have an “American” standard of life when the business cycle calls for a lowered standard is tantamount to Socialism. On the other hand, flattening taxes and slashing social programs to punish the poor and to make people want more money (why make a million dollars if I’m only going to get to keep several hundred thousand?) is patriotism.
Is that who Americans are? Fatalistic slaves to market cycles that cripple the economy? People who disregard the poor and idealize no concept but “enlightened self interest?” If the New Deal taught us anything, it’s that social welfare can be promoted, and that an American identity can be built and defended by the ongoing synergy of mutually beneficial interactions between classes. Here’s my new favorite candidate for the junior Senate seat in Massachusetts, Elizabeth Warren, talking about the social contract, which she articulates according to a tradition that, I believe, has its roots in New Deal Liberalism. I don’t know if she could write a travel narrative based on this concept, but it would certainly make this video more relevant to this class.
Tom Kromer’s Waiting for Nothing deals with a similar theme but gives a different understanding of the vagrant experience. Kromer’s novel not only takes a first-person voice, but it stays in the character of a more prototypical hobo than other semi-fictionalized accounts. The first-person device adds a sense of immediacy and effective ventriloquism, but the simplistic diction and staccato sentence structure brings the narrator to life as a fully formed character. Furthermore, the vocabulary Kromer uses has a blunt ruggedness about it that paints the protagonist as a tough, streetwise desperado who spends more energy struggling through life than reflecting on it. Altogether, this writing style was effective in passing as natural and bringing me into the psyche of a desperate “stiff” in the 1930s.
What comes across most clearly in this novel is that the narrator seems to have no real concept of past or future. There is little time for any amount of self-reflection or Kromer details the day-by-day process of survival in brutal terms; the furthest our hero ever looks into the future is finding a “four-bit flop” for the night. This gives the narrator’s concerns a visceral edge that is supported by his distinct voice. Of course, a rare and striking exception to this futureless stream of consciousness is the final paragraph of the novel, just as another stiff has died just feet away in a mission and the narrator has given up trying to scratch the lice crawling all over him. “Dead in an hour. I shiver. Great Christ, I think, is this the way I will go out too? ... It is getting me. I can feel it. Twenty years before my time I will be like this guy. … I am not cold. I am afraid” (129).
Equally striking is how Kromer flouts normal plot structure in the narrative (if it even is a “narrative”). The story, like the narrator, goes nowhere. Each chapter is another short-lived vignette into the day-to-day life of helplessness. Unlike other stories we’ve read about the Depression, this novel is by no means a Bildungsroman, and it’s not entirely clear to the reader if the novel ever completes, or even attempts, a point-A-to-point-B journey. Though crushingly depressing, this may be closer to the “true story” of the 1930s than any other of our readings thus far.
Artists in the 1930s became enamored of “the drifter,” the most wayward of people in a nation of people who felt lost at sea. With no more possessions than they could carry, a significant population took to the train tracks and roads and set out hitchhiking, with nowhere to go in particular. As they did so, curious and swashbuckling writers joined them looking to document a new form of American Odyssey, an adventure with no purpose, no materiality, and no endpoint—travel for purists. When the nation’s economic stability crumbled, the Drifter became iconic. Artists both drove this fascination and capitalized on it by dramatizing and glorifying the swashbuckling episodic lives of hoboes who had lost everything but their survival instinct.
With this sort of writing, it’s often difficult to tell fact from fiction (from myth). Because real first-hand accounts of real railcar vagabonds—that excludes writers who rode the rails by choice—are not easy to come by, the image of the “real drifter” we have today is totally linked to semi-authentic accounts. In the case of both Guthrie and Anderson’s novels, we see the hobo lifestyle through an artist’s eyes. This creates an interesting mouthpiece that must frustrate historians but certainly excites lovers of fiction. With the idea already in their mind to make art of some kind from their experience, musical or written, these artists were capable of seeing moving moments in what was largely a languid and tedious lifestyle. I think this may have a distorting effect on the audience’s perception of the reality of vagabonds in the Thirties. One of the defining characteristics of being homeless during this time period was, I think, that life seemed to have no meaning but the next meal, much less an artistic structure. Woody Guthrie hitchhiked in order to find himself as an artist, but the vast majority of the impoverished in the Depression could apply no such vision to their travels. That said, these semi-documentary pieces gave a human perspective to a situation that otherwise was—and still is—inaccurately objectified by most outside observers.
