The Travel Habit
Anderson’s Hungry Men is so much like the other readings we’ve had this term that I turned to the present to find some sort of connection. The scenes of train riding reminded me of a film that came out this summer, and now DVD called Sin Nombre. The story is about a young girl’s exodus from Honduras with her family, and the hardships of life on the road. She must ride a freight train much like those in all our readings, and must endure robberies from gangs and boarder patrol agents. The plight of the illegal immigrant is very relevant to the traveling tales of the bums from the American depression. Not only are they down and out, but they must deal with constantly being looked down upon as inferiors with no means of picking themselves up. They are taken advantage of from all angles, from law enforcement and punks. In the movie, our heroine ends up making friends with an ex-gang member, who soon becomes her sole companion. As the movie shows, it’s hard to invest your trust or love in those that you’re on the bum with, because you never know when your course will have to differ from theirs. It is such a highly individual journey, to take flight while hiding, that it makes for some gripping cinema. The film also shows a lot about Mexican gang life, particularly in the MS13. The gangs take advantage of the travelers, much like how Acel must keep a close eye on his companions in Hungry Men. Sin Nombre is a fantastic watch—both in it’s relation to the 1930’s time of travel and in it’s modern day context as a tale of struggle and perseverance.
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”.
Over the course of the 20th century, two men did more to change the staples of the standard American diet than anyone: Henry Agard Wallace and Earl Butz. Wallace served as the Secretary of Agriculture from 1933 to 1940, the critical years of the Depression. He, under "Roosevelt's" Agricultural Adjustment Act of 1933, began the enlightened policy of subsidized farming--specifically, paying farmers not to grow crops. He advocated, at a time when millions of the country's citizens were out of work, starving, scrambling to find any means necessary to feed a family, the wasting of any remaining surplus: the arbitrary slaughtering and disposing of livestock, uprooting fields to destroy the crop. He, too, revolutionized agricultural genetics; his scientific advancements developed a hybrid corn that was to be the dominant corn crop grown in the country for decades, and a fast-laying chicken eventually responsible for producing almost all the eggs in the country. Decades later, Earl Butz (Secretary of Agriculture under both Nixon and Ford) restructured the New Deal policies, in times of relative American prosperity. Rather than regulate crop output, he advocated hyper-productivity, advising farmers to "get big or get out." Under Butz's direct influence, not only did surplus explode, but, thanks to the developments on Wallace's genetically-engineered food sources, the combination created modern industrialized farming: a few farmers ever-expanding, growing indestructible crops, resistant to the natural cycles and livestock so different from a natural form that a single animal literally cannot live nor function without human technology. And the result is, ironically, massive corporations driving the independent farmers out of business and off their land. Sound familiar?
Depending upon the sort of New Yorker one is talking to, Inwood is either where Columbia University plays its football games, or it is the area that lies below the south anchor of the Henry Hudson Bridge, or it is ultimate stop on the A train. In all cases, it is the narrow northern tip of Manhattan, a place where midtown cab drivers don’t know where it is or believe that Payson Avenue or Cumming Street or Indian Road exists. Many people reject that Inwood is really part of Manhattan, and this probably stems from the state of mind depicted in the W.P.A. Guide to New York City, published in the 1930's. It said that Inwood's ''rivers and hills insulate a suburban community that is as separate an entity as any in Manhattan.''
Although change is clearly afoot, Inwood retains many of the characteristics it had when it was intensively developed in the 30's. Before that, it had been unfolding much as expected by Frederick Law Olmsted and his partner, J. James R. Croes, who in a plan submitted in 1876, envisioned it as a residential neighborhood for ''fairly comfortable people.'' Some of the comfortable buildings of earlier times, still bearing faint letters offering ''steam heat and hot water'' and other amenities, are in trouble now. At least two old buildings are being rehabilitated privately and others bear plaques noting rehabilitation with tax aid. But the low-rise and light density character persists. Tucked among the low rises are one-and two-family houses with trees and tiny yards.
