Daniel Aaron, in his introduction to Jack Conroy’s The Disinherited, brings up a “long debate” that is still ongoing among radical writers, critics, and readers today: what is a “proletarian novel,” and who gets to write it? Some, Aaron explains, thought that a proletarian novel could only be written by a true proletarian, while others argued that non-proles could write them as long as they were intended to be read by the working class, and some ditched the entire class-based criterion to declare that any novel could be a proletarian novel, as long as it was “shaped by Marxian ideology” and the author “made manifest his [sic] loyalty to the working class” (viii).
This argument got me thinking about my own opinions regarding so-called “proletarian novels.” As far as fiction writing goes, I think an author can write whatever she or he wants; “realism” or “truth” be damned, the whole point of fiction is that it’s not real. And if you don’t like the message you’re reading into a certain book, well, then just don’t read it and go find another book you’ll enjoy more. In this vein, I think I agree with those who argued that anyone can write a “proletarian novel.” Though out of respect for working class people I would prefer the name be changed to something else (like “Marxian novels” maybe?) because I think it’s insensitive and possibly offensive; after all, does the middle class get stereotyped in “the bourgeois novel”? And singling out a novel written from a working class perspective as a “proletarian novel” rather than just “a novel” seems to suggest that working class themes and characters are out of the ordinary, exceptions to the rule that should be noted as such.
But aside from these semantic digressions, something else made gave me pause. What about middle class or upper class authors who go out and “do research” before writing their so-called “proletarian novel” – you know, for “authenticity”? Take, for example, John Steinbeck. It certainly is cringe-worthy to think about middle-class Steinbeck, whose free-wheeling writer lifestyle was financed by his parents, and for whom his foray into the lives of working class Okies was something of a tourist trip. I’m not sure how ethical it was for Steinbeck to “research” Okies and write a hugely successful novel about them; a novel that brought him lots of money and literary acclaim but brought the Okies nothing (or in the worst case, brought them shame)? Isn’t that just as exploitative as the bosses and the bankers and the big fat capitalists that the Marxist authors of these “proletarian novels” so despise? It all comes down to the fact that you’re making money off of poor folks, whether you exploit their labor or you exploit their life stories.
But if middle and upper class writers didn’t write their “proletarian novels,” then who would? Maybe it’s a classist assumption to think that working class people won’t write about themselves, so it’s up to the more financially fortunate to write for them (actually, I’m pretty sure that is classist). After all, J.K. Rowling penned her modern masterpiece while working her way up from homelessness. I’m don’t think I can take a definite stance on this debate, especially since I’m not a working class person and most of this is conjecture. But I think that, at the very least, middle and upper class writers should think long and hard about the ethical implications of writing a “proletarian novel.” If it doesn’t make them at least a little uncomfortable, then I’m not sure how “Marxian” or “loyal to the working class” they really are.
I had been thinking a lot about how especially tourists, but really everyone often missed so much of a place when they traveled there.
Then I saw this.
Slightly problematic of his sister, agent and Pratt in putting him on display but I still thought I should share :
I’ve been struggling with the concept of romanticization vs. brutal realism throughout this class and our readings. Which has more power for catalyzing social change? Is one more of a valid work of art than another? Is realism possible and is it possible to ever make a work of art (writing, photography, even journalism) that doesn’t romanticize the subject in some way? These questions seem so much more urgent and vital because of the state of our economy as well as our entire world today. When I think of the trend of budding “photographers” (read: trendy kids who like expensive cameras as accessories) taking “edgy” photographs of graffiti and slums and of course, homeless people, I get goosebumps. But then, who is “allowed” to take those photographs? On the global scale of things, I’m upper-middle class. What am I allowed to write about or take photographs of? And I always conclude the same thing: myself, and my life. What I know. Things that I, personally, want to remember. And here’s where the first of many divides between today’s and the depression era’s photographers comes in. The people who were experiencing homelessness, slums, etcetera, didn’t have the equipment to photograph their own life. Their stories, if they were going to be told by photographs, would need to be told by “higher-ups,” upper class people looking down on them, reporting on them as a population foreign to them. This was not only true with photography: many of the nation’s impoverished were illiterate, too desperate/busy trying to stay alive to have time to write, etcetera, leaving people like Steinbeck to fill in the gaps. To tell their story, from a wealthier, separated, distanced point of view. Occasionally, a pure, from-the-source expression will come out; i.e., Woody Guthrie. But only when someone wealthy happens upon him, happens to record him, etcetera. And so begins