- Harry L. Hopkins, New Orleans WPA GuideWhile looking through the various WPA Guides for states and cities throughout the nation, I am struck by the thoroughness and attention to detail that is apparent within the text. Just how long might it have taken to craft even one of these guides? How many people were commissioned to work on the guidebooks? I am curious about the amount of labor, hard work, and determination that went into the production of these books.
With regards to the WPA Guide referencing the city of New Orleans, copyrighted by the Mayor of New Orleans and produced by the Federal Writers’ Project of Louisiana, the text takes on a very flowery, dense tone for the most part. For instance, many paragraphs are dedicated to a long, winding description of New Orleans’ Garden District, and one of the sentences reads, “There is scarcely a day in the year where flowers cannot be seen” (FWPL 3). While this detail is okay to an extent, it is not the most informative and it is certainly quite obvious to the reader already. I have to wonder, did the WPA Guides take on too large of a task? It appears quite difficult to summarize an entire city or state when the details are so fine, with so much information to cover right down to the flowers that the travelers will view.
In reference to the quote that begins this post, I am curious as to the validity and longevity of the WPA Guides themselves. It is evident that the Administrator, Harry L. Hopkins, sincerely hoped that the guidebooks would be able to continue on and have quite a large impact on the American public, especially young American students. According to Bill Ganzel of Living History Farm, the impact of the WPA Guides was indeed vast and grand. Ganzel quotes Fortune Magazine with regards to the WPA Guides, speaking of the “sort of cultural revolution in America” that the guidebooks were said to have brought about (Ganzel 1). He goes on to say, “These notes went well beyond traditional guides,” which relates to the flowery language used throughout the guidebooks in general.
- Agee, “The American Roadside” (42)Throughout the Great Depression, many aspects of America as we know it today were just beginning to take shape. The American system of highways and roads is a crucial element that was in the process of forming during the 1930s, specifically. Authors Agee, Berkowitz, and Jakle collectively examine both the roadside development and the tourism that occurs. The notion of the roadside, including road systems and highways, is particularly interesting when paired with leisure and vacationing.
In “The American Roadside,” James Agee discusses the importance of the road as it relates to the lives of the people who often interact with it. Both the road and the automobile provide Americans with a sense of comfort and stability as they move through their lives, and it is thus said that the American roadside is “the greatest road” (Agee 43). In terms of the contradiction and irony that the automobile presents, it is written that “It [the automobile] was good because continually it satisfied and at the same time greatly sharpened his hunger for movement” (44). The automobile appears to shape the roadside, working with the notion of movement and forward motion, in order to allow the American people to propel their lives forward literally and figuratively.
Continuing with the concept of the impact of the road and the automobile, Michael Berkowitz speaks of this in relation to American tourism and leisure, in “A ‘New Deal’ for Leisure.” There is a certain amount of irony in the “depression-era tourism expansion” that is mentioned, for even though the nation was undergoing a rough economic time within the Great Depression, tourism, vacationing, and other expensive forms of leisure and recreation seemed to flourish (Berkowitz 185). The “movement for paid vacations” is interesting as well, in that it incorporates the use of transportation systems such as the road, highway, and the railroad in order to occur (187). Thus, the onset of leisure served to improve the onset of certain transportation systems in America.
In addition, John A. Jakle writes about the highway with regards to the tourist in “The Tourist: Travel in Twentieth-Century North America” after World War II. He notes, “Pent-up buying power and increased leisure time after World War II served to flood North American highways with vacationers” (Jakle 185). The various readings of Agee, Berkowitz, and Jakle tie together the crucial connections forged between the roadside, leisure and tourism, and the American people of the Great Depression and post-World War II.
