The other day I was talking to a boy in Sigma Phi Epsilon and he told me that they went on a weekend retreat to Connecticut. Now, I live in Connecticut and don't see it as the perfect retreat place. Sure, if you want to hang out in sketchy New Haven or creepy Bridgeport, or hang out in the woods in the middle of nowhere, or hang out with the rich people in Greenwich. Living in Connecticut, I just don't see it as a vacation spot. So when deciding what WPA guide to read for this blog entry, I picked the one on New England particularly because it included parts of my home state, Connecticut.
What I really found interesting about the WPA guides as a whole was the tone. For instance, the New England one is quite dramatic and begins with "serene old cities, quiet elm-shaded villages, rocky coasts, sandy beaches, friendly wooded mountains, crystal lakes and streams - everywhere you will be greeted with New England's warm hospitality." While I don't deny that Connecticut and New England in general have lakes and streams and old cities, the description on this was highly exaggerated. Connecticut definitely has a air of history surrounding it, being one of the 13 original colonies, but it is definitely overplayed in these guides. While Connecticut is pretty during the autumn season, it isn't as spectacular as the WPA guides are making it out to be. Though, one must look at the WPA guides as a marketing tool and it is very effective marketing. The language and the sense of happiness and peace one gets from reading these guides would make you want to travel.
I also found it interesting how they promoted each particular town and city within Connecticut. Westport, for instance, is made out to be this writers town where boatmen used to stay. New Haven, on the other hand, is portrayed as this amazing city, home to the prestigious Yale University and having a fantastic green that the city is placed around. For the record, today, New Haven isn't so nice and one should really only stay on the Yale campus. Fairfield is a quiet village with a green, facing the tavern where George Washington spent the night once. Old Lyme "slumbers beneath a towering white church spire." While I can see the affect of this writing on people who have never been to Connecticut, for someone who lives there Connecticut might not be so great. Though I have a modern perspective in this whole thing, and Connecticut has changed a lot over the last 80 years with urban sprawl and urbanization, the descriptions in the guides are far too dramatic and unrealistic to me.
After reading the articles for this week, I was particularly interested with this sort of restless American spirit that was described and all of the inventions and consequences from that feeling. James Agee wrote in his piece, "the American people - worked up in their blood a species of restiveness...we are restive entirely for the sake of restiveness. Whatever we may think, we move for no better reason than for the plain, unvarnished hell of it." I completely agree with this statement by Agee, that Americans travel and move around just for the reason that there isn't anything better to do. This is why we take road trips and visit friends in other cities and take paid vacations and have destination weddings. But I am also interested in how these things, including leisure travel and motels and diners have been created out of this need to travel.
One of the most interesting things for me while reading these pieces is the idea of the cabin court, where people could just stay in a small house or shack and park their car next to their temporary home. It is the first version of the modern day motel. While motels today have a seedy sort of image in general, back then, they were attractive for travelers. John Jakle wrote, "the cabin camps and cottage courts attracted not only travelers who had previously camped, but many who otherwise stopped only at hotels." He goes on to say that few hotels were actually convenient for automobile travelers, as they were more centered by the railroads. Motels back then were cheap comparatively and still are today, which is just another convenience for travelers. Hence the birth of the motel culture during an American road trip.
From the birth of road trips and American's taking paid vacation time also came diners and gas stations along high ways, which are all still prevalent today. Even driving down a modern high way there are rest stops with McDonald's and local restaurants, information booths for travelers, bathrooms and motels in which one can spend the night. Also created from this need to travel, particularly in the past ten years or so are the birth of destination weddings and websites like Expedia and Cheaptickets. All of which can be used to plan a full on trip - from car rentals, hotels and flights. There are also companies like Hertz and Avis where travelers can rent cars at once location and drop them off at another.
