The Travel Habit
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.
When reading James Agee’s “American Roadside,” I was struck by his description of the cabin camp, an institution that has seemingly gone by the wayside for today’s tourists – or at least, neither my family nor I have ever used or even seen one on our road trips, of which there have been a considerable amount. I have, of course, stayed in a number of those roadside hotels. You know the kind: the Comfort Inns, the La Quintas, those cheap but clean hotels that are a few steps above a Motel 6. We never stayed in motels, because my mother was convinced that they were all infested with lice and cockroaches (which is pretty funny, considering the fact that my grandparents owned a motel in Albuquerque for many years, and my family actually lived there with them for a handful of those years).
When Agee describes “the vista of a city” that the auto-tourist catches sight of at the crest of a hill, I, too, can see the “second-class commercial hotel” with its “drab lobby” and “cheerless rooms” with my eyes closed (45). Sounds just exactly like the hotels I’ve always stayed in on the road with my family: every room in every cheap hotel I’ve stayed in looks the same (save for a change in carpeting and quilt design), with the same clean-but-faintly-musty smell and the fluorescent lighting in the bathroom. In contrast, the cabin camps sound so simplistic and peaceful, with an air of quaintness that I think I would’ve enjoyed: a bed, a couple of chairs, a row of hooks, a washbasin (47). I would much rather have tried out a cabin camp, and been surrounded by “a grove of cool trees” instead of the usual parking lots, Denny’s restaurants, and highway on-ramps (45).
But, contrary to Agee’s confident proclamation that the cabin camp, “like the automobile…is here to stay,” (44) it seems that the era of seeing a “little semi-circle of cabins” (45) off the side of the road has passed. Sure, there are little automobile camps and cabins for rent near where I live, but they aren't intended for tourists, or as roadside resting places for travelers. They're more like a cute camping getaway for the suburban outdoorsy novice (like me, for instance: I stayed at an automobile camp this summer, and it took me and a friend over an hour to pitch the tent - and it fell down twice during the night). Or maybe they are still around, but just not in the southwestern U.S. Hopefully Agee wasn't totally wrong, and I’ll encounter one some day. But until then, hello La Quinta.
I hated A Cool Million. Absolutely hated it – I had to force myself to finish the last few painful chapters. But I didn’t hate it because I thought it was too depressing, or too negative; I’m perfectly capable of understanding and appreciating the art of satire and hyperbole. The problem I had with Nathanael West’s book is that it was just bad writing. Really bad writing.
For starters, its way too long and painfully redundant – though maybe that was on purpose, I’ll give him that. But beyond that, the hyperbole is so extreme and over-the-top that it made the book uninteresting. I didn’t care what happened to anyone – in fact, I was hoping Lem would die soon so I could put down the awful book already. It isn’t very funny, except for a handful of moments where I cracked a begrudging smile (it was more of a twitch at the corner of my mouth, really). Worst of all, it isn’t even original – West apparently lifted several passages directly from the pages of a few Horatio Alger novels (see these citations, one by Rachel Rubenstein and one from Wikipedia. I was unfortunately unable to access the articles cited). This fact is fairly widely acknowledged, making me wonder: since when is blatant plagiarism cause for literary praise? Sure, West’s ideas are great – I enjoy seeing The American Dream satirically ripped to shreds as much as the next cynical second-generation immigrant – but if he can’t even express them without heavily “borrowing” from one of his favorite authors, doesn’t that make him somewhat of a hack?
I also was not all too impressed with West’s treatment of female characters, nor of his overzealously stereotypical portrayal of racial and ethnic minorities. Far too much racism is passed as acceptable under the guise of “satire”: but if you’re simply repeating, with exuberance, racist tropes that we all already know and have heard over and over ad nauseum, then what clever point are you really making? At what point does enthusiastic ethnically-based slander stop being “satirical” or “funny” and be recognized as no more than your common, everyday racism? Maybe it’s a thin line to walk, but I’ve seen it done much more successfully, and I think West crossed it (and I’m sure it doesn’t need to be pointed out that West’s Jewish ancestry does not exempt him from being racist). And what point, exactly, is West trying to make by having Betty be repeatedly raped (and with an alarming nonchalance)? Sure, Lem is repeatedly injured and grotesquely disfigured, but for some reason West didn’t see fit to have Lem be raped repeatedly. Is the point, perhaps, that Lem’s disfigurements as a man are equivalent to Betty’s “disfigurements” as a woman – in other words, being raped as a woman is akin to losing various limbs and having your eye gouged out as a man? Or maybe that the worst possible misfortune West could conceive of for a woman is to be raped over and over (I’m sure rape survivors would really appreciate that). Or maybe it’s just a lack of imagination. I’m not quite sure what West was attempting to say here. But hey, if he couldn’t quite pull off satire, at least he succeeded quite well in pulling off misogyny.