Michael Berkowitz further analyzes the development of this mass culture in his essay “A ‘New Deal’ for Leisure: Making Mass Tourism during the Great Depression.” He notes that during the Great Depression, workers began seeing a dramatic increase in paid vacation days. A new leisure class was cultivated around these vacation days, as families fortunate enough to experience the “growing embourgeoisement of the working class” (193) were taught “the travel habit.” This was the result of massive propaganda campaigns from employers and the federal government to get workers to use their new vacation days for tourism. Berkowitz claims that this dramatically reshaped American life, as even the working class was brought into the fold of mass consumer culture. However, he seems to be much more optimistic of what this meant for the country than Agee. He notes the opportunity this gave the average worker “to engage more fully with [his] family” (206) and that tourism was now “essential to [Americans’] personal pursuit of happiness as well as to the proper functioning of the American economy and workplace” (207).
I, like Agee, am a little frightened of mass consumerist culture and what it means for individual autonomy. If we take Agee’s interpretation of history, then we have to look at the entirety of modern American culture as a “top-down” phenomenon, legislated by the New Deal. But what is the alternative? Is there a possibility for “grassroots” culture? What forms can that take, and does it, to stretch the metaphor thin, need rain and sustenance from above? This was a world that was already dominated, mostly for the worse, by forces so great that they were well beyond the control of any family (failing banks, drying farms, etc.). It seems reasonable that legislation that pushed against these forces (which had already formed a mass culture of destitution) could be justified.
I think of the road trips I’ve been on with my family. Was our road trip to Washington, D.C., or the Thompson Twelve-Day Tour of Tennessee just part of a mass-culture, propaganda-fueled, consent-manufacturing master plan? Did I learn anything besides consumption? I don’t think so. I agree with Agee that this country should not simply be experienced from behind a window in the back seat, hot dog in hand. But these road trips did give me experiences that otherwise would be totally impossible. I think of the battlefields of Gettysburg and Shiloh, the Oak Ridge National Laboratory, the myriad memorials and innumerable Holiday Inns. Yes, I was getting a “national” experience, but it was in my context, travelling with my family. These trips demonstrated the potential of simultaneously learning about a person’s individual and national identities.
Of course, many artists and propagandists alike have realized the potential this medium has. Photographers are aware, even when their audience isn’t, that a photograph can not accurately represent an objective reality. I found Errol Morris’ NY Times story (“The Case of the Inappropriate Alarm Clock”) very interesting for this very reason. The act of a photographer can contain an often inescapable political message, and Morris illustrates the intense ideological battles that Depression photographs ignited. At times, newspapers, the public, and entire political machines were at war over a single photograph. Was it altered? Was the wording of the caption accurately worded? Was the cow skull a prop? Morris notes that not only were these disputes almost entirely manufactured controversies, they never addressed any reality beyond the photograph in question. In the famous Dakota skull photo controversy, Roosevelt’s political opponents never addressed what should have been the real issue the drought in the Dakotas. “The photographs led the viewer to infer that the Dakotas were experiencing a drought. But the Dakotas were experiencing a drought. One of the worst droughts in American history. Was the real issue that the cow had died of old age rather than drought?” Of course,
I find photography of the Depression particularly fascinating not only for the dramatic moments of struggle it portrays, but also because I can’t help but wonder how the subjects of the photographs felt at that moment. Here is an out of town man with a paycheck and a camera who is offering to give them nothing. In fact, he or she is stealing a likeness and a life story for entirely unknown purposes. If the act of photographic representation is so powerful, how often did the impoverished subjects resent a photographer for holding that power over them? How could they know if their story was being told their way? Photographers must answer this question by capturing an image that gives the subject a voice to tell a story, the only suitable tool to fill the expanse the audience imagines when looking at a photograph. In the case of the Depression, that photograph may be the only time a person gets to speak and be heard.
Travelling authors sent around the USA in the Thirties saw innumerable profoundly human moments, both large and small in their drama. However, they were also afforded a more unique perspective: a bird’s-eye view of a country of which most people never saw more than a fraction of a percent. Others who did see average Americans as a group were typically factory managers, whose bird’s-eye view from a mezzanine above a floor of workers had no space for humanity.
