Dylan Golden's blog
These WPA guides have really struck me. I mentioned in class that I found a Texas WPA guide in my Great Uncle’s library and took it with me on a trip to Big Bend. I blew through the history section as if it was a novel. And I hung on each word. Unlike the travel guides today, whose concern is the travel, these guides seem more concerned with the content and with the cities, towns or states of which they write. Sometimes the difference is slight and only in tone, but these guides do read as much like texts about a place as guides for travelers.
An example of this are these history chapters. The New Orleans guide talks about the city’s history with the excitement of a historian, rather than that of a travel editor. And it isn’t as broad as one might assume. It gets quite detailed. It mentions not only the history, but how we’ve learnt it. It mentions not only events but people and their motives. As the Texas guide told in detail the personal history of Stephen Austin, the New Orleans guide tells of the numerous colonists of the region. And it’s not mere exposition of history—it actually goes into scene. Take this, for example:
“At 7:30 P.M. the ‘Carolina’ sidled up to the levee and opened fire upon the unsuspecting British as they were cooking supper and preparing their bivouacs. Confusion reigned as the redcoats put out their fires and ran for shelter behind a secondary levee. Simultaneously, Jackson and Coffee advanced to the attack. In the hand-to-hand combat in the dark, in which bayonets, tomahawks, hunting knives, and fists were used to advantage, the Tennesseans made murderous inroads on the British right flank, although Jackson’s charge was met with stubborn resistance. After two hours’ fighting a heavy fog terminated the battle, neither side having gained any decisive advantage.”
It goes on like this for more than thirty pages.
I’ve always found the history of a land or people to be the best way to engage fully with it. But history can be boring and dry and often shallow. Though it’s difficult to read it without questioning the age of some of the facts, I would be inclined to use these guides as a history for all the places I travel in the future. The length is ideal, the depth a good medium, and the writing in all that I have read is colorful and engaging. I can’t help but wonder why more care isn’t put into travel guides anymore. It seems they are more about the traveler than about the place. Often they feel essentially like maps in list form, giving addresses and phone number and prices of hotels or restaurants or attractions. One could likely swap out the names in one Lonely Planet and they would be the same everywhere: this place is swanky, this is a dive, this restaurant has great deserts, etc. I’d rather have more literary narratives that the WPA guides provide and a map that marks locations. Guides ought to do more than just accommodate their readers, they really ought to help familiarize a traveler with a more complete and rounded knowledge of their surrounding.
Returning back to the Grapes of Wrath Bibliography, I somehow ended up on an article entitled “John Steinbeck: Novelist as Scientist.” Though it is not specific to Grapes of Wrath, science seems particularly noticeable in those early characterless chapters that could nearly be described and literary science as their seems not plot or story to them save for that of the changing land. And, after all, Steinbeck did have that interest in science and scientists in him. “The fiction of John Steinbeck has had a special appeal to the scientist, for of all the major American writers of fiction in this century, Steinbeck alone has had an abiding interest in natural science and brought that interest into his writing,” wrote Jackson J. Benson. The Log from the Sea of Cortez details Steinbeck's six-week marine specimen-collecting expedition with his good friend, the marine biologist Ed Ricketts. And then in the character Jim Casy, Steinbeck created an observer of things through an increasing profane lens. “In a parody of Christ’s religious purgation of the self,” Benson wrote, “Casy goes into the wilderness to emerge with a scientific, non-teleological vision: ‘There ain’t no sin and there ain’t no virtue. There’s just stuff people do. It’s all part of the same thing.’” I am always apprehensive to pit religion and science against each other as only the dogmatists of each camp seem inclined to do, but besides in shaping the philosophies implied by Steinbeck in Grapes of Wrath environmental science seemed overall to play a role that ran parallel to the Great Depression as it might run parallel today with the concern for global warming.
Just as farmers in the 1930s found their land ruined by unsustainable farming habits at the same time that their bank accounts were dwindled by unsustainable financing habits, the same two poor habits came ashore in the past few years, and together once again. It seems to make for a particularly darker shade of gloom—one in which both the environment and human institutions both have been misguided by our own appetitive natures. Where we have ruined both what we’ve been given and what we’ve made.
