For those who lived through it the Great Depression left an indelible mark, influences a generation’s outlook on the world. The sad emptiness of the period influences many of America’s greatest artistic works. The Grapes of Wrath has become one of the most celebrated American novels of all time. Even lesser known novels like Waiting for Nothing were inspired by the loss of hope in this desperate era of American history.
Though the commerce of the area has not changed since the time of Steinbeck, the culture of the area seems to have. Today Salinas has one of the highest murder rates in the country, four times the national average. Economic hardship plagues the area with the divide between rich and poor that Steinbeck illustrates in his writings still very much an issue.
During the Depression she married a bootlegger and was rumored to be working as a hostess in a speakeasy. Though in reality she was continuing to tour she had largely lost her audience. She had made her name working vaudeville and they had largely gone out of style during the 30s. In a business like music where it is difficult to stay popular even during times of economic stability her great success was all in the past. After she died young in a car accident in 1937, it was not until years later that she was once again acknowledged for her great talent and achieved legendary status. Her story relfects the many musicians from the 1920s who were forgotten during the decade of the depression but have since reemerged in more recent eras.
This overarching theme of the book seems greatly at odds with other accounts of the time. The many youth that set out hitch-hiking were in large part alone as they struggled to survive in entirely foreign environments. Many times their families could not take care of them and encouraged them to go on the road.
Hearing of the stories of my great-grandmother about her experience during that time period it seems to reiterate the breakdown of the family structure. She was sent to live with distant relatives in a faraway state because her family could not take care of her. Though in many cases families probably became closer experiencing hardships together others, many others were forced to fend for themselves.
For example, at my job, there are days when the café gets so busy that the entire staff is on its feet for several hours at a time. There is constant rushing around and sometimes dropping of plates and cups but if we are able to keep an upbeat attitude, it makes it all easier. I know that I prefer that everyone tries his or her best to remain polite during a rush. It makes it that much easier to get things done.
In A Cool Million, Pitkin is constantly looking on the bright sides of things and in his case, it is not always to his advantage. Sometimes optimism can stem from naivety rather than from a place of knowledge. Perhaps he was able to stay positive because he really didn’t understand what was going on at the time.
Pitkin parallels people of today who seem to think that our problem can just be fixed with a snap of a finger and Obama’s signature on a couple of things. Unfortunately, we are in much deeper than that and have a ways to go before we can be completely dug out. Then there are those people who are impatient and thought that Obama’s coming into the picture would be able to solve all of the country’s problems immediately. This, too, is a form of naïve optimism that quickly led to naïve anger. As I mentioned before, the problem is quite large and will (and already has) taken a while to get rid of.
We need to find a balance between optimism and naivety in order to have a better functioning country and happier people.
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.
The first thing I did upon opening the guide was search for any mention of my town. Nary a word, despite 600 plus pages of information. Poor Lancaster. Once I got over that vast oversight, I read about surrounding areas and found a remarkable amount of similarities regarding tourism today. The main draw to Massachusetts is a rich cultural history, full of Native American settlements and Civil War decorations. Boston is obviously an excellent tourist destination, but areas west of the Atlantic are great places to visit as well. (I should really work for the Central/Western Massachusetts tourism industry.)
New England is known for its autumn foliage. The WPA guides mention apple picking and leaf peeping, which are still a huge draw for tourists today. Horticulture hero Johnny Appleseed has both a hiking trail and a highway named after him. “Every region of the state enjoys gorgeous color, and you'll see some popular routes listed below. But don't be afraid to explore off the beaten path, where you'll find fewer cars and surprising colorful vistas. But it's not just about foliage in the fall. Make sure to check out these great Culinary Events and Farm Festivals going on in September and October. Also find out the latest apple picking info with Macintosh News.” (http://www.massvacation.com/scienceNature/fall-foliage.php) The current website for vacationing in Massachusetts has an interactive foliage map-a timetable created for optimal seasonal colors. The old WPA guide suggest taking a “Right on Boston Rd, which leads through long stretches of apple orchards…the scene of the Nashoba Apple Blossom Festival in which, in, 1935, thirty-eight towns participated in with an attendance of some 50,000 persons. The present town comprises about 20,00 acres of land, chiefly hills, and valleys of glacial origin.” (WPA 511) Concord and Walden Pond are popular spots as well. In addition to being a beautiful small town, Concord offers the homes and writing spots of literary giant and noted transcendentalist, Henry David Thoreau (something the WPA guide fails to mention.)
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.