1. Setting off, 2. Grapes of Wrath (1), 3. Grapes of Wrath (2), 5. Writers on the Road, 6. Words & Images, 7. Travel novels, 8. Waiting for Nothing, 9. Open topic, 10. A Cool Million, 12. WPA Guides, 4. Grapes of Wrath (3), 11. Tourism & the travel habit
“Just sitting in the sun, watching the Mississippi go by.”
Erskine Caldwell accuses readers, “you have seen their faces.” Written in the 30’s, as America was amidst her greatest recession, Caldwell brings images all too familiar to Americans to their coffee tables.
Heralded as a harbinger to the future of the publishing industry, one wonders are we capable of producing such memorable images of our times, consider the sheer breadth of the rich media we consume today? As I went through this .pdf, the age of the black ink all too apparent on my LED display, my iPad, streaming latetst photos from theGuardian databases lay across the table. Out rose ash from an Indonesian volcano. But before I could process, the software had moved to the next image: President Barack Obama addressing and meeting the victims of the horrific terrorist attacks in the seaside city of Mumbai, India.
Twenty seconds later, onto an Afghan woman south of Kabul, who jumped out of the window because she deemed living with her husband worse.
To lament a lost age, and getting nostalgic has its place. But really, we would not have it any other way. It is said that the information an average man consumed over his lifetime during the civil war is the same as an average New Yorker does in a week. And we like it.
Yet seeing those men sitting by the Mississippi, the sweat of the Great Depression dripping from their foreheads, one wonders in our need to know everything, we might loose out on remembering something. We rush too quickly to call something historic. Yet history, today, doesn’t merely move forward, it sprints. Sometimes too quickly for us to remember anything.
On writing about ones travels:
-Live and the stories will follow. The first step to travel writing is “living the story.” Seek out new and exciting experiences that interest you. Think of yourself as the “producer, star, writer, director, and editor of your own story”. Seek out unique and fascinating people for your production.
-Take photos and notes. “Record the adventure while it’s happening” and don’t be shy, most people love being asked to have a picture with them; this has proved true in my own experience as well. Enjoy meeting people and let them know how much you enjoyed meeting them.
-“Shoot first and ask questions later.” Snap lots of photos and sort out which ones you want to keep later. You can always delete a photo off your memory card but you can never add one that was never taken.
-Try to find the extraordinary in the ordinary. When you travel you are an outsider, giving you a fresh view and take on things. Try to see beyond the obvious and dig beneath the surface.
-“Don’t write about what you had for breakfast unless it was truly amazing, people just find that annoying.”
-Never write over your photos. If a picture is worth a thousand words it is not necessary, and if it’s not why have the picture to begin with.
-“Write from your heart.” Try to write about how a place affected you. That is at least as important as the place itself.
-Share your experiences with others. “You’re lucky to be a free range human roaming outside a cubicle. Share all the wonder with those who can only live it vicariously for now.”
-Read great travel writing, like in this class. Reading great travel writing inspires the human spirit and teaches you how to write well.
So, there are a few thoughts on travel and travel writing from my uncle the travel writer. I apologize for crudely summarizing them, but hopefully you found them as insightful and useful as I have.
The first is that there are few barriers to entry and relatively low overhead required, at least back in the day, to start a cabin camp. As Agee says, you might come across one such cabin camp with “a small clean room, perhaps twelve by eleven feet. Typically it’s furnished with a double bed…a table, two chairs, a small mirror, and a row of hooks in one corner and a half opened door to a toilet in the other.” (47) Agee then goes on to say that it was not uncommon for such cabins to be furnished out of “an old chicken coop” (50) or the like, with many having been cheaply yet practically constructed. Moreover, Agee stresses how such establishments often used their own profits to fuel expansion, perhaps adding more cabins, a dinner or a fueling station, all built up in an efficient and cost effective manor. This low cost and convenient service model, one large-scale hotels such as Radisson and Hilton had a hard time following, turned out to be incredibly attractive to motorists, leading many such firms to buyout or invest in their own microtel lines.