If Grapes of Wrath was the road novel of the Great Depression which put in words these anxieties by the pen of a writer with an interest in science, The Road could be today’s equivalent, who wrote perhaps more allegorically about the issues of what humans make and what they ruin, and how in the wake of that they may survive. Like Steinbeck, McCarthy, who is today regarded as a major American writers, has an interest in science that shows both in his prose and in his themes.
Yet most important in both of these works is that they are not merely scientific. In the end they are about humans and their function as a part of the greater environment. Afterall, Benson wrote, Steinbeck “saw man as part of an ecological whole.”
I mean no harm to Agee but I just have trouble understanding how this latest piece could at all fit into a selected works of journalism. It’s written well enough—very well—with ideas that sometimes seem spot on. But it seems like all mirth, no matter. That’s what struck me—the excitement he had. It struck me and at times annoyed me like listening to a friend tell you how great the second cut off the White Album is. But Agee writes of American travel with the enthusiasm usually reserved today for more global adventures. “I spent the whole summer in a town in Alabama,” Agee might tell you. And you say, “Well I backpacked through Southeast Asia. Saw eighteen-hundred Buddhist temples in fifteen weeks. Then I hiked New Zealand.” Restive is right! And it’s taken us somewhere.
But we aren’t all restive. Agee clearly is. College students are expected now to be. It’s innumerable the number of times I’ve been asked if I’ve traveled abroad and if I will. The observational class is trained to be restive. If you’ve got the time or money you’re considered a fool by your fellow travelers not to see as much as you possibly can of this loud and crowded globe.
The class that mulls and mildews on life alone—not on exotic spectacle because seeing and all the senses themselves are luxuries when breathing is the only effort—breathing and thinking clearly—that is the other class who isn’t restive because they can’t be. Because that would be silly. Because sometimes one must learn to keep himself going rather than be kept going because there’s another vista up ahead or because of that fascinating city where people wear blue hats and the number one record is twelve tracks of boiling water.
After writing his opus on three struggling tenant families whom (I thought) he found to epitomize America, I’m surprised he can turn around and say America is restive. It seems to me if anything can be said at all about America it’s that it’s big. People are poor here and rich there. Like rap here and country there. There’s a depression and here’s prosperity. Some guys live for restlessness while others live for rest. Agee might have done well to quit defining America after he did it once. If it’s true that we’re restive I think we shouldn’t be. I think we ought not to run from contemplation. I think this restiveness is an appetite and distracts us from our larger human aims that might have better been accomplished before we started running around to see as much as we can, to see everything. Those goals before the automobile and the highway were breathing and satisfaction. And in fact, they still are. Running around makes us breath faster, not more. And it hastens our insatiability—makes it more impossible than it ever could have been. I think Agee was wrong to say that’s who we are. It’s simply how those who travel wish to make us. Because they’ve seen more than you. Because they’ve been to San Remo and the jazz is phenomenal. Unlike anything you’ve ever heard.
For fear of being rote I won’t look too closely at the predicaments of Lem Pitkin and instead look broadly at his aim. I began to mention in my last post that there seems something fundamentally different with the down-and-out today in that the idea a bum could make a fortune would be a far out laugh. “A Cool Million” couldn’t be written today merely for the fact that such an activity taken on by such a man would itself be the punchline. Because it just doesn’t seem to happen anymore. A farm boy doesn’t grow up to start a major motor company. A boy raised in a one-room rural cabin will not do business in the Oval Office. Besides the arts and entertainment industries, and unless one’s fostered out of poverty, he or she would unlikely leave home with any prospects of fortune at all.
If the Great Depression lead many to dispute the American Dream in the 1930s, today its already been deadened.
It seems that success today is so depended on technology that the advancements of the last two decades have created an impossible gulf between the homeless and those with access to it. Without a cell phone, without a computer or without the internet it would seems you are set much further back than someone who merely lacks a home or income. And with our generation and all those who come after, a technological acumen is not only helpful to gain a proper education but today it seems necessary. This very class would be a prime example. Getting a bed and a minimum wage would be a small step towards fortune today. One must go much further to make a decent income and even further than that to make a fortune, let alone a motor empire or a presidential campaign.
