The three pages from the guidebook that were dedicated to Wellesley focused mainly on the fact that it was a town where the main attractions were its colleges. Wellesley, a preeminent women’s college, had been open for some fifteen to twenty years and the Babson Institute (now Babson College), was taking shape with twelve buildings that, “aimed to provide a thorough and practical training in business fundamentals, business ethics, and executive control”(382). Wellesley certainly embraced its status as a haven for higher education, the town now having four colleges within its borders.
Besides the touring of the college campuses, which seemed to be the most exhilarating activity the town had to offer, the guidebook also pointed out notable private homes that they felt visitors would enjoy. Personally I cant imagine that it would be very stimulating just to look at the outside of a private home just to observe it’s architectural detail, but I guess the writers were looking for anything for visitors to see and do in a small suburban town.
The small history offered about Wellesley was also illuminating; this resident never knew that Alexander Graham Bell lived in Wellesley while he invented the Telephone. But again I simply cannot imagine families pulling over on the side of the road on the way to Boston to get out and explore this quiet little town. But the thoroughness of the guide speaks to how dedicated the writers were to putting all of America down on the written page, from the most exciting to the most mundane. It was a great way to unify the nation during a time of struggle, and it is extremely valuable that we can look back on these documents now and read very detailed accounts of what was happening in our backyards during a very different time.
Obviously these advances in tourism culture have sprung from new forms of media that were not available during the thirties and forties. So although these messages are delivered through modern mediums they speak back to the same themes we have been discussing throughout the entire course. The central difference I am speaking of is the evolution tourism culture from advertisements and marketing strategies to becoming actual media content. Today there is an entire entertainment genre that speaks to the American desire to travel.
One program that fits into this category that I am extremely familiar with is the Travel Channel show “No Reservations” which is hosted by the snarky New York City celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain. For the episodes that are set in America Mr. Bourdain takes the “authenticity of the locals” approach that we have discussed at great length. Usually his travels take him to lower income neighborhoods where he samples the food of the working people or a specific immigrant group in order to have a more “real” experience and see how people live.
The Food Network produced a show hosted by well known TV personality Rachel Ray called “Forty Dollars A Day” which followed Ray as she traveled all across America for weekend getaways all while maintaining a strict budget of…you guessed it, forty dollars a day. This coincides with one of the tent pole marketing strategies used to promote tourism in the 1930s, which was “the idea that vacationing could be easy and inexpensive”(198). In addition to programs featured on cable networks that highlighted the budgetary incentives and local experiences of tourism, an upscale market was created mainly through the print media. Monthly magazines like Travel + Leisure showed the wealthiest travelers exciting new destinations and the most exclusive places to stay, eat, and play while on vacation. Lists of the world’s finest spas and highest ranked restaurants certainly spoke to a different audience but still underscored the fact that once American’s were taught how to travel they developed an insatiable appetite for it, no matter what their income bracket was.
One such notion is laid out at the beginning of the novel by Mr. Whipple, who seems to always appear in the novel to give Lem advice or pitch a new scheme to the ill fated hero: “‘America’, he said with great seriousness, ‘is the land of opportunity. She takes care of the honest and the industrious, and never fails them as long as they are both. This is not a matter of opinion, but a matter of faith. On the day that Americans stop believing it, on that day will America be lost’”(74). This idyllic view of the nation is clearly disproven throughout the narrative with Lem only being punished and maimed in return for his efforts. This also feels similar to the disillusionment our country is facing today.
One of the most drastic aspects of the plot is how the protagonist is literally broken down into pieces by the American system. Not until I had finished reading the novel did I realize the full title was A Cool Million: The Dismantling of Limuel Pitkin. When all is said and done Pitkin has his teeth, eye, thumb, scalp, and leg taken from him by America. Another example of the American spirit being corrupted can be seen in Betty Prail, the object of Lem’s affection and sadly victim of an equally nefarious fate. Betty’s female innocence corrupted countless times with her being raped by a father and son in her hometown, being abducted and forced to work as a prostitute, and finally raped again by a violent cowboy near the close of the novel. The author shows that while America is billed as a land of opportunity more often than not it has the power to steal a young girl’s innocence and take a strong boy’s body away from him. It seems that West clings to the cynical notion that America will not only rape and mutilate you – but they will put you up on stage and laugh at you for it.
