‘The Grapes of Wrath’ opens with a portrait of the devastation caused by the Dust Bowl in 1930’s Oklahoma:
“Every moving thing lifted the dust into the air…A walking man lifted a thin layer as high as his waist. An automobile boiled a cloud behind it.”
Tom Joad has just been released on parole, after having served four years for manslaughter, killing a man with a shovel during a fight in which he had been stabbed. Tom finds his family home abandoned, and his extended family about to move to California, a journey estimated at around 2000 miles, including up and over the Rockies. He and a lapsed itinerant preacher join them, and thus begins the odyssey which is ‘The Grapes of Wrath’.
The novel draws much of its imagery and language from the bible, not least when the Joad family set off for the promised land joining a mass migration which followed in the footsteps of the original European settlers. In his documentary on the novel, Melvyn Bragg points out that the family of 12 on the Joad’s truck are
“as the 12 tribes of Israel seeking liberation. The truck itself is an ark; there is even a man named Noah on board.”
(The pedant in me wants to point out there were only eight people on the ark, and a heck of a lot of animals, but that might be counter-productive).
The Dust Bowl was caused by agricultural practices not suited to the Mid West environment, but Steinbeck treats it as a natural occurrence, a biblical plague. His condemnation of the banks that buy up the small share-cropper farms and evict the families is heartfelt, although his approach to farming technology – that tractors and combines are somehow alien machines that disconnect man from the soil and are inherently bad – is sentimental and unconvincing. However, the strength and impact of the prose is such that at the time the reader is carried along with the Joad’s distress at their (effective) eviction, and doesn’t challenge their view that they are doing the right thing.
“Funny thing how it is. If a man owns a little property, that property is him, it’s part of him, and it’s like him. If he owns property only so he can walk on it and handle it and be sad when it isn’t doing well, and feel fine when the rain falls on it, that property is him, and some way he’s bigger because he owns it. Even if he isn’t successful he’s big with his property. That is so.”
The rhythms and cadences of the language have the feeling of a revivalist sermon, all the more so when the speaker is Casy, the lapsed preacher who travels with the family. The ending phrase used here – “that is so” – has the impact of an “amen” or “this is the word of the Lord”. Steinbeck uses incomplete phrases to layer his descriptive passages:
“the main immigrant road … the path of people in flight, refugees from dust and the shrinking land, from the thunder of tractors and shrinking ownership”.
However, the Joad’s don’t feel sorry for themselves – they genuinely believe they are going to the land of milk and honey, and get quite angry when people they meet on route try to point out that not everything in California is as blessed as they expect it to be. The great continental migration from east to west is a fundamental defining part of the American narrative, which probably is one of the central reasons for this novel’s massive popularity in the US. The Joad’s journey echoes that great migration – although again the pedant in me can’t avoid noticing that in some ways it is much easier, as they have a truck to carry them, and gas stations along the way!
The journey is difficult and dangerous, but not completely a negative experience. Their lorry lasts the entire journey, including the crossing of the desert and the mountains; they meet kindness and friendship from other travellers, and they are very lucky to find a place a government camp, where Tom finds work on his first day. Later they get work picking cotton and a box-car to live in. However, the older family members find the journey very difficult, others bail out early, and soon the family has to face the hostile realities of life in California – there is very little work, and the settlers are resented bitterly by the locals, who feel threatened by the ‘Okies’.
This is an overtly political novel – driven by anger Steinbeck rages against the system that drives down wages, pits people against one another, and finds it more economical to leave fields bare than to feed people, crops to rot or be destroyed rather than harvest them and sell them at a loss:
“Here is a crime here that goes beyond denunciation. There is a sorrow here that weeping cannot symbolize. There is a failure here that topples all our success. The fertile earth, the straight tree rows, the sturdy trunks, and the ripe fruit. And children dying of pellagra must die because a profit cannot be taken from an orange. And coroners must fill in the certificate- died of malnutrition- because the food must rot, must be forced to rot. The people come with nets to fish for potatoes in the river, and the guards hold them back; they come in rattling cars to get the dumped oranges, but the kerosene is sprayed. And they stand still and watch the potatoes float by, listen to the screaming pigs being killed in a ditch and covered with quick-lime, watch the mountains of oranges slop down to a putrefying ooze; and in the eyes of the people there is the failure; and in the eyes of the hungry there is a growing wrath. In the souls of the people the grapes of wrath are filling and growing heavy, growing heavy for the vintage.”
Steinbeck outlines a clear political solution to the problem in the model, self-organising, self-policing community of Weedpatch, the government camp where the family settle for a while. Weedpatch is effectively a model Soviet commune, run by the people for the people, with leaders elected weekly and assets shared. Steinbeck’s novel is both a protest about the treatment of working people, and a warning about the inevitable results of that treatment.
And the great owners, who must lose their land in an upheaval, the great owners with access to history, with eyes to read history and to know the great fact: when property accumulates in too few hands it is taken away. And that companion fact: when a majority of the people are hungry and cold they will take by force what they need. And the little screaming fact that sounds through all history: repression works only to strengthen and knit the repressed. The great owners ignored the three cries of history. The land fell into fewer hands, the number of the dispossessed increased, and every effort of the great owners was directed at repression. The money was spent for arms, for gas to protect the great holdings, and spies were sent to catch the murmuring of revolt so that it might be stamped out. The changing economy was ignored, plans for the change ignored; and only means to destroy revolt were considered, while the causes of revolt went on.”
Tom, the novel’s central figure, slips away into the night at the end of the novel, a wanted man on the run. He is determined to take on the union organisation work of the murdered Casy. We are not told of his ultimate fate, but he leaves with these haunting words:
“I’ll be ever’where – wherever you look. 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.”
It would have been so nice to have been able to read ‘The Grapes of Wrath’ as a portrait of a time long past, in the way we now read Kingsley’s ‘The Water Babies’ or much Dickens’s social realism. But sadly one can’t – the problems of social deprivation and migrant labour are as acute today as they were in the 1930s. Hyperbole? Perhaps, although the statistics for the number of people dying in the attempt to cross from Mexico to the USA are still horrifying. But this is nothing compared the numbers of people trying to escape from poverty and conflict in North Africa and the Middle East, who die in their thousands in the attempt, and who are feared, stigmatised and abused in exactly the same way that Steinbeck’s characters are treated.
“In the West there was panic when migrants multiplied on the highways. Men of property were terrified for their property. Men who had never been hungry saw the eyes of the hungry. Men who had never wanted anything very much saw the flare of want in the eyes of the migrants. And the men of the towns and of the soft suburban country gathered to defend themselves; and the reassured themselves that they were good and the invaders bad, as a man must do before he fights, They said “These goddamned Okies are dirty and ignorant. They’re degenerate, sexual maniacs. The goddamned Okies are thieves. They’ll steal anything”.”
I know I’ve quoted a length from this novel. But I am not going to apologise for that – there is a poetry to Steinbeck’s prose, an almost hypnotic lushness, and it is really hard to find shorter sections that convey this adequately.
I am enough of a traditionalist to want to know what happened to the Joad’s, if they ever found the modestly comfortable life they were looking for, whether Al got the job in a garage he was so obviously suited for. But I can appreciate that Steinbeck wanted to leave some uncertainty about their future in a world where the future of America itself was becoming increasingly hard to predict.