There is no other place on earth right now that is as cool as Williamsburg, Brooklyn, except maybe Berlin, but they don’t speak English over there. As painful as it is to say, Williamsburg is home to thousands and thousands of youngsters who all look similar in their efforts to be different, and also generate a template for many young people’s fashion agenda and/or plans for the future. Bands shoot out of Williamsburg like a barrage of bullets to the blogs of America ready to snatch them up and review them. It seems every trend happens in a heartbeat in Brooklyn. One moment you’re sizing up a deer head to put above your non-working fireplace, and the next you’re cutting square holes in your grandpa’s jeans from the 1940’s. The WPA guide couldn’t have possibly seen this as an outcome for Williamsburg in the 1930’s. The “North Brooklyn” section of the guide serves more as a warning then an encouraging guide, with only four points of interest, one being a housing project for the less affluent members of depression society. In a time where the Statue of Liberty was the Goddess of Liberty, Broadway was the nation’s thoroughfare, Chinatown could be described as “little”, the Lower East Side as a “slum” and Sheridan Square was the center of the universe, going to Williamsburg was about as cool as a trip to the dentist’s office. The shining star of the list of four sights worth seeing in the WPA guide is the Wallabout Market. This star has since extinguished, but at its height, it was the world’s second largest market. The goods here were mostly food oriented, and was a hot destination for the adjoining farmland owners to sell their crop to the hungry masses. As soon as the war hit, the market was wiped out by the expansion of the Navy Yards. Another “attraction” was the Williamsburg houses, which were lauded in the book as Williamsburg’s saving grace: a huge housing project with very well recorded statistics. It seems the readers of the WPA might be put at ease to know that New York cared about those down and out members of the big apple. Then came the moment of prophesy I’d hoped for: journalist TF Hamlin declares: “In every really important matter of land usage—in air, in light, in a sense of green and growing things…in the creation of an atmosphere of humanity and dignity…[this development] has qualities that no money can buy.” Indeed, Mr. Hamlin, the air is nicer here, as I type beside my window, looking out at a dense grapevine clinging to the chain link fence that lets me see into my polish neighbor’s yard. Maybe Williamsburg hasn’t changed. It really depends on what you consider to be the dregs of society. In the 1930’s it was poor people. Maybe today it’s hipsters. Either way, the ‘burg proves to be a quiet, peaceful sanctuary where youngsters like myself can still have a good time.
Anderson’s Hungry Men is so much like the other readings we’ve had this term that I turned to the present to find some sort of connection. The scenes of train riding reminded me of a film that came out this summer, and now DVD called Sin Nombre. The story is about a young girl’s exodus from Honduras with her family, and the hardships of life on the road. She must ride a freight train much like those in all our readings, and must endure robberies from gangs and boarder patrol agents. The plight of the illegal immigrant is very relevant to the traveling tales of the bums from the American depression. Not only are they down and out, but they must deal with constantly being looked down upon as inferiors with no means of picking themselves up. They are taken advantage of from all angles, from law enforcement and punks. In the movie, our heroine ends up making friends with an ex-gang member, who soon becomes her sole companion. As the movie shows, it’s hard to invest your trust or love in those that you’re on the bum with, because you never know when your course will have to differ from theirs. It is such a highly individual journey, to take flight while hiding, that it makes for some gripping cinema. The film also shows a lot about Mexican gang life, particularly in the MS13. The gangs take advantage of the travelers, much like how Acel must keep a close eye on his companions in Hungry Men. Sin Nombre is a fantastic watch—both in it’s relation to the 1930’s time of travel and in it’s modern day context as a tale of struggle and perseverance.