the efforts to steer clear of romanticization and its debatably inevitable connection to condescension, to separation, to dishonesty. We give cameras to child prostitutes so that they can photograph their lives. We provide computer access to the impoverished, we try to spread literacy, we sponsor music production classes in prisons, and things start coming out- music, books, political movements, paintings, photographs, exposé’s, and so on. But we can never escape these questions of truth, of sincerity. The art that comes out of the oppressed can be just as romanticized: perhaps it is perceived that a good story will bring more attention and support to the cause. Fame is always a question. The only answer I can come up with is this: artwork that is in complete sincerity, total personal honesty and truth, is art that is created without the knowledge that it will be shared. Anne Frank’s diary. The notebooks and photo albums of an abused teen. Letters between illegal lovers. When it isn’t about the public, the publicity, and so on, when it is intensely and deeply personal, especially when only for oneself, and somehow the world discovers it, this is when truth is revealed. It is a specific truth, the truth of one person, but it is their total and complete honesty. And if total and complete honesty is that specific, I want to drop the debate between romanticized and not romanticized, politically motivated and not. That sort of honesty is reserved for things the public was not meant to find. Anything public has another sort of truth: the truth of exactly what the creator wanted the world to hear, and what it wants back from the world. It is an exchange instead of purely an expression. And I want the conversation to be about that. Transparent issues of condescension, of the fitting of a plot arc, of political motivation, are all simple – it is easy to find them, easy to know they’re there, and the debate is only ever about what quantity. I would rather have the conversation be about what the exchange was. This person created something to give to everyone else. Did they want money, everlasting fame, to change an opinion about their demographic? And how did the rest of the world respond to them? It is not just about what is in the work – it is about what answer the world gave back. And in a way, that’s the motivation for any art – a response.
While watching Michael Moore’s new film “Capitalism: A Love Story” I couldn’t help but think about some of the readings we had been doing in class. “Capitalism” is probably Moore’s best work so far. In it he tries to show how our current recession was created, and how it is an inevitable part of the capitalist system. He also shows that, contrary to popular belief, Capitalism is not the same as democracy, and the free market system as it exists now is almost the opposite of the democratic ideals we hold dear. The movies argument is strong and it includes almost no “gotcha” interviews (thanks Sara Palin). Instead he utilizes interviews with representatives, economists, lawyers, priests, and every day Americans, and political theater events like trying to tape off Wall Street with crime scene tape, or make citizens’ arrests of company CEOs.
Some people in class have seemed to have a problem with the literary perversions in some of the first or second hand accounts we have read which, y’all claim, distort the truth and lead the audience to certain conclusions. While I disagree with you, the same arguments could be made against this film as it makes full use of the Eisensteinian montage. Sergei Eisenstein was a Soviet film director who created and theorized on the idea of montage. In this “arbitrarily selected independent …(outside the given composition and the plot links of the characters) attractions [are put together] with a view to establishing a certain final thematic effect“ (Eisenstein, Montage of Attractions) In other words, by combining lots of somewhat unrelated footage and images into a rhythmic presentation, the filmmaker can create an emotional reaction from the audience. Eisenstein was actually brought to America in 1930 to direct some movies but they failed and were never finished. While here though he befriended Charlie Chaplin and Upton Sinclair, both of who would go on to make major works based on the Great Depression, and traveling. Chaplin’ 1936 “Modern Times” opens with a satiric plate which reads, “Modern Times: a story of industry, of individual enterprise – humanity crusading in the pursuit of happiness”
But back to Moore: In “Capitalism” the parts of the movie are intercept with footage from old American and soviet propaganda, as well as information videos on ancient Rome and many other stock clips ranging from riots, to the metropolitan opera. This helps to create a sense of overwhelming cultishness, and shows the hypocrisy of how American functions now.
Moore also shows some of the home reclaiming groups in action, in which a community group takes back a family’s foreclosed home. Like the conversation in beginning of the Grapes of Wrath, it poses the problem of, with such enormous inhuman companies, who do you rebel against. The movie also by default makes the audience think about the Great Depression because it focuses on our current “Great Recession”.
A major concern today for travelers, at least of the young, American college-kid sort that I am and have generally known, is how we reflect and fit into social and historical contexts. Having studied abroad twice and traveled through Europe a bit in that time, I've encountered a staggering amount of worry and guilt, presented as if these were equivalent to the conscientiousness and respect that we try to embody.