I’ve heard A Cool Million be compared to Candide, and apparently West inspired later authors like Vladimir Nabokov (someone whose work I appreciate - I'm talking Pale Fire, though, not Lolita). But, legendary writer or no, I was not at all impressed. Maybe I would like some of West’s other works better, but after reading A Cool Million, I’m not all that enthused to give him another chance.
Examples of much better works of satire:
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.
While reading the excerpts from Sister of the Road: The Autobiography of Box Car Bertha, I was struck by Bertha’s frank and thoroughly unabashed recounting of her numerous lovers, and those of her mother. Not only was it inspiring to read about a traveling woman for once, but it was also a pleasant surprise to see Bertha’s unquestioned acceptance of free love and other “societal ills” such as prostitution and theft:
“When I knew a man was stealing, or a woman hustling, or some poor girl going nutty, or that a guy was on a lam, or learned that a pimp was living with four women – it all seemed natural to me…” (7).
Not only does Bertha have numerous lovers, she also shows no sign of jealousy or even insecurity when her lover also has other lovers, saying only that she was appreciative of the nights he spent with her.
In fact, Bertha portrays numerous other women hobos and travelers as being similarly inclined, saying at one point that “a great army of women had taken to the road,” and that their reasons for traveling were much the same as hers: “no work…no prospects of marriage, the need for a lark, the need for freedom of sex and living…” (180).
The nonchalantly political aspect of Bertha’s commentary made her story even more compelling for me, and inspired me to do a bit of research into the background of the philosophies she espoused. According to the Wikipedia page, the free love movement in the U.S. was closely tied to the anarchist and feminist movements, and advocated since the 19th century for a rejection of marriage, especially for women, for whom it was seen as a form of “social bondage.” It sought non-interference from the government in personal affairs, and proponents of free love often also promoted the distribution of knowledge and materials for the purposes of reproductive freedom. This often got free love proponents thrown in jail for violations of the Comstock laws, which prohibited the sending of any "obscene, lewd, and/or lascivious" materials in the mail, and also outlawed the distribution of information on contraception and abortion. Margaret Sanger and Emma Goldman were two prominent feminists and staunch proponents of free love who were arrested under the Comstock laws (though Goldman was also arrested a number of times for being an anarchist).
Tom Kromer’s book, Waiting for Nothing, is a thoroughly depressing read – from start to finish the reader is confronted with dismal scenes of sitting on park benches in the dead of winter, walking in the street in pouring rain, everything gray and gloomy and hopeless, with nothing in sight – waiting for nothing. One of the darkest elements of this book is the near-constant presence of death: this motif is one that runs throughout the story, in various forms but each time as dark as the last – perhaps especially due to the narrator’s nonchalance, an attitude that reveals a sort of weary expectation of death at any time. The narrator is not only waiting for nothing better in life, but he seems also to be waiting for the greatest “nothing” of all – the nothingness of death.
The narrator’s recurring encounters with death begins very early in the book, where in the very first chapter he finds a drunk who is sleeping with his eyes open – as if dead. These “stiff stiffs,” as Mary Obropta calls them in her article “Kromer’s ‘Waiting for Nothing,’” keep popping up every few pages. Obropta lists a handful of them: a suicide victim in the bathroom in chapter three; Mrs. Carter’s black-satin-draped, coffin-like apartment in chapter four; the narrator’s coat, bummed from an undertaker, in chapter seven; a stiff who dies waiting in the soup line in chapter eight; a stiff who nearly dies in a botched attempt to jump onto a moving train in chapter ten; a boy stiff in chapter eleven who tries the same feat and is crushed under the train’s wheels; a description of a “graveyard-like” hobo camp in the same chapter; and finally, in chapter twelve, an echo of the first chapter where a stiff dies in spasms in the mission bed next to the narrator. Even when there isn’t someone dying right in front of him, the narrator is always talking about needing to find a place to sleep, a bite to eat, a way to get warm; death is always near, and the narrator is always just managing to avoid it – only to have to face the prospect the next day, and try to avoid it again.