Americans don’t like to be told what to do—especially when they’re on vacation. At least that’s what I thought before I read Being Elsewhere by Baranowski and Furlough. It seems that vacations have been, from the inception of the word “vacation” in the American lexicon in the early 20th century, largely set up by the capitalist agenda, totally bypassing the sort of Rousseauian freedom we would like to think vacations are for. As America became a more service-oriented country, with less people working the fields or factories, the idea of giving the brain a rest from its daily computations seemed necessary for human survival. Paid vacations began during the depression (!) and continued to soar in popularity even in the very worst parts up to the beginning of the war. The government had a lot of control over this. Many jobs were created to advertise for vacations, and local business got a boost. It was a new deal. Because we just don’t know what to do with ourselves, do we? It’s nice to have someone tell you that you have to go on vacation. Too bad no one is going. The American workweek is supposed to be somewhere around 40 hours a week. 40 percent of American workers end up working over 50 hours a week. $21 billion dollars of vacation pay goes unused annually. Why? Because we’re workaholics. In France, they can hardly convince people that 35 hours a week is enough, and the world mocks them for it. America is constantly treading water, it seems, to try and keep it’s head above the surface of the economic global community. I think that people need to be encouraged to go on vacation even more. Unless… …You work at Google. On a recent tour of Google’s offices in Chelsea, I wasn’t surprised to find that being in the office required most of my requirements for a good vacation. Loads of free food? Check. Video game center? Check. Massage therapy? Check. “Napping stations”. Double check. I swear half of the working staff slept there. Why would you ever want to leave such a monster company like Google and go to some mountain? We are making people much too soft in these big companies. A vacation becomes meaningless. And what about the children? Obama is proposing a year-round school year with no summer vacation PLUS longer school days. Although the prospect is terrifying in purely nostalgic terms, the logic behind it is pretty sane. Obama makes the assertion that the school year was designed around working families who required their children to come home and work the fields before bed. These days kids just come home and play video games. Are we denying them the time they need in school to learn and compete with South Korean kids? I sure wouldn’t mind letting my kids go to school all year long, that way, I wouldn’t have to deal with them as much.
A Cool Novel
A Cool Million has got to be the most fantastical novel I’ve read so far this term. Even though our protagonist has lost all his teeth, the satire of the novel is nothing less than biting-- in fact, Nathaniel West administers a deliberate chomp to Horatio Alger’s American dream, taking some limbs and eyeballs with it.
Lem’s adventure reminded me first and foremost of Kurt Vonnegut’s Cat’s Cradle, another story of a man on a journey, and another satire on journeys and the many things that can go wrong. But Vonnegut’s story wasn’t set in the depression. The actual depression rears its head every once and a while in the story, but never causes too much alarm, as it is hardly a direct problem with Lem. He started with nothing and ended with nothing. West argues that the only money to be had in America is just that—it’s all money to be had, be it through connections or sheer luck. The men praised by Shagpoke, like Henry Ford, are so sparse that he can only ever speak of two of them. If everyone in America could make it in America, it seems they would and there would be more stories to tell to either warn or inspire Lem.
Lem’s grotesque mutilations are personifications of the toll America takes on the highway of life, if you choose to ride it. Staying at home, Lem could have discarded his entire body, like his mother, and died. Instead, he was willing to sacrifice certain parts in order to survive. In his last job as a performer in a comedy show, his mutilations are the only thing that got him paid. The satire here is obvious, so obvious that the book is finished before you can say depression. I can’t wait to give it another read!
First, let’s take a breath. That was one heck of an intense book. No wonder Tom Kromer never went on to publish another novel! Waiting for Nothing is an unforgiving account of day to day homeless life during the depression. Its rough subject matter (starving babies, mutilated bodies) makes everything else we’ve read sound about as scary as another installment of Boxcar Children. In this way, the book felt modern in its attempt to relate to homelessness by showcasing the harshness of day to day life. The chapters come and go like nightmares, horrible dreams unconnected in any sort of timeframe. Our hero keeps emphasizing the absence of time in the life of a hobo, what does another day matter? A week? A year?
There is also much talk about suicide. It seems like the easy way out for our hero, who greets every possibility of death with some morbid rationale. He never chose death over life, but seemed very open to experiencing it. During the depression, suicide rates didn’t necessarily go up according to national statistics, but high profile suicides in the eyes of the public gave America the uneasy feeling that suicide was growing. But, as this book shows, no one was paying much attention to frozen stiffs in mission houses. Who knows how bad suicide really was? By the time I finished this book, I was cold enough to bite the bullet.
