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Monday, May 03, 2010

The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck

“They’s somepin worse’n the devil got hold a the country, an’ it ain’t gonna let go till it’s chopped loose.”

John Steinbeck’s Nobel Prize winning novel The Grapes of Wrath has helped to shape the perspective of an era. It is the story of exploited peoples; as a novel it uses the power of human story to stir something in the soul—an outcry against injustice. History, it is said, is written by the winners. While this may be true in a general sense, it is equally true that it only takes on powerful and passionate voice to humanize and dignify “the tears of the oppressed.” Steinbeck succeeds in this effort. He tells us the fictional story of the Jode family, and in doing so he speaks for hundreds of thousand, perhaps millions, of souls who were displaced by exploitation and the passivity of the U.S. government during and before the Great Depression.

Steinbeck wrote about the Jode family as they are driven off of their land in Oklahoma and seek work in California, only to find themselves homeless and near starvation, exploited by large land owners. California was Steinbeck’s home. Published in 1939, Steinbeck drew a good deal of opposition and backlash from many in his home state. However, Grapes of Wrath spoke for the dispossessed of its time, and the novel still to this day forces its reader to reflect on the state of the nation—both on its moral and ethical direction, but also on the wisdom of the system in its entirety: its economic sustainability, the justice of its laws, the shape of its politics, and its movement into the age of the machine. While it raises all of these issues, it is its story that is most compelling, the humanizing of a family struggling to survive.

The Machine Man

The first part of Steinbeck’s novel centers on the technological and economic shift in the U.S.: the small farm is obsolete. This is the age of the machine. A tractor can do the work of ten or twenty farm families. The Jode family is one such clan. They are working land during a drought. They can’t pay the bank, so they have been displaced. Their house is jus in the way now, and it’s time for the Jode’s to move on.

The novel does not accept this technological shift. The man driving the tractor can’t love the land, says Steinbeck. He’s just a “machine man.” He is cut off from the soil. The land is not a living and breathing entity to the machine man. For him, a crop is a matter of science: chemistry and land management. The land is an object, a job, a profit margin, a thing to be manipulated.

“But the machine man, driving a dead tractor on land he does not know and love, understand only chemistry, and he is contemptuous of the land and of himself.”

This new technological age is now normative and unquestioned in the 21st century. Thomas Jefferson’s vision for the nation was small, local farms spread across the fruited plain. Technology has changed this. Technology combined with an obsession with mass production and wealth building. The Jeffersonian vision of life has been replaced by a nation of machine operators and an army of paper pushers living in offices and cubicles.

Why did technology not develop as a support to local farms and local communities? Was this a conscious choice? Or was it out of the hands of anyone? Perhaps it was a force and power with its own volition and will, operating without the resistance necessary to stop it.

Revolution of the Repressed

The Joes have to pack up as much of their belongings as they can inside of their truck. They are heading west! To California! They know there is work in California, because they have handbills that say so—printed handbills—handbills that say there is a need for workers: fruit pickers and farm hands. Why, a fella’ could work for a while, picking oranges and grapes, then buy himself a nice plot of land. Those handbills wouldn’t have been printed out if there were no jobs. That’d just be a waste of money.

So the Joes follow the handbills to California. It’s a difficult journey. Grandma and Grandpa die, and some desert the family when times get tough.

When they arrive in California, things go from bad to worse. There are no jobs in California. The land owners printed the handbills in order to flood the state with desperate, hungry workers. With a massive surplus of labor, land owners can hire workers to work for food, or in some cases for less than enough to feed a family. The plan works great for the land owners. The only problem is that there are now hundreds of thousands migrant workers hungry and virtually homeless. Oops. This could cause a public reaction—it will cause a reaction and public protest; and it is for this reason that the land owners must demonize the migrant workers. “Why, Jesus, they’re as dangerous as niggers in the South! If they ever get together there ain’t nothin’ that’ll stop ‘em.” So local cops burn down the migrant camps and harass the workers. The workers have to keep on the move, live in fear and shame.

Steinbeck consistently alludes to the power of repressed groups: “If they ever get together…” There is a power in the collective. This is a revolutionary tone that runs through the novel. It’s like the revolution is right there, waiting for leaders and organization. “The little screaming fact that sounds through all history: repression works only to strengthen and knit the repressed.”

The novel ends with the young Tom Jode running from the law. He is a fugitive, having struck down a man who killed Casy the preacher, when Casy was trying to organize a worker strike. The suggestion is that Tom could lead the revolution. Meanwhile, the Jode family is without yet another member of their shrinking and starving family. Like a turtle in the wasted, dry land, they move slowly and hopelessly, always on the verge of another tragedy. The novel ends without resolve, like the lives of so many.

