4. Grapes of Wrath (3)
Though the commerce of the area has not changed since the time of Steinbeck, the culture of the area seems to have. Today Salinas has one of the highest murder rates in the country, four times the national average. Economic hardship plagues the area with the divide between rich and poor that Steinbeck illustrates in his writings still very much an issue.
This overarching theme of the book seems greatly at odds with other accounts of the time. The many youth that set out hitch-hiking were in large part alone as they struggled to survive in entirely foreign environments. Many times their families could not take care of them and encouraged them to go on the road.
Hearing of the stories of my great-grandmother about her experience during that time period it seems to reiterate the breakdown of the family structure. She was sent to live with distant relatives in a faraway state because her family could not take care of her. Though in many cases families probably became closer experiencing hardships together others, many others were forced to fend for themselves.
While Cowley has some issues with the way Steinbeck presents the second half of the novel, he still recognizes the great amount of sympathy reflected in his tone. Steinbeck makes the problems of people on the road during this time quite apparent. That is not what Cowley has a problem with. The problem is in the drastic change between the first and second half of the novel. Starting off with the story heading one direction, the arrival in California creates an immediate turn around. Is this the reason Cowley can not consider it one of the best? Possibly, but that may not have necessarily been Steinbeck's intention. What we are able to observe through reading this novel is the unfortunate conditions many people found themselves in. Steinbeck brought up an issue that was common during this time and by dramatizing the story of one particular family, he allowed the reader to reflect on, and think about, the wide range of incidents that were common on this westward bound journey. Death. Starvation. Verbal abuse.
The “lack of direction” (Cowley) Steinbeck’s writing begins to reveal reflects the lack of direction the characters possessed. This could have been intentional as a way of showing how sporadic and constantly changing their day-to-day lives had become, and reflecting this instability through his writing. While this novel may not strike many people as one of “the greatest”, it was certainly able to achieve its primary goal of revealing the unfortunate circumstances and results of the U.S. lifestyle during the Great Depression. This novel raises feelings within the reader and, hopefully, will impact them enough to make them want change. And so, it is what it is.
Perhaps the most obvious lessons the Joads—and the reader—are left with are of a political nature. As I’ve discussed in past blog posts, the setting and narrative of the story are emblematic of a turning point of American history, so it only makes sense that we should be left with an idea or two about America’s social, political, and cultural identity. Steinbeck has been accused of exhibiting Marxist opinions in The Grapes of Wrath for his apparent endorsement of unions, his depictions of elite capitalists, and his idealization of the Depression-era working class. It’s certainly true that The Grapes of Wrath has a political message, and that message can be described as liberal. Throughout the novel, Steinbeck lays moral blame on wealthy land-owning elites, from the heartless banker who forecloses on the Joads to the plantation owners who use false promises to drive down wages to the farms that destroy and poison unused crops, starving the masses in the process. It is clear that Steinbeck sees a villainy behind the Depression, not just a natural self-correcting disaster.
However, I believe it is incorrect to characterize the novel a Marxist piece for a number of reasons. Steinbeck uses the utopia (I use that term loosely) of Weedpatch to demonstrate that he believes democratic government can be the answer to the problem of the Depression, not just a roadblock to the proletariat’s revolution against the upper class. This is a classic New Deal philosophy, in which government is seen as a guiding force, not an oppressive machine owned by capitalists. Perhaps most importantly, Steinbeck illustrates to those who would be called Communist at the time—labor organizers, unemployed migrants, etc.—in a very capitalist light. Thousands of laborers go across the country in a search for work. The migrants’ drive is not to destroy or even reform the capitalist marketplace, but to enter the capitalist marketplace. Their complaints with capitalists are not against capitalism’s system of selling labor, but their inability to do so in their circumstances. They want to work for capitalists, even for “a cup of flour and a spoonful of lard.”