In putting automobiles together everything could be figured out exactly to a fraction of a second and a tiny bit of an inch; but the human element could not always be figured out; the human element was the only weakness in the final perfection; a man could always suddenly become weak, or have a fit, or unaccountably die; and the line stopped dead, and where were all the figures? In the ultimate analysis, this ideal of modern production, this symbol of today’s civilization, was a failure, because in the end it depended on human hands, and human hands could not always be counted on. (Asch 262)
If this was the only “macro” perspective of themselves that the working class ever heard, it’s easy to understand why the Depression was as psychological as it was economic. This opinion of humanity was prevalent in factories in the 1930s and was taken to its logical end by Frederick Taylor (video below), the creator of the “scientific management” approach to labor. This approach essentially blamed workers themselves for the Depression—the only path to prosperity is for the inefficient working classes to live the mantra “I will work harder”. Taylorism also implies that management has no social responsibility except to separate workers from the “human” forces that slow them down. This implication leads to a self-loathing national identity and a sense that one is helpless unless his humanity, intelligence, and physical actions are coordinated by a wise leader. Living in the Great Recession, we see this backwards approach on a daily basis. Listening to many “experts,” productivity would skyrocket and we’d be out of this recession, if only we didn’t have a minimum wage, if only we didn’t have to let teachers unionize, if only we didn’t have to provide workers with human comforts like medical insurance or social security. If only managers could run an economy on paper…
At any rate, all of our authors felt a responsibility to tell Americans that could see a more positive way to look at the country as a whole. And I noticed that several try to articulate a sense that Americans have more in common than they think. Sherwood Anderson explains that there seems to be no concept of a “great America—America über alles” (10) among mine workers. And while his intentions are by no means fascist or statist, Anderson seems to feel a responsibility to demonstrate how average Americans fit together as a concept, and how workers exist in context of a greater nationwide whole. This responsibility was vital to Americans at the time, many of whom thought they were suffering alone, or that their work (if they were lucky enough to have any) was futile and did not fit into any grand interconnected system. Writers in the Thirties showed that individuals did not exist in a bubble, and that indeed their human element was their greatest hope for survival.
EDIT: Hopefully this video will work...
Perhaps the most obvious lessons the Joads—and the reader—are left with are of a political nature. As I’ve discussed in past blog posts, the setting and narrative of the story are emblematic of a turning point of American history, so it only makes sense that we should be left with an idea or two about America’s social, political, and cultural identity. Steinbeck has been accused of exhibiting Marxist opinions in The Grapes of Wrath for his apparent endorsement of unions, his depictions of elite capitalists, and his idealization of the Depression-era working class. It’s certainly true that The Grapes of Wrath has a political message, and that message can be described as liberal. Throughout the novel, Steinbeck lays moral blame on wealthy land-owning elites, from the heartless banker who forecloses on the Joads to the plantation owners who use false promises to drive down wages to the farms that destroy and poison unused crops, starving the masses in the process. It is clear that Steinbeck sees a villainy behind the Depression, not just a natural self-correcting disaster.
However, I believe it is incorrect to characterize the novel a Marxist piece for a number of reasons. Steinbeck uses the utopia (I use that term loosely) of Weedpatch to demonstrate that he believes democratic government can be the answer to the problem of the Depression, not just a roadblock to the proletariat’s revolution against the upper class. This is a classic New Deal philosophy, in which government is seen as a guiding force, not an oppressive machine owned by capitalists. Perhaps most importantly, Steinbeck illustrates to those who would be called Communist at the time—labor organizers, unemployed migrants, etc.—in a very capitalist light. Thousands of laborers go across the country in a search for work. The migrants’ drive is not to destroy or even reform the capitalist marketplace, but to enter the capitalist marketplace. Their complaints with capitalists are not against capitalism’s system of selling labor, but their inability to do so in their circumstances. They want to work for capitalists, even for “a cup of flour and a spoonful of lard.”
Ultimately, I believe any purely political reading of this novel is incomplete. Steinbeck’s moral code is not contained entirely even by the New Deal liberalism he supported. This is, after all, a family drama, and the family does not change their social status, uproot the political system, or get eliminated by an impersonal nonhuman entity like “Government” or “Capitalism.” Herbert Hoover is not a character in the novel. In the final paragraph we see a real transformation from Rose of Sharon, who despite a self-absorbed teenage personality, incomprehensible financial loss, and the grim tragedy of a stillborn child, is still capable of accessing a primal compassion for a pathetic stranger which brings her a “mysterious” happiness. Yes, Steinbeck wants us to have a socioeconomic order which rehumanizes those we see as unworthy. However, above all The Grapes of Wrath prioritizes the small, the personal sense of compassion and human dignity on an individual-to-individual level that can not be lost even in the most dire of circumstances.
