The Grapes of Wrath
John Steinbeck, 1939

I read this book intending to write an article about it as a follow‐up to my second post about Franklin Roosevelt, but that Roosevelt piece won’t be ready until December and I really wanted to use the purple grapes background while we’re still in the purple month of November.  The book isn’t called The Blueberries of Wrath, after all.

My purpose in reading this book, as with Babbitt and the U.S.A. trilogy, was twofold: one, I wanted to see how it commented on the era of history I’ve been reading about for my presidents series, but two, though I took dozens upon dozens of literature classes in high school and college and grad school, the number of canonical books that never happened to pop up on any of those syllabi is astronomical.  I just pulled up a page that purports to list the hundred most popular works of American literature studied in U.S. classrooms, and I’ve only read 28 of them.  The Grapes of Wrath, at #7, was therefore not only a novel relevant to the Great Depression but also a pretty conspicuous hole in my résumé.

And… gadzooks, you’re telling me that for seventy‐some years this has been a staple in English classes across the country and not just in Berkeley and Greenwich Village?  Like, I knew (or thought I knew) that The Grapes of Wrath was about a family from Oklahoma that moves to California to escape the Dust Bowl.  I was prepared for a few hundred pages’ worth of meditations on poverty and suffering.  I anticipated that there would be a fair amount of material on the discrimination these “Okies” would encounter in California—​that seemed like a safe theme for classrooms across the country, with schools in liberal areas stressing the evils of discrimination and schools in conservative areas stressing how those accursed Coastal Elites mistreat Real Americans.  I also figured that there would probably be some family drama: maybe a handsome son runs into trouble because he’s dating a rich girl, or maybe Granny gets sick.  I was right in some respects and off the mark in others.  But what I would never have guessed was that a book could be as explicitly left‐wing as this one turns out to be and still get taught in U.S. schools in 1955, or 1985, or even today.  I don’t even mean the way that the book describes business as “ritualized thievery”, or the fact that it’s squarely on the side of the “reds”, defusing that epithet by defining a red as anyone who wants more than the starvation wages that the ownership class is offering.  I mean that The Grapes of Wrath calls for an upending of the fundamental structure of society.

As I noted in my writeup of Brave New World back in the day, before Josef Stalin returned the USSR to a more conservative path, the Bolsheviks briefly overturned the social order in dramatic fashion by taking aim at the underpinnings of the traditional patriarchal family.  Women were granted civil equality with men; divorce was granted on demand; abortion was performed on demand; children born inside and outside of wedlock were declared equally “legitimate”.  Many traditional family responsibilities, such as preschool education and elder care, were taken up by the state.  Some wanted to take things even further, abolishing marriage entirely and equipping public facilities with sex stations the way we equip them with public restrooms.  (Though I guess it was all the same to former senator Larry Craig.)  In Huxley’s book, in which “mother” and “father” have been reduced to expletives, the end of the family was a big part of what was supposed to make the Brave New World so dystopian.  But in The Grapes of Wrath, Steinbeck gives it a thumbs‐up.  The chief argument of the book is that the working class could win the fight for lives that offer more than endless drudgery and deprivation, if they’d only stand together against the owners—​but they don’t, because their primary loyalty is to their families rather than to humanity as a whole.  This allows the owners to divide and conquer, offering a handful of workers a few extra nickels to turn against their fellows.  Consider the sequence in which the Okie family we’ve been following, the Joads, land a space in a New Deal government campsite, run democratically by its residents, with clean bathrooms to wash up in every morning and square dancing on Saturday nights.  Big agribusiness interests are furious—​“Give people hot water, an’ they gonna want hot water. Give ’em flush toilets, an’ they gonna want ’em”—​and send some goons in to start a riot at one of the dances and give the police an excuse to storm the camp.  Tom Joad learns of the plot and tips off the Entertainment Committee, and they catch the culprits.  When the chair asks, “You’re our own folks. You belong with us. How’d you happen to come?”, and one of the thugs grumbles,“Well, goddamn it, a fella got to eat,” that seems like the sort of thing that would split opinions: is he a selfish sellout, or is he right that we all have to look out for number one?  But now consider the case of the tractor drivers who drive the tenant farmers out back in Oklahoma.  Here’s an edited version of a conversation early on in the book:

FARMER: “Why, you’re Joe Davis’s boy! What are you doing this kind of work for—​against your own people?”

DRIVER: “Three dollars a day. I got a wife and kids. We got to eat.”

FARMER: “But for your three dollars a day fifteen or twenty families can’t eat at all. Nearly a hundred people have to go out and wander on the roads for your three dollars a day. Is that right?”

DRIVER: “Can’t think of that. Got to think of my own kids. Thinking about stuff like that don’t feed the kids. Get your three dollars a day, feed your kids. You got no call to worry about anybody’s kids but your own.”