This book raised a lot of questions in my mind. Mainly, will this change how I view the homeless of contemporary New York City? Hunger was the driving force behind most of our hero’s actions. I wonder how hungry New York City homeless are? Do they freeze? Do they get chopped up on the subway tracks? It’s strange that we have to ask ourselves these very fundamental questions regarding the value of human life, and it’s curious why these statistics aren’t more widely known. I mean, I know a lot, statistically speaking, and I’m usually up to date. I feel out of the loop, separated from my homeless brethren from the lack of information between us. But that’s just what Kromer was trying to point out. There is a lack of knowledge that creates an ocean of difference between two people that are still just two people. Are we (not homeless people) still so mean to the homeless if they ask for help? Are we better suited to take care of these people nowadays? My thought is that we are, but without that real knowledge in my mind, I am weary of contemporary homelessness. Maybe it’s still that bad. Just maybe.
In the late 1910’s, an aspiring young concert pianist named Ansel Adams traded up the “88 ivories” for the “two and a quarter” size of a medium format camera. Armed with a love for America’s great national parks and photography skills to match, Ansel Adams made a name for himself during the depression by inspiring hope and wonderment in the hearts of Americans through the avant-guard nature of his breathtaking photographs.
Adams began his photography career during the onset of the depression, in a post World War I climate that held distrust for the avant-guard. Published in 1930, his first book, Taos Pueblo, was astronomically expensive. At $75, absolutely no one hit by the depression would even think of buying it. The limited book wound up (with great purpose) in the hands of the super-rich, and put Ansel in the spotlight of the major avant-guard art circles.
Like Agee and Evans and Lange and Taylor, Ansel’s first depression-era book was accompanied by captions, a more existential tone by the writer Mary Austin. Austin, whose work revolved mainly around the Native American, went on to write books about near-death experiences before her own death in 1934. It’s safe to say she wasn’t too worried about the Great Depression in her examination of the hardships of the Native American. Mary Austin on Taos Pueblo:
“The real mystery of creation resides in things, in the mystery of invisible energies which all our science struggles to resolve, spiritual energies which by their coalition constitute the Thing Itself.”
In his article The Natural Scene and the Social Good: The Artistic Education of Ansel Adams, Jonathan Spaulding speculates that Adams moved away from the avant-guard towards his better known “romantic” photographs of Yosemite because of the reality of events like the Great Depression and the World Wars, and America’s need to be shown the beauty right here in their own land. In this regard, many critics maintain Adams had a backwards career by moving towards realism as he aged. Spaulding writes:
“’Because of the romantic, magniloquent Adams of the later years’ is better known, he has been dismissed on occasion as ‘a throwback to the nineteenth century’”
In joining Group f/64, an artistic collective of photographers, Ansel began his romantic movement with the support of his close friend Dorthea Lange. Here, the two great photographers of the Depression, although friends, began to cut the world of fine art photography in two. Although Ansel and Lange helped each other in the dark room and even traveled together on photography expeditions, Adams was critical of the rise of Lange’s brand of photojournalism, and saw it is a threat to the rise of photography as a fine art. New publications like Life Magazine also seemed to threaten the movement by mass producing photography inexpensively to the general public. Where Adams was focused on technical skill, Lange emphasized politics. Both artists would be affected by the Depression, but in totally separate ways.
Adams had many entertaining written exchanges defending the significance of his photography of nature during the Depression after accusations like this one, from photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson: “the world is going to pieces and people like Adams and Weston are photographing rocks!”. In one response, Adams said: “our objective is about the same:…to trust our intuition in respect to what is beautiful and significant…to believe that humanity needs the purely aesthetic as much as it needs the purely material.” Youch! If only People magazine was around in the 1930’s!
Ansel Adams fought for beauty, something he found increasingly absent with the rise of 1930’s photojournalism. On the one hand, the Depression era artist had a political obligation to photograph real life. On the other, purists like Adams sought to heal and inspire through the consistency and everlasting beauty of nature. Like the rocks he captured in his famous photographs, Adams showed that beauty is never going to leave. In doing this, Adams showed the world that maybe the depression is temporary—unlike the rock formations Yellowstone, or the old trees of Yosemite.
BLOGGER-STYLE SIDENOTE: I had a pet chameleon named Ansel when I was growing up. He got real sick after two years and we had to hand feed him banana-flavored mixtures out of a syringe while he sat on a latex glove filled with warm water. We also had to give him shots in his left hind leg. Do you know how tiny chameleon legs are?