Ultimately, I believe any purely political reading of this novel is incomplete. Steinbeck’s moral code is not contained entirely even by the New Deal liberalism he supported. This is, after all, a family drama, and the family does not change their social status, uproot the political system, or get eliminated by an impersonal nonhuman entity like “Government” or “Capitalism.” Herbert Hoover is not a character in the novel. In the final paragraph we see a real transformation from Rose of Sharon, who despite a self-absorbed teenage personality, incomprehensible financial loss, and the grim tragedy of a stillborn child, is still capable of accessing a primal compassion for a pathetic stranger which brings her a “mysterious” happiness. Yes, Steinbeck wants us to have a socioeconomic order which rehumanizes those we see as unworthy. However, above all The Grapes of Wrath prioritizes the small, the personal sense of compassion and human dignity on an individual-to-individual level that can not be lost even in the most dire of circumstances.
Below, Tom Joad (Henry Fonda) attempts to assuage Ma’s fear for his safety. In doing so, he illustrates Steinbeck’s belief that in order to have a just society, individuals must look past their own personal needs and safety and recognize the importance of a collective self. This rejection of total self-interested individualism is important both to Steinbeck’s philosophy and the philosophy of the Left today.
The farmers, the “Okies” in this novel are all trying to grope with a thing that is pushing them and pulling them into the whirlwind they are trapped in—that thing is a more advanced and complicated economy which they simply do not understand. It is an economy which brings large corporations to prints thousands of pamphlets for workers they don’t need although it costs them money, it is an economy which grows only one type of crop on perfectly good land, it is an economy which forms a stalk market that rises and falls and a bank that takes people’s land. It is an economy that moves from working with a hoe on the land, to working with a pen on paper—and just like Tom says, Pa doesn’t like writing, because every time someone comes to him with a pen and paper they end up taking something from him. “And it came about that owners no longer worked on their farms. They farmed on paper; and they forgot the land, the smell, the feel of I, and remembered only that they owned it, remembered only what they gained and lost by it,” (232).
During the great depression, the farming industry changed. Those who lived in ignorance of the complicated economy, of the stalk market crash, the political machines and the large corporations, those small farmers who worked their own land, were pushed to the bottom of the system by the fluctuating market. The depression that came about in the thirties was an economical spiral that was brought about by such complicated forces that even now historians and economists can not come to a consensus about what they are. It seems that the economy, a result of so many factors, has become so intricate it is a force that for these people is almost as big, intangible, and unfamiliar as God itself. In fact in this novel religion and the economy are very closely related as beings that seem to move things along without human agency and are fueled by people’s desperate belief/surrender to something that pushes their lives in ways that human beings cannot do on their own.
This idea is particularly played out on page 218 in the conversation between a dying Sairy and Casey the preacher. Sairy calls for Casey to pray for her, and he tells her that he can’t because he “got no God”. She responds, “you got a God. Don’t make a difference if you don’t know what he looks like….thats what I needed. Somebody close enough—to pray.” She knows that Casey is a thinker, he contemplates the world and the nature of the heavens, of people, of society. She knows that while all the other people are just doing what they have to do to survive, he is trying to understand. To Sairy, he is the closest to understanding the big forces of religion and society which they cannot understand. Just like when she used to sing people became close to her because the beauty and purity of her voice touched them in their own personal way, she could relate to Casey in a personal way when he “prays”, because of the beauty and advanced level of his thoughts.
There seems to be a clash in the way people think in the novel. There are the people who think in the moment and there are those who think ahead. Those who think in the moment are the ones who are able to survive the hardships of life because they take it step by step, and this is a good thing because it makes them strong. But those who think ahead and who contemplate are the revolutionaries. Throughout the novel Tom is transformed from thinking in stages of his next action, to sitting in a cave with only thinking to do, contemplating the world like Casey. It seems that the revolutionaries share this in common with those company owners who farm on paper, and who manipulate democracy into totalitarianism in order to work the market.
