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Literature in relation to American paintings in the 1930s

November 5, 2016 29 comments

At the Musée de l’Orangerie in Paris, there’s currently an exhibition called La peinture américaine des années 1930. (American painting in the 1930s) It displays the trends in painting in America during the Great Depression according to several themes: rural landscapes and way of life, cities and their work environment, social issues and entertainment. It is an exhibition organized with the collaboration of the Chicago Art Institute. It was already presented in Chicago and it will next go to the Royal Academy in London. It is very educational about the times, explaining the economic situation and the different art programs implemented by the federal goverment. While I was watching paintings, some reminded me of books and I couldn’t help thinking that some of them would make fantastic book covers. I’ll start with the iconic American Gothic by Grant Wood that has been borrowed by advertising and other artists. I’ve heard it called the American Joconde.

American Gothic 1930 Grant Wood

American Gothic 1930 Grant Wood

It’s probably one of the most famous American paintings of the time, along with the ones by Edward Hopper. It made me think of Willa Cather because these farmers seem to come right out of the 19th century and to represent the hard working pioneers.

Totally different setting: a harbour, maybe in Saint Louis. This one reminded me of American Transfer by John Dos Passos (1925) because there were parts in the harbour in New York.

Roustabouts 1934 Joe Jones

Roustabouts 1934 Joe Jones

Exploring the social impact of the crisis, some artists protested against the ravages of capitalism and showed the life of the working class. This portrait of Pat Whalen, a Communist activist brought memories of I Married a Communist by Philip Roth (1998) Alice Neel was a Communist herself and she portrayed several activists.

Pat Whalen by Alice Neel 1935

Pat Whalen by Alice Neel 1935

Back in New York, I immediately thought about The Outing, a short story included in Going to Meet the Man by James Baldwin (1965) or A Rage in Harlem by Chester Himes, even if both were published after the 1930s.

Street Life Harlem by William H Johnson 1939

Street Life Harlem by William H Johnson 1939

It’s hard to talk about literature during the Great Depression without mentioning The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck (1939) In the section about rural life, there was this striking painting to express the destruction of land due to severe droughts.

Erosion n2 Mother Earth Laid Bare by Alexander Hogue. 1936

Erosion n2 Mother Earth Laid Bare by Alexander Hogue. 1936

In the room about the entertainments of the time, Philip Evergood’s Dance Marathon (1934) would really make a great cover for They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? by Horace McCoy (1935), a book where a couple enters a dance marathon.

Dance Marathon by Philip Evergood 1934

Philip Evergood pictures the extreme fatigue of the couples who shuffle on the dance floor, the circus around this inhumane entertainment and the acute need of money of the participants if they were willing to enter that kind of contest.

There were about 50 paintings but I only picked up the ones that reminded me of a book. For readers who have the opportunity to go to Paris, I recommend going to the Musée de l’Orangerie, for this exhibition but also for the permanent collection of the museum. It will also be possible to see this exhibition in London at the Royal Academy, it’s entitled America after the fall: Paintings in the 1930s and it will last from February to June 2017.

Last but not least, I bought a book at the museum’s library: La Crise. Amérique 1927-1932 by Paul Claudel and it is an excerpt of the diplomatic correspondence between Paul Claudel and his Minister Aristide Briand when Claudel was ambassador of France in Washington (1927-1933) I’ll write another billet about it as it is a fascinating read after the 2008 crisis and the current presidential election in the USA.

The reasons of wrath

October 22, 2014 36 comments

The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck 1939 French title: Les Raisins de la colère.

Steinbeck_englishI finished The Grapes of Wrath a few weeks ago and I’ve been procrastinating. What can I write about such a classic? Being French, The Grapes of Wrath is not part of the usual high school curricular. So I have no bad memories of reading this in school and I started it without knowing much about the plot. I expected the exodus of Okies to California, that’s all.

A quick reminder of the plot, if someone needs it: the Joad family leaves Oklahoma during the Great Depression because their farm has been purchased by banks and farm labourers are replaced by tractors. They’re headed to California because they’ve seen leaflets saying that workers were wanted. When they leave, the family is composed of the grand-parents, Uncle John, the parents (Ma & Pa), Tom who came back on parole just in time, Noah, Al, Rose of Sharon, her young husband and the two youngest Joad children. The novel describes their journey to California via the Route 66, their arrival in the Californian Promised Land. They live in tents along the way, in shanty towns, in government camps. Steinbeck describes their perpetual quest for work, their hard working conditions and the lack of job security.