- Daniel Walden, “Nathanael West: A Jewish Satirist in Spite of Himself” (1)
Author Nathanael West includes a generous amount of satire in his novel A Cool Million. Such a strong and eye-catching use of satire stands out to the reader, adding a layer of complexity to the text. In order to properly examine the use of satire, it is important to define the term (according to Dictionary.com) as such: “the use of irony, sarcasm, ridicule, or the like, in exposing, denouncing, or deriding vice, folly, etc.” With that in mind, it is evident that as the novel progresses, West maintains an air of satire with regards to the character of Lemuel Pitkin – a concept which is expanded upon below.
Such satire is mainly concentrated on the character of Lemuel “Lem” Pitkin, a boy who bears witness to vast amounts of harsh turmoil and trouble throughout his life experiences, for even as the situations Lemuel finds himself in continually worsen, Pitkin’s attitude remains (unusually) optimistic and almost joyful. For instance, within A Cool Million, Lemuel is first introduced as “our hero…a strong, spirited lad” (West 69). Later, it is written that Lemuel “was a fair-dealing lad himself and he thought that everyone was the same” (78). Lemuel exhibits an impressive amount of strength when it comes to viewing both situations and other individuals as positive, speaking to an unwavering faith and optimism.
It is this very sense of optimism that West ridicules and exaggerates, in order to ridicule the optimism of Horatio Alger’s literary works on a grand scale. In the article “Nathanael West: A Jewish Satirist in Spite of Himself,” author Daniel Walden addresses this situation. Walden states that “In true Horatio Alger, Jr. fashion, Nathan “Shagpoke” Whipple, an ex-President with a phony cracker-barrel philosophy, assures Lemuel Pitkin that everyone can be a Rockefeller or a Ford” (1). The previous statement reveals the notion that as an author, Nathanael West gives some of his characters a large, unrealistic sense of optimism in order to get a jab in towards Alger and his writings. The character of Lemuel in particular conveys this optimism through thick and thin, even as his love, Betty, is abused and as Lemuel himself suffers both physically and emotionally.
- Daniel Aaron, Introduction to The Disinherited by Jack Conroy (xi)Jack Conroy, the writer of the novel The Disinherited, concentrated largely on the subject of the working men of the 1930s and their various struggles. Through his writing, the plight of the working-class was revealed to a greater extent, centering on the life of relative simplicity and basic survival that was adopted by many, in order to cope with the difficult struggle to find employment, food, and shelter each day.
According to writer Carla Cappetti of the Solidarity organization, “Jack Conroy is the Twain and the Hurston of the U.S. working class” (Cappetti 1). It is evident that Conroy made quite a name for himself, specifically with regards to his exploration of the life in relation to work. Cappetti goes on to remark on Conroy’s impact in terms of the writing style and form, speaking of the “worker-writer literary tradition he [Conroy] represents” (1). The connection between Conroy and the working class extends far and wide.
In the Introduction (to The Disinherited), written by Daniel Aaron, the idea of Conroy working to maintain a general sense of simplicity and a strong work ethic is brought up as he is advised to not become a snobby “literary gent” (Aaron viii). This relates well to the author Tom Kromer (Waiting for Nothing), which we discussed last class. Both Kromer and Conroy appear to have had some level of intellectualism and education to begin with – Kromer was once a elite college student while Conroy’s parents were immersed in the intellectual world and academia, as we find out in the Introduction (xi) – which they promptly disregarded in order to venture out on their own and join the world of the working-class.
With regards to Conroy’s writing of the novel The Disinherited, Aaron refers to it as an “American picaresque novel” (xii). This sentiment may be linked to the idea that there are many adventures that take place as the working class characters in the novel go through their various journeys. The novel is also said to relate to the personal mental shift that many of the workers adopt over time: “social unawareness to militant class consciousness” (xii). In a broad sense, Jack Conroy embraces the struggles and adventures of the 1930s working-class, highlighting their lifestyle in his writings and giving a voice to both the physical and mental states of the men at hand.
