America—land of illusion. What are people looking for when they come here? And I’m not just talking about immigrants and tourists. Even people that already live here—why do we stay? What’s so great about this country? We propagate a dream, box it up, label it the “American Dream,” and sell it. And it sells pretty well.
In “Puzzled America,” Anderson notes that in his years of travelling throughout the country, the American populace just wants something to believe in, and the government is no longer giving them that something. This is where the writers come in. “If the American writer chances to be a good deal of a wanderer, as I am, he is constantly stuck by something. He becomes more and more convinced of the vast richness of America,” so says Anderson. Writers are influenced by their surrounding, by the people they meet, and by their personal lives, so writing the American Dream comes naturally. People still have a willingness to believe in something; anything, and writers have the power to give them that something.
Asch too, describes this impenetrable American ethic that holds the country together in times of desolation and extreme poverty: “It’s what makes it possible to travel in this country, looking at places where not the fortunate ones live, but those dispossessed, and see much want and hear of many troubles, and still feel there is hope, these is a chance, there is a future.” The future, that’s what America looks towards. During times of hurt, the people (not the government) who are most affected ban together and think “it’s OK.” I wish I could say the same for my own life.
Instead it seems that I remain a bit puzzled, much like Anderson describes. I haven’t gotten my piece of pie, even though I really don’t have any inkling what that means at this point in my life. I just know that these days (read: recession) focusing only on money won’t cut it. We have to trace back to the source, the thing that breeds life: the earth. Forgive me for sounding trite, but I believe a hazy, globally-warmed cloud is obscuring our vision of the future by making us forget our past.
What defines a “sight?” We touched on this topic in class. Essentially it is something that you can exploit, advertise, and charge money for. Or build its reputation to the extent that would pique the tourist’s interest. In reading the California WPA guide, my attention was drawn to the breakdown of the San Francisco “sights worth seeing.” As a native San Franciscan, I always find it interesting what guide books and travel websites pen as the places to go when you’re in San Francisco.
This particular guidebook had some interesting choices, some that I have never even heard of or noticed. When reading the “Downtown San Francisco” section, I had to Google “Lotta’s Fountain,” because I never realized it existed, even though, upon Googling, I found that I pass it any time I’m downtown. Same with the Donahue Monument, the Telephone Building, the Russ Building, St Patrick’s Church (apparently the “most Irish church on this continent”) the list goes on… I must admit I’m slightly embarrassed at my lack of knowledge in regards to my own city. Is this the kind of stuff San Francisco’s really about? Jeez, I feel so out of the loop!
However, as I keep reading, I realize that these guidebooks break down San Francisco (and California cities in general) into geographical sections, and then dissect the hell out of each section and come up with places of potential interest, by the boatloads it seems. These writers take a “something for everyone” approach, and really try and sell it. I can see how a modern-day reader may be put off by the highfalutin descriptions but I find myself appreciating all the work that went into these guides. My favorite sentence really sums it up: “Once a barren stretch of sand dunes and rocky hills, covered with brush, broken here and there by wooded valleys, dotted with swamps and lagoons, the site of the present city is in large part man-made.” What intensity! What natural prowess! What a run-on! It’s kind of ridiculous, but I love kitsch, and to me, part of the appeal of these guides is their campiness.
Whether they truly care about what they’re writing, or they care about getting paid, it doesn’t matter to me, because either I’m totally buying into it, or just glad they’re writing about San Francisco.
Feeling like a tourist sucks. You stick out like a sore thumb. But love of travel supersedes fear of looking ignorant and so we ramble on. In my travels, I have found that there are distinct differences in how tourists are treated in their own country versus elsewhere in the world.
When I was in 8th grade, I went with my Chinese class on a bus tour of the east coast of China. It really was a great experience, and one that I will never forget. Being in a wholly Asian community made me realize just how impossible it is to “blend in.” I am not Chinese, and even though I spoke the language at the time, this fact was regarded as a novel and kitschy feat. People assumed I didn’t know much more than “Hello my name is Julia” or “how much for that purse,” and even though they were pretty much right I was horribly offended when they immediately started speaking to me in English. I wanted so much to emulate their culture as much as I knew how, simply out of fear of being regarded as a mere tourist. For some reason there is a stigma surrounding tourists that paints them as ignorant, dumb, and vulnerable. And while some of that is indeed true (sort of comes with the package of exploring unknown territory), being a full on tourist (fanny-pack, Hawaiian shirt and all) takes a whole lot of courage, even though it shouldn’t! The strangest part to me is that this stigma exists in our own country as well.