The passage I felt was the best example of this was when the protagonist attends church service that is meant for hobos to confess their sins and accept a god. The scene is told in a very cynical manner, the narrator making it clear that the Hobo who can fake the most convincing religious revelation will be offered the nicest accommodations for that night’s flop: “All these guys that went up to the mourners’ bench line up and march upstairs. They do not sleep with us sinners. They have been washed in the blood. They sleep in the converts’ room. There are clean sheets on the beds of the converts’ room. They are not lousy. A stiff who wears blisters on his knees at the mourners’ bench deserves a good clean flop”(39). Even though Hobo’s seem to have nothing to offer society or the people that they live amongst, they do provide a twisted service to those willing to take advantage of them, creating a somewhat strange symbiotic relationship.
Throughout Waiting For Nothing the narrator comes across people seemingly willing to help a stiff that is down on his luck. In reality these people offer change and free cups of coffee always in a loud voice so that people around them are sure to take notice of their generosity. This perverse generosity shows that even the well to do had an agenda to push and were willing to exploit the most destitute citizens to achieve their ends.
The fact that each chapter is more or less self-contained is an interesting formal choice made by the author that I feel is very successful. With no overarching narrative the reader is left without a sense of continuity that is intriguing and has left me contemplating what happens to the characters outside of the confines of the chapters.
An aspect of the writing that makes the work so compelling is the author’s repetition of slang used by the central character and all the people he comes in contact with. The recurring use of words like stiff, flop, and gat makes the reader feel even more personally connected to the culture of those down and out individuals that the novel chronicles. This discourse introduced by the author creates a unique identity for these characters and strengthens the bare bones writing style employed throughout.
The way in which Kromer writes, as mentioned above, is yet another formal construction that is central to the success of his novel. The cool unemotional style that is used to describe horrific events including prostitution, violent crime, and appalling living conditions make them all the more unsettling because of the matter of fact tone in which they are recounted. One particularly chilling example is when a penniless woman leaves her newborn in a park during a rainstorm because she does not have the means to feed it: “Through the blackness of the park I can see a white splotch on one of the benches. I know what that is. It is the baby. She has gone back after the rain and put it there. She waits here to see if anybody picks it up”(74). The jaded and unattached voice clearly demonstrates that the people living in the poverty-stricken seedy underbelly of big city life have nothing left to lose and are indeed waiting for nothing.
With these notions of adventure and a desire to flee from authority put into my head after reading this, I began to think about the traveling population that has shed all responsibilities of society and set up camp literally outside my window. The “crusty” population of the East Village seems to be somewhat similar to the Hobo and traveler population described in the Box Car Bertha excerpt. The crust population is made up of male and female college age runaways, most appearing to be drug addicts, they are covered in tattoos and living on the street - under scaffolding or in parks. Their signs begging for change sometimes indicate that they are on the road and somehow stranded in New York. Often they use a strange type of humor in their panhandling, writing things like “We know we’re strange, spare some change” or “At least we’re not your kids”. One strong parallel the crusties share with travelers depicted in Reitman’s novel is that they both seem to relish living outside normal confines of society: “She boasted that she had stayed at all the transient bureaus between El Paso and Toledo…She laughed a great deal and appeared to take great pleasure in the way she had fooled the social workers”(180). The transient cultures of the 30s and today share striking similarities and are firmly entrenched within the fabric of the American subculture.
The statements of these marginalized people seem to almost take on a newfound power and weight in the way that they are organized on the page. These outcries gathered from all across portions of the country seemed to be unified in their predicament, who and what is responsible, and how to fix it. It seems that this page of quotes is where I get to hear the human voices behind the photos, Lange’s desire for her work to “speak to you face to face” is most apparent.
The people travelling on the road in the wake of the depression desperately trying to make a living for their families had their stories told countless times by some of the nation’s greatest writers and photographers, but the inescapable truth of Lange’s work coupled with the primary source documents create an absoluteness of image and context that explains their continued cultural significance and their iconic status.
