READING: John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath

“Wherever human beings dream of a dignified and free society in which they can harvest the fruits of their own labor, The Grapes of Wrath’s radical voice of protest can still be heard.”  Robert DeMott says this in his introduction to the Penguin edition of Steinbeck’s depression era novel and its difficult to get past it.  Of course, I read the introduction after I’d finished the novel, so the bit about getting past it is a lie.  What I mean is I could not find other better words to describe what I was left with once the reading was done.
There was churning in the gut which comes with an uncertain future and the need to fight on.  The not-knowing anything more than that the fight would continue because how can it not?  Anger too.  There was anger.  Buckets of it…..and admiration.  Is this an exclusively American novel?  If American novels have come to represent a pushing against inequality and a self-making of the man or woman, perhaps it can be said to be so, but I am Australian and we too like to stick it to the privileged.  We used to anyway.
But Steinbeck’s novel had its detractors.  By some it was seen as a work of propaganda.  It shone its light on the great migration of dispossessed farming families to California with only the promises of a promised land to drive them.  After the banks had repossessed countless family farms, tractors were set to work in place of men and women.  Hand flyers were passed out which spoke of an abundance of work to be had in California where the climate was warm and so, thousands of families were on the move.  Of course, the promise of the promised land was a lie.  There was work picking fruit and cotton, but only a fraction of that stated on the flyers.  It was capitalism at its un-finest.  With many more people competing for limited jobs, the price of labour plummeted until wages were not enough to feed a family.  The Grapes of Wrath pointed the finger at greed and inequality, at the desperation of the dispossessed and the fear of those with something left to lose and Steinbeck did this at a time when unionism was synonymous with communism and communism was a dirty word.
Steinbeck, himself, visited the camps and saw the degradation and starvation.  He wrote about it as a journalist, but somehow this didn’t cut it.  Awful, yes, but not as awful as if the reader had met a family along the way and had come to know them.  If we could only see the faces in our minds and hear the voices.  If we could hope along with them, mile after mile, that the old truck would not break down and then stand by the grave at the side of the road as an old man is buried.  If only we could witness the compassion of new friends as they became as close as family and feel the hard edge of the landowners as they kept the ‘Okies’ down.
“I’ve done my damnedest to rip a reader’s nerves to rags, I don’t want him satisfied…I tried to write this book the way lives are being lived not the way books are written.” Steinbeck (January 16, 1939)
Even though its a novel which Steinbeck writes, the journalist is in there too in the way the book is structured.  He alternates between the story of the Joad family and their odyssey with shorter editorial chapters where he pulls back from the Joads and takes a broader view.
So as the Joads cross America, we are also witness to the enormity of the problems faced by all the migrant families.
“And the women came out of the houses to stand beside the men—to feel whether this time the men would break.  The women studied the men’s faces secretly, for the corn could go, as long as something else remained.  The children stood near by, drawing figures in the dust with bare toes, and the children sent exploring senses out to see whether men and women would break.  The children peeked at the faces of the men and women, and then drew careful lines in the dust with their toes.”
And then this, as a means to explain the removal of the farmer from the land with the coming of the tractor:
“He could not see the land as it was, he could not smell the land as it smelled; his feet did not stamp the clods or feel the warmth and power of the earth.  He sat in an iron seat and stepped on iron pedal.  He could not cheer or beat or curse or encourage the extension of his power, and because of this he could not cheer or whip or curse or encourage himself.  ….If a seed dropped (it) did not germinate, it was nothing.  If the young thrusting plant withered in drought or drowned in a flood of rain, it was no more to the driver than to the tractor.”
And of Ma Joad, our family’s matriarch, Steinbeck steps in close and we see her as Tom, her son, sees her.
“Her hazel eyes seemed to have experienced all possible tragedy and to have mounted pain and suffering like steps into a high calm and a superhuman understanding.  She seemed to know, to accept, to welcome her position, the citadel of the family, the strong place that could not be taken.  And since old Tom and the children couldn’t know hurt or fear unless she acknowledged hurt and fear, she had practiced denying them in herself.”
Above is the woman, who becomes the spine of her family.  It is she who holds them together as long as she can.
And then many miles further on, we have Tom’s promise in response to promises broken:
“Wherever they’s a fight so hungry people can eat, I’ll be there.  Wherever they’s a cop beatin’ up a guy, I’ll be there.  If Casy knowed, why, I’ll be in the way guys yell when they’re mad an’—I’ll be in the way kids laugh when they’re hungry an’ they know supper’s ready.  An’ when our folks eat the stuff they raise an’ live in the houses they build—why, I’ll be there.”
Is this a political novel?  You bet it is, but it is also art, I think.  As a journalist, I understand Steinbeck’s compulsion to tell the truth of a thing in fiction. To get to know the family more deeply, so we may care more and so a little piece of us hurts along with them.  The Joads would not have become our family too, if straight reportage had had its way.