Furthermore, I used to work at a travel agency and destination weddings, despite the economy are very popular for young couples. They want to travel to another place to get married purely for the experience and like Agee said just for the "unvarnished hell of it". This idea of leisure travel has grown since the early 20th century - from cabin courts to motels, from diners to fast food restaurants, now to destination weddings and travel websites and shows no sign of stopping anytime soon. Americans just like to travel and have had that travel mind set imprinted upon them throughout recent history.
Nathanael West's A Cool Million is without question a satyrical story about the great American hero and the great American dream and just how easily those ideals can fall apart. West's main character, Lem Pitkin, was supposed to be the "great" one, but actually turned out to not be so great at all. Everything bad that could have happened did. What I find really interesting about the novel is the very last two pages, where there is a national holiday dedicated to Pitkin.
One of the things I found most interesting about the last scene of the story was the idea of using someone else's ultimate failures to perpetuate your own American dream. Pitkin's life ended tragically - he was used and abused and ultimately was shot. As West wrote, "jail is his first reward. Poverty his second. Violence his third. Death is his last." He was better off dying than living the life he was subjected to.
Furthermore, he was portrayed by West as a hero who made a great sacrifice for a cause. He "did not live or die in vain. Through his martyrdom the National Revolutionary Party triumphed". Other than being completely depressing, the ending of this piece brings up the idea of what exactly a hero is. Pitkin was celebrated as a hero, despite his awful life and failures and in a way was celebrated as dying for his country. This brings about a few questions - can the failures of a single person be the motivating force for another group of people? Does one person's tragedy produce another person's happiness? It also got me thinking about who are the American heroes today, or the heroes of the past. George Washington and Abraham Lincoln come to mind. Martin Luther King was an American hero. Barack Obama may be a hero to some. Lemuel Pitkin is certainly not the typical American hero. However, that makes this satire as effective as it is. He is the antithesis of a hero and leaves the reader wondering at the end who should have been the hero.
One of the things that I am most interested in relation to the 1930's and the Great Depression is the idea of leisure travel. We have talked a lot in class about trains and we have touched on automobiles and trailers, but we haven't really discussed commercial airline travel. Hence, I have decided to explore that for this open topic post.
Two types of planes were common during the 1930's. The first was a Douglas DC-3. The plane, pictured above, was the most successful passenger aircraft of that time period. By 1939, 3 out of every 4 American commercial passengers flew on this kind of plane. Cruising speed for this plane was about 185 mph. By World War II the Douglas DC-3 was adopted for use by the military and renamed the Douglas C-47. Another popular plane was the Boeing 314 Clipper (pictured below). It was designed and manufactured during the 1930's and was essentially a huge flying boat. The plane typically featured four cabins, flush toilets and sometimes even a bridal suite. In 1943, President Roosevelt made the first flight by a president on board one of these planes.
Another thing that I found very interesting about the airline industry was work of flight attendants, which typically today is a field dominated by women. In the 1920's the flight attendants, or cabin boys, were typically young men of small stature who "loaded luggage, reassured nervous passengers, and helped people get around the plane." On May 15th, 1930, however, Boeing Air Transport introduced the first female flight attendant. However, in order to get women into the field, men had to be convinced. "Ellen Church, a registered nurse, is credited with convincing Steve Stimpson, manager of Boeing's San Francisco office, that women could work in a role previously limited to men. She persuaded the company that nurses were best able to tend to ailing passengers. Thus, nurses aboard the Boeing Model 80 became the first female flight attendants, for the salary of $125 per month." Female air stewardesses, however, had to fit very specific requirements - they had to be 5'4'' or shorter, no more than 118 pounds, between the ages of 20 and 26 and had to be single.
And, of course, the people flying in the 1930's were from the upper echelon of society. Flying provided speed and convenience, but the insurance on it was expensive compared to that of train travel. Many of the commercial flyers during the 30's were manufacturer's representatives and banking representatives. Air travel was not for the poor or the middle class. To get an idea of how new commercial flying was, however, it was said that "other statistics state that the number of passenger miles traveled in the United States increased 600 percent from 1936 to 1941, a growth that was very largely due to the DC-3. But even as late as 1939, flying travelers made up just 7.6 percent of the long-distance train market."