The neighborhood bubbles with children and schools: Good Shepherd and St. Jude's Roman Catholic elementary schools, the Northeastern Academy of the Seventh Day Adventists, St. Matthew's Lutheran School and a public elementary school and junior high school keep the buses full and the pizzerias busy. For all its suburban quality, Inwood is not just that. On the east side of 10th Avenue, it is a transport hub of the MTA, with a huge train yard and an ancient brick barn for city buses that spans 10 city blocks. A kennel and a pet crematory sits next to an auto laundry. Other than that, I really did not know much about the history of my area, since Wikipedia can only offer so much. The Dyckman Farmhouse is exactly the same in how it’s described. In the 1700s, Inwood consisted of miles of farmland, and prior to that Algonquin Indians settled the area. Even to this day, its possible to find Algonquin weapons and utensils buried in the ground near the caves hidden within the park. There is even an observation station located in the park that gives a brief history of the park. Walking through the Indian trials is just as amazing as they described it to be in the WPA guide. As soon as you walk 20 ft. deep, it feels like you literally escape into another world. Many exercisers and nature observers use the hilly trails, however, once you are inside you instantly feel isolated. You can’t even hear the noisy city life bustling just moments away. I’ve used these trails several times, and witnessed the wildlife: rabbits, insects, snakes, etc. To think in New York City there was wildlife beyond pigeons!
Returning back to the Grapes of Wrath Bibliography, I somehow ended up on an article entitled “John Steinbeck: Novelist as Scientist.” Though it is not specific to Grapes of Wrath, science seems particularly noticeable in those early characterless chapters that could nearly be described and literary science as their seems not plot or story to them save for that of the changing land. And, after all, Steinbeck did have that interest in science and scientists in him. “The fiction of John Steinbeck has had a special appeal to the scientist, for of all the major American writers of fiction in this century, Steinbeck alone has had an abiding interest in natural science and brought that interest into his writing,” wrote Jackson J. Benson. The Log from the Sea of Cortez details Steinbeck's six-week marine specimen-collecting expedition with his good friend, the marine biologist Ed Ricketts. And then in the character Jim Casy, Steinbeck created an observer of things through an increasing profane lens. “In a parody of Christ’s religious purgation of the self,” Benson wrote, “Casy goes into the wilderness to emerge with a scientific, non-teleological vision: ‘There ain’t no sin and there ain’t no virtue. There’s just stuff people do. It’s all part of the same thing.’” I am always apprehensive to pit religion and science against each other as only the dogmatists of each camp seem inclined to do, but besides in shaping the philosophies implied by Steinbeck in Grapes of Wrath environmental science seemed overall to play a role that ran parallel to the Great Depression as it might run parallel today with the concern for global warming.
Just as farmers in the 1930s found their land ruined by unsustainable farming habits at the same time that their bank accounts were dwindled by unsustainable financing habits, the same two poor habits came ashore in the past few years, and together once again. It seems to make for a particularly darker shade of gloom—one in which both the environment and human institutions both have been misguided by our own appetitive natures. Where we have ruined both what we’ve been given and what we’ve made.
If Grapes of Wrath was the road novel of the Great Depression which put in words these anxieties by the pen of a writer with an interest in science, The Road could be today’s equivalent, who wrote perhaps more allegorically about the issues of what humans make and what they ruin, and how in the wake of that they may survive. Like Steinbeck, McCarthy, who is today regarded as a major American writers, has an interest in science that shows both in his prose and in his themes.
Yet most important in both of these works is that they are not merely scientific. In the end they are about humans and their function as a part of the greater environment. Afterall, Benson wrote, Steinbeck “saw man as part of an ecological whole.”
The place I know best in the United States is New York City, so I decided to check out the WPA guide for our glorious city. I was most interested in reading about the areas that I have come to know pretty well, neighborhoods that have historically been known as "ethnic", home to many immigrants.