I visited Montana last year over the summer, and since I have lived all my life in the United States, I never assumed that my secret tourist identity would be discovered. The first question a shoe salesmen asks me, however is “Where are you guys from?” I should have lied right there on the spot, but instead I hesitated, and then mumbled “California…” When we got back to where we were staying, my dad had picked up on my embarrassment and asked me why I felt that way. To be honest, I couldn’t really explain myself, because in reality I have nothing to be ashamed of. I am proud of where I come from, and yet I try so hard to join the community I visit, however short my trip is. It’s not always fun to be viewed as an outsider, especially when you feel like you have something to prove. Regardless, I have learned to just suck it up, and represent your home in the best of ways throughout your travels. Screw the tourist stigma.
Interesting sidenote: Chinese people were really into taking pictures with us (a predominantly white/African American crowd) and would stop us on the street to do so. I can just hear it: “Look! I saw an American today. Such silly creatures…”
Upon reading Nathanael West’s A Cool Million, I couldn’t help but think of Voltaire’s Candide. Both books describe tales of extreme cruelty and injustice towards the hero and heroine to the extent where I had to physically put the book down and take a break from it all. The dehumanization is overwhelming. While Lem Pitkin is literally being ripped apart, Candide’s life wafts between bad and worse in his travels across the planet.
Both books portray worlds in which optimism barely manages to eek by, as it is always being squashed by greater powers. Candide and Lem start out as happy, optimistic, though naïve, characters, and they end up living a mediocre existence (Candide), or not living at all (Lem.) Their “optimism” is gradually chipped away, until they are forced to settle with reality.
In Candide, it becomes clear that Voltaire believed only in a universal pessimism across which he perceived humanity, and perhaps we can muse that West felt similarly. However, there exists a counter argument to the one-sided philosophy of Voltaire in Jean-Jacques Rousseau. Rousseau believed that all men are born honest and pure, and that it is the institutions of society that corrupts our inherent desire to do good. Without corruption, we could live in a world in which ignorance brings only happiness. Candide and Lem are presented as perpetually happy, and hopeful that things will change, creating a skewed notion of what happiness even is (much like that happiness survey.) Who is really happy anyways? Can we qualify Candide and Lem as happy or at least optimistic when their lives are essentially a joke?
Optimism is a fickle word. To some it is a positive thing, but for others it is a synonym for naivety and pure dumbness. So what are we meant to gather from this all? Clearly, life sucks, and injustice will always prevail if you’re the underdog. Fighting back is worthless because you’ll end up in jail, toothless, eye-less, leg-less, or dead.
How nice it is to be alive!
ps- in case you aren't sure how happy YOU are, here's a test.
I realize that the issue of “tent cities” and modern-day Hoovervilles has already been discussed on this blog, but I can’t help thinking of a tent city in particular that struck me as particularly isolated. This summer, I read an article in Newsweek about a tent city under the Julia Tuttle causeway in Miami, Florida. This isn’t just any tent-city; this is a sexual offender shanty-town. A veritable “child sex-offender-ville.” Creepy, I know.
This all began when Ron Book, a Florida lobbyist renowned for his unnerving persistence, launched a legislative ambush that prohibited registered sex-offenders from living within 2500 ft of where children commonly convene (school, playgrounds, etc.) This seriously limited housing option for offenders, as entire cities became off-limits. Understandably, Book took such drastic actions because his daughter had been molested by the nanny, which the article describes in horrifying detail.
This is where things get a little awkward. Cleary, Book was fiercely trying to protect his family and his community, but he didn’t exactly approach the topic with grace. Book has dehumanized what he’ll repeatedly label “the creeping crud of society,” and thereby reinforces this “sex-offender = permanent creep” mentality. Important to remember is that these are people we are dealing with. Indeed, it does not seem possible to even fathom compassion for a sex-offender, but when they are debased to such an extent, how can one not feel pity?
This is the description that journalist Catharine Skipp provides of the world under the Julia Tuttle causeway: “At the Julia Tuttle camp, the sex offenders begin trickling in around dusk. It is a squalid and dreary place. The air is thick and stifling, reeking of human feces and of cat urine from all the strays that live there. Overhead, the bridge drones and trembles with six lanes of traffic. Makeshift dwellings sprawl out in every direction—tents clinging to concrete pylons, rickety shacks fashioned out of plywood, a camper shell infested with cockroaches. There is no running water or sewage system; inhabitants relieve themselves in shopping bags and toss the sacks into a pile of refuse that they burn periodically. Some men fish along the shoreline, then gut and fry up the catch for anyone who's hungry. For diversion, there's a nightly dominoes game, or perhaps a bottle of booze sipped in solitude.”
