Thursday, June 6, 2013

Notes and Thoughts on "The Grapes of Wrath"

by Pa Rock
Avid Reader

I just finished reading John Steinbeck’s masterpiece of 20th century American literature, The Grapes of Wrath.   This was my first read of Steinbeck’s fictional account of one family trying to survive in dust-ravaged, Great Depression of the 1930’s.  Today The Grapes of Wrath is often assigned to high school students, but I am glad that I waited until I had a world of experience behind me before tackling the novel because much of the subtleties of the constant war on the poor would have slipped by me.  The parallels between then and now are stark and disturbing.

Steinbeck styled his book in sort of a sing-song manner with chapters about the struggles of the Joad family alternating with chapters of a more general nature that describe how society functioned at the time.  In those expository chapters he talked about the banks, foreclosures, car dealers, corporate farming, red-baiting, the eternal connection between police and people with property, the physical effects of malnutrition and lack of medical services, and the poor treatment of migrant workers desperate to simply survive.  Much of what he described about America in the 1930’s can be overlaid onto contemporary society with embarrassingly few wrinkles.

Steinbeck’s 1939 look at America in the Great Depression struck a deep chord within society – so much so that many felt it was dangerous to the established social order.  The book was immediately banned by the libraries of Kern County, California, which was in the center of the large and heartless corporate farm system that Steinbeck described with such horrific clarity.  Over the intervening years The Grapes of Wrath has made its way onto numerous banned book lists because of the threat some believed it posed to social order.

The book has also made its way onto several lists of the best one hundred novels of the last century, often landing in the top ten.  It is truly an important work.

The fictional Joads were originally small farmers whose ancestors had fought in the American Revolution.  They had homesteaded and raised several generations on the small Oklahoma family farm before crop failures forced them to mortgage their home and land to the bank.   As the banks acquired the Joad land and the land of their neighbors, the once independent farmers became tenant farmers or sharecroppers.  Eventually the banks and their masters, corporate America, decided that the way to maximize profits on the land was to drive the tenants out, knock down the fences, and plant massive fields of cotton.  Their tractors pushed houses off of their foundations so the farmers could not return and squat on the property, and even yards were plowed up for cotton.

At the same time, handbills were appearing that described California as a land of plenty, and a land of plenty of work.  The Joads, like thousands of other “Okies,” sold off their excess possessions for pennies on the dollar, bought jalopies that were priced at far more than their actual worth, and headed West to pick fruit and start over in a Promised Land.  After a journey of much hardship in which both grandparents died, the family finally reached California – where there was an intentional glut of workers (the real reason for all of the handbills) and wages were extremely low.  Workers rushed from farm to farm begging work and taking what they could get at a depressed wage.  When there were no crops to pick, community pressures (and often violence) forced them to move on – “And don’t come back until the cotton is ready to be picked!”

The only reprieve the Joad family had was a month when they managed to get into a government camp, a wonderful place with hot showers and flush toilets.  The camp was an experiment in self-governance that angered the local growers who did not want any of their workforce to be spoiled with good conditions.  The local growers were focused on ways to disrupt life at the camp and get it shut down.

The Grapes of Wrath takes the concept of survival down to the bare essentials.  It is a gritty portrait of the haves versus the have-nots, and the struggles that some faced in getting ahead while others struggled equally hard to stay ahead and keep the rabble down.  In one particularly poignant scene, Ma Joad, the family matriarch and backbone, lamented to a company store operator who had just risked his job by making her a loan of ten cents to buy sugar:

“I’m learnin’ one thing good,” she said.  “Learnin it all a time, ever’ day.  If you’re in trouble, hurt, or need – go to poor people.  They’re the only ones that’ll help – the only ones.”

Amen, Ma Joad.  Some things never change.

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