One issue is the awareness of inequality: there are many who can not afford to travel the way we do, or for the same reasons. We walk by the homeless in the streets of every city in the world and wonder at the disparity between ourselves and these people we are separated from—physically by only a few feet, but structurally by a grand network of support into which we fit and they do not. Many of us react merely with the shame, guilt and feelings of helplessness that come from being extremely aware of social inequality and the knowledge that there is no easy, catch-all solution to all of the world's problems. Many of us just feel more aware of how little knowledge we have about other cultures and their problems, and have a sense that the barrier between ourselves and such knowledge is insurmountable. Our experiences can not be authentic, because we are not suffering—or, at least, we are not suffering as much as they are.
But this seems to arise from a peculiar kind of self-pity, that we are so privileged that we are denied that more essential privilege of "authentic" experience. The shame that we feel doesn't merely come from a belief that we are not doing enough to help people, but also that we have no place in doing so because we haven't had the “real” experience of living in poverty or “on the streets”, or as a hobo. We may not have these experiences, but it does not follow that these are the only valid experiences from which can be derived valid opinions. If it did, then the elimination of poverty would mean the elimination of authenticity, and of the ability to have a valid opinion.
The other, related, issue is that of historicity. We look back at the travelers that went before us, and we see how our experiences are different. We wonder if the tourism trade has made various “destinations” less real than they once were, so that we can not only never recover them but are contributing to their sanitation by our presence. We wonder if couchsurfing is somehow an insult to the memory of hobos, because of how we glorify them while using a comparatively safe and convenient method of living and traveling, outside of the more conventional and expensive systems in place.
We look back at the past, when things were in many ways worse than they are now, and we look at other places, which are in many ways poorer than the places in which we were raised, and we act as if those times and places are the only ones in which a person can truly experience anything. We only insult the memory of hobos or the experience of the beggars if we merely try to be them; we come from a very different context—with problems of our own—and the best we can do in this regard is emulate them shoddily. In doing so, we also insult the memory of our parents and forebears who worked hard to get their children—us—the privilege that we so lament. We insult ourselves by disregarding our own knowledge and experiences, the validity of our selves, and that we can use our privilege and the personal freedoms that it affords to not only know ourselves better but also learn about our past and about other cultures and the poor. We have an outsider's perspective on many of these issues, but the outsider's perspective is still a perspective, and it may even prove to be a useful one.
We don't have to think of ourselves as inauthentic hobos when we couchsurf and hitchhike. We can be aware of what hobos did and also recognize that they were a product of the time and place in which they lived, and that we do not live in that same context. We are not, and can not, be hobos in the Great Depression. We should be aware of them, and whatever similarities we may find between them and ourselves, but we must also be aware that we are people too, just as they were, and we have our own context. We don't need to look at couchsurfing as a bastardized “living on the bum”: we can simply look at it as couchsurfing—a very useful way for people to help each other travel cheaply and meet people who actually live in the places they visit.
It is not enough to be aware of others' plight and of those that suffered before us; we must acknowledge our own suffering and our own privilege. We must become aware of ourselves and our own experiences before we can become aware of others' experiences, and how we can relate to them. We must, first of all, learn to be ourselves and respect ourselves.
The readings from Conroy and Algren illustrated an interesting theme that has reappeared in almost every text we’ve come across: the theme of a loss of manhood, and, subsequently, a rise of “girl power,” or the victorious championship of the tough, hearty American woman. Since The Grapes of Wrath, women have been showing their strength at a time when literature depicts men as helpless wretches at the mercy of the failed economy, violent police, or the unmerciful weather. Ma Joad fed the family and steered them to California in The Grapes of Wrath, while Pa and the other men sat in circles, drawing lines in the dust and thinking (except for Connie, who ran away). Rose of Sharon made the ultimate sacrifice to save a piece of mankind at the end of the novel, and it was the utter essence of her womanhood (her life-giving breast milk) that brought a man back from the brink of death. “Migrant Mother” is the image that still encapsulates the strength and suffering of the Depression decades later. And even “Boxcar Bertha” articulated a strange kind of independence from the past bondage of her sex—she lived her life away from her child, traveled like a man, and seemed to live almost as an equal to her male boxcar compatriots.
Bonny Fern’s letter to Larry in Conroy’s The Disinherited ironically highlights the impotence and failure on behalf of the man through Bonny’s own description of the women’s dependence on his money. Though a superficial reading of the letter reveals simply Larry’s mother and aunt’s incredible need for him to send money, a deeper reading reveals how Bonny’s words strip Larry of the classic role of “male provider,” essentially verbally castrating him on the spot. “Dad helped her all he could,” she writes of Larry’s mother, “but we…had to borrow two hundred…which must be paid back this summer in some way.” She describes their terrible living conditions, highlighting the “adapt-to-survive” attitude present in the women of The Grapes of Wrath, and even the photos of women setting up roadside camps as captured through Dorothea Lange’s and others’ lenses. The repeated trope of “Dad tried, but…” accents the continued failings of the husband’s ability to save his wife and female dependents. Bonny even suggests where Larry could find work, ending the letter with dubious hope, noting that perhaps he can get a job “if you don’t get crushed in the stampede when they go hiring.”
