I almost think it’s a little weird that the first thing most of us did was look up our home states. This is a class about people going places, but we’re all in such a rush to see what these old guides say about the places that we’ve spent the most time. Of course, this was the first thing I did, too. And instead of just reading about general Massachusetts, I wanted to get more specific—I typed the town I grew up in the search thing. And to my shock, not only did my little town show up in this book, my actual house was in there, too (kind of).
I lived most of my life in a little town only a few miles from Boston called Canton, and while there’s no Canton section of the Massachusetts book, there are a few pages where it’s mentioned as a slightly notable stop along State 138 (which is still there, only now it’s Route 138). For some reason, I thought it was really strange that this book would mention the same anecdotes that I always heard from my elementary school teachers about the town—it got its name from a guy who thought it was directly on the other side of the world as Canton, China (and even though they figured out this wasn’t true almost immediately, they never changed the name); Paul Revere started the first copper mill in the country in Canton, which then provided the copper for the dome on top of the State House; Canton manufactured an oddly large amount of the muskets used during the War of 1812 (all this is on page 614 of the Massachusetts book). These all seemed like things that were cool to kids, but got less and less so as time went on. By the time I got to fifth grade, I barely cared that Paul Revere once lived here, so why would anyone put it in a book?
And then I saw, on the bottom of page 614, the mention of Doty’s Tavern. I almost fell out of my chair. If it weren’t for some trees, I would have been able to see the stone with “8 miles to Boston Town” engraved on it from my lawn, and Doty’s Tavern was listed as a sight to see at the 8.2 miles mark along 138. My house, the one I lived in most of my life and go home to even now, was the barn for Doty’s from the time it was built in the 1850s until the Tavern burned down in 1888, and it’s mentioned in this guide book. It’s just so so weird to realize that something that has been such a regular part of my life for so long could be considered a tourist destination for someone else. And then I thought about all the people who are connected all the other places in the other guides. Do the people who live at 819 N 4th St. in Atchison, Kansas, think it’s weird that their house is in one of these books? Do the people who play tennis at the Seabright Lawn Tennis Cricket Club in New Jersey search for their hometown in the book and get surprised that it’s there? It’s interesting to think that wherever you’re going, someone is from there.
In a way, this week’s readings seemed like a giant contradiction to everything else that we read this semester. It was weird to be concerned with the high percentage of wage workers who didn’t receive paid vacations after weeks of unemployment and homelessness and starvation. But after a little research, it seems that there is a connection between this world of improved automobiles and the idea that workers to go away for vacations to relax and come back better at their jobs and an overall increased interest of tourism—the national park system.
PBS recently showed this mini-series called “The National Parks: America’s Best Idea,” which is all about the history of the National Parks and how they came to be and developed since the 1800s. There’s a whole episode dedicated to the 1930s and early 1940s, and it focuses on Franklin Roosevelt’s specific interest in National Parks and how they were affected by the Great Depression. A big part of Roosevelt’s New Deal was to lower unemployment, and the Civilian Conservation Corps was one of the programs created to do that. “The CCC put young men to work in national forests, state parks and national parks, clearing brush and replanting forests, fighting fires, building visitor shelters and ranger cabins, and improving campsites and trails,” and is an example of the these two different worlds of Americans coming together. The poor and unemployed were put to work building parks that the growing group of tourists would want to visit. The government spent about 218 million dollars on national parks during the thirties and the CCC put more than three million men to work building 97,000 miles of fire roads, planting 3 billion threes, and preventing soil erosion on 84 million acres of farmland.
After reading these articles and then about the history of national parks, it makes sense that tourism and parks experienced such periods of growth at the same time. In the beginning of the 1930s, parks received about 3 million visitors a year, but by the end of the decade they were getting more than 15 million people a year. People were traveling by car, which made parks easily accessible. And part of the reason that paid vacations became so popular was because employers believed that allowing their workers to get away for a week or two at a time would rejuvenate them and when they came back, they’d be better workers. Parks provided vacationers with cheap and easy ways to get away from home and into the wilderness—camping was free and nature was relaxing.