Secondly, as Agee stresses in his piece, the demand was extraordinary, with the mass appeal of the automobile people were no longer chained to train lines and major cities, or even small towns, they could drive anywhere the road could take them and oftentimes saw little need to deal with the headaches of driving into a town and checking into a large hotel. The cabin camps, or modern day motels, offered convenience, accessibility, and in the 1930’s a tremendous degree of independence in which you got your own little roof, all to yourself for the night.
Finally, Agee makes the point that cabin camp owners could easily construct a few more cabins once the initial camp was in place at relatively low cost. This made the cabin camps uncommonly scalable for the industry, as additional cabins could be added and converted with relative ease as needed, a level of flexibility completely foreign to large scale hotel planers.
In conclusion, I think the accuracy and astuteness with which Agee presents the cabin camp movement is remarkable. The idea of cabin camps is distinctly individualist and appealing to many Americans, and Agee did a remarkably job of describing its appeal and recognizing its potential.
Waiting for nothing is constructed as a first person narrative, in which Kramer depicts, through a series of compelling episodes the struggle of the average working ‘stiff.’ Kramer also raises a wide range of ethical questions through his depiction of everything from robbery to suicide as Mary Obropta points our in her piece, Kromer’s Waiting for Nothing. (source) In the end, the book depicts men in a very animalistic light, struggling to survive however they can and being by their poverty, striped of their humanity. At many points in the book Kromer himself is forced into acts of desperation, perhaps most notably when he prostitutes himself in order to maintain the basic necessities of life.
Moreover, Kromer puts a very interesting spin on death in the context of survival. Just about every action taken in the book is done so in order to preserve life, with the one notable exception of the suicide in chapter six. Life in the book is about animalistic survival. Kromer in essence portrays the constant search for food, shelter, and warmth, as all being to preserving one’s life and to make it just one more day or one more night. At the same time however, death is presented as the only escape, as Kromer says following the suicide of the man in the shelter “After a guy bumps himself off, he don’t have any more troubles. Everything is all right with him.” (Page 42) Another such example of this is the man who dies in the soup line, his death being presented as relief from the hardship and waiting of life, as if another register opened up at the supper market and he just happened to be the first to get in line. This all works to provoke a sort of existential crisis. Why do the ‘stiffs’ in the book keep scrapping along instead of just ending it? Kromer doesn’t seem to give the typical explanation of hope and religious obligation. Instead Kromer, presents a Darwinian logic, that it is simply our nature to survive at nearly any cost, regardless of what we our surviving for.
In One Third of a Nation, Hickock draws out the individual, much like Asch does, in order to paint a broader picture of what people were feeling. By zooming in on individual and emotionally potent cases, Hickock makes the Depression real and overwhelming in the extent of the problems it contained. Her depiction of struggling relief workers trying to deal with an under funded system, and the poor souls in need of relief are truly moving.
Both Asch and Hickock paint a portrait of an increasingly foreign America, where signs saying “no work here” hang in windows and people wander about in hunger and distress. This paints a picture of alienation which must have been painful for many Americans during the great depression. In speaking to with grandmother, who herself grew up during the depression; one of the points she continually mentioned was the utter sense of isolation that she felt at the time. In here retelling, she said that the members of her small town community banded together to help each other however they could, but that there existed a sense that the country had become in a way foreign, like “the old country” with limited opportunities and in many cases struggle to meet the most basic necessities of life. Moreover, there was a feeling of isolation from the broader country, like the whole thing was braking down. This is a sentiment expressed in all three of the works mentioned, especially Hickock and Asch, lending a particularly clear view into what many people were really felling in America during the 1930’s.
Satire is one of my favorite literary genres. It serves the essential function of violently exploding our comfortably unexamined preconceptions, which allows us to then reexamine them and really change, and at its best it does so with a subtlety and artfulness that flabbergasts and delights. A Cool Million is a shining example of bitterness, anger, and outright contempt being channeled productively into satire.