Tom Kromer's Waiting For Nothing, is for me, one of the most interesting and emotional pieces we have read so far this semester. It has a sense of realism (despite the deliberate lack of a place and time) that is not present in many of the other pieces that have been assigned. One thing that really jumped out at me, particularly within the first few episodes, is the perspective that Tom Kromer has. He seems hyper aware of everything around him, which could be a survival instinct, but ultimately leads to a very interesting perspective for the reader.
In the first part of the story, Kromer is looking into a restaurant through a window. He immediately notices the disparity between his position and the social status of the couple before him. "This woman is sporting a satin dress...Her fingers are covered with diamonds...She is beautiful. Never have I seen a more beautiful woman...They do not eat. They only nibble. They are nibbling at chicken, and they are not even hungry. I am starved" (Kromer, 7). First off, he seems to appreciate the beauty of the woman before him. The way the passage is written, it is almost as if he is talking about some mystical figure, like an angel or a goddess, not just a normal woman. Then, his perspective and thought process switches and he notices the way they are eating. He becomes jealous and bitter, wishing he was in their place. Thinking that he should be the one eating chicken, not them. What this small scene does is give perspective into his mind - he seems to be switching between two specific points of view - the one he had before he was a bum (where he would notice a pretty woman) and the one he has after becoming homeless (thinking that others don't deserve food as much as he does).
Another scene I found interesting, as far as perspective is concerned, is when he is actually in the diner and the man in the suit buys him dinner. While he is appreciative of the meal, he is also sensing the man's need for attention. "This is a good guy. He orders my steak dinner in a loud voice so everyone can see how big-hearted he is, but he is a good guy anyway" (Kromer, 11). While Kromer will obviously take the kind heartedness where he can find it, he is also aware that maybe not everyone is helping out of the good of their heart. They may just want praise and attention and the illusion of being a good person. He does, however, very much appreciate the man who gives him money on the way out, because he does it silently and under the radar. This allows Kromer to be much more appreciative than he was to the man who bought him dinner. I think ultimately the bum's perspective, throughout the whole book, not just the beginning like I have focused on, gives a good sense of what a bum's life is truly like. It all seems honest and plausible and his recollection of these small episodic moments in time allow the reader to really catch a glimpse of their lives.
After reading Ben Reitman's Box Car Bertha, I really began to think about issues related to women in the 1930's, particularly relating to travel and family. First off, this piece seems to me one of the most honest pieces that I have read so far this semester, despite the fact that is actually fiction. One of the issues I wanted to take up is why women were on the road. While some women were forced onto the road because of the economic climate and the need to find works, others seemed to have gone willingly. "They want to escape from reality, to get away from misery and unpleasant surroundings...and I did too, when I first took the road, wanting freedom and adventure such as they had." I think the idea of work out in California not only inspired the poor, but also inspired a sense of uncertainty and unease. People might have believed in the "grass is always greener" ideal, uprooting their lives to look for something better. Particularly from a modern perspective, I wonder who would just up and leave everything behind? The only answer I can think of is those in extreme poverty or war time conditions.
The piece also brought up a few issues for me relating to women's health and wellness, both physically and emotionally. One particular quote from the article really resonated with me. Reitman writes, "the men worked hard and the women worked harder. Mother was always busy cooking and serving meals and cleaning, and she taught me and the other girls how to cook and clean and to wash men's clothes." While this general idea still seems to ring true today, I can only imagine just how hard it was emotionally to be a woman on the road. While the men had to worry about jobs and money, the women had to worry about feeding their entire family, keeping the children healthy and educating the children. Women dealt with pregnancy and childbirth and ailments that men didn't have to face.
