Children of
The Depression

Kathleen Thompson,
Hilary MacAustin,
Editors

(Indiana University Press)
During the early years of the Depression in the United States, over 250,000 children were homeless, and, in some areas, 90% were malnourished.

In 1932, Clarence E. Pickett reported to Congress that --- depending on the school --- 20 - 90 percent of the children that the American Friends Service Committee had surveyed were underweight, suffering from rickets, pellagra, malnutrition, lethargy and sleeplessness.

In Chicago, 11,000 children in the public schools were being assisted by their teachers who paid for their food out of their own pockets. 3,000,000 children had to leave the educational system to take jobs, but there was no protection from exploitation because there were no child-labor laws.

Over 15,000 young people were working in saw-mills, another 15,000 mining coal, and 5,000 more in steel mills. Younger children were paid less than the older ones --- in some cases they received not much more than 50 a week. Wages were as low as two cents an hour.

Beginning in 1935, the New Deal wanted to record its works to alleviate poverty, malnutrition, unemployment, low wages, and the general misery that was part of the Depression. It also saw the project as a chance to give employment to starving photographers. Roy Stryker was hired by the Resettlement Administration and the Farm Security Administration to find and give work to likes of Walker Evans, Arthur Rothstein, Dorothea Lange, Ben Shahn.
Between 1935 and 1943, the RA and the FSA made more than 200,000 photographs of American life --- an astonishing record of the good and the bad of the U. S. The photographs were generally superb and the photographers given immense latitude in what they were to record.

The photographs chosen to appear in Children of the Depression number well over a hundred. They are presented with respect and grace, and not a few are genuine heart-breakers. They are interspersed with quotes from oral histories of those who lived through the Depression, along with letters in government files, addressed to those in Washington, D. C. One, dated 20 January 1938, was sent to Eleanor Roosevelt:

    I am writing this letter in hopes that you will answer in my favor. My father H. C. has been in bed from a stroke for almost a year. We have no money and my brother works but makes $3.00 a week and there are eight in our family. My step-mother is very good to me and I try to help her. She takes in washings and I have to walk for six or eight blocks and then carry the washings home. I have to go of a morning before school and it has been very cold here. If you would send me a bicycle to ride when I go after washings for her I shall appreciate it. I am in eighth grade at school and work very hard to make passing grades. The Principal of the school bought two of my sisters and me a pair of slippers so we would not have to stay at home. If you would do this for me I shall be able to help my step-mother more. If you send me one I would like a girls bicycle. I am about 4 feet 3 inches tall so if you send me one you can judge as to what size.

Loving and appreciating,
A. L. C.
--- S. G. Chatworth


The Squabble
Nikolai Gogol
Hugh Alpin,
Translator

(Hesperus)
My friend John Stair, a lawyer by trade, used to spend his evenings --- when he wasn't doing tarts and Torts --- reading the Russians. In the originals.

He would put the original text on the left-hand music stand, and a Russian-English dictionary to the right. By this tedious method he claimed to have made his way through most of Doestoevsky, Turganev, Tolstoi, Chekov, Pushkin and Gogol.

We should envy him, especially for the latter. They say that Gogol's Russian is as rich and inventive as Joyce or James. And barring that you and I take up John's music stands, how are we to judge?

Hesperus has here given us three stories, "The Squabble," "Olde-Worlde Landowners," "The Carriage" --- in easy-to-read versions. "The Squabble" tells of neighbors Ivan Ivanovich Pererepenko and Ivan Nikiforovich Dovgochkhun, good middle class country-folk friends, with "splendid houses in Mirgorod, "surrounded on all four sides by a projecting roof supported by oak pillars." The two go to church together, visit together, share gossip together. And then, one day...

Ivan Nikiforovich has a beautiful gun. Ivan Ivanovich wants to buy it, offering "two sacks of oats and a pig." Ivan Nikiforovich doesn't want to sell, at any price. After some haggling, after Ivan Nikiforovich's third rejection, he waxes roth, calls the other a "goose."

    If Ivan Nikiforovich had not used this word they would have argued with one another and parted, as always, as friends; but now something entirely different took place...

    "How dare you sir, forget both decency and respect for a man's rank and family, and dishonor him with such an abusive term?"

    "What's abusive in that? And really, why are you waving your arms about like that, Ivan Ivanovich?"

    "I repeat, how dare you, contrary to all the proprieties, call me a goose."

    "A plague on your head, Ivan Ivanovich! What is it you're cackling about so?"

And so it goes. Calling one a "goose;" then small intrusions on property lines --- moving fences between their houses --- with law suits filed in court, law suits which go on (civil suits always do go on, don't they?) Finally, the narrator returns to Mirgorod twelve years later, on a wet day, where "some sort of unnatural greenery ... covered the pastures and cornfields like liquid net, and it stuck to them like mischief to an old man and roses to an old woman."

But the net sticks to more than the fields. The narrator runs into Ivan Nikiforovich at church, says, "How you've aged."

    "What can one do? The lawsuit..." At this I let out an involuntary sigh. Ivan Nikiforovich noticed this sigh and said, "Don't worry. I'm reliably informed that the case will be resolved next week, and in my favor."

And when the narrator meets with a thin and wrinkled Ivan Ivanovich: "My case is to be resolved tomorrow without fail. The Palace said it's certain."

§     §     §

"I am destined by the mysterious powers" Gogol wrote, "to walk hand in hand with my strange heroes, viewing life in all its immensity as it rushes past me, viewing it through laughter seen by the world and tears unseen and unknown by it."