"One Big Soul"

Steinbeck’s portrait of free market capitalism is bleak: if each person works for their own immediate gain, everyone works against each other and against the common good. In a truly free market, what is to stop the wealthy from exploiting the poor? And what’s to stop the poor from rising up and overthrowing the rich? It’s like an endless cycle of violence, a form of economic Darwinism: survival of the fittest, might makes right. Grapes of Wrath never suggests that the government should intervene, it’s a bit more radical: the people should rise up and take the land back from their oppressors.

Also at play is the idea that economic individualism fails because it does not take into consideration the interconnectedness and interdependence of all people with each other. The people’s dependence on each other and their mutual dependence on natural resources. A system only works when it is a system that works for all. This is the theological conclusion, voiced by Casy the preacher: “‘Maybe all men got one big sould ever’body’s a part of.’ Now I sat there thinkin’ it, an all of a suddent—I knew it. I knew it so deep down that it was true.”

The novel also chides the failure of technology: “Men who have created new fruits in the world cannot create a system whereby their fruits may be eaten. And the failure hangs over the State.” Technology can create bigger fruits and bumper crops, but it all goes to waste without an economic system that distributes the produce. It is something intriguing that before and during the Great Depression, crops would be wasted and destroyed in some parts of the U.S., while in other parts people starved.

Then, As Now

The trajectory of the U.S. has changed little since the writing of Grapes of Wrath. The disconnect is complete. Technology and economical sophistication have helped to fix the system. People do not starve quite so much, and we have some checks and balances in place to prevent the kind of wide-scale worker exploitation (of U.S. citizens, but not all peoples) that occurred in California during the 1930s. But what have we really gained?

We are more cut off than ever from the basic, essential needs of our lives: we do not know who farmed the food we eat (or often who even prepared our food). We do not know the source of our clothing, much of it made by exploited workers overseas. We have a massive entertainment industry, but as such we find ourselves fairly disconnected from our neighbors. Our work is usually not something life-giving or truly meaningful. We are all either Steinbeck’s “machine man” or office paper pushers or fast food workers or cashiers. All that said, our lives, by and large, are good. We have food to eat, houses, cars, and entertainment. There may be a disconnect, but who really cares?

But someone has to pay. This is as true now as it was in Steinbeck’s day. We may not see the exploited laborer in Asia or India, who makes us a sweatshirt with our favorite team’s logo, but they are there. And illegal immigration from Mexico has created a heated national debate. These starving migrant workers are the result of our “success” in at least some very significant ways: our excessive use of the Colorado River has dried up Mexican farm land that depended on it; our government has subsidized corn (the corporate machine man now actually gets paid by the government), and this corn has been sold to Mexico putting more farmers out of work; and our taste for drugs has put big money into the hands of drug cartels, which has created a dangerous, violent nation, funded by our dollars. The Mexican migrant workers risk their lives, like the Joes, for the money to feed their families, and it shames us at a fundamental level. Is this part of the irrational hatred and fear of the Mexican immigrants? Is this why we are so eager to chase them out, to “crack down” on “illegals?

Why do we need drugs in the land of the free? For recreation, for entertainment, for pleasure, for boredom, and to heal the hole that apathy creates. We live in a system of individuals. There is no concept of “one big soul.” Loving our neighbor means writing a check or creating a new government program. We live with this deep disconnect and sense of fragmentation, a wound that we have not been able to heal. Our contemporary priests and Levites can’t be dirtied by the bloody bodies strewn along the Jericho Road. But the consequences of this turning from our neighbors is an inner vacuum that stubbornly refuses to go away, even in a culture that has invented the most sophisticated psychological and religious language to describe it.

Did anyone create this system? Does anyone control it? Does anyone defend it? Or is it ratified and energized by a mass of individuals with no capacity left for true imagination and creativity?

Steinbeck’s solution was to revolt. In Grapes of Wrath he envisions a collective revolution, but it must come from a movement of the poor as a whole. Isolated, they stand no chance, even in small groups they can be chased out of towns by angry town folks and deputies with guns. But if they were to rise up as a collective? If they were to speak as one voice? That would crush the system.


john doyle said...

