This book contains an article from a 1932 edition of the New York Times, entitled “Jails are Better than Subways.” The article discusses the arrest of fifty-four men in New York City. The men were charged with vagrancy, specifically for sleeping in a subway terminal near 45 West Forty-second street. However, the article adopts an interesting perspective, noting that the men’s run-in with the police was not unfortunate, but rather, a “stroke of luck.” Their time in jail guaranteed them shelter from the city’s biting cold, in addition to several free meals each day. However, according to the article, the men were determined by the police to be simply “down on their luck,” rather than professional vagrants. Consequently, all of the new arrests were released shortly thereafter, despite the protests of the new inmates.
This primary source will be very useful in proving the detrimental effects of the Depression environment. A central tenet of my arguments rests on the idea that Americans were pushed into a life of crime and gang-related activity because of economic and social ills. This article from the New York Times explains that in the midst of the Great Depression, crime becomes a reasonable means of surviving. The title itself, “Jails are Better than Subways,” unequivocally states that the underground world can, temporarily, replace normal civic life.
I will argue that The Public Enemy makes a similar case. By exposing the audience to the harsh childhood of Tom Powers and Matt Doyle, the film claims that society also bears responsibility for the lifestyles that the boys pursued. If it were not for vacuum of opportunity created by the Depression, Powers and Doyle may have chosen a different, more legitimate path. Americans who suffered from similar economic circumstances – and, by extension, a loss of hope and faith in the system – can understand how Powers and Doyle became embroiled in the world of gangs.
Call#: Van Pelt Library E806 .M43 1984
The chapter explains that Americans are generally fairly practical. That is, they will follow the rules of the marketplace so long as the marketplace is intact. However, once the framework of the economic system begins to disintegrate, Americans will operate outside of that system. This is particularly true for those who perceive that they will not be successful if stay within legal parameters.
McElvaine points out that there is a correlation between the Depression and the emergence of the gangster film. In many regards, the gangster was perceived to be a tragic hero, who recognized that success by legal means was no longer an option. He embraced a life of crime, because it afforded him the opportunity of success and to secure his own American dream. Americans who did stray into a life of crime envied the gangster; they were left to languish in poverty, while criminals were bold enough to challenge the economic collapse.
This chapter offers my thesis a necessary sociological and philosophical perspective on American morals. In many regards, films about gang life in America were often shrouded in controversy, as many Americans felt that they were eroding the country’s moral fiber. However, many Americans also felt a connection with the gangsters that they saw on the silver screen, as they too, in the midst of the Great Depression, placed a greater importance on wealth rather than values.
Additionally, as the article notes, Americans who did not feel as though they would succeed in the American marketplace were quick to abandon it. This very accurately explains the behavior of Tom Powers; Powers felt, contrary to his older, educated brother, that he could not make a decent living by operating within standard moral guidelines. As a result, his actions reflected a more unconventional path. Powers’ life of crime was a product of a failed economy, not of a failed person.
My thesis claims that deteriorating social and economic conditions led to Powers and Doyle’s decision to enter a life of crime. In applying this chapter to my paper, I will argue that the failure of the economic system – and accompanying change in morals – lessens the burden of responsibility for the boys. Their fate was in the hands of their environment. Consequently, audiences are able to identify with these characters, viewing them as victims to a certain extent. Viewers empathize with their troubles, and imagine that if circumstances had differed, the boys would have traveled a different path as well.