This particular topic reminds me very much of Lange's portrait of a migrant mother. In many of the depression era photographs that I have seen, the mothers and children are clinging to each other, for strength and support - as if they truly cannot survive without the other. I find there to be an interesting separation between the men and the women and children. A reader of works like this, or a viewer of depression era art, I believe, would view the woman's role in travel much more important than the man's role. I think a very accurate portrayal was the mother in Grapes of Wrath. The female figures in general seemed to have been in charge of keeping the family together. This is definitely shown in the art of the time period and in Reitman's piece. I wonder today if women would be capable of just up and leaving their homes and going on the road?
The depression of the 1930's was thoroughly documented. After viewing the pictures and reading the works of these artists that spent their time with these people, there are a few clear questions that come to mind. First off, just who are these people that the photographers and writers are observing? Despite the telling of their stories, most of the accounts do seem a bit distant. It's as though it is too hard for the photographers and writers to imagine themselves in their shoes. In my opinion, the writers and photographers and journalists should all think of themselves as privileged individuals - ones who have the time and capabilities to document this horrible time in history. They don't have to work as migrant farmers, they don't have to worry about feeding their families or up and leaving their land.
Despite their attempts at getting out a truthful story, I don't know if I have seen anything so far that really shows me who these people were. Who were they before the stock market crashed? What were their hopes and dreams? I wish these pictures and more particularly these writings from the period dug more into that. Though the artists must be commended for their attempts. Terry Cooney said, "even when writers did not themselves become subject to the circumstances they tried to describe, their efforts to investigate and report often turned up evidence of conditions that warranted their surprise and indignation."
Ethically, I think these pictures also bring up the issue of who gets left behind when all of these bad things happen. For me, personally, the most startling images are the ones of the children. Children seem to be left behind the most. They are uprooted from their normal family structure and must deal with hunger, poverty and sometimes even death. These tragic conditions should not be endured by children. If these children were being educated, either formally or by their parents, they are no longer receiving as good of care as they used to. Their parents now need to worry about food, clothing, shelter and making it by one day at a time. This time was a tragedy for the children and I think these pictures and articles show that very well.
After reading Lorena Hickok's One Third of A Nation, I began thinking about who these people really are and whether or not they should actually be traveling during this time. Hickok described the men, women, children and families as "individuals. People, with voices, faces, eyes. People with hope. People without hope. People still fighting. People with all courage squeezed out of them. People with stories."
The first thing that really struck me was how many different places the author of this place mentioned - West Virginia, New York, Nebraska, California, Ohio and many more. Not only do the people of this time have their own traveling experience, but the author has one as well. Traveling and actually meeting these people allows for a deeper insight and understanding of their lives and more realistic ability to portray them in writings and reports.
What I found most interesting about the piece was the criticism of the relief effort in New York City. While it is surely an admirable effort that the city was undertaking at the time, it seemed to not be wholly effective. Hickok wrote, "the city of New York...is struggling today with the biggest community relief job on earth...these are skating along on thin ice, barely existing, undernourished, in rags, constantly threatened with eviction from their homes". New York City was not prepared to undertake this massive relief effort during the depression. The report went on to explain that people would wait hours in line for an interview with a potential employer, until to have the job given to someone else based simply on "need". But everyone was needy. The city simply didn't have the funds to help out all of these people, no matter how much they actually wanted to. It just wasn't possible. New York was "dazed, only half awake to the situation."
Furthermore, one particular part of the piece described Florida as being a prosperous place, somewhere the unemployed could potentially travel to for employment. "Everything right now is going full speed in Florida - tourists, truck gardening, citrus...there are 6,800 on CWA and 10,000 registered for reemployment. And yet they talk about not being able to get labor!" So the question ultimately remains - what do you do? Do you travel down to someplace like Florida, or do you stay in New York? Is it better to travel or not travel in this situation? I think it ultimately comes down to chance. An unemployed person in the 1930's could either stay in New York and hope for federal relief to come his or her way or they could take a chance and go down to the South and attempt to find work. Clearly many Americans chose to uproot their families and travel, but were they as successful or as lucky as though who stayed in the cities and collected federal relief? What would you do?
