The Grapes of Wrath
© 1939 John Steinbeck
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.