One of his main problems is that Steinbeck completely misrepresents the “Okies” who migrated to California to find work. First off, the Dust Bowl would not have affected the Joads as much in Oklahoma because the most severely affected areas were “half of Kansas, eastern Colorado, and the west Texas/New Mexico border country” (2). Okies also left for California both before the Dust Bowl and after, so the Joads exodus was nothing out of the ordinary. In fact, most of them were successful in their migration. By 1940, 83 percent of adult, “Okie” males were “fully employed, a quarter in white-collar jobs and the rest evenly divided between skilled, semi-skilled and unskilled occupations” (6).
Now, while I was reading this article I admit that I was slightly upset. I’m sure we all felt a special connection to the Joads and to read that their story was falsified isn’t a great way to follow up the completion of the book. However, towards the end of the argument I snapped back into my original support of the novel. Windschuttle continues to complain about the misrepresentation of route 66 (the it-was-basically-a-modern-highway, what-exodus? spiel we discussed in seminar) and about the Joads. Apparently the people on the road didn’t travel in multi-generational packs but in small immediate families like Steinbeck reported for The Harvest Gypsies. They were mostly younger families looking for a better opportunity (6).
Windschuttle blames the Old Testament and Steinbeck’s Marxist views for the novel’s misconceptions but this is where I veer from agreeing with him altogether. Clearly there is political undertone in The Grapes of Wrath. I doubt any reader would miss that. The book’s ending with the break-up of the Joad family and the new family-like group formed on the utopic Weedpatch is obviously somewhat Marxist in nature. That’s precisely the reason Steinbeck makes the Joads thirteen members deep in their travels. He parallels the Exodus to exaggerate their journey and what he witnessed while reporting. That’s where Windschuttle’s argument gets the better of him. The Grapes of Wrath is just a novel and I’m reticent to say Steinbeck knew his novel was going to be taken as fact. What author is cocky enough to predict their work will be on the bestseller’s list for over a year? Steinbeck wanted to represent that 17 percent of the working class that didn’t find success in California, the families shown in the Dorothea Lange images that Windschuttle so easily brushes off.
Note: I'm not sure if the link to the Windschuttle article will work if you're not connected to the NYU network, but you can search for it on BobCat if you're interested!
Near the end of the novel Steinbeck displays his masterful understanding of human emotion, toying with the reader’s empathy in a culminating moment of both hope and sorrow. Rose of Sharon’s pregnancy becomes a guiding factor of the book. The family has sacrificed for her, Ma has nurtured her, and Rose of Sharon, having suffered the abandonment of almost every strong male figure in her life except Pa, has staked her future upon this child. So, when the baby is still-born the reader suffers what seems like the greatest loss of the entire story.
However, the conclusion diverts the novel from total tragedy, tying up the loose strings of many thematic elements of the book, in particular the more hopeful, yet often contested symbolism of the Great Mother and circle of life. Lorelei Cederstorm writes,
This archetypal gesture and mysterious smile are… the fitting conclusion to the novel, for it is in this affirmation of the power to give life and to take it, to nourish even while surrounded by the death and destruction she has wrought, that the full power of the Great Mother is evident.
Cederstorm’s article offers an interesting counter-point to the heavy Christian symbolism that appears throughout the book. While Steinbeck is clearly playing on biblical lore, he emphasizes woman’s connection with nature, their ability to nurture, and the ability to both give and take life.
Ma, in particular, is shepherd of sorts. She lies next to Granma for the duration of the ride within the desert, clutching her even after she has died, but still having guided her to California. Taking great pains to care for Rose of Sharon throughout her pregnancy as well, Ma lies with her after her failed birth, finally leading her away to safety and leaving the men behind.
The final image of the novel, one of the most haunting and most memorable, can be read in myriad different ways, either Pagan or Christian. As Steinbeck reiterates many times throughout the book, birth and death are integral to the cycle. In the last, heavily symbolic moment, both beautiful and terrifying, Rose of Sharon completes this cyclical pattern, taking Ma’s nurturing and passing it on to a weak, dying man. Whatever the implied symbolism, I think it has its roots in Steinbeck’s understanding of the physical world around us. Throughout the novel he describes nature as if it were an interlocking puzzle or a clock in which humans are a gear. However, Erich Neumann defines the Great Mother archetype is defined as "Woman=body=vessel=world," which validates much of Cederstorm's Great Mother argument.