I wasn’t really sure what to say about this book, so I’m going to start with a story from my own life about why I feel such a personal connection to Lem Pitkin. I grew up in a rural-ish area, on a completely unimpressive, non-self-sustaining farm with acres and acres of hay fields next to my house. When I was eight, I was playing outside with my brother and somehow managed to get a piece of dry hay stuck in my eye. Most of it broke off right away, but I still had a little piece stuck in there. But after some blinking and some rinsing, it looked like we had gotten it all out. It didn’t hurt really, I didn’t even cry (and I cried all the time). Turns out, it actually wasn’t all gone, and my eye got infected, and I had to go to the emergency room where they said they might need to remove the whole thing. In the end, they were able to take out the infected bits without taking out my whole eye, but I did end losing almost 90% of my vision in that eye. I have terrible depth perception and I’m not allowed to drive when it’s dark out, but I get to have subtitles on small TVs read out loud to me (which I think is pretty awesome, even if it does annoy everyone else in the room) and I never had to play kick ball in high school.
Of course, Lem did lose his whole eye, and his teeth before that, and then his thumb and his scalp and his leg and his money and his life. What Lem’s whole entire life boils down to—and actually, what a lot of this class boils down to—is loss. Lem is just the same as every other guy we’ve read about—he’s Tom Joad and Boxcar Bertha and Tom Kromer. They lost their jobs, their houses, their families, their homes. They travel around, trying to put themselves back together, trying to find whatever it is that can replace the things they lost. I know that this is a satire, and that Lem is supposed to be some kind of commentary of the uselessness of optimism, and that every time Lem pops his eye back into his head after it’s been shattered or stolen or whatever we’re supposed to see the futility of his persistence and laugh at it. What else is he supposed to do besides put back in his teeth and eyes, strap on his wooden leg and keep searching for his fortune? I don’t know what it’s like to lose an eye, but I do know what it’s like to almost lose one, or to lose most of one, and I know that Lem can still see.
And on a lighter note and mostly just to satisfy my love of putting links in my posts, it’s actually pretty surprising to think about how many one-eyed characters are part of popular culture:
I once saw this episode of 60 Minutes about who were the happiest people on the planet. And while I was looking for that story online, I came across a bunch of other studies about happiness by country. But despite all our talk about this kind of romanticizing of hard times and the eternal optimism of Americans, the USA is never ranked very high on lists of happiest places in the world. While our rank fluctuates between 16th (at best) and 23rd (the worst that I’ve found), Denmark is usually listed as the country with the happiest people in the world. And even all these different surveys and studies about happiness give different reasons for why certain people are happier than others (things like health, education, and wealth are usually among the factors), the 60 Minutes is the most intriguing to me.
According to 60 Minutes, Denmark is the happiest place in the world because they don’t really expect anything great out of their lives. Americans are the 23rd happiest people because we want way more out of life than the countries higher on the list. The Danes are content to have things better than they could be—if they’re eating canned soup for dinner, they’re not starving! If they have some lousy desk job, at least they’re working! Their low expectations give most of them nothing to be disappointed about. Americans need more than that. We need giant mansions and world-class educations and adventure.
So by now you may be thinking, how does this have anything to do with anything that we’ve talking about this semester? Well here it is—the reason why Americans make up the 23rd happiest country in the world is the same reason that the bad parts of history are so romanticized, and also the same reason why we, today, have such a hard time understanding how anyone can romanticize such a dismal period in history. Americans expect more out of life than a lot of other people. We expect to be happy. Even when 25% of people are out of work, or kids are hungry, or 2 million people are traveling around homeless, it’s an American’s right to be happy, so they had all these expectations that came with the hardships (freedom, adventure, all that) that some people chose to focus on more than others. Of course, it’s our modern expectations of happiness that hinder our ability to accept these positives. We all expect working hard to lead to jobs and houses and freedom and fun, so we can’t see how the people in the Great Depression couldn’t not be unhappy (sorry about all the negatives).