This exchange is so important to Steinbeck that he essentially repeats it a chapter later, having another tractor driver growl, “I got two little kids. I got a wife an’ my wife’s mother. Them people got to eat. Fust an’ on’y thing I got to think about is my own folks. What happens to other folks is their own look‐out.”  In putting these words in the mouths of the bad guys—​or at least the bad guys’ hired help—​Steinbeck is taking aim at a couple of very powerful American ideologies.  One is that people should mind their own business (or at least that white men should stay out of the business of other white men).  And the other is that the foremost concern of every adult should be to provide for one’s family.  That one in particular generally does not split opinions—​it has nearly universal buy‐in.  I can’t count the number of times I’ve heard politicians deliver paeans to how their parents worked their fingers to the bone to provide them with a better life, as if we’re supposed to find it heroically altruistic to make sacrifices on behalf of one’s own direct offspring.  But people do!  And the fact that they do makes divide‐and‐conquer that much more effective: the workers who do consent to take the three dollars to do the owners’ dirty work can tell themselves that not only are they not selfish, they’re actually noble.  To challenge that notion is to land well outside the Overton window, as the idea of not putting one’s own family first is basically anathema in this country, and even more so in others.  So when The Grapes of Wrath calls for us to broaden our loyalties from our kin to our species—​when Steinbeck gives Ma Joad an epiphany that the only way forward is to treat strangers and blood relations alike (“Use’ ta be the fambly was fust. It ain’t so now. It’s anybody”)—​it’s eye‐poppingly radical even today, close to a century later.  And that’s before he illustrates the principle by having the teenage girl breastfeed an elderly hobo.

Other notes:

  • Ernest Hemingway famously wrote that “All modern American literature comes from one book by Mark Twain called Huckleberry Finn.”  The Grapes of Wrath certainly does, at least insofar as it makes heroes out of a bunch of characters from the lowest rungs of the socioeconomic ladder while simultaneously laughing at them for being pig‐ignorant hicks.  Steinbeck draws heavy‐handed parallels between one of these characters and Jesus, and another one basically ends up as the Holy Spirit—​thus running afoul of Pattern 17—​yet the book is also full of moments like the one in which the tween girl and her little brother think they’ve broken the government toilet by flushing it.  Perhaps my favorite was the one in which the Joads are trying to find a Bible verse to commemorate Grampa Joad after he dies of a stroke, and come up with “An’ Lot said unto them, Oh, not so, my Lord.”  Ah, the sacred wisdom of Scripture!

  • Speaking of Grampa, with him Steinbeck bypasses humor and heads straight for disgust.  Take his practice of cramming too much food into his mouth: “Grampa choked, and a mouthful of paste sprayed into his lap.”  Lovely.  But I can’t condemn the choice—​on the contrary, it’s valuable and even brave of Steinbeck to take the characters he wants readers to sympathize with and unflinchingly portray just how far short they fall of the standards of polite society.  By making it so easy to see why middle‐class Californians recoil from the Okies, Steinbeck is better able to make clear that he’s calling for acceptance of the common humanity of all even when it’s hard, not just when it’s easy.  Still, it’s kind of weird to reflect that millions of American students over the years have studied a book in which a running theme is the struggle to get the old man to put his dick away.  “I’ll go aroun’ a‐hangin’ out if I wanta!”

  • Much of the book is devoted to the Joads’ journey from Oklahoma to California, told as an epic saga that goes on for chapter after chapter—​it’s basically the whole second act of the book—​which is a harder thing to pull off when your characters aren’t traveling on foot or by covered wagon but by car.  I’ve done that drive a few times, in both directions.  It takes two days.  You stay overnight at Tucumcari.  (Which actually gets name‐checked in the book.)  Of course, the Joads are traveling along 1930s U.S. highways instead of interstates, in a jalopy packed with all their worldly possessions, with a bunch of old people and kids who need a lot of breaks.  And though it doesn’t seem like such a long distance in America—​they’re not even going coast to coast—​we’re talking about traveling the same distance as from Paris to Istanbul.  But it’s still interesting to me to reflect on how the advent of the automobile made odyssey narratives that much more challenging to write.  You could put this on a syllabus alongside On the Road and the middle of Lolita and some other early car‐centric stories and have an intriguing little course.

  • I also think that The Grapes of Wrath would fit nicely into a class about postapocalyptic literature.  The family whose hometown is destroyed; the throngs making an exodus across a mostly barren landscape, dotted with little trading posts offering a scant selection of overpriced supplies; the casualties along the way; the remaining centers of population with their de facto warlords and private armies; the famine, the sickness, the stillbirths, the natural disasters, the strangers sharing what little they have… I’ve read lots of books like that, but set in some medium‐term future after the economy and most of civilization have collapsed.  In retrospect I guess it’s a sign of privilege to be able to think of that sort of narrative as sci‐fi rather than as history.

And with the comment links lurking down below, I have to ask: how many of you out there did cover The Grapes of Wrath in high school?  Did your teachers delve into the politics?  Or was it 45 minutes of debating whether the pig actually ate the baby?

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