In the literature we’ve read, the American Dream seems primarily the dream of the homeless and the low middle class. Today it seems a dream for the middle classes who have something of a fortune to start with, and the immigrants who may have less understanding than they do have hope. (The entertainment industry does seem like one, however, to which this might not apply. I just read that Cesar Millan, the “Dog Whisperer,” was raised on a rural farm in Mexico and crossed the U.S. border illegal twenty years ago. He became a U.S. citizen this year and his company will soon be worth $100 million.)
I remember reading a month or so ago about homeless families, primarily in Appalachia, as they prepared to send their kids back to school. There is no national data available, but the New York Times article claims “the number of schoolchildren in homeless families appears to have risen by 75 percent to 100 percent in many districts over the last two years.” The instability of constant moves and the inconsistency of food and meals become ruinous to a school education. Nine year-old Charity Crowell, the subject of the piece, says: “I couldn’t go to sleep, I was worried about all the stuff.” And in turn she found herself nodding off in class.” Like Ruthie and Winfield, the current economic trouble has seen a large effect not only on those who have lost jobs, but to those whose parents have lost jobs as well. And likewise, since Hurricane Katrina, one in five high school students live without parents in New Orleans.
In a modern world when childhood schooling is so highly measured toward adult success, poverty can’t necessarily be overcome as it could have by the Joad children. While there was a time when a child could grown up on a farm and end up founding Ford Motor Company, the opportunity for success and dare I say, the “American Dream” might not be so available to the underprivileged in today’s more complicated, technological world.
Sixth grade reading assignments might rightfully seem trivial to a child who concerns herself over a bed and a dinner and a crying mother. It seems unfortunate that our society has advanced in such a fashion as so one’s concern for survival can’t be a part of one’s concern for success. Instead we’ve determined a rank between the two, for which one can have one worry or the other. It seems that the insistence on the necessity classroom education and our failure to teach all children, not just underprivileged ones, both the skills and the importance of trade labor, that we’ve created some sort of impossible gulf for children without computers and internet and cell phones to ascend. I’m sure there are more proper editorials on the subject, but in hearing these stories in which someone can find success with a few dollars, then a car, then a home, a business and a little success, the “Dream” now is much more complex, with many more impossible steps to climb.
As a writing student it’s been difficult for me to look at these texts as documents rather than as pieces of literature: as works of writing and as words put down on the page for the purpose of creating a story that at best will uplift the reader and at most engage him. That being said, I take each of these writers seriously and their tasks more seriously than them. Having sat through a maximum of writing workshops I’ve read some very poor writing from people both who don’t care much to try and from those who put in enormous effort but come out with less. Most remarkable about “Waiting for Nothing,” besides of course the well-earned content, is the fact that what this homeless man has written not one poor sentence but a good, declarative novel. It should not be compared with Steinbeck, but considering how it was written—for its own sake rather than the sake of being published and beloved—it nearly could. It’s a remarkably unpretentious work that provides great effect with few words and images.
Still, however, a novel is something that must be worked hard on. I don’t think anyone could produce something half-decent without at least a half-struggle. I have no doubt that Steinbeck and Anderson and Caldwell and Agee toiled over words and rearranged them and re-rearranged them in order for the architecture of their writing to give the effect it has today. After all, we’ve exhaustively noted that this was their job, that they were self-declared writers that had received checks and contracts in advance. Tom Kromer, on the other hand, has written his first and only novel with “Waiting for Nothing” and with no plans for publication.
There are inevitably two ways for us to consider his work: either foremost as a piece of literature—a work of self-reflection—or first as a journal and a document of the times. In the first category we must admit that that this is amateur work and that Kromer is a novice writer, writing as so many popular memoirists do today about his struggles and depravity. And of course me must remember the purpose for which it was written. To consider it a document of a hobo’s life at that time, we must recognize that it is still a piece of literature and a novel that was arranged to maximally engage its reader. Thus, in all, this is a unique piece of writing—the kind that’s usually forgotten, but shouldn’t always be.