- Hugh Crawford’s “On The Fritz: Tom Kromer’s Imagining of the Machine” (101)Tom Kromer’s Waiting for Nothing captured my interest immediately due to the writing surrounding distinctions between the upper class and the lower class. To have an (almost entirely) autobiographical sketch of the life of bums and such who were struggling to find work and survive the Great Depression was quite eye-opening. As I started reading Waiting for Nothing, the author’s transition from a life in the intellectual, wealthy realm to one of struggle stood out. As the University of Georgia Press points out in their description of Kromer and his novel, there is a "powerless frustration of working-class people" that Kromer depicts (1).
Within the novel's Autobiography, Kromer writes, “my people were working people” (Kromer xxiii), which shows that his personal journey was actually quite full circle. In fact, “my father never hoped for anything better in this life than a job” (xxiii). When Kromer became a teacher for a period of time, it appears that he encountered a certain student, Emil, who exemplifies the contrast between upper class life and working class life. It is said that Emil was a star pupil and yet “wanted to do nothing in school or in life but catch flies and pull these wings out” (xxiv). The previous statement demonstrates the divide that may occur between the intellectual, high fluent life and the working, grounded life. I am interested in the difference between the two lifestyles, especially as it applies to Kromer’s personal life.
In the article “On The Fritz: Tom Kromer’s Imagining of the Machine” by Hugh Crawford (example: opening quote), Kromer is said to have been “riding the rails as one of those panhandlers” (101). It appears that Kromer was lived the life of a man struggling through the 1930s in a very accurate manner, as he was subjected to much turmoil. Fittingly, Kromer writes in Waiting for Nothing that in terms of his luck, he was “down so far I don’t know how far” (14) and he was also frequently called a “goddam bum” (5) as well as a “lousy bum” (45) throughout his travels. There is a certain amount of judgement, clearly, that goes into these statements, revealing just how morose and intense life on the streets might become. Those that were wealthy enough to maintain their affluent and intellectual lifestyles were at times judgmental of the men who were ‘bums’ and struggling day to day; as one wealthy man said to Kromer, “I ain’t got no money for bums” (96).
- Anderson’s Hungry Men (160)
Woody Guthrie’s book Bound for Glory speaks to the migrant men and their caution as well, drawing on scenes of bread lines, truckers and their woes, and dust-covered migration to illustrate the plight of the men. Providing a prime example of the ways in which many migrant men were indeed able to simply lay low and stay off the radar, Woody Guthrie remarks that “…it’s come morning, and men seem to be gone. They’ve learned how to keep out of the way. They’ve learned how to meet and talk about their hard traveling…hundreds of them, and when the sun comes out bright, they seem to be gone” (201). In speaking to the disappearance of the men, Guthrie also brings up the idea that the men often maintained a certain sense of unity with one another, gathering if only for a brief conversation and connection.
Perhaps the harsh struggles of 1930s migrant life were softened (just a bit) by said connection and sense of supportiveness? The notion of a system of support strengthens the idea that the men were in this together and the problem was not micro but macro, affecting much of the nation at the time. There is a sense of urgency that accompanies many of the narratives, as the men are forced to quickly vacate each area and hop on the next bustling freight train in order to scurry off to a new destination. It is interesting to note the shallowness with which the men experience each town, never quite settling down enough in their travels to soak up the cultures as a whole. However, it appears that the men were unified in this speedy sense of traveling and migration, connecting them on yet another level as they attempted to ban together and lay low.
Errol Morris' “The Case of the Inappropriate Alarm Clock” (4)
Errol Morris addresses the issue of “photographic fakery” (5) throughout "The Case of the Inappropriate Alarm Clock," delving into the core of the controversy: were some of the most famed and respected photographs taken in the 1930s falsified? How do the various images hold up, when their authenticity is questioned? Morris narrows in on “Three different photographs. Three accusations of photo-fakery” (7), highlighting the cases of Rothstein's photograph of a cow skull, a New York Times photograph of cattle, and an Associated Press photograph of the Missouri River. These images were all found to contain various degrees of falseness: one photo contained a “moveable 'prop'” - a cow skull that had been moved a few feet over to make the picture look more impressive, one was “miscaptioned,” and the remaining photo involved “a photographic trick – superimposing” (5).