So maybe if we all just expected less, the people during the Great Depression wouldn’t have been so determined to romanticize it, or we would be more accepting of that romanticization. But would that be worth it? If we didn't expect so much out of life, would we be so affected by these readings? Would we be so critical of the things that happened that let the country get this way, or of the way that it has been represented? Is it worth it to strive for better lives for ourselves and expect our neighbors to do the same, even if it means living a little less happily?
Sometimes I think it’s weird that in order for things to be opposite, they have to be very very similar. Like red and green, for example—they are opposites, but they are both colors. I thought about this a lot while reading Waiting for Nothing, because it was so much like The Grapes of Wrath, but also completely different. The two novels are the same because they are both trying to describe the lives of poor, homeless, jobless, almost hopeless people on the road in the 1930s. They are about starvation and not being able to find work and going to prison and families breaking up and death and traveling around America. They both depict terrible tragedies in works of varying degrees of fiction that are also somehow honest and true. But other than that, they are just so so different from each other.
The part of Waiting for Nothing that struck me as the most different from The Grapes of Wrath was the voices—both of the narrator and the characters talking in the book. The Grapes of Wrath is clearly written by an educated, practiced writer for readers much better off than the characters within its own story. It is concerned with everything that middle and upper-class, well-educated, discerning readers are concerned with—imagery and metaphors and symbols and Biblical allusions and themes and motifs. The prose is poetic, the descriptions detailed, the entire novel edited to read like a master work of fiction. It is a beautiful book, but it was written for the people who had the ability to do something about the situation that the migrant workers were in, not in any way the kind of thing that Tom Joad and his family might actually read.
Waiting for Nothing was the opposite of that. Tom Kromer claims to have written it while he was homeless. He said, “I had no idea of getting Waiting for Nothing published, therefore, I wrote it just as I felt it, and used the language that stiffs use even when it wasn’t always the nicest language in the world. Parts of the book were written on Bull Durham papers in boxcars, margins of religious tracts in a hundred missions, jails, one prison, railroad sand-houses, flop-houses, and on a few memorable occasions actually pecked out with my two index fingers on an honest-to-God typewriter” (this comes from page 272, in the section in the back of the book about Kromer’s life). It’s not necessarily written for the homeless people that it’s describing, but it’s much closer than The Grapes of Wrath. He uses words so many words and phrases that a lot of people today probably don’t know what they mean, and maybe even back then some of them were known only to those who lived that life. Stiff, on the fritz, flop, toppin’s, sinkers, drags, nailing drags, hot drags. What it means to not want to sell pencils, what a green bologna butt looks like, how much four bits is. It’s almost a little bit necessary that you know something about living this life in order to understand what they’re talking about sometimes.
And the dialogue is different in the two novels, also. Steinbeck writes dialogue using dialect, spells out the words the way that the characters would really say them. He needs to add a certain amount of authenticity to his fiction novel written by and for middle and upper-class Americans. But in Waiting for Nothing, the whole narrative voice is written using terms and phrases of the characters, so it’s the dialogue that’s different. The characters in this book don’t talk the way that people really talk—they don’t use contractions, and use words like shall.
I’m not saying one is better than the other, or one is right and one is wrong, or anything like that. It was just really interesting to me how different and the same these books are.
One of the first things I thought of after I started to read about the life of Boxcar Bertha was that series of children’s books called the Boxcar Children. I know it’s kind of stretch, but I couldn’t disassociate Bertha from the children throughout the entire reading. According this fictional account of her life, she has all these fond memories of her childhood with her patchwork of family members and step-fathers, and then she went on to live the oddly happy life of a woman hobo. It wasn’t an easy life, but she seemed content going wherever needed her, attending conventions and working for the creation of Hobo Colleges so that all hobos could live more comfortably, raising her child within a group of fellow rootless travelers. It all just seemed pretty alright—maybe even respectable, almost. And I think the Boxcar Children, besides having a similar name, were kind of in a similar situation.
