New ideas ruminate about the American experience and are put into action New York City.
Though both very much about the travel habbit around the United States, and the Dust Bowl and the West Coast, both Woody Guthrie’s autobiography Bound for Glory
, and Box Car Bertha’s “autobiography” (which was really an amalgamation of experiences and people, as seen and heard by Dr. Ben L. Reitman), lead us back to New York City, where both these texts were encouraged to be written.
The involvement in progressive social movements that both authors (and their characters) have are extremely moving and interesting. They are all still so relevant today. It is amazing how little issues have changed. The issues that were controvertial at the time that these texts were written are still very much at the forefront of the American conciousness today.
Box Car Bertha is portrayed in Sister of the Road
, by Reitman, as a woman who unintentionally provokes and pushes for womens rights even in the smallest ways. She begs to be treated fairly and goes to a women’s hobo convention in New York, leaving her baby in the care of a commune of other hobo women: “they were all happy that I was going to Washington to take part in the Bonus Army encampment and to the Women’s Hobo Convention. I asked no one to look after Baby Dear. The Colonists said nothing about it. She was a part of the colony and everybody felt they had an interest in her” (source
). It is clear in passages like this that Reitman was pushing his socialist agenda by highlighting the socialistic and communal ways that children like Box Car Bertha and “Baby Dear,” were raised in. He was showing the advantages of a caring and supportive community, especially amongst those living on the outside of “respectable” society. He started a clinic for those with “Venerial Diseases,” and wondered around hobo camps to help keep those “on the bum” healthy. He also passed out profilactics to women like Bertha. This story is not the autobiography of one woman (Bertha herself was not even a real person) but the story of many women struggling for their rights, and for their lives in the 1930s. Bertha comes to New York City in the story, where much of the action takes place (see section about the Bowery Mission
). She also winds up settling down there finally to raise her family. Reitman, also spent a great deal of time in New York amongst the socially progressive and aware artists and anarchists of the time.
In a review from “Time Magazine,
” right after the book was published, in 1937, the reviewer discusses what Reitman says about Bertha, with surprisingly little judgement of the character or author. Reading this review it could have been a modern day review of the book. With the one exception, they clearly thought "Box Car Bertha" was a real person:
“Bertha's "first playhouse was a box car." Her progressive education began early: her teachers were labor agitators, I. W. W.'s, prostitutes. From their talk Bertha picked up her three S's: sex, strikes, socialism… [in the] cooperative colony run by radicals and conscientious objectors…she read William Morris, Oscar Wilde, Walt Whitman, Zola…she took to the road, fell in love with an anarchist…by the time she had made her first swing around the country she knew all the ropes. In Chicago, which she calls the woman hobo centre, she worked a while for a celebrated abortionist
….Bertha…to appease her insatiable curiosity she became a prostitute, found the job unexciting…Bertha found herself pregnant, with two venereal diseases.” (source
Though I had planned to discuss more about Woody Guthrie’s book, I will save that for another entry. The connection I wanted to make however, was that Guthrie, upon moving to New York, taking up residence and marrying a young Jewish dancer from Brooklyn, and writing a song about the “real America” (“This Land is your Land”), he was convinced to write a book about his experiences traveling through the 1930s in the Dust Bowl and to California. Like Reitman, and Box Car Bertha, Guthrie was ahead of his time socially and politically. He wanted to tell the real story of the road, in the real vernacular, just like he does in his music. He wanted to tell the American story in a way that was truly American, and that is what folk music is. Some reviews at the time put down his writing styles for its "Too careful reproduction of illiterate speech." (Library Journal quote via source
). However, it is clear when reading it, he is not imitating a way of living, speaking or thinking. Just like his attempt to make a national anthem that was more representative of the America most people lived in, he wanted to write about an experience that most people could relate to at the time.