Writers on the Road
Chapters 41-44 from Asch’s The Road is markedly different from the optimism of the introduction. These chapters bring to mind the loneliness of being on the road, detailing a traveler’s desperate attempts at forging human connections to stave off the cold and dark of solitude. Some opportunistic businesspeople profit handsomely from this need for human connection, such as the owners of taxi dance halls, who assumed – correctly – that a lonely traveler will pay good money just to feel like he’s not alone for a little while.
Asch does exactly that, paying a dollar to a bored, “magnificent blonde girl” (247) at the bar, asking her to lay off the beers and the dancing and just “sit down and talk to me like a human being” (248).
The rest of the chapter continues as dismally as it began, taking the reader through the sadly orchestrated motions of feigned affection that the taxi dancer girls have to go through to make ends meet. “The blonde girl” – we learn later that her name is Cynthia – tells Asch of worse joints to work in, like one similar bar “on the Cook County line where you don’t even wear dresses. You’ve got to work in a brassiere and panties” (249). Women worked at places like these to support themselves and, often, their family – in Cynthia’s case, a “dope fiend” husband “in the bug house” that costs her “twenty bucks a week” for room and board (249).
The chapter ends with Cynthia and Asch joining another “couple” – Clio, who is another woman working at the taxi dance hall, and her “boy friend,” Arthur (250). After waiting for Cynthia to finish up with another client, the foursome go off to what seems to be Cynthia and/or Clio’s home, in an apparently earnest attempt to have a good time together (no money is exchanged). But the night is cut abruptly short when Cynthia’s taxi arrives to take her away, leaving Asch to ponder the events of the night, alone.
The Argonauts, a book by a collection of college aged students from 1940, or at least the first few chapters anyways, should be examples of what not to do to experience real life. We follow Lillian Ross, George Whitman, Joe Wershba, Helen Ross, and Mel Fiske on their journey out of their cautious academic lives in New York City, into the rest of America. It gives way to much detail about how they saved money by working hard and scamming family members, and getting grants, and scamming friends and so on. Then once they finally make it onto the road, though before the even go through the Holland tunnel, they bore the reader with information about how they paid the toll to cross. Maybe a statistician would be interested in all of their daily and weekly budget plans, but I for one am not. Then the men drive and deal with money, while the women serve as secretaries/ and cooks even though she can’t cook. It is strange that they don’t compile a list of possible people to meet up with until after starting the journey. In fact it seems like a major oversight on their part, which, due to luck, doesn’t blow up in their face immediately. I think in today’s world fewer people create contact sheets of people they could stay with throughout the country, and they definitely don’t do it by memory. It is also strange that she just writes the name, city, and what they would be good for, as if they could walk into Cincinnati and ask the first person the see about where the contact lives. Also in the first few chapters, they travelers find them selves involved in a strike, and heroically go out to join the picket line. This does seem like something many people would do, but it is just written in a way that focuses solely on them and a select few people. The text would have been more engaging if they had talked much less about themselves, much more about the people they met, and had any discussion of their surroundings. At least in the first part of their trip, these students were more like slightly academically dedicated spring breakers than the Argonauts of lore.
