1. Setting off
In Crossing America, we are introduced to a family from Europe who finds their mental images of crossing America in a caravan quickly becoming reality. The writer of this story is traveling to finish his book within three months. He talks over a rough idea of this trip with Bill one night and, realizing “they were quite insuperable, [they] retired to bed unworried” (9). As they looked into the details, they found that things seemed to be working out somewhat in their favor, which was highly unexpected. This being the case, the family ends up renting a trailer in New York and beginning their journey to San Francisco. His plan was to be “unhurried travelers, looking at America from the ground up” (12).
The rough economic times of the people on the road are comparable to those today. Many authors traveling during the depression were looking to create a story out of their experiences. I came across this article that relates the current state of the American economy to that during the depression. It is interesting that this article describes our current situation to be worse than the depression. Leonhardt writes that the depression was “’A Great Leap Forward.’ Partly because the depression was eliminating inefficiencies but mostly because of the emergence of new technologies, the economy was adding muscle and shedding fat.”
This article touches on the idea that the crisis we are currently in is a combination of “obvious short-term problems-from the financial crisis-with less obvious long term problems” (Leonhardt). One of the main issues of our economy today is that high unemployment rates have become the norm. When looking back at the Great Depression, the high numbers of unemployed people seems catastrophic but the end result, unfortunately war, created a boom in the economy and provided jobs for many people. Today, however, our country continues to struggle with ways to keep the unemployment rate down. This is an interesting comparison and really generates a person’s thinking when comparing our financial situation today to that of those on the road in the 30’s.
In Crossing America, we are able to get a close up look at the small cramped living style this European family has thrown themselves into so that Wild could write his book. Authors, essentially, employed themselves. Although there was a high demand for many physical labor jobs, the creative jobs (writing for example) were always something that could potentially be a hit or miss. If a newspaper of magazine liked the way a certain author’s story read, they would possibly be hired to continually write for the paper.
When reading these two pieces I was really wanted to look deeper into how the economy today is being viewed in comparison to the 1930’s. Eighty years later we are able to look back and realize that the Great Depression ultimately helped our country, but how and when will we know if this recession is going to help or hurt us in the long run?
The narrator seems to have a positive view on society as well. He notices that when he’s “looking at places where not the fortunate ones live” he can “still feel there is hope, there is a chance, there is a future. It’s what makes it possible to be happy while traveling in America.” Although this is only eighty years ago, economic times are similar now—not saying we’re in a depression, but it’s close enough. For someone who’s currently living through a depression to show this kind of optimism amazes me. I don’t share his optimism for society in any sort of resembling manner—I wish I could. Even though this is America, I can’t look at someone who is in such an unfortunate situation and feel comfort knowing they still have a chance. Realistically, they don’t.
The most interesting aspect in reading this introduction was the symbolism of this bus. The bus plays as a Utopia in this story early on. Whenever the narrator is on a bus he has some sort of sanctuary. He’s surrounded by honest and social people. A cow hand gets on the bus with his mouth organ and plays all day as “everybody sings and everybody visits and a couple of romances are started.” There’s a true sense of community of bus. Thinking about modern times, when somebody gets on the subway blasting their boombox, I want to kill them. There’s not even a thought in my body that says, “Hey! I should sing along and join in!”
When the narrator leaves the bus, he’s back in the real world where no one really cares about him. He asks someone about the name of the building, who just keeps walking, most likely assuming he “was about to begin a sad and pitiful story.” He tries to be friendly and talk to people but the men he “spoke to hardly listened to what [he] had to say.”
Instead of viewing this trip as a miserable long trip, it’s a journey and an adventure to him. Which can only explain why he “had bought the longest ticket that the clerk had said he had ever sold.” It was for the love of travel, the love of the adventure, and the start of another journey.
In The Road, Asch sets out with the intention of finding America, and lists his hesitations regarding meeting people. The idea of vagrant traveling was still a novelty for most citizens, and they were wary of accepting strangers into their lives. Asch lends advice on his rules of travel-take an empty bus, be comfortable, talk to strangers, and if you do all of the above, Find America. “They are held by something. Always you know that they are in America. It’s not that there are no passport restrictions, no customs lines, that every time you come to a new place you don’t Have to go to the police and register, as you would do outside of America…But there is no tradition of suffering. When you’re born you’re not born to suffer.” (Asch 10) The idea behind travel was to create a national identity, with less focus on states and the threat of a disintegrated country.
