Box Car Bertha and the Sections of the Underclass
Something that struck me about The Autobiography of Box Car Bertha were some connections that could be made to some earlier readings we have done this year. The first thing I found interesting were some of the differences between Bertha and Tom Kromer, and how that shaped their views on being a hobo, or a stiff, or whatever you want to call it.
Unlike Kromer, Bertha is truly of this class. Obviously the depression changed the world around her, but as Bertha says, she “has ben a hobo for fifteen years, a sister of the road, one of that strange and motley sorority which has increased its membership so greatly during the depression.”
The portraits of Kromer and Bertha really create a stark contrast between the lifers, and those who were forced into this lifestyle because of economic conditions. We talked about it last week, but Kromer always maintained a middle-class nature that affected his world view. Kromer often displayed a resentment toward hoboing that Bertha does not show.
She says, “It all seemed natural to me, an attitude given to me by my mother, to whom nothing was ever terrible, vulgar, or nasty.” You could make the argument that much of Kromer’s Waiting for Nothing is a description of things as terrible, vulgar and nasty. So I just thought it was intriguing to get a different picture of how that life can be viewed.
One place where Bertha and Kromer seemed to meet in the middle however, were matters of morality. Both pieces really speak to the importance of doing whatever was necessary to get back, and the idea that such actions should not be looked down upon.
In talking about her mother, Bertha says that she, “wasn’t what the world would call a good woman. She never said she was. And many people, including the police, said she was a bad woman.” But she goes on to say that the sacrifices she made, “proved that she loved us and that she was a woman of rare courage and of fine principles all her own.”
And even though Kromer sometimes shied away from getting his hands particularly dirty, it is one thing he never looked down upon. Though his opinions on food and acceptable shelter never changed, Kromer quickly adopted lower class opinions on law enforcement, wealthy people, and doing enough to eat, regardless of whether or not others may look down on it.
So there is a difference in comfort between the two of them that speaks to a separation between lifetime hobos, and the nouveau poor; yet they both seemingly agree that in hard times, outside opinions be damned.
Something else that came to mind was a connection between Bertha and some ideas expressed by Sherwood Anderson in Puzzled America. Anderson made some comparisons between the rich and the poor, implying that being poor does not necessarily imply a lesser life, and that it can often be just the opposite. I thought of those comments often while reading Box Car Bertha, in particular the accounts of her childhood.
Bertha spoke fondly about her childhood in relative poverty, describing it as “completely free,” saying she,“Took for play-things all the grand miscellany to be found in a railroad yard,” and mentioning that she, “Learned numbers by counting the cars on long freights.”
All of this offered color to some of the ideas Anderson brought up in his writings. Bertha clearly shows a fondness for the simplicity and freedom being a poor child allowed her. Again, in contrast to Kromer, it seems that growing up around that simplicity allowed Bertha an entirely different view of living without money.