Below, Tom Joad (Henry Fonda) attempts to assuage Ma’s fear for his safety. In doing so, he illustrates Steinbeck’s belief that in order to have a just society, individuals must look past their own personal needs and safety and recognize the importance of a collective self. This rejection of total self-interested individualism is important both to Steinbeck’s philosophy and the philosophy of the Left today.
When the Joads’ farmland dried up, leading to their eviction from their home and beginning their long sojourn to California, they sure had it easy. Well, relatively, right? The arc of the novel begins with a large family rather suddenly becoming homeless. To a modern reader of fiction, homelessness is the lowest of imaginable scenarios, and it’s often a threat so fundamental that it is left as an implicit motivator. It’s conceivable that a modern tragedy could begin with a well-off family and end with that family sinking into poverty. In The Grapes of Wrath, the Joads are homeless before Steinbeck is done with the exposition. Where can a story go from there?
If we read this novel as a story about America, we’re really thinking about psychological drama. American identity and the American Dream are conceptual, relative, and individual, so the loss of a farm doesn’t necessarily spell the absolute endgame of the Joads. Really, if anything, moving west strengthens their bonds—it makes manifest (pardon the pun) their understanding of the American Dream and their immediate purpose. They are redefined by their situation, discovering new roles and functions both individually and as a group.
However, it is not their hunger, their desperation, or their misery which brings them together. It is a vague aspiration made clear—the will to succeed, the American Dream—that brings them together in the novel, and that’s really the purpose of the American Family as a social unit. Once the Joads pack up for California, the fate of their Dream becomes very tangible—as simple as a handbill—and reduces to a single question: Is California really the Promised Land?
The final approach to the Golden State is the first time the final expression of hope for the Joads begins to deteriorate; the first time the act of dreaming itself begins to fail. A ragged man turning back to Oklahoma from California “to starve all at oncet” (189) tells them they’ve been lied to and they will not find work
The ragged man stared while Pa spoke, and then he laughed, and his laughter turned into a high whinnying giggle. The circle of faces turned to him. The giggling got out of control and turned into coughing. His eyes were red wand watering when he finally controlled the spasms. “You goin’ out there—on, Christ!” The giggling started again. “You goin’ out an’ get—good wages—oh, Christ! (188)
One can hear the disappointment and fear of his California ordeal coming out as laughter. In the darkest hours, the American Dream has turned into a farce.
Shortly thereafter, the family itself (not just their morale) deteriorates as Noah unceremoniously exits. If the Joad family can be taken as emblematic of the American identity, then the blow to their last hope mirrors America’s descent into the Great Depression. As the Dream falls apart, so does the social order, and the migrant camp teeters towards anarchy. The pursuit of specific goals is not only part of the American identity, it holds American society together. And with that fundamental fabric unraveling, Steinbeck finds the climax of his story of a crumbling nation.
The novel opens with an extended description of the destruction of a season’s worth of crops. “As the sharp sun struck day after day, the leaves of the young corn became less stiff and erect; they bent in a curve at first, and then, as the central ribs of strength grew weak, each leaf tilted downward” (1). This highly detailed description is important to establishing the world of the Great Depression. The slow death of crops mirrors the decline of the US economy. Just as importantly, the ever-present clouds of dust that rise and settle throughout Oklahoma tell us something tragic about the collective plight of Dust Bowl farmers. “The dawn came, but no day… Men and women huddled in their houses, and they tied handkerchiefs over their noses when they went out, and wore goggles to protect their eyes” (2-3). Being unable to see livelihoods crash down through a haze of destruction adds to the hopelessness of the destruction itself. Steinbeck communicates that in the midst of the Depression—an inescapable pall of countless specks of dust accumulating steadily—American farmers were quite literally blinded to the potentiality of the seeds they had sown all their lives. To them, corn was not simply a staple; it represented their sole lifeline to prosperity and their expression of the American Dream. With this taken away from them, the national attitude went from “bemused perplexity” to “hard, angry, and resistant” (3).
In 2011 it is difficult to imagine an occupation whose imagined future is tied so closely to so tangible and immersive a symbol as a field of corn. In the 1930s, the gradual destruction of this symbol had a blinding and a traumatizing effect. For a farmer, not only financial hopes and individual American Dreams, but a very immediate physical and psychological reliance is pinned on farming. The national economic decline was a macrocosm for the personal alienation and disorientation experienced by farmers squinting to watch their lives literally dry up and disappear. This identity-stripping ordeal led to desperation on an existential level, and many never found an answer to the question of “if I’m a farmer with no farm, who am I?” Thus, disoriented by luck and emboldened by need, the Joads, along with the rest of America, turned to new forces in their lives—a nascent welfare government (which was much more promise than presence), and, perhaps more nefariously, advertising. With reality evaporating, the Joads, along with many other Americans, looked to create a new reality founded largely on imagination—thus the power of billboards, salesmen, preachers, and stories of California. Naturally, many used travel as a tool to abuse the growing power of the American imagination and demand for new fantasies. In these ways, by chance and predatory action, the once-real American Dream was reduced to husks of symbols and replaced by illusory fantasies.
