The Grapes of Wrath, or Lessons Never Learned

Monday, June 18, 2012

A perennial favorite on those "lists of American novels everyone should read", I knew that Grapes of Wrath would speak to the singularity of the American experience.  What I didn't know going in was that it would speak to the American experience right now the same way it speaks to the American experience during the Depression.

Steinbeck's masterpiece (and I don't use that term lightly) follows the Joad family on a journey from Oklahoma to California in search of work, and as a result from independent to dependent, from settled to homeless, from self-determining individuals to victims of chance, from a simple existence to crushing poverty.  When they lost their farm during the droughts of the 1930s, they set off cross country in search of work in California, otherwise known as the Promised Land.  Setting off hopefully because of the handbills they've seen advertising for workers, they soon realize the sad reality of their situation, and the situation of the hundreds of thousands of others on the same journey.  The poor are powerless to control the whims of the ruling class, who can choose who to hire, what to pay, where people can live, what they can eat, and where they can sleep with impunity in a system where the laws are written in their favor.  Slowly, the family and their life is eroded, starting with the old folks, eventually affecting the sons and daughters, until the family literally has nothing left but their own bodies.

This novel is infuriating, and unfortunately all too familiar sounding.  America was changing, from a farming economy to a manufacturing economy.  Small farmers were no longer able to make a living from their farms because the banks demanded payment on loans that they had no way of paying after years of bad crops.  When the banks took the land, they knocked down the houses so the people had to leave.  Sound familiar?  In the early 21st century, we have changed from a manufacturing economy to a service economy, people who used to have decent paying manufacturing jobs (or associated jobs) are now out of work, not able to pay their bills, leading to the housing crisis, when many people are losing their homes.  Why have we not learned from the past?

Oh, wait, that's right-because those who have the wealth and power will do anything they can to hold onto it, even at the expense of lots of other people.  It may sound like I judge them for that, but in the grand scheme of things I understand.  Banks and business owners have a responsibility to make money-that is their role.  So how do we protect the average person from overreaching by banks and businesses in their quest for profits?  Well, that is the role of government, right?  Not in today's current climate...

Steinbeck makes a strong case for government intervention in the book.  The only place that the Joads felt safe and secure after leaving home was a government-run camp they stayed in for a few weeks in California. There, the people governed themselves, making up their own rules, developing work schedules for camp chores, and helping each other stay fed and healthy, whether they were working outside the camp or not.  In contrast, Steinbeck describes the "Hoovervilles", migrant camps that sprung up around large farming towns all over California.  There, the people slept in tents, distrustful of each other and the people from the town.  The townies rarely wanted the migrants anywhere near, so they would periodically burn out the camp, causing people who had already lost to much to be left with literally nothing, not even their lives.

Steinbeck also makes a strong argument for labor organizing-you know, that thing that conservatives now bash as some sort of liberal take-over of business.  To hear most conservatives tell it, labor unions are jack-booted thugs who come in and intimidate the business owners into giving away the store, sort of like gang members demanding protection money.  Because we apparently never learn the lessons of history in America, the vast majority of people seems to have forgotten that it was by organizing that workers got us the weekend, the end of child labor, the minimum wage, overtime pay, employer health coverage, and work safety regulations.  Steinbeck makes it very clear that there is power in numbers, and that the system has a harder time beating down a group than an individual.

Obviously I agree with the politics of the novel, but what makes this book so powerful is the masterful way it is written.  Steinbeck intersperses the story of the Joad family with poetic chapters where he describes various parts of the migrant experience-from the decision to leave to the buying of the car to the making of camp to the search for work.  The story feels biblical, and in fact the journey of the Joad family and thousands of other families from the central US to California has been compared to the story of Exodus, in which the Israelites wander the wilderness for a generation.   Steinbeck perfectly captures of the feel of the times, the cadence of the speech, the struggle against despair and the moments of hope that describe the migrant experience in the 30s.  The Grapes of Wrath shows the contrast of the inhumanity that man can show towards his fellows, and the saving power of family-both the kind you are born with and the kind you make through shared experiences and kinship.  It shows the depths to which the soul can descend when a man feels beaten down, and the dignity he feels when he channels his wrath to fight for his rights.  People who like tidy endings will not like the way Steinbeck leaves the Joad family.  There is no resolution to their journey.  But in ways large and small we as a country are still on that journey, still trying to find the balance between people and profit, still trying to ensure the rights of the weakest among us, still looking for the Promised Land.


  1. I love this book so much, and I love this review of it! Some really really really interesting thoughts, and it makes me want to read it again right now!

  2. What a great post! I loved this book.

    I love how you linked this to current circumstances. I guess that makes a real classic: a book that is timeless.

  3. Except in this case, I'd rather that we learned the lesson the first time. So infuriating!

  4. I am ashamed to say that I have never read this book. Yikes!

  5. No shame! I'm 42 and just read it for the first time, after all. Surely there is still time!

  6. The final scene of her allowing the starving man in the train car to suckle milk from her breast continues to haunt me & may forever more.

  7. I think maybe the book "The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck" is a little bit better then the movie. But the movie is also superb. Ford and Honda - with great performance. The ending is somehow metaphorical


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