I liked this book, Erdman, though it's been awhile. I think it's particularly revelant today not just in agrarian context but for urbanites and suburbanites as well, when mortgage-holders are forced into foreclosure by lenders bailed out by the government's use of taxpayer dollars. Here's something relevant from a 2001 Dateline interview with Noam Chomsky, a self-described anarchist,:

if you read the debates of the Constitutional Convention, which are much more revealing than the published documents, you find that the main framer, James Madison (1751-1836), who was very lucid and intelligent, understood all this very well. He was a democrat. He wanted to have a kind of democracy in which the primary role of government - I am quoting now - "is to protect the minority of the opulent against the majority."

That is the fundamental role of government, what he (Madison) called "the permanent interests of the country" are those of property owners and that they must be protected. He was thinking very concretely. Remember, this was in the 18th century and the model they had in mind was England and the question of the English framework of the constitution kept coming up. And Madison pointed out that if in England the general population had the right to participate freely in the political system, then they would have to institute the kinds of programs which we nowadays call agrarian reforms. They would want to take over property and have it used for the general population, not concentrated in the hands of a small number of wealthy. And, of course, that is intolerable.

The U.S. system was designed so that power was to be placed in the hands of what Madison called "the wealth of the nation" - people who are sympathetic to property and its rights and will not allow infringement on them. The rest of society is supposed to be fragmented and broken up so that they do not do too much.

The decision-making class has to be indoctrinated into the right forms of belief. They have to understand the permanent interests of the country, the rights and needs of the opulent and powerful. The rest of the people - 80 per cent, it is just a rough number and not to be taken seriously - have to be distracted so that they do not interfere.

There is a huge industry that is devoted to this, developed primarily in the more democratic countries - England and the United States. That is where the industry developed - it is called the public relations industry. The advertising industry is a part of it. Their concern is to distract the public… When you have a formal democratic system, when people have won rights after years of struggle, like the right to vote and participate in elections, you have to take the risk out of democracy by ensuring that there is very little substance to their democratic choices.

This is done by organizing the world so that the major decisions are not in the public arena. And by imposing on the people - I am now quoting from manuals of the public relations industry - a "philosophy of futility". This is done so that the attention of the people is focused on the superficial things of life like fashionable consumption.

From infancy children have drilled into them, from television, advertising and in every possible way, that they have to have a "philosophy of futility" as far as serious decisions are concerned and that they have to perceive themselves as passive consumers. It does not really matter what you know about the world. The less you know, the better… The elite media are mostly directed to the small decision-making sector - people who make choices in decisions that run society. They have to be properly indoctrinated by not just the media but by the education system and everything else. The true mass media that go to the general audience, they mostly distract, making people pay attention to something else - popular music, purchasing.

Jonathan Erdman said...

Thanks for that quote, John. It's a damn good one.

I've also heard that Chomsky refers to himself as a Libertarian Socialist....not really a point germane to this discussion; but I've been doing some very light research and reading (mostly online) regarding alternative political philosophies, such as Libertarianism and Anarchism. Libertarianism has come up recently with Rand Paul's political success and his subsequent controversial comments regarding the Civil Rights movement. He seems to side, theoretically, with racist white store owners.

In a recent conversation on Facebook, my contention has been that Paul's view is not the consensus Libertarian viewpoint, that some Libertarians see individual liberty tied to collective liberty. Such Libertarians would side with the black consumer's liberty, not the discrimination of the white store owner. I think that's a viewpoint that promotes the liberty of the collective. How, for example, can a Libertarian justify allowing the freedom of a consumer to be violated by a store owner? Some Libertarians, as I understand them, are even in favor of the abolition of private property.

Jonathan Erdman said...

But to get back to Chomsky's primary point, as you quote him....I think it makes sense to me that the Founders would have taken the viewpoint of protecting the minority against the majority. Or said another way, centering the power and wealth in the hands of the few, not the masses.

However, I do have a question. Why develop a new form of democracy? Why bother with it? Why include this business of "all men are created equal," and whatnot?

Then again, I guess it is true that not even all white men could vote, in the beginning. It wasn't until 1824 that white men could vote if they were not property owners. So, I guess this does support Chomsky's position. Somehow, there have always been these competing philosophies in the States. Gradually, very gradually, all citizens have been gaining equal voting rights. Hence the need to distract these voters from either voting or for actively engaging the political process in a way that advances their interests.

It's kind of funny, in this historical context, to listen to "conservative" pundits on television and radio talk about getting back to the Founders. The Founders did not want to allow non-property owners, people of color, and women to vote.

Jonathan Erdman said...


As a side note...what are your personal views on private property?

Anonymous said...

I absolutely love what you have written. However, you do know it's the "Joads."

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