The Way the Depression Molded Identity in America
As we all very well know, thousands of people roamed the country during the Depression looking for jobs. In Jack Conroy’s The Disinherited
, we see the desperation and great lengths that some went to in order to secure a job. Consequentially, for some the Depression became an era of new identity.
Some, such as Boxcar Bertha, road the rails and assumed the identity of a vagrant, succumbing to wanderlust. Others, like Tom Kromer, left behind the college education they had in order to pursue a life on the road. Conroy’s narrator assumes a new identity in order to try to get a job. A man looking for workers asks him, “’Where did you
ever handle a rivet hammer?’” To which he replies, “’I worked for the Pittsburgh-Detroit Steel,’ even though he “had never been a riveter” (241). In this case, the taking on of a new identity was crucial. Usually, expression of identity is associated with individuality and expression of personhood; however, in this case, it is method of survival. The narrator adapts himself in order to fit what kind of person is needed; he becomes a chameleon, adapting to his environment.
For others, the same desperation of the Depression that forced Conroy’s narrator to adapt his identity for survival allowed for a more overt expression of true identity. In both The Disinherited
and Waiting for Nothing
, we see depictions of cross-dressing men picking up homeless men as prostitutes. These men had money in a time of economic disparity; therefore, if they offered said money, desperate people would accept it no matter what. Because they had money and were giving to men they were interested in, they were able to dress as women if they wanted. Their money gave them a freedom that other’s didn’t have, and they used it to express their identities. Money equated to freedom, and because they had money, no one could persecute them for dressing as women because there were so many homeless men desperate to obtain their next meal in any way possible. These crossdressing men were completely opposite the men looking for work—instead of adapting themselves to survive, other
people adjusted to these men in order to have a meal and a place to sleep. They were being adapted to instead of adapting themselves.