The first section I read is about New York's Chinatown, which I was particularly interested to read considering the class about Chinatown I am taking this semester. I was surprised that the guide described Chinatown as a relatively safe and clean area, contrary to the opinion of many other New Yorker's at the time. Over the decades after the guide was written, Chinatown did become the playground of many gangs, and today diners concerned about the cleanliness of the kitchens in which their food is prepared usually give Chinatown a miss. The neighborhood was described as concentratedly ethnic and incredibly vibrant and the author suggests various shops and types of food and restaurants to readers. Chinatown was also much smaller at the time, not stretching north of Canal street and not even east of Bowery.
Though the guide does mention the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, the author does not explain that the Act made it difficult for Chinese to come to the US, and those who were able to, were primarily men. Many Chinese men had left their homes and families in China to make money in America and upon arrival faced racism and permanent alien status. After the Chinese Exclusion Act was repealed in the late 40's, there was a flood of immigration from China and New York's Chinatown began to grow beyond the four or five blocks it had encompassed. It is difficult to say how accurate the guide's depiction of Chinatown is.
Though I expected this section the guide to be written with a more prejudiced tone, and the author suggested Chinatown as an interesting place to visit, there was something culturally voyeuristic about the section.
I also checked out the section on the Lower East Side, which is most fascinating because of the changes this neighborhood has undergone. The Lower East Side had for over a century a highly concentrated immigrant population, with inhabitants from all over eastern and western europe. upwards of 80 thousand Jews gave the LES the world's largest Jewish population. The neighborhood was full of gangs, and people stuck to their own kind. The author points out that several famous Americans rose from the slums of the LES, such as Alfred E Smith, 4 time governor of New York.
In the decades since the guide was written, the LES has changed drastically, even though the rows of tenement buildings still exist and garments businesses still line Orchard street. Part of the LES became populated almost entirely by hispanics and latinos, and the lower part of the LES has melted into and become part of Chinatown. Today apartments in many parts of the LES demand high rents and hipsters roam the streets and the only immigrants left on the LES now are the Fukinese and other Chinese. The Jews are almost completely gone, save a few old family businesses, and even the hispanic and latino community has been replaced by young professionals and artists.
I was surprised by the coverage of these areas in the guide. These are two areas that might appeal to tourists today, but I had thought that in the 1930's no one would be interested in touring New York City's slums. The sections on Chinatown and the Lower East Side were relatively objective, and focused more on the merits of the area as opposed to the reasons one wouldn't want to visit them. The picture painted by these sections is very clear and easy to imagine, and I only wish that I could see what these neighborhoods had really been like almost 80 years ago.
Being from San Francisco, I was clearly most interested in what the California guidebook had to say. Man, was it dense! I was very impressed with the level of research that had gone into it, and the immense amount of detail. It had an extensive history of the state, the names of places, important figures and moments in time. There were several state maps at the beginning, showing the roads and the geography of the area. But I particularly enjoyed the discussions of the flora and fauna, and of the weather.
More modern guidebooks not only condense their coverage of history and terrain, they often leave out really important facts. Or so I assume. How else to explain why tourists show up every year to walk across the Golden Gate Bridge in shorts and t-shirts, freezing their butts off while those of us who live in San Francisco shake our heads in our wool coats and tights? The WPA guide very clearly states that fall is much warmer than summer, where there is icy cold fog sticking its fingers down your shirt all the time and the sun comes out maybe seven times in three months. In fact, the guide details the weather year-round for each part of the state.
There are lovely descriptions of the nature in each area too, and since I feel like that is a big part of the draw of California it was nice to see. Overall, though it read a bit more like a textbook summary than a guide, I felt it had many interesting details about the state, and was full of useful information for the traveler as well as the historian, the naturalist, and the social psychologist.