Of the most recent assortment of travel stories, I was struck by "Girl on the Road" in particular. Perhaps because I considered myself a girl on the road. Yet my conditions of being a girl on the road were considerably different than that of the character in this story. My on the road experience consisted of a mini van with GPS, a 30 pack of non eco-friendly water bottles, and 3 friends. The closest we came to hitchhiking was when we had a flat tire and, in my desperation for air conditioning, a flag down a car so that I could sit in their vehicle, in air conditioning (it was 110 degrees out) while we waited for help. Though my experience was far from a hardship, I can imagine what it must be like for a girl of that time, or even now for that matter, to be on the road by herself. Reading these tales of stories from the road, well, I've been thinking how strange it is that road trips are now considered a sort of coming-of-age ordeal. Something you do with your friends when you graduate. This thing we do for enjoyment and experience was once something of necessity for people. People used to pack up and head out west because they had nothing, they were lost. Now it's just another number on a list of things we should do while we're young (however, to an extent, I think that some of us are still just as lost as that girl on the road). I was amazed in class last week when people said that no one road trips anymore. It's true, when people have the money to spend, they go to Europe. And why not? Europe is rich in cultural history and the arts and it is, not to mention, beautiful. But America is rich in people. Rich in characters. I strongly advise people to see more of America, I know I still have a lot more to see of our country. The diversity in cultures among our nation is truly fascinating. And the people you'll encounter along the way really is a priceless experience. Perhaps the most intriguing character I met was in the town of Bumble Bee. We were waiting for air to be pumped into our tire. The plaza was the only plaza for miles, the center of the town, complete with a diner, gas station, and turquoise stand. It was in the Gas Station that I met this man as I was seeking air conditioning. He was working behind the counter, a counter that displayed several weapons similar to the pawn/weaponry shop a la pulp fiction ( I guess you need to find some way to entertain yourself in a small town). I questioned him about the nature of Bumble Bee. He said it was horrible, a town flooded with crooks and meth heads. And a population of 20-something. I asked him why he lived somewhere so desolate if he loathed it so much. It was 2 hours to civilization each way. They didn't even have a Wal-mart. He responded to me that his girlfriend was from there and didn't want to leave her family; it was the only way they could be together. When asked why he chose to work at the gas station, he said it was the only place in miles with air conditioning. Now I'm rambling, but just to reiterate my point, if there is one: every one should experience America. Every one has a story to tell and i think it's important to see the intricate web of stories that have been spun across our country.
I could relate the most to the last chapter of Asch's The Road, when he returns to New York City with a different perspective, after traveling around America on a bus and witnessing the hardship and suffering in his own country that he had never before been exposed to. He comes back to New York City and and feels almost claustrophobic in the crowds, the dirt, and the noise. He writes, “this after the frankness of the Coast, the kindness of the mountains, the friendliness of the Middle West.” Even the simple adjectives that he uses to describe New York are negative: “black and noisy,” “dirty, “hurt, senseless, dead,” “pushed and pushing.” This past summer, I went on a road trip from Los Angeles to Arizona and Las Vegas and back. I definitely experienced this sense of pressure and of a new perspective when I returned to California. On the road in the dessert, I was surrounded by open skies, endless farming fields, groves of Joshua trees, and distant mountains. Living in cities all my life, I love being in this much pure space, where I can really breathe. It's a relief, in a way, an definite contrast from the New York City crowds. The people that I met along my trip were also always friendly. Even when we got a flat tire in the middle of a desert road between Flagstaff and Phoenix, a old couple stopped to help us change the tire and make sure that we were ok, something that I'm not sure would have happened on a crowded Los Angeles freeway. We talked to gas station attendants, met some new friends at a red rock river in Sedona, shared a camp fire at our site, under an empty sky, where you could actually see stars. When I arrived back in Los Angeles, I felt that something was missing, a sense of adventure, a willingness to talk to strangers and of those strangers to actually engage and talk back. It's a similar sensation when I come back to New York City after being gone for a long time. Like Asch, I am always initially shocked by just how crowded it is, how many people exist, crammed into such small spaces, people who pay a fortune to share tiny studio apartments, which seem ridiculous in comparison to the miles and miles of developmental suburbs that I passed again and again on the roads in the South west. While I think people in the major coastal cities tend to look down upon a lifestyle in “the middle of nowhere,” maybe we are the ones that tend to miss out on actually being able to appreciate the natural world around us, to breathe fresh air, and truly live on the land.
I think the beauty of the road trip is that it really does force you to interact with the people that you meet along the way. It forces you to see everything you pass, to have the luxury of being able to make small stops at places you wouldn't ordinarily know exist. Although plane travel has broadened the distances of where we can travel and made going to the far corners of the earth readily accessible, we have lost the desire to see our own country in a lot of ways. I frequently hear people my age talking about traveling to Cambodia or South America; it seems like everyone wants to go as far away from America as possible. Although I would love to travel far away and see the “exotic,” I have just as much of a desire to do what a lot of these authors have done and actually see America, by car. It's a shame that more people don't continue the tradition of the road trip. I love driving along long stretches of highway and experiencing that sense of utter freedom that makes traveling on the open road so enticing.