The first of the series was written years before the Great Depression, in 1924. But then it was reissued in 1942, and over the next sixty-something years the series grew to include over 140 books. But the first 19 were the only one written by the original author, Gertrude Chandler Warner, and none of them were actually written during the Great Depression. But, the first book was centered on this group of children—the oldest was 14—who ran away from an orphanage after their parents died to avoid the cruelty of the grown-up world. They settled in this abandoned boxcar they found in the woods, and lived mostly happily among themselves as kind of faux-hobos. They didn’t actually go anywhere, but their attitude about life was similar to that of these rail-riders we read about like Bertha—there was this sense of slightly overwhelming freedom. No one could tell them where to go, what to do, how to live. They all worked together to support themselves without much help from conventional members of society, and when they did need something from someone else, they worked for it. Even living in a boxcar suggests a kind of impermanence to their lives—boxcars have the ability to go all over the country, are meant to go all over the country, and while they are living by themselves away from their cruel grandfather, they have this same kind of freedom.
Of course, it ends up that their grandfather is actually a pretty great guy who loves them all, and they decide to live with him after all and he even moves their boxcar into his backyard for them to use as a playhouse. But it’s after they move in with him that their adventures really begin—the next 140 books or so are about the kids traveling around solving mysteries wherever they can find them (lighthouses, ranches, mountains, malls…).
Gertrude Chandler Warner once said that the books “raised a storm of protest from librarians who thought the children were having too good a time without any parental control! That is exactly why children like it!” And I feel like that’s the best way to describe the similarities between these kids and the travelers like Boxcar Bertha—it may seem weird and objectionable to most people, but to many, it’s a life of freedom.
After talking about it in class on Thursday, I thought a lot about the voices that these authors use when they are writing about people who live completely lives than they do. Sometimes they use the voice of the poor migrants and sometimes they use the highly stylized voice of the writers that they are. The question is which voice is more appropriate? Do these privileged people who are given cars and money to go around the country talking to the poor and the desperate really have the right to use their voice? Like we’ve said a number of times, sometimes the people who are writing the books or articles or making the movies don’t really know anything about the lives of the migrant people. They might drive around talking to gas station owners and taking pictures of hitchhikers, but they sleep in hotels at night and eat breakfast every day and have control over their situations and circumstances. Why should Steinbeck, whose parents took care of him well into adulthood, be allowed to use the accents and the phrases and voices of people he studied but really could never fully understand?
But then the reading this week made me think about the other option—does it really make sense for the writers to bestow this grand, scholarly, poetic language on these people? The descriptive, poet sections in The Grapes of Wrath were one thing, because Steinbeck was using the novel form to bring attention to the plight of the migrants going to California. He used his poetic voice to describe the land, or an event, or a group of people—in those chapters, he was not necessarily speaking for a specific person or even a type of person, but rather an idea about the lives of many, many people. But I felt like some of the pieces from this week were completely different—the first section of the Agee and Evans reading caught me completely off guard. The voice was so stylized and so grand that I felt like it just didn’t fit with the subject of Great Depression. And then the prose that came next was hardly any better. I just felt like the style that the words were written in removed the whole piece from the story it was trying to tell. It was the most distant I ever felt from the Great Depression in any of the readings we’ve done so far. Even knowing that the writers who used the voice of the poor people were hardly poor themselves, they still felt more authentic, more connected to the stories they were telling, even if they weren’t.
I think the most interesting use of voice was in American Exodus, because it was this mix of academic and artistic and sociological, but they also incorporated the actual voices along with the actual images of their subjects. It’s important to hear the voices of the people of this time period, and by including direct quotations from the people in the pictures they took, no one was speaking for anyone but themselves. I think the most interesting part of this piece was when the quotations from the farmers were right next to quotations from sociologists and government officials.