The novel surgically dismembers each and every aspect of “The American Dream;” any notion of American Exceptionalism living in a reader’s head will either be destroyed or emerge stronger than ever for having grappled with it. It creates a cartoon America that functions first and foremost on Murphy’s Law: whatever can go wrong, will go wrong. It exposes how much ideas like social mobility, the rags-to-riches-myth, and even the dignity of the Office of the President of the United States depend on simple dumb luck rather than any inherent power of the American spirit.
And as a central American myth, The Road is not safe. Travel in this novel means entering a den of pickpockets and con men, risking death, imprisonment, and even enslavement. West’s Road deliberately challenges the popular conceptions of the day. Rather than the mystical scrying-pool-of-the-nation popularized by the travel writers of the era, any information gained during travel in A Cool Million is more likely a grifter’s lie than a nugget of honest, down-home truth. The Odyssean sea of challenges presented by Steinbeck is transformed to a sadistic deathtrap from whose maw no man or woman emerges whole. The various cultures America contains are reduced to brand names: All-American prostitutes themed for their region and Rustic Country Dwellings bought and shipped whole to New York design showrooms.
Though the perils of the road trip and the falseness of the American Landscape are just two tiles in the vast sea of misery that is America in A Cool Million. The real target here is The American Dream. The Horatio Alger myth that “anyone can make it in America.” The point of the book is to shout, angrily and with little flecks of spittle flying out, that rhetoric is just words. Saying that “America is the greatest country on Earth,” or “Anyone can make it in America” doesn’t magically make poverty or crime disappear, it doesn’t alter the rules of probability just because the dice were rolled on American soil. And the probability is that your life is going to be horrible and you will die alone, no matter what passport you carry.
A good, concise message. And a true one, even if it is a little depressing.
Want to live with a moral obligation every time we pass a bum on the street, a wallet stuffed with cash and credit cards safely in our pocket?
Read Tom Kromer’s Waiting For Nothing.
No, Tom ain’t homeless because he does not want to work. Neither is he because he is an alcoholic or a drug addict. His mind and heart seem in the right place, and believe me, he wouldn’t hurt you either.
He just can’t make ends meet. Yes, in the United States of America.
In the United States of America that was built on a promise: The promise of an opportunity to live without limitation, create one’s own destiny. The Indians were ousted, a country premised on freedom was built: “A frontier land where families had their own acres, own gun, own conscience,” in the words of New York Times columnist, Anand Giriharadas.
Yet, the cold iron benches, the pouring rain, the filth and the constant hunger that accompanies our protagonist, forcing Kromer to literally wait for nothing and take comfort in the emptiness and morbidity of it all, run parallel to what our subconscious has been conditioned to think.
When else, even amidst the media blitz our lives occur, have we experienced such travesty of the human life. For example, when the man in the missionpops himself with a gun, the narrator writes, “After a guy bumps himself off, he doesn’t have any more troubles. Everything is all right with him” (42) Death seems a relief; a pleasant aberration after the wallows of what is life for Kromer and his ilk.
No wonder this book is hard to find. Even Google, a crusader of free information, doesn’t carry it in its online catalogue. I wonder why.
In some ways I’m glad I wrote this blog late because I had time to reflect on our Tuesday class discussion. I was struck by the course’s title and how it’s meaning differs from how I originally perceived it at the start of the semester. In a strange but “cool” way I now think this course is about the journey of travel in America. We have watched the beginning of traveling in America, how it started from a necessity to find work, as in the Grapes of Wrath. Then we saw it morph into a half necessity: a perceived necessity to show reality and the lack of necessity to travel for work. This is showcased in the writers and photographers. Lastly we see the middle class begin to travel. Overtime all of America has started to travel. As a result, travel must therefore be a part of what makes America, America. This marriage of travel and the American identity is finally merged in the WPA guides. As we said in class these guides were half guidebook and half ethnographies. And so, we can see the journey of travel in America laid out in our course step by step.
It is said that the literary press just didn’t get John Steinbeck. He seemed all over the place.
But Warren French, in his Reference Guide to American Literature, maintains that the diversity found in Steinbeck’s work is a consistently “developing vision of man’s relation to environment.” In that sense, he reckons, Steinbeck was a Modernist, citing Maurice Beebe’s definition of modernist sensibility, as defined by “its irony, its implicit admiration for verbal precision and understatement."