It was the classic Eurotrip. Prague, Berlin, Amsterdam, Brugge, Paris, Nice. It’s a familiar route, and that’s exactly what we wanted. We wanted to experience the adventures of the well established city to city train travelling Eurotrip. We knew that spending a few days in each city would not allow us to truly know the city, we knew that in order to do this someday we would have to go back. But we didn’t care because this was not truly what we were looking for in our travels. We wanted more than to see a city, its museums and its languages, we wanted the experience of the travel. In some ways I saw the well known stereotype of “the Eurotrip”, in the hostels filled with young travelers and equipped with a pub and loud music, in the underage Americans having a field day at the pubs, in the electricity of constantly migrating with our heavy backpacks. But I wonder, is it truly possible to get the same experience from a trip and the places you go as other travelers do?
When Rorty travels through America and gets one impression of things and can’t understand how “any journalist, traveling across the continent with his eye on the facts, could bring back a different report,” it makes me question the impression one can get as a tourist (14). Is it ever really possible to get the “true” experience of a place, or the “classic” experience of a journey? Does “reality” in this sense even really exist?
Rorty travels to California and concludes that life is not better there, and that all the other journalists who come back from their travels are lying in their reports because “the [American] dream must be served,” (14). In light of my own travels, I feel that as a tourist there are a million impressions one can get from a place. I’m not sure that there is a true reality of a place, ad if there is then there is no way to truly understand it. A place is made up of its landscape, its architecture, its museums and tourist sites, its food, its language, and mostly its people, which underlie all of the rest. Your experience there is determined by who you meet, and even more than that who you are, because that affects not only who you meet but how people respond to you. We can also see this in Asch’s visit to Richmond in “The Road”. In his writing we can see that his impression of Richmond are made up from his encounter with the man at the newspaper office who ignored him, and then later the other man he has lunch with and the coal mining owner. Furthermore, these men react to him in this particular way because of who they think he is—a journalist.
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
Capitalism has always been the reigning power in America, and well-meaning young boys who should become our future senators and presidents will never amount to much without a vastly different political and fiscal landscape, no matter how hard they try. There will be very few stories of "Farm to Fortune." Rorty claims that, in his experience, only 5 percent of the population actually acknowledges that this is the root of America’s problems during the Great Depression. The rest of America passively accepts the impoverished state of the migrant workers and the unemployed, rather than thinking for a minute and choosing to figuratively fight back and protest the unbalanced state of society during this troubled era with common sense and new ideas.
A better life is not often handed to someone on a silver platter without a great deal of intellectual effort being expended. This is as true now as it was back in the 1930s. Often, it’s easier to stick to the status quo, but in order to increase one’s personal financial prosperity and that of the country as a whole, people have to jump outside their comfort zones. People can set out on the road in search of a better place and to find temporary work to put food on the table, but this is all for naught in the long term without a fundamental change in how society is run. According to Rorty, California used to be the place where life was indeed better, with a temperate climate and a less class-based society. But by the dawn of the Great Depression, where could destitute people go that life wouldn’t be a struggle? In a bad economic state, the answer is nowhere.
As Sherwood Anderson proposes in “Puzzled America,” why not open the doors for everyone to live an extravagant life? Why not let the Horatio Alger myth at last become a common truth? This is a plausible feat according to Rorty, solved by becoming more thoughtful, reforming the economy, and increasing the accessibility to wealth and success for the down-and-out who are willing to put on their thinking caps and shed Rorty’s assessment of being “mentally soft and lazy” (22). This is quite the challenge, and it is one that we continue to face in the present day. It's unlikely Rorty's pro-communist stance is truly the best option, but it is never a bad thing to question the current state of affairs in the pursuit of a better society.
My travels often take me to the outer boroughs of the city as I shuffle back and forth from home to school. On my way I tour some of the best and worst this city has to offer and the people who often define these parts. The economic disparity is astounding: homeless laying out in front of million dollar townhouses, those less than fortunate soliciting the very Wall Street businessmen who have cost them their jobs. I hear their pleas for help but I can only think of my own financial troubles. That is why I choose who I give to carefully. I take into account their age, the way they are dressed, any evident disabilities, and the story they present to somehow fit a stereotype that is certainly not accurate. “It happens that men have no shoes, that men here who have families go home at night to hungry, crying, children, to sordidness, to cheap, unhealthy living, and it is not true, dear reader, that these men, these Americans, are necessarily in any way inferior to you and me” (Anderson, xiii). Unfortunately, however, an overwhelming number of our politicians don’t believe that, forming an ineffective government similar to that of the Great Depression. Is it because, like the well-to-do man in Anderson’s introduction, they think, “Isn’t this the land of opportunity?”(xi) But politicians will always be the same. I am more surprised at the general passivity of the public. Are we desensitized entirely? Is it as Asch says; we don’t understand one another across the different regions of America.