Coffee, to the reader, seems to keep the Joads going. As the men are feverishly shoveling mud in the midst of a giant rainstorm, “[t]he women [fill] the coffee pots and set them out again” (601). Even though Ma Joad and Mrs. Wainwright are preoccupied with the birth of Rose of Sharon’s baby, they still make the time to refill the coffee pot. Because this level of attention was paid to the coffee, it seems that it is essential for these men to have coffee to persevere.
When buying groceries at the peach orchard, Ma includes coffee in her essential food items. After she’s paid with all their day’s money—one dollar—for her groceries, she asks the shopkeeper if she can have some sugar because “[w]e got no sugar for the coffee. My boy Tom, he wants sugar” (513). The grocer refuses because he’ll get fired for giving it to her on credit; however, she insists because Tom wants sugar for his coffee. For Ma, it seems that coffee holds the family together. Considering the amount of anxiety she suffers when thinking of splitting up the family, we can perhaps interpret her preoccupation with coffee as a way to keep her family bonded. They all come together to drink their coffee. Coffee seems to be one of the only constants between their lives in Oklahoma and their lives in California—this is perhaps why Ma so greatly cherishes coffee.
Ma also takes pride in her coffee. The manager of the government camp first comes to their tent and Ma tells Pa that he “said he didn’t get good coffee so often, an’ smelt our’n” (418). Ma hangs on to coffee as a nice thing in her life—so much has deteriorated, both in the sense of physical objects and of quality of life. But her coffee is still as good as ever. Furthermore, she offers coffee to all visitors—it is yet another way to link her to others, whether they are her family or kind people passing by. We can see that Steinbeck uses coffee as a unifying and bonding symbol; in this time of extreme hardship, the Joads have coffee all along the way.
When the camp begins to run low on resources, the Joad’s hit the road again looking for work. They were spoiled by the luxury of living in a community, and are surprised to find themselves working long days only to go hungry at night. This proves yet again that unity supersedes individual desires. Although each member of the family is hard at work, only $1 is made at the end of the day. The Joad’s had grown accustomed to relying on others for help sustaining their livelihoods, and are disheartened by the lack of a network. Living with the Wainwright’s is a step in that direction, but still to small to truly qualify as an extended kinship. One effect of this is a crucial change in the architecture of the Joad family. Ma takes over the typically patriarchal duty of making decisions as she sees fit, serving as both caregiver and leader. This structural shift is one of the many results of the loss of their migrant cohorts.
Despite the optimism felt at the beginning of their travels to the west, the Joads find themselves at their wit’s end by the book’s final chapters. Although not all of their problems are based in what Mother Nature has decided to throw at them, the flooding experienced by them and the other families in Chapter 30 doesn’t do anything but exacerbate the crises they’re facing as their family structure continues to crumble. In trying to save what’s left of their shelter, the men attempt to build a bank to block the flood waters from rushing in, only to be foiled by “a great cottonwood toppling” causing the water to break through their futile attempt to fend off the inevitable disaster (442). Haunted by the rampant spread of disease, Rosasharn’s stillborn baby, and the flooding of the truck in this portion of the book, the Joads and the other migrant families are forced to reckon with the fact that Mother Nature is truly in control.
The plight caused by natural disasters is not foreign to those of us living today. Amid the frequent earthquakes, tsunamis, hurricanes, tornadoes, and other natural disasters, they strike when people least expect it, often causing humanity to buckle at the knees. Most recently, Texas has become a victim of a series of giant wildfires spreading rapidly through the state, rendering many residents homeless. Over 99% of the formerly vibrant and green Bastrop State Park has been burned. This comes at the heels of Texas experiencing its driest, hottest summer ever, beating temperature records set during The Grapes of Wrath-era and causing many to wonder if this is the beginning of another Dust Bowl. This goes to show that no matter what technological advancements are made and no matter how many years pass, these natural catastrophes will never cease to be the most powerful forces on Earth.