After reading Girl on the Road by Louis Adamic, the thing that puzzled me was the writer's perception of this girl he has picked up. Why did he do it to begin with? It seems for a moment, he could have felt very bad for the girl and decided to pick her up on a whim, but he doesn't ditch her somewhere and he buys her food. For a person who makes so many kind gestures to this stranger, he seems to have no interest in her story. I think that his choice to pick up this poor girl was mostly out of his desire for adventure. The short story begins with Adamic saying that there was no one on the road for miles. He writes, "when the wind occasionally lurched into me with great force and threatened to swerve me off the road, I almost enjoyed the sensation I experienced." In travel, we are driven by the unpredictability of what may come from every decision that we make. People travel(ed) to get a chance to have a story worth telling, even if it was someone else's. The hitchhiker has a lot of pride and energy for someone who had her share of bad luck. It seems that telling her story to the writer, a stranger with a car, she was almost justifying her bad experiences with the fact that it now made a good story to tell. You get the sense that she wants to tell her story, that she is proud of it, in a way. Although she had had money, two lovers and lost it all, she has an air of optimism in what awaits her in Baltimore. Maybe the success of a trip depends on the story that comes from it.
We've read a lot of grim tales so far, to be sure, but one thing's been bugging me—not about the plight of the “chiselers” and “shovel-leaners” but about why this class is called “The Travel Habit” and not “The Great Depression”. While the down-and-out are certainly an important and relevant subject for discussion, as evidenced by the majority of posts on this blog to date, it could also be useful to address a different aspect of these writings, the actual travel aspect, and what it entails.
I was particularly taken by the selections from Ernie Pyle's Home Country, especially his ruminations on the unusual perspective of the country afforded by constant travel, and his description of the very real travel habit he and “that Girl” developed. What began as immediate shock at each barren, desolate, ruined field soon became a kind of numbness, an acceptance that everything everywhere in the “Drought Bowl” was, is, and will continue be so ruined. The much deeper shock came later, when Pyle realized how he, like the farmers who lived on the land, had so matter-of-factly resigned himself to this desolation, and the “stupendousness” of it all. Not living in one place for any period of time made his connection to individual places rather shallow, but the breadth of his experience was truly incredible, and showed him a “big picture” that was stunning in its magnitude.
Pyle developed a real habit out of travelling, as he describes in the last chapter, both making himself and his wife a family that lived and could rest anyplace and noplace. Any mode of living becomes habitual, solidifies certain aspects of itself into routine, and has its own advantages and disadvantages. For most people, tied to some degree to a particular place—land, a house, an apartment, a neighborhood—much of their perspective and understanding of the world comes from the habits that that place provides or requires of them, both enriching and enmeshing them in that place. Making a habit out of leaving such places severs such habits that are particular to a place, an instead pulls habits from the experience of moving through the open space between them: of leaving and arriving, of short encounters, maintenance and correspondence.
To return to the down-and-out, many of those who lived a life of travel in the '30s did not do so out of choice or inclination, as did so many writers of the time, but out of desperation. They too developed a travel habit, but theirs was very different, generally far more difficult and at the mercy of chance, as described by Adamic in “The Girl on the Road”. The habit of the vagrant, though they travelled many of the same roads as the writers, did not offer some broad, stupendous picture of the country; they already had a perspective borne of hardship, deep and narrow and pertaining to themselves and their places and those they knew. Many people of the era traveled simply for tourism and sight-seeing and for them, the travel habit was part of living a stationary life, an occasional diversion, a way to appreciate what was at home and what was out there while maintaining a home to go back to, always. The perspective afforded by their travel habit remains a narrow one, deep only at home, vacation destinations serving to contrast or extend the home through shallow but delightful exoticism.