The last chapter leaves the narrator back in the same place as he was in chapter one: in a lice-infested mission flop, trying to get to sleep. We follow him through twelve chapters as he barely scrapes by every day, only to end with him in the exact same position as he was at the beginning of the book. It is a lesson in futility: as Obropta says, the narrator is “waiting and waiting,” over and over, with no end in sight and nothing to wait for.
Reading Grapes of Wrath got me thinking about today’s migrants. Rather than Okies from the plains of the Midwest, today’s migrants are more often immigrants from Mexico and other Central and South American countries who leave their homes to come to the U.S. in search of better-paying jobs. Unlike migrants of the Great Depression era though, today’s migrants don’t haul their whole family with them in a jalopy truck. Instead, migrant workers leave their families behind in their old country and move alone, living as cheaply as possible in the U.S. so they can send as much money home as they can.
Then I saw this article in the New York Times, which discusses how the recession in the U.S. has caused a paradox in the lives of Mexican migrant workers and their families: instead of migrants sending money, called remittances, home, workers are instead being sent money from their already-ailing families: reverse remittances. Because the recession has caused massive unemployment – especially for those migrants who are undocumented and have trouble finding a job even in prosperous times – families back home are finding it necessary to support their sons and daughters abroad with whatever they can scrape together. The article even reports finding that a small bank in Chiapas, Mexico is seeing more money sent from Mexico to the U.S. than the other way around: 50,000 pesos per month are sent north, while only 30,000 pesos per month are being sent south. According to Mexican government data, about 5.9 million households (1.8 million families) receive money from relatives abroad; in fact, remittances from the U.S. comprise “roughly 19 percent of total income for urban households and 27 percent for rural ones,” making the slowing trickle of money coming in from the north a serious problem for the livelihood of a significant number of Mexicans.
Some migrants, having been out of a job in the U.S. for too long to continue surviving there, are even returning home to Mexico. The number of workers returning home is small, however, due to the fact that the crossing to the U.S. is dangerous and costs thousands of dollars (mostly used to hire coyotes, people who make a living getting folks across the border undetected). Most migrants are trying to tough it out in the U.S., hoping the economy will pick up soon so they can find new jobs and start sending money back home again. Now, as during the Great Depression, the livelihoods of migrant workers and their families are constantly in peril: trapped in a system which forces them to live from hand-to-mouth, the absence of a paycheck during an economic downturn causes serious consequences. “We’ve decided to tighten our belt until we’re all working again,” says Mr. Salcedo, the father of an unemployed migrant worker in the U.S. But there’s only so much belt-tightening that can be done: if workers like Mr. Salcedo’s son can’t find another job soon enough, there’s no safety net for them or their families back home.
After reading the first few chapters of Grapes of Wrath, I found myself comparing it to Jack Kerouac’s On the Road. After all, both works are accounts of travel writing, or writing-about-travel, and are set mostly, well, on the road. Both stories take on the myth of The American Dream and tear it apart. Jason Spangler, in his essay “We're on a road to nowhere: Steinbeck, Kerouac, and the legacy of the great depression,” apparently thought the same thing. He asserts that “On the Road is informed by Depression-era anxieties of what America represents as opposed to what it might and should represent.”
Kerouac lived through the 1930s, and even had a recurring nightmare involving being chased by a “Shrouded Stranger,” a figure who is arguably the personification of the Great Depression “with its mysterious origin and unjustified vengefulness,” and proof of Kerouac’s “anxiety born of a youth spent in the throes of socioeconomic decline.” It is no surprise, then, that Kerouac, a “child of the 1930s,” would have such strong echoes of the Great Depression in his work, even though it is set in the 1950s.