From a very early age, I was encouraged to hitch hike to where ever I wanted to go. This was mostly due to the fact that my family didn’t believe in car ownership, and had some new philosophy that involved sharing and credit cards. The last time I hitched was actually the scariest time. My dad was competing in a bicycle race called “the Death Ride” and even though daddy didn’t want me to compete in the race he let me be a volunteer. My little brother and I got our volunteer shirts and decided maybe we would walk to the checkpoint where we would be working. I figured it wasn’t that far a walk – down and out of Kirkwood (pop. 150), down the road past the Kirkwood Inn (one of two fine dining establishments in the village) up past Immigrant lake, where people fish off the side of the road and at the mouth of the dam, and then up towards the pass. Once we passed the pass we’d be there, we thought. I was wearing flip-flops. We decided to stick our thumbs out to the open road once we passed emigrant lake’s fishing groups and realized we had quite a long ways to go. A lot of cars passed us, one slowed down, stopped and then drove off before we could get to it. A mean trick? Maybe. Finally a car slowed for us, and my brother and I looked at each other wondering if we should get in. It was a very recognizable car for anyone who had seen Get Shorty – the Oldsmobile Silhouette—the Cadillac of mini vans. It stopped, and a man slid open the door. I scrambled in back so I didn’t have to sit next to the fat, hairy man at the wheel. I looked around, realizing that the back of the Silhouette was almost entirely ripped out aside from the single chair I was sitting in. The man didn’t do much talking. He asked us where we wanted to go and then was quiet and probably happy that it wasn’t far. At this point my brother and I’s telepathy kicked in and we were both a little worried that this guy would pull over the Oldsmobile, black out the windows and then gut us like fish in the near empty rear of the vehicle. Thankfully he dropped us off and we made it to our posts on time, just in time to give water to the proud finishers of the race. But we’d never forget that we thought we could have almost died. Why was that man driving a car like that by himself out here in the middle of nowhere in the summer? He certainly wasn’t there for the race. There were little bags of chips strewn around the floor. Hitchhiking is strange. Both parties have to be willing to get themselves into an incredibly uncomfortable situation. There’s a little power struggle always between the strangers, knowing that anything could happen. The “Girl on the Road” didn’t get picked up willingly, but she was certainly annoying as hell once she was on her way. Suddenly there’s a feeling of regret for picking up this twig woman—maybe she would have been better off dead? No, it’s human nature to help one another even if it’s in a car.
Traveling with dead people can be very uncomfortable both physically and emotionally, tenfold if it’s grandma or any other blood relative. Dead people are big, floppy and full of surprises—they can easily ruin any car ride, boat voyage or blimp adventure. Our first instinct would obviously be to chuck them overboard. But let’s respect grandma’s exhaustive list of burial instructions, ok? That dead body is going to end up somewhere, and you’re on the road. What to do? Grandma’s biological clock is stopped—and it’s either going to get you in trouble or get your vessel smelly. So take responsibility for your dead, like the good ol’ Joads.
When Grandma died on the mattress on top of the truck in Wrath, Ma kept quiet about it—not a bad idea. Traveling for long periods of time in a car can get passengers fussy, especially if there are youngsters aboard. Saying “grandma is dead” would really push things over the edge, creating too large a catastrophe in too small a space. Solution? Put grandma to good use in the meantime. Ma’s quick thinking to pretend grandma was sick when she was actually dead actually sped up the journey across the California desert. Wouldn’t grandma be proud?
Dead passengers are not uncommon in literature. In Bram Stoker’s Dracula, Count Dracula transports himself from Transylvania to the “teeming millions” of delicious aristocrats London, seeking his once bride and ultimate love, Miss Mina Murray. Dracula’s travel to greener pastures is not unlike that of the Joad families’--apart from many factors including magical control over the seas and vampires. His coffin in discreet, and he must keep himself as a dead body an unknown cargo. Then, according to which version you like, this happens or this happens. Grandma doesn’t come back to life on Wrath, but if she did, would she just hinder progress of the trip?
Traveling with the elderly can be fun, or (as in Dracula’s case) a nightmare. These days, more old people are flying then ever, and there’s a lot of research on the subject. Good thing airlines are taking note. Maybe the Joads should have evaluated the health of their more senior family members before taking such an arduous journey.
Of course, no one would dare to argue against the fact that the most popular dead person in pop culture is Bernie. He continued to be fun and also magically avoided decomposing for two whole movies, both taking place at totally different periods in time. The grave reality of Steinbeck’s prose serves as a warning: you don’t have to not be moving to die, so keep your wills in the glove box. RIP Grandma Joad.