Various other photo-images created and produced in the 1930s bring forth the notion of reality versus fraud, with regards to the content of the photographs. In the link provided regarding the book Let Us Now Praise Famous Men by Agee and Evans, the photographs shown all speak to a sense of seriousness and hardness that the harsh economics of the 1930s appears to have imposed on the people. Scrolling through the photos, there are striking close up portraits of men, women, and children looking rather weathered. I am curious as to the legitimacy of the images – have any of the images been doctored? Were the people asked to pose in a serious manner for the photographer, or are these more candid shots?
Along the same vein, the book You Have Seen Their Faces by Caldwell and Bourke-White speaks to controversial photographs of faces taken during the 1930s. The harsh qualities of the lifestyle, and the downfalls of attempting to live off of the land, are addressed; such a difficult way of life may be a factor that contributed to the extreme seriousness and tension seen in the faces and other images. A statement is quoted which says, “'There's lot of things easier to do, and pay more money, but plowing the land and harvesting the crops gives a man something that satisfies him...” (1), speaking to the difficulties that the common man was left to deal with on a day to day basis. Perhaps the serious tone of the photo-images stems from not only the intensity of the day’s labor, but the seriousness of the satisfaction involved? I would like to know more about not only the photo-images of the people, but the daily lives of the people! The photo-images of the 1930s seem to provide glimpses of the commoners and their lifestyles, both real and false.
-Lorena Hickok’s “One Third of a Nation” (x)
The theme of travel takes on a new level of importance for me personally when it is linked to others; it is through traveling to foreign destinations that the individual is able to connect with other people and rally around collective shared experiences. In “Home Country,” the main character is struck by the idea that “the story was the same everywhere” while traveling from town to town around the time of the Dust Bowl (Pyle 49). Thus, there is a universal element to travel that serves to establish a sense of togetherness, often forging bonds between both strangers and friends.
What impact do travel stories have on the individual? It is evident that while such stories may also extend beyond the realm of entertainment and pleasure, and provide a source of crucial information for the listener. Tales of the past with events that took place “in those days” (54) and speak to historical events are valued for their link to times that the listener was not present for. In Pyle’s work, a group of friends gathers and it is said that a man by the name of Denver Williams “had lots to tell” – Williams’ stories end up providing a way for the men to connect with one another as they tell their tales.
How might travel relate to the concept of struggle? Taking on a more morose tone, Adamic highlights the despair and destruction that traveling can include, allowing the narrator to not only witness this but also gain a new understanding of what many travelers endure throughout their journey. Travel stories do not always center on that which is easy; there is a looming sense of despair as migrants and hobos cross the country in a never-ending search for food, shelter, and work. The story of a girl who “was in actual distress” (Adamic 498) reaches out to the audience and touches upon the universal notion of suffering. Along the same vein, Hickok writes in “One Third of a Nation” of travelers and their down and out stories, stating “it is their story as they themselves told it – sometimes desperately, sometimes with quivering lips” (Hickok ix). Travel stories depend on both entertainment and despair, connecting individuals in their journeys to unknown places and fostering a sense of unity among strangers.
“The boxcars, twelve of them, stood end to end on a little flat beside the stream. There were two rows of six each, the wheels removed.”
- John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath (558)
During the 1930s, boxcars were found scattered throughout the nation with abundance, used as makeshift living spaces. As the Joad family and others discovered, the empty railroad cars provided shelter from natural elements such as wind and rain, and were thus a welcome relief from many poorly constructed Hoovervilles and shantytowns. Louis Owens examines Steinbeck’s depiction of the life of the many migrant workers who were living in boxcars. Owens points out that many critics viewed Steinbeck’s “downtrodden proletariat” character as one that was far too fanciful (Owens 1).
