Although I started out skimming Of Mice and Men to help my youngest daughter on an exam, I moved onto John Steinbeck’s masterwork, The Grapes of Wrath – largely to examine whether history is just repeating itself in the fine mess we’re in, and how to best to write about it in a way that will inspire people to do something.
For months he went undercover, working side by side with Tom Collins, manager at a government camp. Collins kept a painstakingly detailed journal of all the activities of the camp’s inhabitants – material that, together with his own first-hand experience, provided Steinbeck with a rich seam of detail, enabling him to recount the moment-by-moment hardship of life on the knife-edge of poverty and disaster: how to make corn mush or fried bread when no other food is available, how to keep a battered old jalopy truck serviceable with tires salvaged by a patchwork of retreads.
For those of you who have never read the book, the Joad family are tenant farmers in Oklahoma who get driven from their land by the banks after several seasons of drought and constant plundering of the land by agribusiness turn Oklahoma and surrounding states into a ‘Dust Bowl.’
The exodus from the Dust Bowl was the largest migration in American history; in total 2.5 million people were forced to escape the plains states. Nearly half a million headed to California, as the Joads did, via Route 66 in search of farm work and the promise, thanks to circulating handouts, of high paid work.
The migrants, were, in the main, honest people in desperate search for jobs. Research on the the mass exodus to California in the Thirties shows that only 43 per cent were experienced farm workers. Nearly a third of the migrants were professional or white collar workers out of work.
Once the Joads arrive in California, they discover that there is in fact little work, that farms deliberately overpopulate the workforce in order to slash wages, and that any attempts by the workers to organize are brutally dismantled by local deputies in the pockets of Big Farm.
The hungry monster
The book was written in the white heat of Steinbeck’s fury, not only at the banks and farmers, but also at the naked-claw system we’ve created that inevitably pits humans against each other. ‘The bank – the monster – has to have profit all the time,’ he wrote. ‘It can’t wait
. . . It’ll die when the monster stops growing. It can’t stay in one place.’
In the novel, the system creates a giant chain reaction of destruction forcing everyone to sell each other out: the larger farmers are in collusion against the small farmers, whose own prices collapse, forcing them in turn to slash wages among the workforce and the workers then to turn against each other to get food to feed their families. The large farmers, all descendants of squatters who themselves wrested the land from Mexicans, worry that these new squatters arriving from the plains will grab the back the land from them and so treat them like animals to ensure that history doesn’t repeat itself.
In Steinbeck’s view, any structure that creates an extreme division between those who have and those who don’t – often through no fault of their own – is the cause of all suffering. In his notebooks, Steinbeck revealed his intentions: ‘I want to put a tag of shame on the greedy bastards who are responsible for this.’
Like Arthur Miller, another great American writer, Steinbeck understood that the saving grace in these unspeakable circumstances is developing a larger sense of ‘we’re all in this together’ family, and that during a crisis, unselfish acts prove both redemptive and self-perpetuating.
Even though the Joads suffer unspeakable loss – of life, food, shelter and any prospect of work – they are never broken, and at the end of the novel, at the height of their own suffering, they are still able to reach out and assist a starving man. Throughout the novel, they continue to move, spiritually and physically, to higher ground.
Although Grapes was the bestselling book of 1939, Steinbeck’s ideas were considered the stuff of treason in America. The book was banned in schools, kept out of libraries, burned in the streets and attacked in Congress. Repeatedly its author got labeled a ‘communist.’ Steinbeck was so unnerved that he went out and bought himself a gun.
Ghost of Steinbeck
If you were to follow in the footsteps of the Joads over Route 66 today, you’d discover a new 1930s: ghost towns where the entire population has been evicted by the banks; workers whose jobs or pay have been underminded by cheap labor in China; tens of thousands with no access to health care; people living in their cars getting ousted by the police and their vehicles – their last shelter – impounded. With 44 million Americans on foodstamps, we are living Grapes all over again.
As Bruce Springsteen wrote in his song ‘The Ghost of Tom Joad:
Welcome to the New World Order
Families sleeping in their cars in the Southwest
No home, no job, no peace, no rest.
If you look a little harder, you’d discover something else growing, like the little blades of green that force through the soil at the end of Grapes: tent cities where people band together and share food and shelter democratically; a weekly Good Samaritan van of doctors and nurses, who offer free consultations to anyone who can’t afford medical care; people learning to barter their services in a neighborhood blighted by unemployment.
Tiny acts of kindness and human connection that ripple through a devastated community and restore hope.
The DO-SOMETHING message to be gained from all of this is just this: do just one thing this week to break this destructive chain of being. Call up the local media to cover the fact that police are throwing people out of their tents. Bring food to a family out of work. Offer your services without pay in return for somebody else’s in your neighborhood. Find a new and better way to exist than dog-eat-dog.
As Bruce Springsteen put it, sit down in the campfire light with the ghost of old Tom Joad, and watch the connections form on this new chain of being.