The controversy behind this novel was that Steinbeck wasn’t trying to glorify the life of these travelers, but rather “show” America the truth behind such a devastating economic crash. The Joads represented every American family. Illuminated with life and the American dream, they were content and happy with their farm and their family, they weren’t searching for more but happy with what they had; just as we might be happy with what we have. The Joads express the unexpected and take us on a journey that during the 1930’s could have been our own. Because the Joads represented the everyday American family it’s interesting to connect this to our present unstable economy. Our parents, teachers, friends and neighbors are all at risk of losing their jobs; some may already have, while others go to work in fear everyday wondering if they’ll be back tomorrow.
Middle class America is realizing again that we are not so invincible. We can have our jobs taken away, our houses foreclosed on and our electricity turned off. The story of The Grapes of Wrath is only showing an amplified version of what is beginning to happen again today. One of the many themes Steinbeck is trying to express is that while poverty has always been around, the idea that any one of us could become impoverished at any time is a reality. This directly relates to the current state of our economy and many of us might be realizing we’re not as safe and secure as we thought.
Reading Windschuttles article was both disheartening and also enlightening. As I was reading The Grapes of Wrath for the second time I was again struck by the enormous statistics given about the great depression. I thought about what I knew of the historical aspects of the great depression and most of the information I had about it either focused on the New Deal or what I had created in my mind using the information provided by Steinbeck in the novel. As Windschuttles states most of the information many of us get about the great depression until scholars and historians went searching for more information was given by Steinbeck or other writers with a tendency to dramatize or skew the information they gathered.
Windschuttle also takes issue with the Marxist overtones present within The Grapes of Wrath. Steinbeck often speaks of the unity of man and with the government run camp Weedpatch he shows the reader how the working class has joined together for the greater good. The group needs transcend that of the individual. Windschuttle sites this kind of thinking as emerging from a group of artists who tended towards Marxist theories with whom Steinbeck spent time with. I could not deny the striking prevalence of Marxist theory within The Grapes of Wrath. The trajectory of the book moves from focus on the individuals need and experience towards the needs of the group. The enemies are often individual who do not understand that the bond between a group of people will bring about his success.
Reading Windschuttles essay angered me because I am really fond of Steinbeck’s writing and what he set out to do with The Grapes of Wrath. My initial anger was over this idea that Steinbeck had written one of the great American novels. When Windschuttle attempted to dislodge this book from its place of importance in my understanding of American culture I was a bit shaken. However, Windschuttle uses a quote from Whittaker Chambers to describe the enduring importance of the book, “Cleared of excrescences the residue s a great human story which made thousands of people, who damned the novel’s phony conclusions, read it. It is the saga of an authentic U.S. farming family who lose their land. It is the saga of an authentic U.S. farming family who lose their land. They wander, they suffer, but they endure. They are never quite defeated, and their survival is itself a triumph.” (6)
While you will not find the true facts of the great depression with Steinbeck’s novel what you will find is a story filled with humanistic threads of truth. Winschuttle did not completely dishearten me, but instead showed me a more accurate way to understand the novel.
Steinbeck's myth of the Okies. Keith Windschuttle. New Criterion. 20.10 (June 2002) p24. FromLiterature Resource Center.