This is Ron Book, and his daughter Lauren at their home in Miami- picture 11. (I'm not allowed to take this picture from the website)
“’There is no God,’ I say. ‘If there is a God, why is such as this? What have these men done that they live like rats in a garbage heap? Why does He make them live like rats in a garbage heap?’”
Tom Kromer’s account of his trials and tribulations during the Great Depression does not differ terribly from the anticipated injustice we have seen in other writings of this time (i.e. Grapes of Wrath and the like.) However, he brings to light one issue that we haven’t explicitly come across before: religion and loss of faith.
Kromer is not particularly religious, rather he views churches as a “flop” (place to sleep) rather than as a house of worship. To me, this is perfectly acceptable: churches are known for providing shelter and food for the down-and-out, but unbeknownst to some, it comes at a price. Kromer has learned that the only way to get a bed in a mission is to sit through the sermon. He is an old-timer, and hard times have taught him that God is not a safety net: “Once in Denver I kneeled at the mourner’s bench till I had blisters on my knees. I prayed for a job. I thought for sure I’d get me a job. Well, sister, I didn’t get any job. I got throwed in their lousy can for sleeping in the park. No, we cannot fall for that stuff. (…) We are on to your little tricks.” (Kromer, 34) The fact that he calls the minister’s call to the mourner’s bench a “trick” completely delegitimizes the goal of the church during this time. Preachers summon in “stiffs” as if to fill a daily quota of converts, knowing that these “converts” are only inside to get out of the cold. The chaplain’s own moral compass is seriously compromised because he (or she) is exploiting the faith (or lack thereof) of the jobless and homeless. These men and women are so hopeless that even once-fundamental beliefs cease to provide solace. They have suffered too much the cruelty of society to have faith in anything.
Interestingly enough, during today’s recession, the opposite seems to be happening, at least on Wall Street. Financiers suffering from the economic downfall are seeking help from above, or as this article puts it: “no, not the CEO with the top floor office: God.”
When you’re a hobo, friends come and go, rides come and go, food comes and goes. Nothing is guaranteed. Boxcar Bertha touts the life of a hobo as an “escape from reality.” But to me, the life of a hobo seems all too real. As relaxing as it might seem to be free from any obligations, I prefer having deadlines and a general intention when I travel. However it must be noted that a hobo differs from a tramp or a bum. Most hobos would agree that a hobo works and wanders, the tramp dreams and wanders and the bum drinks and wanders.
I don’t dislike the hobo way of life completely however, because these men and women become incredibly capable to adapt to any situation. They know they have to keep moving, keep searching for something better until they reach the light at the end of the tunnel. That kind of community, one where faith in mankind (or at least hobo-kind) must be strong, else fear takes hold, and the community ceases to exist.
As the hobo lifestyle became more and more popular as the Depression worsened, hoboes not only developed a strictly hobo vernacular (as mentioned by marlee), they also established an ethical code. While this amazes and impresses me, the more I think about it, the less surprised I am at how organized hobo society was (is!). From the “Hobo” Wikipedia article, here is the list, created during the 1889 National Hobo Convention: 1. Decide your own life, don't let another person run or rule you. 2. When in town, always respect the local law and officials, and try to be a gentleman at all times. 3. Don't take advantage of someone who is in a vulnerable situation, locals or other hobos. 4. Always try to find work, even if temporary, and always seek out jobs nobody wants. By doing so you not only help a business along, but ensure employment should you return to that town again. 5. When no employment is available, make your own work by using your added talents at crafts. 6. Do not allow yourself to become a stupid drunk and set a bad example for locals treatment of other hobos. 7. When jungling in town, respect handouts, do not wear them out, another hobo will be coming along who will need them as bad, if not worse than you. 8. Always respect nature, do not leave garbage where you are jungling. 9. If in a community jungle, always pitch in and help. 10. Try to stay clean, and boil up wherever possible. 11. When traveling, ride your train respectfully, take no personal chances, cause no problems with the operating crew or host railroad, act like an extra crew member. 12. Do not cause problems in a train yard, another hobo will be coming along who will need passage through that yard. 13. Do not allow other hobos to molest children, expose all molesters to authorities, they are the worst garbage to infest any society. 14. Help all runaway children, and try to induce them to return home. 15. Help your fellow hobos whenever and wherever needed, you may need their help someday. 16. If present at a hobo court and you have testimony, give it, whether for or against the accused, your voice counts!