They tell us that Gogol was good, the first "Modern Realist" --- whatever that may be --- the equal to Stephen Crane, Ring Lardner, Erskine Caldwell. What are we missing here? "The Squabble" is a charming tale, and we gather from the likes of "the net of green" that it is not without images to enrich it. But, barring us taking up the dictionary on the music stand, those of us who are strangers to the Cyrillic can only suspect that we are missing something profound.

To ease this, we recommend that in future works, Mr. Alpin give us a few footnotes. With them, we could know the struggles that the translator went through to present us with the Best Gogol he could muster.

There are reasons why the author chose the names Mirgorod, Ivan Ivanovich Pererepenko, Ivan Nikiforovich Dovgochkhun. We want to be told --- given the richness of imagery and hint of echoes --- why the master chose these exact words. Too, we want to acknowledge the translator's sweat, to know what alternative words were available to him, why he chose those he chose. Was "goose" the exact word that caused twelve years of rupture of friendship between these two? What does it mean, in a small Russian town, to be called a "goose?" Does it mean nothing, making this a tale of a spectacular nothing turned into something --- perhaps because the two of them had nothing better to do than sit on their verandas and watch the world go by?

It is, we would assume, no chance happening that Gogol chose to introduce a third character, one with the exact same name, "Ivan Ivanovich." Why did he do this? It's the sameness that makes the difference in these silly but earth-shaking battles, n'est-çe-pas?

Our translator has answers to all these questions. The next time he essays to do another story, we'd like to be let in on his technique --- his choices, his back-and-forth. All of us --- you, me, Ivan Ivanovich Pererepenko, Ivan Nikiforovich Dovgochkhun --- are sure to have something to gain.

--- Barry F. Islin


Tim Palmer set out to visit the Pacific Coast Range --- including subranges like the Santa Monica, Olympic, Saint Elias. The principal geological feature runs from Baja California to Alaska for a total of 3,600 miles. He and his wife undertook this journey over a nine-month period because they wanted to see how the range was faring under the impact of humans: degradation from cattle, clear-cutting, urban expansion, mining and the like.

Their first step was to climb the San Javier Peak in Baja California, 150 miles north of Cabo San Lucas. The last took them to "The Ends of the Earth," Kodiak Island in Alaska.

In good writing, one does not want to see the bones --- only the perfectly formed body. In this one, however, everything is all off-kilter. First off, it's not exactly an epic journey because the author and his wife are driving or flying or boating to sixteen different separate parts in the 3,600 mile range merely to take a sample of the rugged mountain range. If they had elected to journey the entire length, say, by foot, then we'd have a book worthy of the title Adventure Travel- writing.

Another problem we face is that Palmer's writing style is not unlike the large growths all along this extended range: wooden, very wooden. "The girthy trees at Potrero Island looked beautiful..." Girthy? Not in my Webster's. "I now thought of my upcoming months in California as a quercine tour..." Quercine? Ditto. This disquisition on a morning stroll in Julian, California:

    The sidewalks on that Sunday morning overflowed with three-generation families out for a drive; with middle-aged couples on bed-and-breakfast getaways, perhaps from the humdrum of mature marriages; and with white-haired husbands and wives who had grown to look alike in their body type, their gait, their wrinkle lines molded by a million joys and sorrows shared together. Even their midriffs bulged in tandem...

"A million joys and sorrows..." "Even their midriffs bulged in tandem..." This is filler stuff --- and doesn't belong in a serious travel document.

Not only is Palmer a gorgon of a stylist, he turns out to be a ghastly travel companion, a regular Gloomy Gus. When they start their climb of the Volcán las Tres Virgenes, they meet some Mexican cowboys and wonder why they are greeted with such suspicion. Well, Tim, there are two possible reasons. One is that since you spoke no Spanish and they weren't trained at Berlitz, there was no way they could communicate with you.

The second is that although you may not know it, because of America's insatiable appetite for drugs, these mountain areas are awash with narcotraficantes. A cowboy with any brains doesn't mess around much less talk to the drug lords --- often arrogant, burly types (looking not unlike yourself), people who would prefer to shoot first and chew the fat later.

Once on the mountain-side, Palmer and wife are buffaloed by various stab-'em-in-the-ass plants like the chain-link cholla --- called the "jumping cactus" --- and, later, forced to maneuver through the smooth boulders of a volcanic ridge. Palmer endlessly complains that there is no easy path to the top, and our response is, as they say in Mexico, Lo que busca sufrir va a sufrir; (he who is looking for a pain-in-the-ass will easily find it.)

When they make it to the Olympics, they decide that it's raining too much. On Glacier Bay, Alaska, Palmer frets about the rain, the grizzlies, and the mosquitoes. And all the while we are subjected to his doubtful opinions about cattle and the environment, trucks at trailheads, commercial fishing, clear-cutting, and Mexican immigration. We even have stop while he takes a pee in a Ziploc bag.

Outside of not knowing how to write, Palmer's got all the qualifications to write a travel book: he's been roughing it for years, and gotten a passel of prizes from the likes of the National Association of Independent Publishers and the National Outdoor Book Award. Obviously, the rare art of travel writing has fallen on desperately hard times.

If you want some majestic genre writing, we've appended here The Outside Canon, a worthy list of travel writings as compiled in 1996 by Miles Harvey and the editors of Outside Magazine. If you want some adventures well out of your lackaday world, you'd be well off to forget Palmer's turkey and pick one of the fifty or so books listed here.

--- S. W. Roussel