Turtles are one of the most ancient creatures on this earth-- at 250 million years old the fossil records of the order Testudines indicate that turtles are older than lizards and snakes, creating a legacy lumbering along as slow as their infamous gait. Then the depression hit. Banks closed, jobs evaporated, and America became depressed. The turtles would not be shaken. Known for their acute sense of reason, turtles aimed to triumph over the powers that be, holding refuge in the one place they’ve occupied since the time of the dinosaurs—their own shells. Oklahoma is home to seventeen species of turtles, each deadlier than the next in terms of cuteness and adorability. These range from the large, nightmare-inducing snapping turtles, to two different kinds of delicious-looking softshell turtles. Most OK turtles are amphibious, choosing to spend more time in the water, as evident by their hot, lean swimmer’s bodies. But there are a select few, who, like their depressed human counterparts, prefer to scour the dusty trail in search of greener pastures. There are two species of box turtle in OK that walked the land in the 1930’s. Box turtles got their name because their shell is shaped like a box, contrary to the popular belief that they like boxing. In my personal fantasy, I imagine Tom Joad of Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath scooping up an ornate box turtle (cousin of the less ornate and incredibly insecure three-toed box turtle) for a simple gift, only to realize that turtles can speak and are presently in the midst of a nation-wide Turtle’s Rights Movement (TRM) and was on his way to Washington. But that’s just my personal fantasy. Box turtles live on a diet of bugs and Diet Coke. During the depression, turtles had to cope with the fact that one of these essential foods hadn’t even been invented. Until then, they were forced to prey on ants and possibly ant lions as mentioned in Wrath, even though ant lions are http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CWkfAyfBDHE) ">douchebags. Most turtles in the depression would probably find an anthill and hang there for a while, picking off ant after ant. There isn’t much for a turtle to do while crossing a dry plain. Turtles, like the humans of the depression, carry their homes on their backs. God created humans in His likeness, while He created turtles in the likeness of a clam chowder bread bowl. Why Tom Joad didn’t think to eat his turtle is a mystery to me.
I wonder what all these journalists were like when they were getting ready to go on their trips. Were they wearing their short brimmed hats with “Press” tickets tucked in the hatband? How high were their pants? Suspenders? Most likely.
I wonder if they already knew that all their journalist friends or rivals were all headed down the same road. It seems that, (with the exception of the Brit Wild) all the participants were suiting up for the final frontier—to try and capture some substantial image of America as a whole in a Gonzo-style adventure before they died. They didn’t know what to expect, and some seemed a little more pessimistic than others. In particular, Richard Rorty’s Unsentimental Journey, like so many other American journeys to come, carried its own distinct tone of uncertainty and disenchantment with the world around them.
Rorty’s gloomy insight into the current depression was as unsettling as the grim reality of war that would follow it. He was certain that no one knew what was going on both socially and economically. Much like today’s “depression”, Rorty observed a fog of confusion surrounding even the highest-ranking businessmen, and no one had an easy answer to solve the problems facing the nation. It’s almost creepy how Rorty points out all signs lead to war. Unlike Anderson’s introduction, Rorty’s America wasn’t looking to give “birth to a new belief” and no Gods were invoked. No, Rorty’s America was all wrong, and as it drew nearer to the almost inevitable bloodshed that would save the economy, there was no time left to educate the masses on what went wrong in the first place. There is no easy way out of a depression. This is precisely the “makebelieve” that seemed to make Rorty sick to his stomach. Rorty seeks to find the noumena where others play the faith card.
Roland Wild was a nice breath of fresh air. The man doesn’t know America and doesn’t even mention the depression but he comes to define what makes this country so special. We love goofballs—especially ignorant ones living in tiny trailers. The man sounds more like a sitcom character than a journalist (probably a fitting segway for the future occupation) and his book sounds entertaining. No doubt he would encounter darkness and tragedy on his ride through the states, but the oblivious beginning does point out the fact that the depression didn’t and couldn’t reach every corner of the earth—let alone the vast, untamed lands of America. To the naked or foreign eye, maybe the dilapidated America of depression times wouldn’t look so bad. I think maybe Rorty needs a vacation.