The idea that “Americans took the Joads to heart” (1) is one that Owens brings up from the very start. If the Joad family is an accurate portrayal of a migrant family during the Dust Bowl, how accurate might the portrayal of boxcar life be as well? The use of the boxcar during the Dust Bowl is summed up by author Kim Ruehl in the article “The History of American Folk Music.” Ruehl writes, “…communities [of farmers during the Dust Bowl] were found in boxcars and jungle camps, as workers tried to make their way from job to job. Woody Guthrie was one of those workers who headed to California in search of gainful employment.” Folk musicians such as Woody Guthrie sang about the boxcar in relation to the life of the 1930s homeless population and migrant workers as well; Guthrie’s song “Hobo’s Lullaby” speaks to the “nice warm boxcar” as an escape from the daily struggle to survive. In the midst of the often-disappointing search for work and fear about what might lie ahead, the boxcar is tied to Steinbeck’s “generic portrait of the migrants” (2) as a source of comfort for them, which fits in with the ideas of “endurance” and “survival if not salvation” that Owens mentions (1).
Owens argues that Steinbeck does not want to write of the migrants in a way that is too idealistic; Owens notes that “Steinbeck attempts to unsentimentalize this story of displacement and suffering” (1). Fittingly, journalist Kristin Lewis writes of the young ‘boxcar children’ of the 1930s in the Scholastic article “Teen Hoboes of the 1930s.” She reveals, “Poor and homeless, they [boxcar children] hopped from train to train and drifted from town to town. Some sought adventure. Most were looking for work, their families too poor to care for them.” The article picks up on a sense of desperation and fear that the youth often felt when having to take on the world, which also directly relates to the “migrant’s culpability” and “responsibility” (2) that Owens believes Steinbeck portrays accurately. Ultimately, Steinbeck’s writing of migrant life/boxcar life is viewed by Owens as mainly unsentimental, accurate, and informative; boxcar life highlights the earnest struggles and the ups and downs that the workers were forced to endure.
- Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath (264)
Throughout the 1930s, Hoovervilles came into existence throughout the United States, providing a sense of community in the midst of the migrant workers’ various struggles. According to The History Channel online, “President Herbert Hoover (1874-1964) was blamed for the intolerable economic and social conditions, and the shantytowns that cropped up across the nation, primarily on the outskirts of major cities, became known as Hoovervilles.” While the popularity of Hoovervilles grew, the people that fled to them often brought with them a renewed sense of hope, reveling in the idea that they were not alone in their plight.
As Hoovervilles formed, the tight-knit communities within them were based largely on a sense of shared experience, and thus of unity. For instance, in The Grapes of Wrath it is written that, “the twenty families became one family…the loss of home became one loss, and the golden time in the West was one dream” (264) and “In the evening, sitting about the fires, the twenty were one” (265). Such a strong sense of togetherness helped the migrants to live day to day and endure all that they needed to in order to survive.
Of course, Hoovervilles also presented their fair share of strife in terms of the physical living conditions. In The Grapes of Wrath, “…there was a huge tent, ragged, torn in strips and the tears mended with pieces of wire” (329). The broken down, raggedy state of the tents and shacks were a reminder that though the spirit of community may burn bright in many of the Hoovervilles, there was much left to be desired with regards to adequate shelter. According to the University of Washington, the city of Seattle “required that women and children not live in the Hooverville” due to the often harsh living conditions. This practice was taken up by many urban areas over time, in order to add both a sense of stability and safety. Providing an example of the sense of community at hand was the primary Hooverville within Seattle, which “claimed its own community government including an unofficial mayor” from 1931 to 1941.
Above all, Hoovervilles served as homes for weary migrant families, as dilapidated as they might have been. The community ties and connections were often prominent enough that they supported the camp members, unifying them in their westward migration. With such a makeshift society came a call to rally together as one.