I found the descriptions of the Joads departure, their journey and living conditions quite moving. As they leave their farm and Oklahoma behind, the loss of their home dismantles their family. Their family dynamic changes too. Pa loses his authority because only his sons know how to operate the truck; Ma switches to survival mode and takes over when it comes to harsh decisions. Pa just has to tag along and I felt sad for him. There are plenty of bleak scenes in the book like the death of the grand-mother or the description of life in settlements. I couldn’t help thinking about the illegal shanty towns we have here near the city. I drive by them every day and I see the shabby cabins, the smoke of chimneys and I wonder how we accept to have humans living there. While reading The Grapes of Wrath, I kept wondering how the children would grow up since they couldn’t go to school while on the road. Joan Didion answered my question. In Run River, a character mentions that one of his schoolmates was two years older than him because she came from Oklahoma and missed two years of school because she was on the road with her family.

In French, The Grapes of Wrath is Les raisins de la colère. Change an i for an o in raisins (grapes) and you’ve got raisons instead of raisins and a perfectly apt title for this novel: The Reasons of Wrath. Steinbeck is on a mission with this book just like Zola has a purpose with the Rougon-Macquart series. Anyone who’s read both writers knows that their style is very different though. Zola’s style is lush and graphic. Steinbeck’s reflects the characters he’s defending and it appears in the construction of the novel. He alternates chapters between the Joad family’s story and generic chapters demonstrating that the Joads’ experience is not unique but the common lot of migrants. The language is always tainted with peasant vocabulary and grammar mistakes. We never change of point of view and Steinbeck makes sure we never forget that by writing prose in spoken language. It’s a great literary device but it’s difficult for non-natives. Passages like this…

The preacher stirred nervously. “You should of went too. You shouldn’t of broke up the fambly.’’ “I couldn’,’’ said Muley Graves. “Somepin jus’ wouldn’ let me.’’

Or this…

She was in a family way, too, an’ one night she gets a pain in her stomick, an’ she says, ‘You better go for a doctor.’ Well, John, he’s settin’ there, an’ he says, ‘You just got a stomickache. You et too much. Take a dose a pain killer. You crowd up ya stomick an’ ya get a stomickache,’ he says. Nex’ noon she’s outa her head, an’ she dies at about four in the afternoon.

…were difficult for me. It took me a lot of time to read the whole book but I survived.

Steinbeck_frenchSteinbeck’s political orientation becomes obvious in the description of the government camp where the Joads settle for a while. It’s clean, organised and with showers and toilets. It’s luxury compared to camping along the Road 66. It’s a settlement self-managed by the migrants. They take turn to do chores like cleaning the lavatories and they are organised in committees to rule the everyday life of the inhabitants. It sounds awfully like an idyllic version of a kolkhoz. Pardon my sarcastic mind but I almost heard Candide say All is for the best best in the best of possible worlds. The Grapes of Wrath is a condemnation of wild capitalism. Steinbeck violently criticises the banks and their greediness, the farmers’ organisations that push their adherents to exploit workers. He dissects the job market workings and shows how hunger and desperation lead workers to accept lower wages and thus enrich their employers and further destroy their chances to better pay. It’s a plea for more control and regulation from the authorities. Steinbeck’s points are valid. It bothers me that his points are still valid nowadays. Uncontrollable financial markets? Check. Dirt poor workers? Check. Job insecurity? Check. Agriculture ruled by stock markets? Check.

Steinbeck also pictures how the poor treatment of workers fosters despair and aims at proving that hopeless people have nothing to lose, that uprisings stem from this. The novel portrays the slow dehumanization of the migrants and the increasing hatred of the locals towards them. It pictures the difference between them and the Californians. I had to remind myself that this was the 1930s. The Joads live, behave and think like peasants of the 19thC. They’re far behind from the California of the 1930s described in Run River or even They Shoot Horse, Don’t They? The Californians see them as we Westerners look at the migrants running aground on our coasts. Think of Lampedusa.

The Grapes of Wrath is a masterpiece which should not be read in high school without the help of an excellent teacher. I barely scraped the depth of its contents here especially since I didn’t say much about the interactions between the characters and how the events affect their dreams and their chance at a future. The Grapes of Wrath analyses the historical events it pictures and examines the damages they did on small people. It also explores the feelings and thoughts of its characters. History has a face. Collateral damages of uncontrolled capitalism have a face. This face has a name, Tom Joad.