At the conclusion of Steinbeck's Grapes of Wrath, the reader is left with two powerful and overwhelming images. One, which has continued on for multiple chapters is the rain and the flood that is overtaking the land. The second image is of Rose of Sharon breast feeding the starving man. While these two are drastically different images, one a force of mother nature, the other a force of maternal nature, they both seem to symbolize resurrection. This resurrection seems to be a far cry from the hopelessness and despair that was expressed in the chapters leading up to it.
Rain is clearly a powerful image near the end of this story. It not only engulfs everything and has the ability to destroy, but it also has the power to resurrect. It washes everything away, but then leaves a blank new canvas for rebirth. The family, when this flood comes is literally at rock bottom. They have faced too many hardships and it feels as though all hope is lost. Martha Cox addresses this idea, "The final setting for the novel is a rain-blackened barn where the Joad family--or the half that has endured--seeks refuge from the flood. Destitute, hungry, wet, and ill, they have reached the nadir of their devastating experience...Their meager possessions are under water in the box-car." However, this rain can also wash away all of their hardships, leaving them with a new season for rebirth, where they can reemerge as a strong family unit. Maybe once all of them endure the flood, they can rebuild their lives. Maybe when the flood ends the depression will end as well, leaving everyone with a bit more hope.
Along with the more figurative rain, there is another symbol of rebirth at the end of the novel. Rose of Sharon, after giving birth to a stillborn, manages to resurrect a man by breast feeding him. The Joad family encounters a man who has not been able to eat and Rose of Sharon literally gives him life. Cox says, ""Out of her own need she gives life; out of the profoundest depth of despair comes the greatest assertion of faith."" Not only is it a very Christian image, but it also symbolizes a more maternal sort of faith. The whole novel has been focusing on family and the coming together of that family during hard times and Rose of Sharon is literally joining her family with his. Maybe it is out of her own personal need or a more universal need for family and community, but the image is quite memorable.
The flood and the breast feeding are the perfect conclusions to this novel. Arguably two main themes are family and hope - so through the rebirth of this man from Rose of Sharon's nourishment and from the cleansing affect of the rain, Steinbeck truly ends the novel with those two ideas in mind. What if he had ended the novel another way? I doubt anything would have given the readers as much hope as these two images.
On the front cover of The Grapes of Wrath there is a picture of a car. The beginning of chapter 17 goes "the cars of the migrant people crawled out of the side roads onto the great cross-country highway, and then took the migrant way to the West" (Steinbeck, 193). While sitting and attempting to figure out something creative for a blog post, I realized that cars were so important for the traveling families during the Great Depression. Families packed everything they could into their cars and head out in search of work and a higher standard of living.
Jumping forward to today, a major issue in our economic climate is the price of gas. This prompted me to research a little bit into the price of gas in the 1930's. Was it high? Low? Comparative to today? In order for these families to make it elsewhere, one of the most necessary resources was gasoline to power their cars and trailers. While Americans didn't rely on gasoline in the 1930's as much as we do today, it was still important for the mass migration happening within the country.
One of the first things I found out was that the real price of gas increased by 26% between 1931 and 1934. For an already struggling economic climate, a price increase of that much seems to be inconceivable. Families were already struggling to make the journey across country and to add the ever increasing price of gas to that, you wonder how they actually survived. According to Dr. Mark Perry of the University of Michigan, "The energy data doesn't go back to the 1930s, but it would be safe to assume that the economy of the 1930s was probably much less energy efficient than in 1949, and therefore more vulnerable to a supply shock of a 26% increase in real gas prices."
Comparing the price fluctuation of gas then and now (gas in the 1930's averaged between 15-17 cents) and gas prices varied from anywhere between $2.45 and $3.15 a gallon (in 2008 dollars). The price for a barrel of oil in the 1930's was anywhere between $20 and $25. Though there wasn't a lot of readily available date on the internet, it is still interesting to see the numbers that are available. While these prices seem miniscule to us today, they were certainly high during the Great Depression.