While the author's exploits across the country and the world are indeed quite a feat, the manner in which he lists them one after another seems to take away some of their inherent value. Even his choice of title - Vagabondage - gives the chapter somewhat of a negative spin from the start. Near the close of the chapter Pyle praises travel because it has allowed him to escape and always be stimulated by something new: "And my conclusion is that our travel is a means of escape. We don't have to stay and face anything out...Stability cloaks you with a thousand little personal responsibilities, and we have been able to flee from them...We still love all those places because we always had to leave before the sweet taste turned to vinegar"(468). While this ability to flee some aspects that come with putting down roots does sound appealing, on the whole, this explanation seems a bit misguided and left me thinking that the wonderful sights, experiences, and people Pyle came across were merely a symptom of his urge to flee rather than a burning desire to travel and explore.
When I finished the chapter, I began to consider the transformative nature of travel. Pyle contends that after his five years on the road some things changed greatly within him and some remained the same: "When we started I weighed 108 pounds, had two bad colds a year, felt very tired of an evening, and was scared to death at meeting strange people. But now, after five years and 165,000 miles of travel, I weigh 108 pounds, have two bad colds a year, feel tired of an evening, and am afraid of people"(463). And while he makes scores of new friends and develops great fondness for many of the nation's most scenic places, the reader senses an air of excitement and anticipation as his bus dips below the Holland Tunnel on its way back into Manhattan. The final thought I was left with concerns the outlooks and opinions of these writers and photographers after their return: does travel unite these people with their countrymen? Or, in the end, does it deepen the divide between the people who faced great hardships and the people went out across the nation to study them.
Upon my first reading of The Grapes of Wrath, Steinbeck's dystopian American landscape seemed unimaginable in the prosperous times of the early aughts. Examining this text in the wake of the great recession of 2008 and with the prospect of a double dip looming, the imagery described throughout the book has a great more resonance and mirrors what is shown on nightly news broadcasts and written about in newspapers on a daily basis. Bread lines morph into lines at job fairs and the burst of the housing bubble has forced millions of American families into foreclosure just as the Joad's and countless other farmers were in the thirties.
The rumblings of discontent and the discourse of class warfare are as prominent today as they were in the Hoovervilles of California and can be seen through President Obama's push for new legislation to put Americans back to work, and the resistance from conservative politicians. The similarities between now and the thirties are striking and it is certainly advantageous for students of American history and culture to mine the past in search of solutions and lessons from a time when the nation was even worse off than in present times.
But there is one major difference that is illustrated by Steinbeck's shocking and controversial ending to his masterpiece. In the last paragraph, after losing her baby, Rose of Sharon feeds a sick and dying man from her breast milk. With this polarizing final scene the author shows that even people with next to nothing have something to give and can contribute to the greater good. Steinbeck's evocation of the inherent goodness that is tied to the American spirit, in my view, is a call to action to the middle class readers of his novel to do something to help end the suffering and debasement of their fellow Americans.
The central difference between the economic downturn of today and when the book was published is that the middle class - the very people Steinbeck was trying to mobilize, the people with the greatest collective voice, are the ones that today are bearing the brunt of the recession. With the ever increasing polarization of wealth occurring in our nation the middle class is hurting the most and could very easily disappear all together. Then the question becomes, who can authors and other agents of social change appeal to? With lower classes already rendered nearly voiceless and the upper classes set firmly in their skewed economic polices it seems our society is lacking a body that is willing to fight for change and demand reform.
Even before the family set off for California the Joad’s food preparation seemed to have a uniting affect on the family – the process of cultivating and preparing sustenance involving every member of the household, the duties seemed to take on ritualistic qualities. Steinbeck provides striking example of this on the eve of the Joad’s departure when the entire family partakes in the slaughter and breakdown of two pigs that was to be the primary food eaten by the family on the road: “Noah slit the bodies from end to end and dropped the entrails out onto the ground. Pa sharpened two more sticks to hold the bodies open to the air, while Tom with the scrubber and Ma with a dull knife scraped the skins…Noah carried the slabs of meat into the kitchen and cut it into small salting blocks, and Ma patted the coarse salt in, laid it piece by piece in the kegs…”(105,106). The family is brought together in this unique way by preparing its food. Everyone seems to be on the same level – no differentiation made by age or sex – all working towards the same goal: the survival of the family unit.