Steinbeck’s famous quote about Route 66

October 21, 2014 2 comments

route_66

HIGHWAY 661 is the main migrant road. 66—the long concrete path across the country, waving gently up and down on the map, from Mississippi to Bakersfield—over the red lands and the gray lands, twisting up into the mountains, crossing the Divide and down into the bright and terrible desert, and across the desert to the mountains again, and into the rich California valleys. 66 is the path of a people in flight, refugees from dust and shrinking land, from the thunder of tractors and shrinking ownership, from the desert’s slow northward invasion, from the twisting winds that howl up out of Texas, from the floods that bring no richness to the land and steal what little richness is there. From all of these the people are in flight, and they come into 66 from the tributary side roads, from the wagon tracks and the rutted country roads. 66 is the mother road, the road of flight. Clarksville and Ozark and Van Buren and Fort Smith on 64, and there’s an end of Arkansas. And all the roads into Oklahoma City, 66 down from Tulsa, 270 up from McAlester. 81 from Wichita Falls south, from Enid north. Edmond, McLoud, Purcell. 66 out of Oklahoma City; El Reno and Clinton, going west on 66. Hydro, Elk City, and Texola; and there’s an end to Oklahoma. 66 across the Panhandle of Texas. Shamrock and McLean, Conway and Amarillo, the yellow. Wildorado and Vega and Boise, and there’s an end of Texas. Tucumcari and Santa Rosa and into the New Mexican mountains to Albuquerque, where the road comes down from Santa Fe. Then down the gorged Rio Grande to Los Lunas and west again on 66 to Gallup, and there’s the border of New Mexico. And now the high mountains. Holbrook and Winslow and Flagstaff in the high mountains of Arizona. Then the great plateau rolling like a ground swell. Ashfork and Kingman and stone mountains again, where water must be hauled and sold. Then out of the broken sun-rotted mountains of Arizona to the Colorado, with green reeds on its banks, and that’s the end of Arizona. There’s California just over the river, and a pretty town to start it. Needles, on the river. But the river is a stranger in this place. Up from Needles and over a burned range, and there’s the desert. And 66 goes on over the terrible desert, where the distance shimmers and the black center mountains hang unbearably in the distance. At last there’s Barstow, and more desert until at last the mountains rise up again, the good mountains, and 66 winds through them. Then suddenly a pass, and below the beautiful valley, below orchards and vineyards and little houses, and in the distance a city. And, oh, my God, it’s over.


route66_2

 

Guest post: Marion reviews The Red Pony by John Steinbeck

August 15, 2012 18 comments

The Red Pony by John Steinbeck French title: Le poney rouge. 1945.

Marion is 11 and she’s my daughter. I’m very proud to publish her first billet about a book we read together this week. She wrote it in French, so I’ll leave the French text and translate it into English for you. I’ll tell you my thoughts about this novella afterwards. If you wish to leave a comment, it would be lovely to write it in French if you can.

Ce livre parle de Jody, un petit garçon de 10 ans qui va à l’école. Il vit dans un ranch en Californie avec ses parents et Billy Buck, le garçon d’écurie. Un jour, son père lui offre un poney qu’il appelle Gabilan. Jody s’en occupe toute la journée sauf quand il est à l’école. Billy Buck est très bon pour s’occuper des chevaux et aide Jody à dresser le poney. Un jour, le poney reste dehors sous la pluie et il tombe malade. Le poney va-t-il survivre ? Jody va-t-il s’en remettre ? C’est un livre émouvant avec à la fois de la joie et de la tristesse. J’ai bien aimé ce livre car il y a de l’aventure et des émotions fortes. Aussi c’était super de savoir ce qui se passe dans un ranch en Californie, comment ils vivent avec beaucoup d’animaux, en particulier des chevaux. J’ai bien aimé les parties de descriptions car on pouvait vraiment s’imaginer les endroits avec les détails. Je me suis posé quelques questions : Jody appelle ses parents « M’sieu et M’dame ». Cela m’a surprise parce que d’habitude on n’appelle pas nos parents comme ça. Donc si vous lisez le livre vous vous poserez peut-être des questions vous aussi…

Infos pratiques : Ce livre est conseillé à partir de 11 ans. John Steinbeck a sorti ce livre en 1945. Les personnages sont : Jody et Gabilan, des amis très proches, Billy Buck,le meilleur soigneur de cheval de la Californie, et M et Mme Tiflin, les parents de Jody.