In 2010, in a school like Gallatin School of Individualized Studies, we take it for granted the freedom granted to us by the legacy of the Modernists, Steinbeck included.
Take my story. Raised in India post-liberalization, in a country crashing head-first into globalization, I was raised to have an inherent distrust of the Government. After all, the Government got us in a place where no longer the country could afford the Government. So poor was India in 1990 that we had to mortgage our gold reserves to secure supplies of food, lest the country starved. In the following years, as India opened up, it seemed change could not happen fast enough.
And boy, India changed. I, raised amidst cities sprouting, roads filling up with cars and Indians getting more confident, had little empathy for the public services. When finally Oliver Stone’s Wall Street came to our cable channel, India collectively chanted, “greed is good.”
But soon, the Indian story became inevitability. As urban India began settling in its newfound prosperity, I came to New York in 2007. A New York, in the words of Hans Van Der Broek, protagonist of Joseph O’ Neil’s bestselling novel, making a million bucks “was essentially a question of walking down the street — of strolling, hands in pockets, in the cheerful expectation that sooner or later a bolt of pecuniary fire would jump out of the atmosphere and knock you flat.”
A year later, it would all crash.
Greed ain’t longer good, if you ask me. If it wasn’t for the modernists, and I’d write novels for a living, the critics wouldn’t have given me a dime.
Thank God for 2010.
The limitations of black and white photography exaggerate the emotional drama and desperation of the Depression era to the contemporary viewer. They make us think of hardships past, an era different from our own. We’ve romanticized the notion of black and white photography with feelings of nostalgia and beauty. In a way, it seems difficult to relate to the time period in a way other than through this nostalgia since we are used to such colored contemporary visual culture. It is for this reason that these color photos of the Depression seem so startling. The medium seems anachronistic and surprises us. The vivid colors of the contemporary reproductions from the slides don’t seem to belong to the scenes themselves; they are perhaps too vivid, or maybe too real.
These photos remind us that Americans in the 1930s saw their lives in color, not in melodramatic monochrome. They at once give the photos an additional depth while expressing quotidian subject matter, not monumentalized in the styles of Lange and Evans. They are something that seems more relatable to us today and show us exactly to what extent technology and communication affect our ways of seeing. They are bizarre rarities, completely entrancing. They make me think of the importance of collecting a variety of sources in examining the past and how many ways there are to look at things.
On a semi-related note: Color photos from Russia in the 1910s
The guide discusses the founding of the town by Joseph Whitford who explored the northwestern region of Minnesota under the patronage of James Fergus, after whom the town is named. Beyond this more general knowledge however, the guide also includes some lesser known antidotes. For example, the guide looks back on the first postmaster of the town, a German immigrant who could not read English and so would simply spread the town’s postage out on a table in order for the residents of the community to peruse the letters and pick out which were theirs.
The guide also describes the main structures and attractions of the town which remain much the same today. For instance, the city Historical Society Museum of Minnesota (now known as the Otter Tail Historical Society) which exists in the basement of the city hall and to which I was taken every year on a class trip from kindergarten through eighth grade is still one of the town’s primary attractions and is still open 9-5 on weekdays as the guide reports. The guide also discusses the town’s largest building, the Fergus Falls Mental Hospital which at the time was the second largest such asylum in Minnesota. The mental hospital is still in operation today and has in fact raised in prominence to become the largest such hospital in the Midwest. The guide also discusses the architectural details of the city hall and courthouse which remain virtually identical to the guide’s description today. Even the two flower mills mentioned in the guide can still be seen alongside the Otter Tail river today but are no longer in operation.
It is also still true, as the guide details that Fergus Falls is still home to one of the largest dairy farming co-ops in the country and to which my family’s farm (The Daily Dairy) and the dairy farms of many of my friends families still belong. Moreover, the Otter Tail Power Company, which is mentioned in the guide, is still the areas predominant employer, probably employing roughly a third of the town today. The only difference is today Otter Tail Power or OTTR is listed on NASDAQ and is a market leader in the area of wind energy.