In the beginning of the first of these readings, the narrator is worried about giving the girl a lift because of something called the Mann Act, and she later comments on the unwillingness of a lot of people to drive her across state lines for the same reason. I had never heard of the Mann Act, but from the context I knew it had to do with traveling across state lines in the 1930s and was something that people traveling around the country encountered and thought about, so I decided to do a little research to better understand what it is.
The Mann Act, which was named for the Illinois Congressman who wrote it James Robert Mann, was signed into law in 1910 by William Taft. Its official name was the White Slave Trade Act and made it a federal crime “to transport women across state lines for the purpose of prostitution or debauchery, or for any other immoral purpose.” While the intended purpose of the law was to prevent the movement of women around the country to rape them or force them into prostitution, the ambiguity of the word “debauchery” resulted in men being prosecuted for other types of consensual sex. So once the courts ruled in cases that dealt with men taking women across state borders for reasons that could be considered “immoral,” they didn’t have to be kidnapping the women or forcing them into prostitution in order to be convicted of a crime. This allowed authorities to use the law as a king of harassment or blackmail against people who they didn’t like. William I. Thomas, an American sociologist famous for his extremely leftist political attitude, was arrested under the Mann Act in what many thought to be a set up by the FBI.
While there were a surprising number of famous people connected with this crime (Charlie Chaplin and Frank Lloyd Wright), many saw its use as an example of white fear of black people. With the Industrial Revolution changing the shape of society, many people concerned for their safety. Industrialization led to immigration and urbanization, and women started moving into these cities that were filled with foreigners and African-Americans by themselves. Without the “protection” that traditional family structures afforded women, white people began to fear that their women would not be able to keep themselves out of prostitution or other immoral situations. Famous black men like the boxer Jack Johnson and actor Rex Ingram (who was also the first black man to graduate from Northwestern) were arrested and spent time in jail because they crossed state lines with white women.
After reading these articles, I don’t think it’s very surprising that people like the characters in this story were worried about picking up girls and giving them rides. It seems to have really affected the way that men traveled, and the things that they thought about while driving around, and the opportunities that women had to get from one place to another.
So after a whole week of the Grapes of Wrath and reading and writing a lot of really sad blog posts, I decided that I wanted to write about something happy for the last few chapters of the book. One of the first times that Steinbeck chooses to show how kindness and philanthropy and human cooperation is really what will get everyone through the difficult times that they are experiencing is in the scene with Mae at the diner. At first she is resistant to the man who needs a little of kindness, but in the end she goes above and beyond what Al told her to do to help the man out and gives his kids candy that is worth ten cents for only one penny. The next time candy is brought up in the story, the Joads have found work picking cotton and are living well enough that Ma allows the youngest kids to buy some Cracker Jack treats. Of course, it’s the candy that makes another girl jealous and pick a fight with Ruthie, who then brags about her brother having killed two men, which then requires that Tom run away and breaks up the family even more, but you know…the candy started out as a representation of happiness and comfort and hope. The two scenes with candy show that there are people out there who are willing to help each other, and these hard times will not last forever.
Candy is one of those weirdly unchanging industries—there aren’t really any crazy fads or candies that go in and out of style. Once a type is introduced and bought and liked, it stays around. Forever. Halloween is coming up, and in every store that I’ve been in recently there have been big bags of discount bite-sized Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups, Snickers bars, M&Ms, Milk Duds, and 3 Muskateers and Baby Ruths and Milky Ways. These are the best, and also the kinds that have been around for decades and decades. Tootsie Rolls and Wrigley’s gum came around in the late 1800s; Hersey’s bars and kisses, Necco wafers, and those little conversation hearts all started in the 1900s; Lifesavers, Mounds, Milk Duds, Heath Bars, Reese’s and Baby Ruths were all released in the 10s and 20s; Snickers, Tootsie Roll lollipops, Red Hots, 3 Muskateers, M&Ms, Junior Mints, and Smarties have been around since the 30s and 40s. These candies that we all eyed longingly at the grocery store when we were kids are the same that Winfield and Ruthie and the boys in the diner were hoping for, and the same that kids today are eating.
