The Homeless Transient in the Great Depression: New York State, 1929-1941

By Joan M. Crouse | Go to book overview

Introduction

IN the tradition of American legends, the "man on the move" has generally been a larger than life national hero. The pilgrim braving the merciless ocean, the pioneer following new horizons, and the cowboy in constant pursuit of the sunset, are all symbols of American individualism, determination, cunning, and, above all, success. Each such hero was in effect a "migrant" or a "transient," but, in the ways of legend building, the more romantic terms "pioneer," "frontiersman," and "adventurer" have always been preferable to the more pejorative, but more accurate, former labels.

When romanticized through these heroes, geographic mobility takes on a certain intrinsic worth and becomes entwined with other American traditions, values, and myths, thereby gaining additional validity from them. The American Dream, for example, relies heavily on the success stories of the restless men and women who settled the country and won the West. Even though their efforts took them far from the safety of their home communities and put their very lives in danger, their achievements gave substance to the myth that in America success was and is always possible somewhere beyond the horizon. Similarly, when Horace Greeley exhorted the poor of the East to "Go West," he gave added credence to the belief that, in this land of abundance, opportunities were ripe for those willing to seek them out. With the introduction of the "frontier thesis," historian Frederick Jackson Turner gave this westward migration credit for the very development of the peculiar American character and our unique form of democracy. While Turner's thesis has been modified significantly, the traditions it reflected are not subject to as easy revision. The belief that in America when one

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