In conclusion, I think of all the pieces we have read, this one was the most interesting for me personally. I am amazed at how little my small town has really changed over the last eighty years and also feel a new sense of pride in my origins, leading me to believe that the WPA guides not only inspired Americans to travel, but reaffirmed their pride in their own regional identities.
What is about recessions, bleak times, that sometimes it spawns the best in us?
Think the Federal Writers Project in the 1930’s under the Works Progress Administration.
Now, think of the additional $ 50 million funding to the National Endowment of the Arts included in the American recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009.
Much of the National Endowment remains controversial though. The Endowment, dedicated to “supporting excellence in the arts, both new and established; bringing the arts to all Americans, and providing leadership in arts education,” has its fair share of detractors.
In 1981,when he entered office, President Reagan took it upon himself to abolish the Endowment over a three-year period. In 1989, David Wildmon, Pat Buchanan, Newt Gingrich and Pat Robertson, prominent conservative figures, attacked Andres Serrano’s Piss Christ for anti-christ bigotry. Fellow photographer’s, Robert Mapplethorpe, exhibit at the Corcoran Exhibition of Art was cancelled due to the same reasons.
Conservative media only increased attacks in subsequent years. The NEA Four, Karen Finley, Tim Miller, John Fleck, and Holly Hughes,had their grants vetoed by the then chairman, John Frohnmayer because it was deemed controversial. Finley took the Endowment to the Supreme Court, National Endowment for the Arts v. Finley. The court stated in its judgment, “the NEA Chairperson shall ensure that artistic excellence and artistic merit are the only criteria by which applications are judged.
More recently, under President Obama, conservative blogger Yosi Sergant alleged that the Endowment was directing artists to create works of art promoting President Barack Obama's domestic agenda, shedding new light into the Endowment.
But history, sometimes, can show us the future. The Federal Writers project was not without its critics, including W.H Auden. But the writers produced an impressive 275 books, 700 pamphlets, and many other writings like leaflets, radio scripts, and transcripts, including “America Eats,” and the American Guide Series.
Maybe when the dark clouds hovering our economic future clears up, who knows, we might have art, a legacy of our life and times.
That is an ideal worth achieving.
At home this weekend, I decided to bring my laptop over to my grandparents to show them what the roaming writers during the Depression thought about their summer home.
“When I first saw the place, I wouldn’t have described it any differently,” said Louis San George (my Grandad), 93, of the Ocean County Jersey Shore point, Long Beach Island, “thirty years later, it barely looked any different.”
Both my Grandad and my Grammy (Grandpa and Grandma to you!) were both lucky and successful enough to, in the early 1960’s, purchase a small cottage-type summer home on the sliver of sandbar off of the New Jersey mainland, known as Long Beach Island. L.B.I., as many now know it, is still one of the last bastions of non-uniformity along the Jersey Shore; only someguidos.
“It was the early 60’s when we first came down to look at places. We didn’t know what we wanted but we knew we wanted a place like this,” said my Grammy, 90, a mother of three boys including my Dad.
Like described in tours 35a and b in the New Jersey guide, Long Beach Island comes to life staged in all its sandy, Norse fishing village glory. Congruent with the times, the WPA guide for this little outcropping of civilization provided people like my grandparents with a jumping-off point from which to begin their search for a second, more sea-faring home.
“They would speak with such candor and eloquence, we couldn’t help but make some of the same trips. They embellished a little bit, but nevertheless, they were the ones that first pointed it out to us,” said the grandmother of her four well-vacationed grandkids.
There were still chicken coops and cottages in the 60’s when my grandparents made their purchase of little more than a plot of sand, and now, the island stands as a hub for both the wealthy and the middle class during the nice months, still complete with the meager ever-present landmarks from an island’s past not much older than the WPA guides themselves.
My grandparents were living the very American dream so vividly absent from 1930’s America and so clear in each of our readings this semester. And oddly enough, they only knew about the place that would be their new home and live out that dream because of the very depression that caused so much turmoil and destroyed so many families. Without the Federal Writers' Project, not only would many people been out of a much-needed job, but so many families might have been out of a future.