But it’s Cracker Jacks that are specifically mentioned in the book, and it’s Cracker Jacks that Ma decides the kids are allowed to spend ten whole cents on. There’s an interesting NPR report about the history of Cracker Jacks in this country, and how since their invention in 1893 they grew into a kind of American institution. They’ve been in American songs (“Take me out to the ball game…”), political cartoons, a part of baseball culture (the most American sport there is) since that song was written in 1908. And of course there’s that famous prize inside, some of which used to be pretty cool.
I think one of the most interesting things about Cracker Jacks is this commercial from the 1960s. The kids are at the beach, hungry for a snack, but when they go to the snack bar to buy some Cracker Jacks, their pockets are filled with a bunch of toys and only a few coins. At first, the snack bar attendant only shakes his head, like they don’t have enough money, but then the little boys offers up a marble, which the man inspects carefully and decides it’s enough. The kids walk away with a box of Cracker Jacks and all their toys. It’s at least 40 years after the Grapes of Wrath and those kids in the diner get candy from Mae, but it’s the same situation, and once again kindness and generosity are portrayed as the most desirable actions, even if it means that one person has to give something up in order to make someone else happy.
Once again, I had the same idea as someone else to write my blog about, and once again I got there second. This time, it’s Hoovervilles! In this section of The Grapes of Wrath, the Joads are forced to spend some time in a Hooverville. This is where Casy is sacrifices himself so that Tom can go on with his family, and Connie abandons Rose of Sharon after expressing regret for leaving Oklahoma. First, here is some background information about Hoovervilles:
Hoovervilles, also known as Shanty Towns, are basically large communities of impoverished people squatting on land that none of them own. They live in poor conditions—without sanitation, plumbing, or electrical eyes—in dwellings made from scrap material like cardboard or plywood. The term “Hooverville,” of course, comes from the President Herbert Hoover, who many American’s blamed for allowing the country to slip into the Great Depression. But these sorts of places existed outside cities before the Depression, before Hoover was President, and even way before he was born. They were originally called “shanty towns,” and the first known usage of this term was in Ohio in 1820. But while they were around for years and years before the 1930s, the Depression caused a huge increase in the number and size of Hoovevilles. In 1930, the largest Hooverville in America was located outside of St. Louis and even had its own churches and unofficial mayor. Other famous examples were present in New York City’s Central Park, a settlement of 15,000 World War I veterans in Washington DC, Brooklyn, and Seattle.
Unfortunately, this trend didn’t die with the Great Depression—in fact, it spread around the world. Today, they found in a number of developing countries and house about one billion people worldwide.
Now, the idea of Hoovervilles is coming back to America. The article in the New York Times “Cities Deal with a Surge in Shantytowns” reports a recent increase in tent cities popping up over night around the country. There are around a dozen cities nationwide with developing shanty towns—many of them were at least 18 months old when this article was written in March 2009. But instead of living in old boxcars or under old slabs of plastic, these modern residents have tents that look like they belong to some teenage frat guys who want to drink in the woods for a night. And instead of calling them Hoovevilles, they’re called Nickelsvilles (after the mayor of Seattle) or Bushburbs. And instead of John Steinbeck running around talking to these people and exposing their situation to the masses, Oprah is doing it now.
An interesting difference between the shanty towns now and the ones that the Joads lived is the in the amount of available housing in the country. The Joads came to California at a time when everyone was going to California—there were too many people and not enough space or jobs or places to stay. Hoovervilles were almost necessary simply because there was no where to put so many people. Today, there is no mass migration to one state, to one city. There were more than 18 million empty homes in the United States in April of 2008, and usually between 2 and 3.5 million people who experience homelessness in one year. That’s at least 5 empty houses for every homeless person.