“Persons who take a long journey involving much hardship with a view to gain are called ‘Argonauts’”. As I read the first two chapters, there was no sign of this “hardship” that introduced the book. I thought it was ironic almost to the point of satire that the book was introduced with the above description of Argonauts, yet the definition seemed far from the actual experience. Granted, I did only read the first two chapters. Even so, the hardship in the first two chapters was extremely minimal if not nonexistent. These kids were students who decided to embark on a journey to discover their place in America. They had the luxury of being able to go to school, and deciding to leave school to get what they described as a “real” education.
Knowing that they didn’t have much money to start with, their first “hardship” came when they realized they had to roll their own cigarettes instead of buying them. They wanted to understand how the unemployed lived, but I don’t know if they realized how far detached they were from that reality. They were fortunate enough to have luxury items at their disposal such as portable typewrites, a gas stove, and cameras. More “hardship” arose as Helen and Joe got into a quarrel over cereal. While the homeless and unemployed were lucky to get any food, Joe complained about Helen’s choice of peanut butter rather than cereal.
Overall, the beginning of this book didn’t impress me as the students seemed a bit naïve to the colossal goal they began with. They state that they want to discover their place in America. Perhaps the virtue in this trip lies in the realization of the gap in the authenticity of their observations versus the actual lives of the people they observe. Maybe later on in the book they will actually endure real hardship, because as it stands at the end of chapter two there wasn’t any true misfortune.
To what extent are writers capturing the hardships and dilemmas of traveling on the road? While reading the selected articles, it became apparent that there are different versions of life on the travel road is like. Some authors faced danger; others faced an awakening of terrible conditions, while others simply just watched what was happening. There is always a battle in keeping the integrity of a story as realistic as possible. Should writers just separate themselves apart from the circumstances? After spending months, even years on the road, how do they translate these multiple experiences into a sincere account?
Hickok’s “One Third Of a Nation”, Asch’s “The Road”, and Anderson’s “At the Mine Mouth” all exemplify the author’s genuine description of life across America. The aim for Hickok was “to go out around the country and look this thing over. I don’t want statistics from you. I don’t want the social-worker angle. I just want your own reaction, as an ordinary citizen. Go talk with preachers and teachers, businessmen, workers, farmers. Go talk to the unemployed, those who are on relief and those who aren’t. And when you talk with them don’t ever forget that but for the grace of God you, I, and of our friends might be in their shoes. Tell me what you see and hear. All of it.” Every writer faces the challenge of how to tell his or her story. Even today, authors such as James Frey (A Million Little Pieces) choose to convey the message they want to show the world. In Asch’s The Road, regular citizens he encounters misconstrue the truth without him needing to embellish anything,” The girl I had talked to and said she was a secretary, then it had come out she was a house servant.” In Adamic’s “My America,” it is amazingly surprising, as discussed in class, how lucky this female hitchhiker was to never have gotten raped or murdered along her travels.
As an individual and nothing more, writers in this time period were sent to feel, to live, to experience what life was like for many struggling Americans. They were sent to tell their story, and keeping the validity of their stories is vital to its entire purpose. In a society where fabrication prevails the truth, it’s become harder to trust what we read is legitimate. Without truth, many stories can become a piece of fiction.
"Most writers regard truth as their most valuable possession, and therefore are most economical in its use." - Mark Twain
Lorena Hickok's writing particularly moved me, I believe, because of its lack of affectedness. I did not get the same sense that she wanted to be perceived as a “travel writer” like the others, a great being to be remembered rather than someone documenting a time to be remembered. Her letters were written under the impression of semi-privacy, only being meant for Hopkins, meaning that she didn't have to fear looking like a “red” and could be as truly critical as she desired. This also meant that she knew her exact audience, and didn't need to linguistically search around for ways to emotionally involve the audience (I.e. what normally would have been her readership, the public.) Instead, her writing seems earnest, incredulous at times, unconcerned with her appearance and entirely concerned with conveying the basic information about what she is seeing to Hopkins. The tone is conversational, emotional, believable because it is Lorena Hickok herself speaking.