“Had we never seen those beautiful pictures, we might never have even heard of the place,” said my Grammy.
The W.P.A. guides were more than just a jobs for Americans when work was scarce, they were the modern mappings of the future golden years of America.
I found the format of the guide rather telling of the type of vacationing most people were doing or wanted to do at this time. It is presented in the order of towns one would follow if traveling by automobile with the intention of seeing many places in a relatively short period of time. This coincides with the travel habit described in our previous readings. Similar to the tone of a tour guide (“And on your left you have…, and coming up on the right we can see…”), the descriptions are interspersed with reminders that the typical reader is driving along a particular route that will allow him to see all of these places in a particular sequence. The leisurely ease of travel is also expressed through the writing style, which makes certain never to mention anyone “driving” or putting forth any effort; rather phrases such as “this road will take you” or “you will then be brought” are used, as if the road itself is guiding the reader on an uncharted, “natural” adventure.
I grew up in a small suburb of the city of Danbury, Connecticut. It was interesting to read about Danbury’s two points of appeal at the time this WPA guide was written: its hat factories, and its hosting of the annual Danbury Fair. At this time these two features drew many tourists (especially the Fair which was quite famous). The guide also mentions its Main Street, which apparently was “Western Connecticut’s busiest marketplace” (I’m not sure if this still holds true), as well as its numerous public swimming and picnicking locations. These attractions are still going strong today, though some of their appeal has manifested itself in a different way.
The hat factories, for example, are no longer really in use, but remain a point of pride for the city and are likely still included in modern guidebooks. The Danbury High School sports teams use “The Hatters” as their name, and the city is often referred to as “Hat City,” for example. The Danbury Fair no longer goes on, but the mall built on the fairgrounds is called “The Danbury Fair Mall.” Old pieces of carousels and other fair equipment are used to decorate the mall as well as other places in the city. Main Street is still incredibly busy and families and tourists frequent the recreational areas.
I’m sure this pattern is not at all uncommon. Attractions are likely to remain the same (or similar) over the decades, but the reasons for their appeal are inevitably subject to change. The concept of the “attraction-that-once-was” is kind of strange, but I’m glad it exists and thrives. People seem just as willing to travel to an area that once was home to a no longer existing attraction, as they are to find an existing one.
I imagine that it is partially due to the efforts of the WPA that modern tourist publications are less comprehensive. Of course the argument can easily be made that in the Twitter era, people looking to visit Los Angeles would go cross-eyed if travel guides included sections on the Santa Fe and Pacific Railroad price wars of the late 1800s. Since the publication of these guides, travel bureaus have learned that such topics do not hold the attention of the average traveler. Though since the Twitter generation is also the Google and Wikipedia generation, history or railroad buffs could just as easily access this more comprehensive data if they so pleased.
Additionally, one might just as easily make the argument that owing to the popularity of these guide books over the years, the general American consciousness has absorbed a certain amount of knowledge about the various US cities, albeit in a more generalized form. Though comprehensive, the heart of the WPA guides helped with cultural branding for the various towns, and with this cultural branding ingrained in the American consciousness, modern advertisements can play to their audience with a sort of shorthand.
One of the more successful modern guidebook series is the Not for Tourist guides. They offer much more information than the 30-second “Come to California!” TV spots or the hotel-lobby brochures, but are also much less comprehensive than the gargantuan tomes of the WPA guides. They are clear and concise. In the reading selections for last week it was noted that one of the reasons for the success of motels was their sheer convenience and lack of pretense. Though the WPA guides set the bar high in terms of pure volume of information, they also branded the cities, and with this cultural branding it allowed tourism bureaus to focus on what they needed to sell about their city. Travelers do not necessarily want to know all there is to know about their destination—a couple pertinent facts and a few points of interest are all the casual traveler needs. While it may have been necessary in the 1930s to lay a foundation of knowledge for the new practice of tourism, the modern traveler needs a sense of spontaneity to their adventure, and these comprehensive tomes simply would not do.