Where are the writers and reporters who want “to exhibit not so much the statistics as the people whose current dilemmas the statistics fail adequately to express”(Rorty, 10)? Rorty suggests they simply do not have the time. I think we have all in a way come to accept some of the crippling truths recited to us from our television screens daily.
With the future looking bleaker that ever, I wonder whether the American Dream will persevere or whether our hope will diminish along with all the wonderful opportunities and democratic ideas we were raised on.
But the American people found a way around this Depression, this disease. They had found a cure: the “anti-depressant,” if you will, and that cure lay in the land. What surrounded them, what they lived on -this Earth- offered too much excellence and potential, that they had no choice but to believe. This was a foundation, a concrete square that was to build a tower so strong, that it could bear the most vicious of hurricanes. If all of nature were combined, it would be too overwhelming for the naked eye. The environment became the stimulant that would slowly rouse America from her sleep, to erase the “constant puzzle," as Anderson so eloquently stated. Nature gives us a reason, a principle, in which to believe and to have faith in. It is always there and always beckoning for hope, positive feelings, confidence, and ultimately endorphins.
After all, aren’t we all the same people? Won’t this antidote to the Great Depression work on some but not on others? No. We are all connected. We have different lifestyles, sure. Ways of living differ amongst everyone: the man “pawing through trash cans downtown” or the "extravagant ones, the money-spenders." Yet we are one people and one nation that after looking in the mirror at itself, has realized that you must have a little belief. Because by recognizing the fact that there is a collective way to say “we can,” connectivity and a sense of unity will (without difficulty) emanate from one person to the next, soon having the Earth shining like the sun. Essentially, we are one throbbing planet with movement twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week, three hundred and sixty five days a year. How can we not be similar? And furthermore, how can nature NOT relate to this sense of unity with mankind? They are intertwined, as is everything on this planet.
As pointed out in class the other day, there was much denial amongst the more fortunate classes during the Depression that the lower classes were experiencing any sort of problem at all. These are the people who would’ve chosen to “stay at home” or “travel like a whirl-wind” during this time (Caldwell 9). By staying home they could avoid seeing what was really going on much in the same way as they could by rushing from place to place, stopping only to see certain monuments and tourist attractions. Caldwell remarks that “travel should not be confused with sight-seeing and touring;” “merely to see things is not enough” (Caldwell 9,4). True travel involves a certain surrender of self; a willingness to “experience a change of habits, thought and diet” (Caldwell 5).
You have to pay attention while traveling. This seems obvious but it is shockingly easy to let travel time pass by without digging into the culture of the places you have been to. I’m hesitant to say the places you “visited” because, to me, a visit implies not delving beyond the surface level of your “visited” spot. If someone from Massachusetts travels to Arizona “only to complain habitually about the absence of seafood on the menu” that person lacks the ability to give in to their surroundings (Caldwell 5). Rather than “traveling,” this person brings his or her own beliefs everywhere he or she goes, thus imposing these beliefs into every aspect of every place that he or she, well, “visits.”
I feel as though I am able to say with great confidence that this person would not truly be experiencing “Arizona” or wherever he or she may be as I have done the same thing many times myself. I’ve traveled all over the country with my family by car, by plane and even sometimes by train. I’ve seen many of this nation’s monuments and eaten at famous restaurants but I don’t think that I have ever “traveled” in the sense that Caldwell has. I missed my boyfriend so much during my month long trip to Europe that I spent most of my time inside the house crying, wishing to be home. But if anyone ever asks me, I can say that I’ve been to England, France, Italy and Germany. (No one needs to know that I wasn’t really there emotionally). I didn’t meet any new people and I didn’t grow as a person. According to Caldwell, I “would have had a much better time if [I] had stayed at home and gone to the movies every night” (Caldwell 5). My inability to let go of my emotional state greatly hindered, if not entirely crushed, my ability to travel.
On the opposite end, Anderson speaks about the wealthy class that shows no signs of being affected by the depression. It’s this idea that the wealthy only become wealthier as the gap between the classes separates even more. This is something that is happening today as well. Take for example the housing market, so many houses are being foreclosed on and auctioned off for a cheaper price. A loft in a downtown city may be worth $300,000 but is being sold at only $50,000. The upper class takes advantage of this opportunity only to grow their assets and profit even more, thus making them more powerful. At the same time, are the wealthy even aware of the hardships others have fallen into due to a poor economy? Who exactly are these writers and photographers trying to speak to? Perhaps it’s the middle class who may fall in either direction resulting in a loss of their class all together.