Algren’s Somebody in Boots begins with a disturbingly graphic description of men eating from garbage cans, and then from a mission kitchen. Eating meals is a distinctly “civilized” aspect of modern society, and mutilating the practice as Algren does achieves a barbaric, animalistic demeanor around the destitute men. They are completely dehumanized—one bum doesn’t even have a nose, and the frightening image Algren invokes is one that doesn’t even resemble a man. The men’s discussion of digging through garbage cans for food obviously suggests dog-like behavior, and the scene of men eating in the mission does not contradict the insinuation. Their “belching,” “retching,” and “swashing” indicate a wholly uncivilized affair, a kind of rabid feeding frenzy. The men are reduced to the most barbaric state of animal existence.
Maybe this is going a bit far, but it almost seems like this theme runs a parallel with the government’s failing on behalf of America. The American people depended on the government and banks supporting them, and they failed. The American woman depended on her man to support her, and he failed. So it seems the situation calls for an overhaul of both institutions, economic and chauvinistic. This article even claims women’s jobs weren’t affected by the Depression, and women in general (already gainfully employed) remained employed. Many down-on-their-luck women depicted in our readings, like the girl in Waiting for Nothing, end up selling their bodies as a means of support. Is this degrading, or is it, possibly, a form of liberation? Their men have failed them, so they are using their gender as a means to get by. I’m not saying this is truly liberating—partly I’m just playing Devil’s Advocate—but it’s an interesting question to ponder in the face of so many powerful female depictions.
I’m currently taking another class that’s been focusing on this time period, called Origins of the Atomic Age. So far, discussion has been centered around the lead-up, through the 1930s, to the first nuclear weapon test in the New Mexican desert in 1945 and the subsequent usage of two nuclear bombs in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Japan. I only recently realized that the first half of that story lines up, chronologically, with all of ours. I suppose since we’re focusing on such different, more complex aspects of the decade – the effort needed to live out on the road and off the land in this class; the race to uncover the mysteries behind a new and immensely powerful source of energy in that one – that I didn’t quite notice the very simple coincidence of temporal setting. Of course, there aren’t too many other coincidences. It would be downright incorrect to imply that the physicists charged with contemplating and constructing a nuclear weapon were concerned with homelessness or hitchhikers in the 30s; and on the flip side, hobos and Okies surely didn’t give a shit about the work of Niels Bohr, Leo Szilard, or Enrico Fermi. Travelers of the day were thinking small and personal, seeing the country and staying alive from day-to-day, while the scientists were out to save the world, always considering the big picture. Interestingly, though, the actions of both groups produced some major accomplishments still observed to this day. A handful of the artistic works that surfaced during the 30s – including photographs, novels, paintings, and early music recordings – are still highly-regarded as prime examples of the documentation of hardship in America. They are often stories of great physical and mental exertion and persistence. The work that went into and preceded the Manhattan Project, though controversial, was undoubtedly a great step forward for human creativity and innovation, and signaled a new age of American life. Like I said, there aren’t too many other links between the subjects; the Depression was winding down just as race to develop nuclear weapons kicked into high gear. But I find it to be rather noteworthy that these two completely dissimilar events were occurring at about the same time. I suppose it could be seen as a compelling indicator of how disparate living situations were at that time based on one’s occupation and class status. After all, there weren’t too many poor, struggling scientists out there, bumming around with unpublished scholarly articles in their back pockets.
With every film we've watched in class dating from the Depression, the conclusion has been that the romanticizing of the hobo lifestyle, or the bums in central park, or even issues of race, were for the benefit of the upper class--those with jobs, those making more money than ever before, those benefiting from the Depression--those able to afford entertainment. But the 1930s and 40s were the proverbial golden age of Hollywood; films made during the Depression not only have become global classics but gave us some of the most remarkable actors the industry has seen. And the glamor about which we now reminisce was made possible by one simple fact: everyone was going to the movies.