Besides the preparation of the food being ritualistic the actual day-to-day meals the family eats while travelling are also highly bound up in ritual – but for very different reasons. The preserved pork along with pan biscuits and boiling potatoes are the only thing that the Joad’s eat on their journey. At one point cooking beans and canned peaches were described as delicacies only to be eaten in private as not to boast about one’s wealth or mismanagement of funds. Born from monetary limitations and the inconvenience of cooking on a roadside fire, the food consumed by the vast majority of American’s during this time was simply fuel for the body so they could push west for one more day. While this is in no way enviable, the simple way in which these families ate is one of the aspects of this novel that has struck me, and gotten me thinking about my often gluttonous and unnecessary eating habits.
The story centers on the Joad family and their push west after being displaced from their farm by the blameless monster of capitalism. While the Joad’s story does take precedent, the reader is constantly reminded that they are only one example of countless number of families moving west. The universality of the Joad experience is consistently referenced with Steinbeck’s insertion of chapters with a decidedly more allegorical bent dealing with common themes of American’s moving west.
Besides these chapters not dealing directly with the Joad narrative, they seem to pay greater attention to the land itself. The opening chapter meanders poetically through the process of the land drying out and crusting over with dust – the central conflict that precipitates families moving out west.
Another formal construct that Steinbeck employs to emphasis the power of the land itself can be seen at the open and close of most chapters in the novel. Chapters are bookended with several sentences describing qualities of the land before and after telling a specific part of the Joad’s saga. This effectively boxes the character’s story within the harsh confines of the land – further illustrating how so many were ruined by the dust of Oklahoma and how their only salvation lies in the journey to the idyllic fertile lands of the west.
One final example of the power the land holds over the people in The Grapes of Wrath can be seen in two characters: the eccentric Muley Graves and Grandpa Joad. Muley stays behind when his family goes west because he feels such strong ties to the land where he came from. He chooses to live life like an “ol’ graveyard ghos’” (pg 51), prowling around at night and hiding from the authorities. Grandpa Joad barely made it beyond state lines before he suffering a stroke and dying in a tent on the side of the road.
From plot points to styles of writing Steinbeck makes it clear that these characters, representative of an entire class of people, are firmly not in control of their own destiny and remain at the mercy of the land they had once controlled.
From the beginning I was drawn to the concise and almost aggressive language used in the opening pages of “Some American People”. Erskine Caldwell wastes no time informing the reader “Americans with means to travel do not know how to travel”(Caldwell 1). These sentiments are echoed by Asch who chooses the discomfort of a journey by bus because he felt traveling by car “was as if your own house were moving”(Asch 8). Both writers set out to have organic interactions with locals and desire to experience the country, not simply view it through the window of a comfortable hotel room.
A phrase that stuck with me since reading it is another lament from Caldwell on the state of the average American traveler – “Americans are off like a whirlwind, confusing travel with sheer motion”. It’s possible that this has resonated with me so much because I have been guilty of this charge in the past. On several occasions I have found myself being herded around foreign lands in banal tour groups– brought from tourist trap to tourist trap – traveling to see the sights and snap photos rather than to learn and interact.
I was also drawn to the concept of trying to recreate your home or the comforts of home while one is on the road. Concurrent with their ideologies on travel both Caldwell and Asch are firmly against it and believe that travel should be filled with the new and different. Conversely, upper-class English writer Roland Wild seemed to build his entire journey around the concept. Uprooting his wife and daughter for their voyage to America, Wild spends the majority of the excerpt discussing the trailer that the family would be travelling in, a far cry from the drawing rooms and English gardens the family had grown accustomed to.
The material comforts provided by living in a mobile home in unfamiliar territory seems to be exactly the type of travelling habits that Asch and Caldwell argue against in their respective pieces. But in the end maybe Wild sums up the pitfalls of the upper class touring lifestyle better than either of the other two men did: “So much, it seems, depends on personal comfort. We did not see much of America, for our eyes were on the ground”(Wild 21).