The Travel Habit
By the end of my freshmen year of college I had collected a fairly substantial change jar full of quarters, dimes, pennies. I decided to give all of my spare change to a homeless person on the street by my dorm. I had walked by this particular person upward of two hundred times during the school year, but it was the first time I had actually helped out.
Being a student in New York City, at one of the most expensive universities in the U.S., we experience the homeless everyday. While not everyone at NYU may be rich, we are all well enough off to attend this school. We have not been forced into poverty and despair. Thinking about this, a particular quote from Anderson’s Puzzled America really stood out to me.
“I see a man lurking in an open place between two buildings. I stop and look. He is pawing over the contents of a garbage can. It does happen, things like that, to Americans, people in this big rich place” (Anderson - Puzzled America). This idea of homelessness and unemployment is directly related to this course.
People today don’t choose to be homeless, just as people in the 1930’s didn’t choose to lose their jobs. They instead had a series of unforeseen circumstances happen to them, which caused them to up and move, an idea I’d like to refer to as forced travel. Forced travel in the 1930’s seems to have been caused by a decline in the economic climate, farmers could no longer afford the work needed to maintain their business, blue collar workers no longer had work to do.
Forced travel and homelessness, particularly in New York City, seem to be prevalent still. Some many not like to acknowledge that it is an issue in the glamorous, powerful U.S., but it is. According to the Coalition For The Homeless, 36,000 homeless people are in NYC shelters and that doesn’t include the people sleeping on the streets every night. From my background knowledge of travel during the Great Depression, many people were traveling, looking for work and essentially were homeless - sleeping in cars.
While the economic climate today is not as dire as it was in the 1930’s, there is definitely still a parallel between the forced travel of the decade and the homeless, unemployed Americans living today. It is something I would like keep in the back of my mind and explore for the remainder of the class.
The search for America is a curious topic for an American writer. Seemingly it should be something innate. That is not to say that from one person to the next the view or idea of America cannot differ, but rather that it should be something that is known, not necessarily in need of research. These writers – Anderson, Asch, Rorty, etc. – all traveled thousands of miles to document a concept that one might expect to have experienced all their lives. However, for each of these authors America was not what they knew, in their towns; instead it lied within the stories of the destitute and hard hit Americans trying to live through the Depression.
These writers were lucky enough that they had the fortune to travel to document these stories and form some sort of commentary on the state of the America. And how greatly did these commentaries differ! In Puzzled America, Sherwood Anderson saw America for the greatness of the country and the natural wealth and potential that existed here. Anderson recognized wealth in terms of the land stating “that is the big fact I have got out of all my wanderings these last few years – all of this traveling in the midst of the depression – a growing sense of the vast wealth of the country itself.” More importantly Anderson saw the potential of the people who had “willingness to believe, a hunger for believe, a determination to believe.” Anderson’s emphasis on belief indicated that there might be some optimism in the expanse of America despite the times.
James Rorty likely traveled the same roads as Anderson and saw many of the same places, however, he reports a far more cynical view of American life. In Where Life Is Better, Rorty apparently thinks there is no place where life actually is better. In contrast to Anderson, he does not praise or respect the American desire to believe, but writes, “I encountered nothing in 15000 miles of travel that disgusted and appalled me so much as this American addiction to makebelieve.”
Two authors searching for America came up with two utterly opposing viewpoints. Belief is a bit of a funny topic for Rorty to condemn so much as historically it is a central tenet of American life. The ability to believe in a better life and to hope to achieve such a thing is the basic characteristic of the American dream. The quest for the American dream in the early half of the twentieth century was similar for many to the search for America. As Rorty seemingly abandons that dream, it provides another commentary for how he has an author was afflicted by the Depression. Thus, each author’s own situation provided a lens for how they viewed the America through which they traveled.