Translation: This book is about Jody, a ten-year-old boy who goes to school. He lives in a ranch in California with his parents and Billy Buck, their cowboy. One day, his father gives him a pony. Jody names him Gabilan. Jody takes care of him all day except when he’s in school. Billy Buck is very good at taking care of horses and he helps Jody train Gabilan. One day, the pony stays in the rain and gets sick. Will he survive? How will Jody cope with the situation? This book is moving and is both joyful and sad. I liked this book because it includes adventure and strong emotions. It was also great to know what happened in a ranch in California, how they used to live with a lot of animals and especially horses. I enjoyed the parts with the descriptions because I could really imagine the scenery, with all the details. I had some questions: Jody calls his parents “M’sieu” and “M’dame” [Emma: Sir / Ma’am] It surprised me because you don’t usually call your parents like that. So, if you read this book, perhaps you’ll have questions too.

Information: This book is for children over 11. John Steinbeck published this novel in 1945. The characters are Jody and Gabilan, close friends, Billy Buck the best horse raiser in California and Mr and Mrs Tiflin, Jody’s parents.

I hope you enjoyed reading Marion’s thoughts about The Red Pony, which I read in French too, so I’m a little bit embarrassed to include quotes in my billet although I’d love to because Steinbeck’s descriptions of California would be worth quoting.

The Red Pony is composed of three episodes of Jody’s life, a little boy who lives in a ranch in California, near Salinas, Steinbeck’s hometown. The first one gives the book its title and recalls the moment Jody got a red pony. The second one is about an old paisano, Gitano, who comes to the ranch. He wants to stay here until he dies because he was born in a nearby ranch which is now abandoned. Jody’s father can’t afford to feed someone who can’t work and refuses to keep him. This episode was the most difficult for Marion. I guess a child has difficulties to grasp how poignant it was. The old man has nowhere to go and like an animal, comes to his birth place to end his life. The third episode is about Jody, a new colt and Billy Buck. This time Jody’s father decides that he can have a horse and sends his mare Nellie to the stud to provide his son with a colt. Jody has to wait and take care of Nellie until the colt is born and months are a lot of time for a little boy.

This novella is an incredible glance at the life in such a ranch before WWII. Steinbeck’s love for his native California filters in his descriptions of the surroundings. Life is incredibly violent and instable. Everyone needs to earn their bread and the violence is in the human’s life and in the wildlife. The scene with a harrier hovering an animal which just died is almost unbearable. Carl Tiflin, Jody’s father struggles to repay the loans for the ranch and doesn’t have extra money for fantasies or to take care of old Gitano. He’s a hard man, hardened by a tough life on the ranch. (His father was a disciplinarian. Jody obeyed him in everything without questions of any kind.) He’s used to shutting out any emotion and fails to comforts his son when he needs it.

Billy Buck is the cowboy living on the ranch and he dearly loves Jody. He understands more than Carl Tiflin how much Jody loves his red pony and what it costs him to wait for Nellie’s colt to be born. He’s the one who takes into account the boy’s feelings when he has to make a difficult decision. In the end, he’s the real father figure of the book. Steinbeck doesn’t say it but it gives a new perspective to cowboy’s life: Billy Buck can’t afford to have a family and probably would have loved to have a son like Jody. His life is only made of hard work and a substitute son in Jody. I thought it was very sad.

The relationships between the characters are defined by rank and sex. Billy Buck doesn’t come for breakfast until Carl Tiflin, the master is in the kitchen. Mrs Tiflin is just a woman; she has no first name. The male characters are called by their Christian name and family name but Mrs Tiflin is only Carl’s wife. She has no identity of her own. This also says a lot about the rural society of the time.

I’m not a great Steinbeck fan but this little book is worth reading. It encapsulates the life of rural California, the landscapes, the living conditions and the social rules. All this in a very short book.

Human fauna and enchanting landscapes.

September 22, 2010 4 comments

Cannery Row, by John Steinbeck.