Spangler points out a number of thematic similarities between On the Road and Grapes of Wrath. Main characters in both works, for example – hipsters and dustbowlers alike – dream of stability: Rose of Sharon talks to Ma about living in a town with Connie, and owning their own store; Sal tells his friends about wanting to find a girl to marry “so I can rest my soul with her till we both get old,” expressing his desire for an end to “all this franticness and jumping around” (Kerouac, 116). Sal and Dean often run into hoboes and Okies during their travels, in saloons or while hitchhiking. These minor characters’ stories serve to “raise the specter of the Great Depression in the collective memory,” and are Kerouac’s nod to the “struggles of the 1930s migrant” of Steinbeck’s work. Sal even does a stint working as a cotton picker, living in a tent next to “a whole family of Okie cotton pickers” whose forebears had moved the family west in a jalopy during the 1930s. Kerouac also invokes Steinbeck’s extreme dislike (to put it lightly) for the police and other keepers of authority, making the character of a barracks guard into a disgusting sadist who eagerly recounts his tales of beating men whose blood leaves “stains on the wall” (Kerouac, 66).
Finally, both great works of literature rail against the “deprivation of socioeconomic collapse and the disease of conformity that masquerades as solidarity,” creating main characters (Tom and Sal, respectively) who exist as figures of romanticized rebellion against the State and the existing social order.
As a rather exuberant fan of Marx, I saw Grapes of Wrath as not only a fantastic piece of literary genius, but also as an enjoyable piece of anti-capitalist writing. Because of my political persuasion, I quickly categorized any criticism of Steinbeck's alleged embellishments of the facts to be little more than red-baiting anger over a book that sparked national concern over the plight of migrant workers - a plight that pro-capitalists often anxiously try to brush off as "inaccuracies."
But after reading Keith Windschuttle's relatively level-headed article, "Steinbeck's myth of the Okies," I felt more inclined to believe some of the allegations against Steinbeck. For example, this passage from Grapes of Wrath leads the reader to connect the Dust Bowl with the migration of farmers like the Joads from Oklahoma:
"In the morning the dust hung like fog, and the sun was as red as ripe new blood. All day the dust sifted down, and the next day it sifted down. An even blanket covered the earth. It settled on the corn, piled up on the tops of the fence posts, piled up on the wires; it settled on roofs, blanketed the weeds and trees."
But, says Windschuttle, "nothing like this happened anywhere near where Steinbeck placed the Joad family farm, just outside Sallisaw, Oklahoma." The Dust Bowl actually occurred "in the western half of Kansas, eastern Colorado, and the west Texas/New Mexico border country," but not in Oklahoma; although there was a drought throughout parts of Oklahoma and Texas, that part of the country was not affected by the Dust Bowl and did not experience the inundation of dust that Steinbeck describes.
Another mischaracterization that Steinbeck is guilty of is the exaggeration of the Joad's situation: thirteen people piled into one truck, Grandma and Grandpa dying along the way, and the rest of the family slowly separating as members desert the group to strike out on their own. While the Joad's plight is certainly an apt setting for a heartbreaking drama, Windschuttle describes this situation as "demographically unusual" : "Rather than large families extending over several generations, the most common trekkers from the southwest to California were composed of husband, wife, and children, an average of 4.4 members." The average picture is far from the one that Steinbeck paints of the Joads
So clearly, Steinbeck takes certain liberties in telling the story of the Joad family - this much is certain. But is this really relevant? If Steinbeck's intentions were to write a factually accurate depiction of migrant families during the Great Depression, then he would have become a journalist. Steinbeck was trying to write a great novel - and he undoubtedly accomplished this, regardless of what his numerous critics have to say. And if some of his embellishments were motivated by anti-capitalist sentiment, then what of it? The fiction writer is under no obligation to make any sort of "accurate" representation of "the truth" - fiction is, after all, a work of the imagination. And it's not as if the right wing didn't also have its fair share of pro-capitalist propaganda. Whether or not he intended it, Steinbeck's book caused national attention to be focused on the condition of migrant workers, people whose stories are so often unheard, whose struggles to survive die with them in silence. This, to me, is an undoubtedly positive affect of The Grapes of Wrath: not only is it an amazing work of literature, but it also managed to expose some of the grossest inhumanities perpetrated under a capitalist system.