Further research led me to hobo.com, an online mecca for those that choose a wandering path through life. Clearly, hobo-ism is not a fad, it is a lifestyle choice that lives on through the ages. Even today, when mass migration is not necessary to find work, modern-day hobos live on the thrill of travel to an unknown destination. It is a simple, yet fulfilling philosophy about life as well: why travel if you know where you’re going to end up? Life is more exciting when you don’t always know where you’re going.
The 1930s marked an age when photo documentation piqued the interest of America. At this time, photographers began taking pictures that carried deeper social and emotional and political significance. Photography itself had become a way to project the times in the most realistic of ways; no other media could so effectively capture human emotion and struggle in one frame. The Great Depression produced many evocative photographs thanks to the enlisting of numerous photographers by the Farm Security Administration.
The Resettlement Administration (RA) and Farm Security Administration (FSA) are well known for the influence of their photography program from the year 1935 to 1944. Photographers and writers were hired to report and document the struggles of the poor farmer. Roy Stryker, Head of the Information Division of the FSA, responsible for giving information to the public, adopted a goal for the agency of "introducing America to Americans." He envisioned a task force of thirty or forty photographers, fanning across the country to compile information on the American landscape and on RA’s relief efforts.
The FSA photography project is most responsible for creating the image of the Depression in the USA, for these images were to appear in popular magazines such as Life. By defining FSA photographs as objective documents, taken solely “for the record,” Stryker and his associates believed that they were serving the cause of historic preservation. The photographers were under instruction from Washington as to what overall impression the New Deal wanted to give out. Stryker's agenda focused on a few key themes: his faith in social engineering, the poor conditions among tenant cotton farmers, and migrant farm workers. Above all he was committed to social reform through New Deal intervention in people's lives. Stryker wanted to implement photographs that "related people to the land and vice versa" because these photographs reinforced the RA's position that poverty was controllable thanks to changing land practices.
Though Stryker did not offer much direction in how to take the shot, he did send his photographers lists of desirable themes, such as "church," "court day," and "barns." Stryker sought photographs of migratory workers that would tell a story about their everyday life, what to them was “the norm”. For example, he asked Dorothea Lange to emphasize cooking, sleeping, praying and socializing. Roy Stryker found no ethical problem in posing subjects or changing the surroundings in order to point out a known social or economic problem. The program was thus not primarily artistic or anthropological. Stryker was willing to go to any lengths to tailor a picture to achieve a desired response from the public.
This sort of personal touch was frequently allowed in the photographs of the Great Depression, for it furthered the program’s main intent: capturing the sympathies of an urban, middle-class audience in the cause of reform, fashioning images that conformed to the values of their viewers. Thus the bitter realism portrayed in the FSA collection was “deliberate, calculated, and highly stylized.”
Author and historian James Curtis challenges the belief that documentary photographs are realistic, because they are taken with purpose, and are not simply random snapshots. As value for this investigation, his book provides an in depth analysis of Dorothea Lange’s ubiquitous “Migrant Mother”, and how Lange’s own morals and social values are displayed through the photograph. Furthermore, Curtis examines photographs not as a work of art, but as a window into the lives of the millions of people affected by the Depression, communicating the multiple dimensions of rural poverty. Stryker and his photographers strove throughout their careers to insist that the photos did represent some real truth, and qualities of agrarian America only visible through the eyes of those who suffer by it. Still, the photographer's prejudice often entered into the creation of an image, making the photos part enduring cultural record, part propaganda.
The excerpts of Ernie Pyle’s book Home Country piece together the life of a man who had no real home for most of his life. Because of his job as a newspaper columnist, he traveled across the country in search of material. The people he met, the miles he drove, the places he stayed all make up an intricate mosaic of the life of one man and his wife (The Girl.)
But the real issue here is the fact that he doesn’t really have a home to speak of. Sure, he grew up on a lovely farm in Indiana until he was 18, joined the army, and then floated around semi-permanently for a while. But after that he adopted a nomadic lifestyle that prevented him from settling down, which begs the question “why settle down at all?”