Not like the travel you see with such faces as Samantha Brown, that effervescent soprano who springs in front of cameras from the Iron Curtain to Outer Mongolia in search of the perfect shiatsu massage. No, I don’t want the touristy nonsense; Mozart’s Birthplace, the Eiffel Tower, the Biggest Potato West of Memphis. I don’t want tour buses in Munich or flashy light shows in Giza, I don’t want pink sand beaches or “Great Hotels.” I don’t want spaghetti and meatballs. And I definitely don’t want postcards. I want the real thing. I want what the locals have.
I want Anthony Bourdain.
I want to avoid the glitter and get immersed in the grit. It’s not a problem because my vintage leather jacket and I can handle anything. I want to get in shouting matches with stout bearded men in different languages. I want to bond with taxi drivers over the strongest liquor they have. I want to sit on a dock and share a pail of freshly caught Dungeness crab legs with someone—anyone, really—so they can tell me what it’s like to work with your hands. I want to find out how exotic foreigners--I mean locals--think Marlboro Reds are. I wonder what a Ray-Ban-clad American writer looks like in front of the Coliseum.
Brooding. I bet it’s brooding.
Well it’s definitely cool. And what could be a cooler place to learn about travelling to than 1930s America? Dust storms, campy advertising, bowler caps, a general work-ethicky feel. Lots of style. Very cool.
After reading just a couple introductions to books about travel in the 1930s, my fantasies have been dashed. It’s so obvious it seems silly to even say that travel in the 1930s is different from travel today, but it bears saying. It’s funny how we take for granted that travel itself is something that can be consumed. A DVD box set of Rick Steves’ Europe or a glove compartment filled with AAA maps is as mundane in American households as a refrigerator filled with food. But the concept of travel as an attainable item (though not yet a consumable mass-culture commodity) first emerged in a time when one could take neither a refrigerator nor a household for granted. How did—how could—tourists in the 1930s rub elbows with drunk drifters and starving children?
The answer isn’t a simple one. But I think Erskine Caldwell begins to answer it in his preface to Some American People: “What is worth traveling thousands of miles to see and know are people and their activity… only the understanding of man’s activity is satisfying” (4).
This is puzzling to the modern traveler. Orbiting erratically from place to place, he likes to think the scenery behind him is what’s changing. He needs to feel that although the world consists of a diverse patchwork of billions of people and settings, he is its stable center. In a way it’s the only way he can stay sane; either the world is an incomprehensible tornado of people, places, and information spinning just out of reach of his understanding, or he’s part of that tornado. Solipsism or nihilism, pick one.
Caldwell’s assertion of other people hardly enters into the question of why we travel today, but it speaks to the ethos of the Depression. Sherwood Anderson speaks in similar terms; he derides Government as absent and “impersonal”, and alludes to his belief that travel is the best window a writer has to see Americans and their potential. And we certainly can learn a great deal about this era from such writers and artists. One of the first things that struck me about Nathan Asch’s writing was how personal it was. I’m used to picturing the 1930s as a vast light-brown landscape, murky with dust and dotted with frowns and tumbleweed. Asch’s conversations with complete strangers give a much more “human” feel to my understanding of the Depression. Simultaneously mundane and ironic, he tells stories of gruff coal tycoons, “Old South” librarians in Richmond, and several others in the course of a few pages. These vignettes seem both ordinary and tragic at once and illustrate the Depression as a detailed, nuanced story.
Understanding a place, time, or social group as part of a comprehensible story requires context and artistry, and travel is (or can be) a powerful impetus for that kind of creativity. Perhaps no such story compels us as identity-seeking Americans than the Great Depression. What happened in the 1930s—along with how and why—is to this day the subject of fierce debates that have major implications for our artistic, moral, and political culture. The fact that “the travel habit” developed at such a significant time in our history is no coincidence. By travelling, we found a colossal, diverse, and coherent country of others living together, working together, and suffering together. By travelling, we linked these experiences into a national identity that has persisted for generations.
So apparently, travel isn’t just a channel.
*Note: Edited for formatting and topic heading