Asch talks about traveling by car, bus, and train. Of these, I've experienced extensive travel by car, and a fair amount of travel by bus as well. I've never traveled by train (I don't think the subway counts), but I have traveled a lot by plane - an experience that seems at least somewhat akin to the trains in Asch's day.
Plane rides, much like Asch's train trips, are formal; you have to reserve your seat and, while most people no longer wear their best clothes, there is a sense of officialism to the way you interact (or rather, don't interact) with people around you on planes. I generally don't talk to people on planes, and if I do ever "get to talking with a stranger," I certainly am not myself: I am stiff, aloof, "strained." Plane rides are quick, impersonal, and just generally unimpressive; most of the time I have neither a positive nor negative experience: its just a plane ride, a dull interim period, a sort of traveler's purgatory.
Driving by car with my parents and sister on our numerous family road trips, I saw a lot of the country on the ground. 3 days in a minivan on a trip to Calgary, Canada (just north of Montana) gave me countless views of...nothing. Lots and lots of nothing. Endless vistas of...grayish yellow grass. The sporadic smattering of grazing cows, or sometimes buffalo. Miles upon miles of highway, gray concrete and other cars and giant tractor-trailers. Gas station food and McDonald's. In those days I used to get motion-sickness and couldn't really read very much, so I was forced to spend long stretches of time staring out the window. I went stir-crazy after a day, getting into fights with my sister over who got to stretch out and sleep in the back seat, complaining alternately about it being too hot, or too cold in the car. My trip across the heartland of America was not much to boast about - I certainly didn't gain any appreciation for the Great Plains. I had a similar experience when we drove west to see the Grand Canyon, except this time instead of miles of endless grayish grass I saw miles of endless grayish dirt. There weren't even that many grazing cows to break up the scenery. Sure, the Grand Canyon itself was amazing - but the trip there was excruciatingly boring. I'd have to agree with Asch that traveling by car cross-country is not a great idea - at least not when you're a bored young teenager in a minivan with your parents.
I've traveled by bus a bit, as well. Most of the time it's been short distances, like the 4-5 hour bus ride from Dallas to Austin that I take often. Once, though, I took a 3 day bus trip from New York to Dallas, partly to save money on airfare and partly just to see what a 3 day bus trip felt like. But I soon found it was far from the romantic experience I'd been expecting: I hated the bus ride. After a day my lower back started aching constantly from having to be always sitting; my legs were cramped from having to keep them in an awkward bent position for hours at a time; and I was always hungry: I don't eat meat, so the only food I could find during our harried 5-10 minute pit stops was junk food: candy bars, chips, peanuts. I couldn't even get a sandwich, since they were all pre-made and none were vegetarian. Those "murderous vibrations" Asch mentions are far from relaxing (I didn't ever actually sleep, I just sort of dozed for 30 minutes at a time), and we definitely did not stop every two hours. I tried to look out the window a lot, since at the very least I wanted to see the country as I was traveling through it. There were long stretches of trees as we drove through heavily-forested areas, and some of it was beautiful, but also a lot of it was the usual gray highway. I found myself spending most of my time buried in books, or absorbed in my own thoughts. That was, really, the only redeeming thing about traveling long distances by bus: I had a lot of time to do nothing, and I appreciated being able to sit quietly and read or think, since my life is usually so busy I don't get a chance to do this often. All in all though, the bus ride still felt like purgatory - only unlike a plane ride, this one was far more unpleasant and lasted what seemed like forever.
So if car, plane, and bus rides are all bust for me, how then can I experience this "America" that Asch finds so much joy in discovering? Through my travels, I can't quite say that I've gathered an experience of "America" (if this thing even exists as a concrete notion). I suppose my experience of "America" comes from my life, rather than my travels; I've lived in New Mexico, Texas, and New York, and my experience of this country is gathered from the people I've met in these places, and the moments I've had. But when traveling, the only "experience" I really got was the experience of travel itself, of this period of waiting, of being on hold: travel as purgatory.