I also enjoyed the format of letters themselves; rather than travel the country and write a report at the end of all of it, we see her hindsight in short bursts, and there's no way for her to go back and change her first impressions; we already know them. They have already been sent. This gives new insight on what the actual process of traveling and investigating is like, in the moment. We see her surprised to keep finding things to write about; “I hate like the dickens to add another letter to the stack, but what I have to say...” and “I am not fond of Miami.” We also get her closing lines: “I could go on and on. But I'm tired, and I daresay you are.”
We also get her statistics, her disagreement based in fact with the Florida citrus growers and the NYC relief system etcetera. This is a reporter writing as a reporter, rather than a reporter traveling the country looking for some Greater Meaning so that they can write a book and become a Writer. Her tone is incredibly different. And in it is a sort of off-hand sincerity that is lacking in a lot of the fiction written during this time. She seems sincere because there is no reason for her not to be. Her job is to convey information, and she knows the ear on the other end is listening.
In the end, her letters were incredibly refreshing. They lacked the affected nature of sensationalized news articles, and the affected nature of “travel fiction.” Somehow, both news articles and fiction share a sort of fictionalized tone. But a letter, dug up and published later, never meant for public consumption, reveals such a raw and unconcerned sort of truth that I am not used to. It makes me wish there was some way to get reporters to think that they weren't writing for public consumption, and then make their articles public. How different and earnest and strange the news would become.
Louis Adamic's encounter with the girl "on the bum," as relayed in his "Girl on the Road" chapter of My America draws for me two interesting parallels of travel, and specifically of American travel. Within the narrative there are two travel stories: Adamic's own, leaving Cleveland for New York; and a girl struggling at the side of the road, on her way, we later learn, to Baltimore. Both journeys are, in many ways, similar. Both have made a tour of the country, an elliptical route and slinging now back to the East Coast/the Mid-Atlantic. But for me, hearing the girl, Hazel, tell her story and Adamic's passive reaction to it highlights the question of the relationship of artist to subject and of the American travel story itself.
I don't believe there's any exploitation of subject for art, between Adamic and the girl. He does no more and no less than most of the "good eggs," the "square shooter" truck drivers with whom Hazel made it to California and has returned. The fact of her story, that he will use her in a book, becomes secondary to his wish to help her with the gift of a few dollars. The exploitation, if one calls it that, is not in the relationship to an artist seeking a subject but inherent in their reasons for travel--Hazel's active necessity for travel and Adamic's passive desire to travel. A crucial part of the American dream, I think, is the unconscious knowledge that, as Nathan Asch says in the introduction to The Road, "When you're born you're not born to suffer." You can, when things get bad enough, when your land is taken or when your husband abandons you with nothing, leave. Hazel, like so many others, hears of the California promised land, and, unbeaten, sets out for the West. That in itself is as much the American story as the Capitalist ideal, rags-to-riches. The migration west not out of hopelessness but out of hope itself, an individual's manifest destiny, that we the Americans have the right to be there, and there it will be better. The truth of it, whether it's better or not, is ultimately irrelevant in the shadow of the strength of that belief.
America, too, has a long tradition of documentary artists. Not just with the Depression, but long after; photographers and writers looping a meta-path of the dispossessed in the attempt to document the truth of the struggle. Again, there is nothing, I think, inherently exploitative in that documentation. Observation is necessary, documentation is crucial. It is the journey itself that rings false for me. The truck drivers and Hazel are alike; both travel with both the weight and wings of the American dream on their backs. The truck drivers, in their constant motion, move towards a tangible destination, towards the end of their route, indefinitely, repeatedly. Hazel moves towards the promise of something better, towards an end for herself where she might settle. I have no doubt that she will move again if work proves impossible in Baltimore. Adamic, and those writers and photographers commissioned, or with a home (a settled "end") to which to return, make only a superficial, passive journey. They look for other people's journeys, for their destination is already reached.