Who needs a home anyway? There are strings attached, parents, overprotective communities, and the like. Personally, these don’t make a difference to me, because I am a person who craves home, who relishes the idea of always having a place to go; a home is a security blanket. And I’m perfectly fine with that. The way I see it, a five-year long travelling stint wears you out, down to the bone. Where can you reboot? Where’s your ground zero? What do you have to hold onto that’s a steady pulse in your life? If things fall apart, where will you put the pieces back together? This is what a home is to me.
Now, for Ernie Pyle, that isn’t necessary. He doesn’t need a security blanket in the same capacity that I seem to, at this time in my life. He’s perfectly content wandering, and I respect that. Like the Joads, he’s on a mission, and he’s not going to stop until he learns something, or reaches a final destination. Perhaps he’s looking for a home, or at least a place to call home, however brief.
In his final chapter, it’s clear that he does indeed have a home: the whole country (hence the title “Home Country.”) He doesn’t need a place to crawl back to when things go wrong. He picks up bits and pieces of information in his travels and collectively they make him a better person: “Travel, they say, is educational.” (462) He absorbs, and moves on to his next place of interest, and on and on, until this pattern fills in the spaces of his character that would have otherwise gone empty.
Here's a song I like about home. Wish I could have uploaded the music video but that privelege was denied me by YouTube.
The character of Uncle John has always left me a bit puzzled. He hardly shows up in the novel, yet he is one the surviving members of the Joad clan. One would assume his character would take on more responsibility because he initially provides a home for his family when they were forced to leave the only one they knew. Unfortunately, Uncle John’s overwhelming guilt for having denied his wife a doctor at a time she unknowingly needed it stays with him throughout the novel, as he believes his sin to be the cause of the family’s misfortune.
His interjections are rare, and for the most part, banal. He is painted as a morose man, prone to moments of weakness that most often manifest themselves in the form of alcohol. He uses it as a tool to forget, to momentarily relinquish feelings of guilt. Steinbeck relates the relief that alcohol brings the bereaved in Chapter 23, and provides insight into Uncle John’s rationale: “The hard edges gone, and the warmth. There was no loneliness, for a man could people his brain with friends, and he could find his enemies and destroy them… Failures dulled and the future was no threat” (327). Booze was a comfort, and became for him a form of artificial salvation, a relief from the turmoil he perpetually causes himself.
The Joads’ experience in the Weedpatch illustrates one of the novel’s central philosophies: that humans find their greatest strength in numbers. However Steinbeck isolates Uncle John in his useless depression, as he regularly demonizes himself for his tendency towards sin. Obviously, in regards to the idea of “sin,” I am reminded of the crazy lady at Weedpatch who preached that sin is everywhere, and that it will kill Rose of Sharon’s baby if she involves herself in “sinful” activities like dancing, acting, etc. Her obsession with sin has literally driven her mad, and she becomes an example of what could become of Uncle John is he continues in the way that he does.
Perhaps why we don’t hear much from him is because we become so engrossed in the story that we share in the Joad’s pain, and we relate to their frustration. When their hope slips, ours does as well. Since Uncle John is a constant source of negativity, we tune him out, because like the Joad’s and other migrant workers, we just want things to work out in the end and we will take whatever positivity we can (Thanks Ma!): “Uncle John shook his head over his plate. ‘Don’t looks like we’re a-gonna get shet of this here. I bet it’s my sin.’ ‘Oh shut up!’ Pa cried. ‘We ain’t got the time for your sin’” (392.) At this point in the novel, John seems incapable of taking any sort of affirmative action towards the collective good, as John Casy, for example, so wholeheartedly does.
Thankfully, my perception of Uncle John took a turn for the better when he accepted the task of burying Rose of Sharon’s stillborn baby. Although the birth of a stillborn is a tragic event, the moments preceding the birth contain images of hope. As the baby’s body floats down the flooded stream, we are reminded of the story of Moses, who was sent down the Nile river as an infant, and later in life led his people to the promised land of Israel. Here's a quick reminder in case you forgot. The stillborn acts as a messenger, speaking for the hundreds of thousands of migrant workers whose voice goes unheard the entire novel. In this moment, John works towards the collective good, defending his family, his integrity, and all those deaf to the ear of the oppressor. He has clearly undergone a dramatic change, and in the end, leaves us feeling hopeful and ok. Seems like if he can do it, we can too. We just have to keep on truckin’.
And just because I like Mel Brooks: