Sunday, September 20, 2009

A Second Look at The Grapes of Wrath

Reread this book as part of Roselle's Banned Books Week and just could not put it down. You've undoubtedly heard of Steinbeck's epic story of the Joads, Oklahoma farmers turned out of the Midwest by the Great Dust Bowl who travel west to California to find work only to face prejudice, low wages, tyranny, starvation and, for some, death. The book won the Pulitzer in 1940 and was made into an acclaimed film starring Henry Fonda. The narrative is on the scale of Moby Dick (some lucky s.o.b. has probably already compared the two works--I'll get to it someday); the style is fluid and engrossing; the allusions abound. As Peter Lisca wrote in 1958, Grapes "was a phenomenon on the scale of a national event. It was publicly banned and burned by citizens, it was debated on national radio hook-ups; but above all, it was read."

Confession: Yes, I gave a copy of this book to Matt in 1999. Yes, I was advocating Marxism. Trust me when I tell you, I'd never read Marx or Lenin or Trotsky, and didn't know I was advocating Marxism. I only thought I was trying to open a pair of eyes to the stark realities of the world's evil: "Look, you dimwit, see what happened in those camps? See how a bunch of farmers starved next to fertile farmland? Acknowledge my wisdom on the subject, shit-for-brains!"

Well, that's over and done with. I have since paid the price for my deeply-held naivete and nascent socialism with many a booze-laced lecture on macroeconomic theory and history in many a Manhattan bar. I have been humbled. I have been given my own copies of Adam Smith and Milton Friedman. And when teaching Grapes, or any other early-twentieth century work of literature, I always preface it with, "Take the politics with a grain of salt."

And yet, shifting away from my own sad story and Matt's desperate attempts to educate me, I think it's a mistake to write off Steinbeck as "socialist," and therefore "unreliable," "biased," or any of those icky, undesirable pejoratives currently applied to anyone on the left who argues for reform. Sure, Steinbeck was a socialist. He hobnobbed with Lincoln Steffens. He networked through Francis Whittaker. He was pro-union. He's not exactly subtle about this, either: Grapes of Wrath gets tiresome sometimes with his preaching the necessity of organization. (I don't mind preachiness, but I prefer when authors don't carry theirs out with a megaphone.)

No question about his political affiliations. But then, he also researched life in the Hoovervilles firsthand. He saw the strikebreaking. He witnessed the starvation, the deprivation, the cruelty. He saw the needs of the poor unacknowledged. If anything, according to most scholars across the ideological spectrum, he downplayed all of it in his novel. For example, in one of his articles on conditions in a migrant camp, he uses imagery and language that couldn't have gone easily past any editor of the time:
"There is more filth here. The tent is full of flies clinging to the apple box that is the dinner table, buzzing about the foul clothes of the children, particularly the baby, who has not been bathed nor cleaned for several days. This family has been on the road longer than the builder of the paper house. There is no toilet here, but there is a clump of willows nearby where human faeces lie exposed to the flies - the same flies that are in the tent."
--"Death in the Dust," available at
And that's not even getting into the violence and murder against vagrants, organizers and the like. Economic theory and hard-core politics must be considered when contemplating Steinbeck's thesis, but such niceties would hardly register with the Joads. The causes of the Great Depression were complex. But what would that matter to a woman trying to keep the flies in the filth from the weeds off her baby? What would it matter to Ma Joad when she can't get Rose of Sharon milk? Or soap for her kids to keep clean? Finding a place for your family to sleep without drowning is also complex.

So, keeping the clangs of literary Historicism and New Criticism in mind, let me offer my own argument on how to read this book today: Steinbeck is telling us that the people are the answer. Yes, they may organize and form unions (I should point out that I'm a card-carrying member of the NEA myself). Yes, they may strike, they may agitate. But the farmers who come at all close to survival do so by banding together. When one is sick, others pitch in to help. When a child dies, a mountain of coins are left outside the mother's tent to bury her. When children play, they must cooperate with each other, or the game falls apart; when a job becomes available, workers must spread the word, even if it means their own wages and prospects will thin.

In short, we're to think of the group. There's no Orwellian Man Behind the Screen deciding how best to ration jobs, food and drinking water. The people are Big Brother. And I see little in the history of any oppression you can name to contradict the argument that, when the downtrodden function together, they tend to make out better.

Probably, implementing such a system of "be nice to each other" is pure fantasy. I don't believe so, but then, I didn't study political science. My doctor tells me I have to cut down on the red meat; I don't believe it will make me live any longer, but then I remember I didn't go to medical school. Whatever. I am an English teacher though, one who subscribes, however sheepishly, to the notion of Literature as Catharsis. As such, I'm fully capable of drawing a line in the sand between my ideals (things that may or may not be possible, but nevertheless must be strived towards) and reality (John Q. Citizen doesn't like being told he's stupid or oppressing the poor, especially when he's stupid and oppressing the poor, and votes). You cling to your ideals and acknowledge reality. But to scream, "Steinbeck is corrupting his readers!" or "Libelist! Red! Liar!" is reactionary, demagogic, and small-minded in the 21st century.

(Not that people are lining up to urinate on Grapes like they were when it first came out. But just stick your head in a town hall meeting these days and it doesn't take long to see a correlation.)

When asked in a recent intervew by Bill Maher for a new metaphor that would come in handy in today's world, Bill Moyers instantly replied, "We're all in the same boat." That's Steinbeck's novel in a nutshell. It was true then. It's true today. And any book that stumbles on the truth, from whatever direction, deserves our study and attention.