If Steinbeck’s aim was to create a great piece of literature he surely had the advantage of an extraordinary time in American history. Families fled the plains as if to flee apocalypse. Land and water alike were scarce. And the whole middle half of our country fought the weather of a Biblical allegory, turning the landscape into a latter-day Near East rather than the fruited plains first found there. If myth is the most powerful form of human creation, one needed little imagination to create one then. One didn’t even need to bend the facts.
I would reckon it the project of most serious writers to try and put the common human experience on the tip of their pen. It so happens that two of the most common experiences among us are hunger and death. Reading Agee’s piece, an excerpt I had read for class before, and going threw Evans’s photographs, I’ve begun to think that we were thinking far too cynically when noting the awkward juxtaposition of an foreign writer conquering a helpless soul. The greatest accomplishment Steinbeck achieved in writing of the Joads and Agee in reporting on his sharecropping subjects was not in exposing an economic condition nor illustrating a period of history—that would simplify the struggle of these characters and understate the tales told by these writers to only documents. The foremost value of these works was in capturing the base struggle of their subjects, and thus the nature of us all.
Likewise, I’m sure we will discuss the strange relationship that takes places between the subjects of these photographs, those who took them, and those who marvel at them. Even Agee mentions an uneasiness toward the camera. Negroes, he said, “understand the meaning of a camera, a weapon, a stealer of images and souls, a gun, an evil eye” (362). But eighty-years later that too seems beside the point. The greatness of these photographs lies not in the specific individual imaged there, but rather in the common one that is evoked. I would like to think that any important piece of art, relevant beyond its years, has its value not in the man or woman or child or land that evokes a common feeling, but has its value in the common feeling itself. As Faulkner once said, “’Ode on a Grecian Urn’ is worth any number of old ladies.” One could likewise say of any of these images that they were worth the struggle of their subjects.
In sum, so rarely is it possible to create a myth out of reportage, and so paradoxical a feat it is, that there is no wonder these stories and pictures are so engaging to us now. They are both larger than life and utterly life-size.
In February or March of each year my father and I usually discuss some kind of trip. Sometimes I will offer an idea—a city or a park or even a region—and sometimes my father will. We rarely disagree as he will do anything with his children and I will do anything that’s already paid for. But each year we’re asked by friends and family (and always my mother) that same question Sherwood Anderson asked the New Yorker down in Selma. “Why Tuscon? Why El Paso? Why Midland, Texas?” And our answer is always the same as his: “I don’t know. I just bought a ticket.” Of course it’s never quite so simple. We always feel confident for some reason that the trip will be of interest. Likely it’s because we don’t go to West Texas expecting to find a resort—although we have found them. But on our family trips we often find the most enjoyment while we’re in the car and on the move. Half of my pictures, subsequently, are often taken out of windows. Considering the outdoorsman that my dad it might sound strange to spend so much time inside. But the mode of traveling he has taught me leaves me feeling similarly to Anderson and all the other writers. And likewise, it must sound strange that the most memorable parts of the trips I’ve taken are often the backroads we’ve taken and the poverty we’ve seen. Shafter, TX will always stand out in my mind—an unincorporated town of 26 that consists mostly of an abandoned silver mine and a church. The median income for a household in that county is $19,860 and 36% of the county’s population (7,304) lives below the poverty line. Redford, TX was the nearest town to where we stayed on our Big Bend trip. The town banks the Rio Grande and the Mexican border and the median income is $15,417 per household with 83.8% of the general population (132) and 100% of those under eighteen years-old living below the poverty line. What was remarkable was again what Anderson noticed about these communities. Besides its harsh and arid reality, the landscape was absolutely stunning. There was natural beauty among these simple towns like I have never seen before. It ought to have been “America’s garden spot.” Last spring I met up with my parents and my brother in New Orleans wherefrom we traveled through the bayou. The most memorable part of that trip, like the Texas trip one year previous, was the drive back to New Orleans from a plantation we toured an hour up the Mississippi. While we had hurried down the freeway to get there, we used side roads adjacent to the river to get back. In many of those towns I saw poverty unlike anything I had seen. Yet what was remarkable was the lushness of this land abutting the Mississippi and a remarkable quality of life that made this drive both deeply moving and unsettling at once, seeing people who live with nothing more contentedly than I have lived with lots.