Poverty has always been around and will always be around. It was during the depression that the level of poverty rose so high that middle class Americans found themselves on the streets. This surprising and scary fact helped Americans remove their blinders only to see what had been there the entire time. Only this time it was their own peers looking back at them. This could be a possibility as to what motivated a brigade of artists to set out and explore America during the 1930’s more than any other time.
From this desperation comes urgency. In Where Life is Better, James Rorty claims, “…the failure of the unemployed to demand and secure relief or employment sufficeient to maintain a decent living standard is the most serious, the most crucial of all our failures as a people” (28). The only solution to improving the downtrodden times is to act drastically, but, Rorty says, most “will take the easiest way out” because it is “the ‘American’ way” (30). Rorty chastises America for not feeling his same sense of urgency to improve their lives. He even cites an article from Harper’s Magazine explaining that Americans should be protesting and revolting; he calls for urgency that reaches this extreme degree.
Most Americans, though, did not begin to revolt or defy their government; instead, many began to travel. It is perhaps that sense of urgency that drove some Americans to set out and become migrant workers, or even simply to travel across the country in any way they could. The government certainly seems to have felt this same sense of urgency; they saw the new tourism industry blooming and began to urge Americans to travel across their country. The travel ads found from the time period are much more demanding than other ads; instead of selling travel to Americans, it commands them to travel, most advertisements donning the phrase, “SEE AMERICA" (pictured). It seems the United States Travel Bureau knew that Americans would need this sense of urgency, and accordingly, placed pressure on its citizens to explore the nation.
Asch, though a bit more skeptical echoed this sentiment that hope is good in “The Road” where he acknowledgement, “[s]till for all [the slogan ‘All Americans are born equal’s’] falseness, it’s still better than no slogans at all, better than… [believing that all] they were born for is to die someday (Asch, 10).” This statement, however seems to be of the notion that Americans already have hope that despite the fact that things are bleak and that justifiably people could abandon hope, they still believe that things will get better, that even the most pitiful of people could turn his fortunes around with just a bit of hard work. He too was calling for people to hope, however using fellow Americans as proof of its possibility to believe in a better future.
James Rorty, in “Where Life is Better”, seems to be of the same opinion of Asch, that the American people have a tremendous amount of hope despite their pitiful position. He however, takes the opposing view of both Asch and Anderson that having hope is a good thing, instead describing the American hope he encountered as “an addiction to the make believe” that disgusted and appalled him so much” (Rorty, 13). Rorty believed that the optimism was a part of the problem. That Americans out of sheer laziness and softness would rather believe that a better day was coming rather than enacting change to better their own life.
Through their reports on what they were seeing, these writers were in fact expressing their political views. They seemed to have felt that they NEEDED to do this, to provide guidance to a lost nation, perhaps even more so than describe what was actually happening. Whereas Anderson and Asch expressed a need to continue hoping and pressing, and that for all its problems the United States was still the greatest nation in the world and that would ultimately return to prosperity, Rorty expressed that hope was merely an obstacle to reality and that in order to achieve true justice and prosperity America needed a new revolution.
Though these authors paint a gritty picture of America, depicting a country plagued by ill luck and poverty, there is an underlying excitement hovering between their words. Even as Asch describes the ex-slave in Richmond, a huddled mass of black cloth crippled by enslavement and then turned loose to sit idle and corroding on a street corner, he omits judgment, does not verbalize sadness. It seems almost as if witnessing tragedy, for those Americans not experiencing it, serves as a way to define where they stand in among the American community.
The "American slogan," as Asch termed it - the idea that all Americans are created equally with an equal chance at success - is a myth so deeply ingrained in our cultural consciousness that it seems almost inherited. Many have called this slogan, or a version of it, the American Dream, sometimes portraying it as an eternal promise or making great lengths to call attention to the implicit irony. No matter how many cynical or expository gazes fall upon this Dream, however, it seems to prevail.
The American slogan became our national myth, the image of the collective American self that we project onto our families and ourselves. And when we can't trust our government, we put faith in our neighbors, our families, and strangers that we meet in diners or on the road. Caldwell's Some American People illustrates this tendency to rely on another and his or her stories. His collection of moments - funny, sad and otherwise - creates a sense of community for those who were growing more despaired by the day. The need to share experiences, to gain empathy rather than sympathy, must have been a great motivation to set out on the road and really "travel," as Caldwell says, rather just move.
In East of Eden, John Steinbeck wrote, "The preciousness lies in the lonely mind of a man." The power of American mythology must come from the weaving together of these lonely minds. The catalogues of experiences by writers such as Asch, Caldwell, Anderson and Rorty are the building blocks for the Dream, no matter how sad and shattered the anecdotes may seem.