“Cannery Row in Monterey California is a poem, a stink, a grating noise, a quality of light, a tone, a habit, a nostalgia, a dream. Cannery Row is the gathered and scattered, tin and iron and rust and splintered wood, chipped pavement and weedy lots and junk heaps, sardine canneries of corrugated iron, honky tonks, restaurants and whore houses, and little crowded groceries, and laboratories, and flophouses. Its inhabitants are, as the man once said “whores, pimps, gamblers, and sons of bitches,” by which he meant Everybody. Had the man looked through another peephole he might have said, “Saints and martyrs and holy men,” and he would have meant the same thing.”

All is said in the first paragraph introducing the book. Everything is there : Steinbeck’s urgent and rhythmic prose, his compassion, his genuine interest in these people’s lives. He gives them a voice, reveals their existence to the outside world.

 Who are they ? Lee Chong, the Chinese grocer. Doc, the owner and operator of the Western Biological Laboratory. Dora, the madam who methodically runs the local brother named the Bear Flag. Mack and the boys, former bums who moved in the Palace Flophouse owned by Lee Chong. Mr and Mrs Sam Malloy, who live in a ancient boiler. Henri, the frightened painter. A unique and colourful crowd of unpaired misfits. All are damaged by life. None of them runs really right. Steinbeck observes them with tenderness and sympathy trying to show the better of them, without hiding their flaws. His voice is musical, the images original.

 The book is composed of short chapters, sometimes of only two or three pages. The first ones are the description of the inhabitants of Cannery Row. Then comes a thin plot centred around Mack and the boys who decide to throw a surprise party for Doc, to thank him for all the good he does for the neighbourhood. They decide to collect living frogs for him, who needs them at the laboratory and thus earn money to purchase at Lee Chong’s the items they need for their party. The chapters of their outing in a antique Ford T in Carmel to hunt frogs are marvellous. I have not read Mark Twain, but this is how I imagine Tom Sawyer, especially for the technique used to gather frogs.

Their party is a predictable disaster. After a period of social ostracism following the failure of the party, they decide to throw another one, but this time with the complicity of the whole community. Much love is put in preparing the new party because they are grateful to Doc for his prodigal goodness.

 These people live in the edge of town and on the fringe of society. However, they are their own society and stick together. Doc is a central figure, he alone has a relative wealth, an honourable and stable job. He reads, listens to classical music. He is socially above them but his being eccentric prevents him from living in the city. He works in Cannery Row, shares their lives and is a sort of good Samaritan. Everyone on Cannery Row is indebted to him, for an advice, a medicine, some money. He acts like a self-invented social worker. Is he Steinbeck’s alter ego ? We understand why Steinbeck likes them through Doc’s voice:

“It has always seemed strange to me,” said Doc. “The things we admire in men, kindness and generosity, openness, honesty, understanding and feeling are the concomitants of failure in our system. And those traits we detest, sharpness, greed, acquisitiveness, meanness, egotism and self-interest are the traits of success. An while men admire the quality of the first they love the produce of the second.”

 These people live with few things and never complain. It is how life is for them. Their respectability is their treasure, although they have their own idea of what “respectability” means. They do not envy the people living in better conditions but imitate their way of life. Mrs Malloy hangs curtains in her boiler-home which has no windows. Mary organizes tea parties with the stray cats wandering around her house because she has no money to throw real ones. All this is pictured with a tender irony.

 Aside from the lively portray of this crowd, Cannery Row is also a tribute to California. Steinbeck was born in Salinas, not very far from Monterey, Carmel and Point Lobos. This area is the wild coast between Santa Barbara and San Francisco. He depicts the landscape, the sea, the fauna with devotion. Doc’s trip to La Jolla, the beach located between San Diego and Los Angeles is an opportunity to praise the beauty of the panorama.

“The boulders show and seem to rise up and the ocean recedes leaving little pools, leaving wet weed and moss and sponge, iridescence and brown and blue and China red. On the bottoms lie the incredible refuse of the sea, shells broken and chipped and bits of skeleton, claws, the whole sea bottom a fantastic cemetery on which the living scamper and scramble”

I felt like being there and walking on this beach too.

 Cannery Row is undoubtedly a remarkable book. Steinbeck’s voice is engaging but not bewitching. It took me time to walk on these streets and not look down on them from a reading tower. However, I enjoyed the descriptions of California and appreciated the generosity Steinbeck put in his attempt to give eternity to this little world. He shows their material poverty and their wealth of heart. All along the novel, their behaviour breathes with dignity. But it lacks the comical touch which makes John Fante a better writer.

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