It is clear that during the Great Depression people feared for their lives. People’s actions were driven by fear whether it was those with land or those without it. Owners, banks and businessmen turned risk-averse in fear of livelihood while the workers took risks they likely shouldn’t have. It was a strange rare time in this country when people feared for their lives not because of war or violence but because of hunger. We are familiar now with the response that the poor make towards this fear and desperation and the wrath that has caused it, be it social or economic or environmental. Until the Joads arrive in California the desperation had been largely unorganized—few had a solid grip on what had happened to them and their country. But in California the Joad’s find organized workers and organized farmers equally fearful of their fates and futures. But while the book takes the perspective of the workers, who share little understanding with the farmers, I’ve become curious about the fear felt by one group in particular—the Farmers’ Association. If more desperate acts are committed by more desperate people then the distress felt by the local farmers-turned-vigilantes must be large and cannot be ignored.
Unfortunately my research turned up little save for one dissertation written on the topic. All other mentions of vigilante justice in Great Depression-era farming communities referenced Grapes of Wrath rather than any specific militias or mobs active at that time. None the less, it is not hard to believe that organizations like the Farmers’ Association, or the real-life “Farmers’ Protective League” existed. After all, there is one major parallel. Like the locals fearful that the cheaper, out-of-town labor will come in and disturb the existing economic and cultural dynamic of California and the West, many people still share that concern today. And famously the most motivated of these people have set up vigilance squads, not unlike the one that surrounded the Joads on their way to Weedpatch, on the Mexican borderland. It is conceivable that these border squads today are motivated less by fear and desperation than by ideology—it is hard, in any case, to have both hunger and politics on your mind at once. But in the years of the Great Depression, jobs and lives we’re immediately at stake on both sides of the fence. According to the aforementioned dissertation, the San Francisco Examiner claimed the whole valley was a “smoldering volcano ready to erupt.” It seems easy for us today to regard any gun-wielder as radical. Then they were only hungry. When a deputy shook his fist at an Okie, he was all to ready to ready to throw his soiled knuckles in return.
Chapter 5 seems the most important chapter here. Narratives teach us that our protagonists must be active characters. An engaging hero chooses his quest while a boring one inherits it. Of course the Joads might have inherited their condition but they chose what to make of it just as Muley chose to stay. But there’s another character good to watch—that engages you. “The bank is something more than men, I tell you. It’s the monster. Men made it, but they can’t control it” (33). It sounds like a science fiction plot—needful man conjures golem, golem wreaks wrath. But there’s nothing scientific here. Man seems able to make something greater than himself quite easily on his own. And we do this often—make these monsters. We make myths to which our lives adhere. We make cultures that we die for. We make sounds and sights in whose presence we are small, helpless. There is no doubt the ease with which we make things greater than ourselves and there is no doubt the conviction with which we devote ourselves to things that aren’t us. It can be dangerous. We gain purpose from things made by men that are just aren’t men. And we all flock quick to things that offer to own us, that we know will give us purpose. That is both why we obey these monsters and why we make them in the first place. We’re dropped through the void and build a thing to hang to. Sometimes it’s a ladder that will help us out—those real good things that make you die happy—Christ or fatherhood or Star Wars. Sometimes we make something greater than ourselves but it only takes us sideways, gives us aim but leaves us needy—sex or hamburgers or Star Wars. And sometimes we make things that lift us from the void and put us someplace worse. That’s Steinbeck’s monster. The banks. We build them because they lift us and we obey them because they lift us and that’s better than not being lifted at all. But then they drop us and we’re not falling through that void anymore but we’re living someplace inhospitable. Where something has to lift us up again or we’ll build something that will. Most of the time the banks that dropped us pick us up again. Those same vaults and bills and options and securities.
I’m not sure a monster is a bad thing. And even good things can fail us. Mom can forget to pack us lunch. Our loves will leave. We can’t just blame something for taking our control away. We just need to make sure it works as we built it and functions as we need it to. Otherwise we ought to build something else. We ought to write the book about it that will carry us away.