As I was walking down 3rd Avenue yesterday during the afternoon, I passed a homeless man. We’ve all seen them in the city; there are plenty of them. But as I read his sign, “hungry & hurting, please help,” it started to dawn on me what homelessness really means. It means you are not sure of where you are sleeping that night; it means you will probably be outside; it means you spend your days collecting change in any way possible; it means not being sure of when you are going to be eating next. If you take the dates out of context (the early 20th century vs. the early 21st century), these activities (eating, sleeping, etc.) remain same both for a Joad family member and a homeless man on 3rd Avenue and 20th Street. This uncertainty must be so unsettling, and more draining than I could ever imagine. If you saw a man in the 1930’s who was HOMELESS, he would not look much different than our FRIEND from down the block yesterday. Swap out the dog and bag for a cardboard sign and a Starbucks cup, and they are the same thing: the shear fatigue of always being on the move or not having a place to sleep is shown on both figures’ faces. The defeat is perfectly portrayed on their faces and in their body postures. You can see the uncertainty through this defeat, and the toll it has taken on the person in each picture.
As you watch the video I have included below, I would like you to reflect not only on the Joads’ journey across the United States with hundreds of thousands of other migrants, but also to focus on the similarities of the gritty homelessness that lurked about the land during the Great Depression, and how you see that about the streets of New York City, Chicago, or wherever you may be today.
"For Steinbeck… the wise man was above all else defined by his discerning relationship to the natural world, allowing it to inform his understanding of human relations and enterprises" (McEntyre).
The opening chapter of The Grapes of Wrath is reminiscent of a Biblical scene, a portrait of the land as it was first created and first seen by man. The descriptions in which the ground is teeming with dust clouds and the sunrise brings dawn, "but no day," establish a natural and epic tone for the novel (5). My first interpretation of this chapter is that it emphasized the importance of the land to the American people living on it; the people living off the land are the heroes of the book.
This idea is definitely carried through the story, but the connection to the land is stronger for some characters than others. In her article "Natural Wisdom: Steinbeck's Men of Nature as Prophets and Peacemakers," Marilyn Chandler McEntyre identifies Jim Casy, the ex-preacher, as especially insightful because of his intimate connection to nature. She claims that he is a prime example of Steinbeck's solitary characters "who take frequent 'flights into the wilderness' but who live among people who rely upon them for guidance." By the time Casy enters the story, he has given up his career as a conventional preacher and has turned to himself and his observations of the world for his wisdom, but I never considered Casy a "man of nature." When he first meets Tom on the road, he explains that he lost the Holy Spirit and sees the value in human behavior - whether it is "sinful" or not - but Casy doesn't make any explicit mention of the earth or its profound effects. He is a man of the people; I respect him for his increasingly humanist (bordering on communist) revelations, but his connection with the land was never apparent to me.
Casy's relationship with nature was always overshadowed by the Joads' intense intimacy with the land. There are many examples of the Joads seeking contact with the earth: for instance, as soon as Tom gets out of the truck in Chapter 4, he unlaces his shoes and walks barefoot down the road to his farm (23). Pa insists that he doesn't like writing on paper, but every time the family needs to make a plan, he squats down and uses a stick to sketch in the dirt (57).
The idea that the wise people, the good people, are connected to the land is reinforced by the dehumanization of the bankers and big farmers. Steinbeck's villains in The Grapes of Wrath are the faceless businessmen who are so distant from the land that in many cases they haven't even visited the fields they own, let alone worked or survived from them (317). Chapter 19 describes the contrast between the inhuman owners and the desperate migrants who know how to treat the land right:
"And there were pitifully few farmers on the land any more. And the imported serfs were beaten and frightened and starved until some went home again… And the farms grew larger and the owners fewer… And it came about that owners no longer worked on their farms. They farmed on paper; and they forgot the land, the smell, the feel of it, and remembered only that they owned it… And a homeless hungry man, driving the roads with his wife beside him and his thin children in the back seat, could look at the fallow fields which might produce food but not profit, and that man could know how a fallow field is a sin and the unused land a crime against the thin children…" (316-9).
The Joads' behavior and Steinbeck's narration make it clear that the good American people, the People of which Ma and her family are a part, are the ones with a personal relationship with the land. McEntyre was right to recognize Steinbeck's association with wisdom and the love of nature, and I appreciated her article because it draws the natural connection to one more character that I had not acknowledged in my own reading of the book.