I also appreciated that the guidebooks were written in such a way that assumed a certain level of education of the reader—beyond simply being literate. Each section was full of literary and cultural references that gave the text authority and dimension. However, it did not feel inaccessible either; the writing did not condescend to the reader with overly simplistic explanations, but it did not alienate the same audience by making these allusions unnecessarily complex or opaque. Each quote or reference was contextualized and incorporated in such a way that it was not necessary to have read the book to appreciate the way that the guidebook’s writers were using the words of writers before them who had written about California with a different intent.
What a great source of information these WPAs! I guess if I had been travelling in the 1930s I definitely would have used some of these useful tips. Absolutely everything you need to know, and I love the first few pages of “General Information:” How to get there, good to know you can take the Greyhound from anywhere in the US, and definitely great to know that “Speed is 15 miles per hour at grade crossings, road intersections, and curves where the driver's view is obstructed; 15 miles per hour in passing schools where persons are entering or leaving (...)” Very detailed, I wonder if the current travel guides are as detailed, or at least with the same king of information. I love the recommendations that are given, “Border Rules : (digest)” What do they mean by digest? Oh and the info on the reptiles in California is crucial: “Rattlesnakes exist, but are not numerous being found in rocky mountains below the 3,000 ft. level; will not strike unless disturbed.” I find there is extensive information on Natural Conservation, something I'm quite sure doesn't appear as extensively in today's travel guides...maybe because we don't value it as much? I really aprpeciate the way every aspect of the state is condensed into a whole book, and how the authors cover every aspect of it: agriculture, industry, some history. And now I'm wondering: who would actually read all this? And I'm also wondering: isn't there a part of fiction in these guides? Aren't the writers, just as Steinbeck or Kromer, changing a reality in order to make it more appealing? To make the book a marketable product? I feel like everything in the book is really idealized or only certain pieces are information are conveyed while others are just left out... no? I don't know... But I definitely like the section on literature, offering short biographies of authors who either were from California or wrote about California... A little surprised though on the passage on Steinbeck, his book “Tortilla Flat” is mentioned, and summarized, so are “Of Mice and Men” and and “In Dubious Battle” but nothing, no mentioning of “The Grapes of Wrath”... why is that? Is it because it describes a reality the authors of this guide do not find adequate, appropriate? Would it make California unattractive to potential tourists? And what does that tell of the power, influence of books, novels, and these types of guides? Can this guide be thought of as a piece of propaganda?
America—land of illusion. What are people looking for when they come here? And I’m not just talking about immigrants and tourists. Even people that already live here—why do we stay? What’s so great about this country? We propagate a dream, box it up, label it the “American Dream,” and sell it. And it sells pretty well.
In “Puzzled America,” Anderson notes that in his years of travelling throughout the country, the American populace just wants something to believe in, and the government is no longer giving them that something. This is where the writers come in. “If the American writer chances to be a good deal of a wanderer, as I am, he is constantly stuck by something. He becomes more and more convinced of the vast richness of America,” so says Anderson. Writers are influenced by their surrounding, by the people they meet, and by their personal lives, so writing the American Dream comes naturally. People still have a willingness to believe in something; anything, and writers have the power to give them that something.
Asch too, describes this impenetrable American ethic that holds the country together in times of desolation and extreme poverty: “It’s what makes it possible to travel in this country, looking at places where not the fortunate ones live, but those dispossessed, and see much want and hear of many troubles, and still feel there is hope, these is a chance, there is a future.” The future, that’s what America looks towards. During times of hurt, the people (not the government) who are most affected ban together and think “it’s OK.” I wish I could say the same for my own life.
Instead it seems that I remain a bit puzzled, much like Anderson describes. I haven’t gotten my piece of pie, even though I really don’t have any inkling what that means at this point in my life. I just know that these days (read: recession) focusing only on money won’t cut it. We have to trace back to the source, the thing that breeds life: the earth. Forgive me for sounding trite, but I believe a hazy, globally-warmed cloud is obscuring our vision of the future by making us forget our past.
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.