The Grapes of Wrath
© 1939 John Steinbeck
“I’m just tryin’ to get along without shovin’ nobody around.”
When I drew up my list of Classics Clubs entries, I made sure to include The Grapes of Wrath because I wanted an excuse to read it again. I first encountered it in 10th grade English, and the story never left my mind – aided, of course, by watching the movie and memorizing Woody Guthrie’s “Ballad of Tom Joad”. Steinbeck’s story of a family and nation in economic distress, moving desperately to find a new future for themselves and meeting more adversity with every step, immediately drew me in. While I tend to read most classics dutifully, like a student considering the classroom textbook, The Grapes of Wrath so captivated my mind that I itched to keep reading it, even when work or sleep interrupted.
The story begins in Kansas, amid the Great Depression and the Dust Bowl. Young Tom Joad just been released from prison, where he served for four years after killing a man in self defense. Anxious to see his family again, he finds instead an empty home. The neighbors, too, are gone – -their places deserted. A straggler informs Joad that everyone’s farms have been failing for years, and the banks are introducing tractor-farming and driving debtors off their leased property. Joad is led to his family through the straggler and a preacher, and he finds that they’re preparing to strike for California — where, they’re told, there are jobs for every willing hand.
As you might imagine, The Grapes of Wrath does not end with the Joad family finding a land of milk and honey beyond the Rockies. They find hardship and cruelty and systematic abuse, as do hundreds and thousands others who are on the movie. Route 66 teams with desperation and hope, as impoverished farming families look for something better – and are joined by those retreating from the Promised Land, their bodies heavy with dejection.
Throughout the book, Steinbeck develops a theme of solidarity vs selfishness. The Joads and their friends, as poor as they are, never refuse to share what they have. When they encounter another family and strike up a rapport, they advance the idea that the two families should combine forces, splitting their loads between their two vehicles and doubling their resources. In contrast, other characters are ‘mean’ in the cheap, suspicious sense — confronted with wave after wave of desperate migrants, some without the scruples of the Joads, they begin with suspicion and constantly repeat the refrain: I can’t worry about you, I’ve got myself and my own to look after. Even when the Joads find something of a save haven – -a self-organized camp with a committee-based government – it’s a target by those who fear the migrants. Ultimately, that suspicion being institutionalized in the work camps puts the Joads into serious straits. There’s considerable frustration here, as people are being ruined not by any one person but by mysterious factors far away — the man destroying their home, the man reducing the wages, and the man sticking it to them at the company store with raised prices all eschew responsibility.
The Grapes of Wrath remains an incredible, powerful, novel, and I appreciate it ever so much more as an adult than in my original high school read. From Grandpa’s heartbreak over leaving his family farm, to a son’s rebellion of the government to do what’s right by his father – the sheer weight of abuse endured by the characters, and the love and hope that young Tom lives for in the end — it’s easily one of the most intense novels I’ve ever read. Although it’s a novel made by the Great Depression — the poverty, anger, and fear of that period apparent on every page — there’s no doubting its relevance today. One only has to think of other migrant crises, like that around the southern border, to find application in the call to treat people like persons with dignity, not as refuse to be cleared out. In its day Grapes of Wrath was accused of advocating some kind of workers ‘revolution, although given the history of the Soviet Union and Steinbeck’s repeatedly voiced disgusted for coercion — here, and in East of Eden for instance — I imagine Steinbeck would not have put Lenin and Marx into the same company as Jefferson and Paine had he been aware of the nature of the soviet experience. Banks kicking people off their land had nothing on the Soviets’ forced collectivization, and even the worst robber baron was a better man than the mustachioed offal who presided over Russia in the 1930s.
magnetic summation: makes me want to reread… i read a lot of Steinbeck once and thought he was a good writer and a good man… i still do, except now i know that he was human just like most people (with the exception of some politicians)…
He’s an author who it’s easy to spend time with, I find. Did you ever encounter his Travels with Charley?
yes, i read that when it first came out; very enjoyable and quite pleasant…
Although I found this occasionally hard going it really did have quite an impact. I can see why it was so controversial though. It’s very Left wing in an American setting although I guess that Socialism didn’t have such a bad rep as it does today (over there at least).
Not yet, I don’t think. There was the red scare of the 1920s, so there were some in America who were categorically against it — for reasons both good and bad, I would assume. But it had a certain following…Huey Long, in Louisiana in the 30s, was a populist with psuedo-socialist programs. One problem with talking about socialism, historically, is separating programs that are socialistic in practice from those that are rooted in actual philosophy — so people could be socialist and anti-socialist at the same time. There’s a lot of weirdness: Franklin Roosevelt actually ran against Hoover on the basis that ***HE*** was too much in favor of intervention. Socialism probably developed a more acutely noxious feel in America during the fifties, when Russia and China were the implacable enemies. But honestly, even before that the United States was generally hostile toward socialist ideas…probably mostly born of the of the frontier contempt for authority, the premise of the US constitution (the Bill of Rights is a list of things the government can’t do to you, not what it is obliged to give you), and the fact that America was increasingly compose of competing ethnicities, and racial strife (whites/blacks, anglos/hispanic, irish/italian) was far more common.
This has been something that I wanted to read for s very long time. The film is something that I have admired for a very long time.
I have only read East of Eden by Steinbeck. I always imagined him as being a New Deal style liberal. Perhaps he went a little further then that. But I would need to dig into his beliefs a bit more.
I’d like to read a biography of him. I’m sure his convictions and beliefs fluctuated over the years as many people’s do. I’d DEFINITELY reccommend this if you’ve already enjoyed the movie…he has a unique style that communicates the harshness of the Joads’ life and the region in general very well.
Great review… I have yet to read Steinbeck – I’ve heard him referred to as “depressing” and “angry,” which is no reason not to read him, but one has to be in the right frame of mind. Your review makes me confident there is much more to it than that. 🙂
Have you watched Ken Burns’s The Dust Bowl? I saw part of it when it was on PBS. It features interviews with people who were children during that time and is pretty fascinating.
Grapes of Wrath can be viewed as both, easily. Steinbeck explicility stated he wanted to condemn the bankers who he blamed for creating the great depression. In one of the more poignant sections, when the ‘grapes of wrath’ are actually mentioned, his narration mentions stolen labor, hunger, and deliberately destroyed food (to ‘protect’ prices), and says this:
” …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.”
I haven’t watched the Dust Bowl! Thanks for the reccommendation…Burns seems to be highly regarded. My grandparents remembered the depression and I’d heard a few things from them, but they were so poor to begin with it wasn’t THAT different. My grandmother apparently got used to eating squirrel during that time.
It seems like a long time ago, and yet it’s not inconceivable it could happen again. Maybe it would be worse, too, since we’re far less self-sufficient now than people were in the 30s; we don’t know how to do a lot of things any more. (Cheerful thought for the week…)
@Marian As I remember there were environmental and economic conditions that made the bowl as bad as it was. I think arguments could be made both for and against something similar happening — “for”, because soil stewardship is still questionable, and who knows how our agricultural regions will be affected by climate changes and potential disruption; “against” because globally we produce such a surplus that disruptions in one place can be smoothed over. But the point you raise is certainly important: not only do most people not know how to survive, but the resources simply aren’t there to sustain three hundred million people trying to hunt and gather.
I’ve never read a Steinbeck novel. I enjoy your reviews of fiction, because this way I can be knowledgeable about the book and still have time for my non-fiction.
Considering you blitz through a few hundred every year, I wouldn’t think you had a problem! 😉
Excellent review! This is one of my favourite classic novels.
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