-John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath (83)
Within The Grapes of Wrath, the events surrounding the Dust Bowl captivate my interest in relation to the acts of corruption and fraud that occurred. In order to better understand the hardships of the time, the Dust Bowl should first be defined more clearly: when did the Dust Bowl occur, and what were some of its components?According to Geoff Cunfer of Southwest Minnesota State University,“…for those eight years [1933-1941] crops failed, sandy soils blew and drifted over failed croplands, and rural people, unable to meet cash obligations, suffered through tax delinquency, farm foreclosure, business failure, and out-migration.” It is evident that as the migrant workers lost their crops, land, and homes, they became more and more susceptible to scams, especially ones related to monetary wealth.
Such corrupt actions are intriguing to me due to their harsh nature in a time when many were fighting to stick together and present a united front. It is difficult to imagine men who were so willing to take from those who were clearly suffering! During the Dust Bowl, many families headed west in hope of a more promising economy and job stability, and it was during this period of transition that some fell prey to the unjust. In The Grapes of Wrath, Pa Joad addresses the sneaky ways of a salesman: “Got skinned on the stuff we sold. The fella knowed we couldn’t wait. Got eighteen dollars only” (136).
The lyrics in the Mumford and Sons song “Dustbowl Dance” speak to such abuse of 1930s migrants by calling out their oppressors: “Your oppression reeks of your greed and disgrace…How can you love what it is you have got when you took it all from the weak hands of the poor? Liars and thieves you know not what is in store.” According to an article written by author Karen S. Lynch, “The social differences between the rich and poor, and the corruption that existed during the Great Depression kept most people silent about their plight.” It is also interesting to note that Steinbeck wrote, ‘The vilification of me out here from the large landowners and bankers is pretty bad,’ referring to powerful men who were allegedly upset that he had written about salesmen and others, tainting the view of such public figures. As a gas station employee laments in The Grapes of Wrath, “It ain’t that I’m tryin’ to git trade outa rich folks…I’m jus’ tryin’ to git trade” (172). The previous quote highlights the face that the salesmen, bankers, and other public figures were trying to survive just as the migrants were; some went about it in a corrupt way while others chose to be fair in their tactics.
“Why, we writers do not want to put an end to extravagant living. We want more of it.”
- Sherwood Anderson’s Puzzled America (xi)
The above quote highlights the ironic notion that during the Great Depression, with all of its unemployed workers and starving families, luxurious lifestyles were found throughout America. While reading the Introduction to Puzzled America, I was continually drawn in by the desire for luxury.
Those that were fortunate enough to find themselves in a stable monetary situation during the Depression, circa 1929-1941, often bought upscale homes, clothing and automobiles. While researching the types of luxury that were most prominent during the Depression, I was surprised to find that automobiles were at the top. Not only were cars being produced (I had previously assumed production would have just about come to a halt), but the quality of the cars was often astounding. In fact, according to Matt DeLorenzo of Hearst Communications, “the Great Depression in the 1930s witnessed the production of some of the greatest classic cars of all time.”
Anderson writes of the “vast richness of America” (xi) and even goes so far as to say, “…Is there any necessity for any one’s being broke in a land like this? It is so rich” (xiii). This perception of the American landscape during the Great Depression is one which opens my eyes to the idea that no matter the economic situation, there is often a longing for more. For instance, how many times do you think that having just one more material good or item in your life will be enough, only to realize that you still want more? Whether it is food or clothing or automobiles or any other good, the desire to increase one’s assets prevails.
Along with luxury comes the idea of creating and maintaining prosperity for the future, which is clearly far more feasible for those that have wealth during the Depression. Fittingly, Anderson remarks, “There are the extravagant ones, the money-spenders, but who wants to stop them?” (x). Popular Mechanics showed their predictions for the automobiles of 1940 in the magazine, including a “Concept Car” and “The Motor Car Of The Future.”
Luxury may take hold, as evident at times during the Great Depression. As Anderson points out, “Where would we writers, painters, sculptors, etc., be if there were no people ready to throw their money away?” (x, xi). When the wealthy bought their artwork, many artists began to encourage luxurious lifestyles. Anderson allowed an interesting and thought-provoking look into luxury, belief and the Great Depression overall.