Movies, almost above all else, perpetuated the American dream, lent itself as the perfect medium through which to inspire American optimism. Not only were the fabulous stories presented on the silver screen a chance for recession-weary citizens to escape, but the stories themselves often offered some message of achieving success, or of those living successfully. The Philadelphia Story, as the picture's article above explains, starring the trinity Carey Grant, Katherine Hepburn, and Jimmy Stewart, show the clash between the socialites and the bourgeoisie--only to have the beautiful socialite and struggling writer realize they're not so different, and people are merely people. Conversely, It Happened One Night, a 1934 screwball comedy starring Clark Gable and Claudette Colbert, documents the adventure of a young heiress running away from her father in order to marry whom she pleases. She meets along the way Gable, an unemployed reporter, and the two squabble, starve, and hitchhike their way towards New York City.
These kinds of stories certainly were meant for escape and entertainment, but they also provided a place through which Americans could live out their own dreams, and remember what tied them so inexorably to their homeland. Even those, said the films, down-and-out, aren't suffering for nothing; their suffering was merely a transition before the realization of greatness. It was a dream in itself, the exact kind a beaten society craved. As Pauline Kael defined the interest in these lighthearted escapist films, suggesting the pictures presented "Americans' idealized view of themselves--breezy, likable, sexy, gallant, and maybe just a little harebrained." And certainly always bound for something better, be it love or money or simply happiness.
One of the iconic pictures of the Great Depression is Dorthea Lange’s “Toward Los Angeles”. In class we discussed the irony behind the photograph between the migrant hitchhikers and the billboard advertisement. There are several pictures, similar to the Dorthea Lange photograph, that depict people down and out standing near an advertisement for a more luxurious lifestyle. These photographs caught my attention as we discussed them in class because of the contrast they showed between the homeless and those lucky enough to afford luxuries. I wanted to do more research on the advertising of the time, and how it reflected the gap between the really rich and the really poor.
I came across the Chicago Tribune Ads during the Great Depression era. There were 30 images on the page that I looked at of past ads. The ads reflected the Depression in the discounted rates and “depression deals”, but they still advertised luxury goods. There were ads for lingerie, jewelry, expensive cigars, bicycles, and cameras- all items that would be considered extras for many people during the Depression. One of the ads I found interesting was the $100 silver fox scarf. As thousands of people were scrounging for food, others were buying $100 dollar fox scarves. Thinking about the down-and-outers we talked about in class, and contrasting them to the people who could afford luxuries, such as a fox scarf, really confirmed the gap in wealth during the Depression. Some people benefited from the Depression with the deflated prices on certain goods while others were hungry on the streets.
Another one of the ads boasted a “Christmas in Cali” package that was $106.45 for a round trip fare to and from California. I found this extremely ironic as the homeless people we study mainly headed towards California to find work. This ad was an ad to send people to California not to work, but to spend their Christmas on a Cali vacation. So, as many homeless people traveled to California in search of some sort of Promised Land, others vacation to California as a getaway from their already comfortable lives. In keeping with the “travel habit”, the migrants heading toward CA for work weren’t the only ones who traveled during this period. Apparently, others were able to travel for weekend trips to avoid the cold during Christmas and spend it in the warm heat of California. People traveled west, but different groups had extremely different reasons.
Tom Kromer’s Waiting for Nothing is by far my favorite book that we have read in this class. His literary style and language really makes the book come alive off of the page and become a whole world unto itself. The book’s afterword entitled In Search of Tom Kromer says “most of Waiting for Nothing was written during his [Kromer’s] stay at Camp Murphys” (267). Camp Murphys, we are told, we part of “the California branch of Roosevelt’s Civilian Conservation Corps” (267). After its completion the author immediately sought out a publisher for his piece. My one question, then, has to be, for whom did Kromer think he was writing this book? Who is the intended audience?
If we take In Search of Tom Kromer at its word, then clearly Kromer did not intend to write this book merely for the sake of writing. It was neither an effort to preserve his memories nor a way to cope with his situation on the bum. He wanted to people to read this book. However, “reviews were attentive and serious though no wholly favorable…Waiting for Nothing was a commercial failure and did not even sell out its first printing” (269-70). If the larger American, and presumably middle-class, public was Kromer’s target audience, he failed to achieve his goal. Critics may have enjoyed it, but the work did not even come close to achieving commercial success.
So I ask again: whom did Kromer think would read this book? It is dirty, graphic, and difficult to swallow in some parts, although taken as a whole I find it brilliant. In a time period where many people who were not being directly affected by the Depression were also able to ignore it, I find it not at all surprising that most of America would ignore this book. It is almost too real. How could a person be exposed to such horrors and still maintain a peaceful, happy, prosperous lifestyle? How could someone read this and not feel guilty about their better situation in life? Almost seventy years after the fact, I felt guilty reading this book from the comfort of my good university education.