“I wanted to write of the legend of men’s hunger for always, of death every day, little and not dramatic death, death from watching your children so hungry they were too weak to play…” (Asch, 269)
In our discussions of The Grapes of Wrath
, we tried to decipher the difference between moving and traveling. I have always distinguished traveling by a sense of added pleasure – leisuretime, family dinners, relaxation. Even business trips sounded adventurous to me, the idea of nice hotels and fluffy white towels a luxurious break from reality.
In pieces by Nathan Asch and Louis Adamic, we see two very different experiences of traveling. Both written in the first person, the pieces put us in a position of empathy. Asch’s short vignettes allow us an almost bird’s-eye view of the places he visits and the people he sees. Even as he sits on the bus and remembers what he had already seen: sickness, poverty and misfortune told through the lives of his roadside acquaintances.
Adamic, however, finds an apotheosis of the depression on the roadside. His technique of allowing her to tell of her own experiences is, for me, most striking. Hearing an individual’s jargon and unique method of storytelling adds a level of authenticity, hollows out a more compassion than even the most articulate retelling of suffering that one has seen.
Reading the plight of this roadside woman, which seemed to be far from over, brought me back to many of the stories my grandmother told. Because her mother dated a series of military men, often sailors, my grandmother moved with them around the country until, at age 16, she was left in a state similar to Adamic’s hitchhiker. I couldn’t help but imagine how Adamic’s woman might have spent the rest of her days, if she got cleaned up or if she stayed on the road.
As I read many of these intellectual, Robert Frank-style accounts of America’s sad times, they feel almost phony or sensationalistic. No matter how sympathetic the writers are, their experience is that of an outsider looking in on someone’s suffering and bringing tales back to the public. They are traveling into a world of hunger and desolation, and then returning to a big city to type away on a type writer while their subjects still starve.
Travel is, by nature, a luxury. It means being able to take time off of work and go somewhere new. It means having the money to eat in diners and buy gas, to engage in road culture. Yet this culture is composed of more than just travelers – it is full of women like Adamic’s hitchhiker, truck drivers and waitresses, people who serve as “primary sources,” of sorts, for writers like Asch.