The Grapes of Wrath (3)
As a rather exuberant fan of Marx, I saw Grapes of Wrath as not only a fantastic piece of literary genius, but also as an enjoyable piece of anti-capitalist writing. Because of my political persuasion, I quickly categorized any criticism of Steinbeck's alleged embellishments of the facts to be little more than red-baiting anger over a book that sparked national concern over the plight of migrant workers - a plight that pro-capitalists often anxiously try to brush off as "inaccuracies."
But after reading Keith Windschuttle's relatively level-headed article, "Steinbeck's myth of the Okies," I felt more inclined to believe some of the allegations against Steinbeck. For example, this passage from Grapes of Wrath leads the reader to connect the Dust Bowl with the migration of farmers like the Joads from Oklahoma:
"In the morning the dust hung like fog, and the sun was as red as ripe new blood. All day the dust sifted down, and the next day it sifted down. An even blanket covered the earth. It settled on the corn, piled up on the tops of the fence posts, piled up on the wires; it settled on roofs, blanketed the weeds and trees."
But, says Windschuttle, "nothing like this happened anywhere near where Steinbeck placed the Joad family farm, just outside Sallisaw, Oklahoma." The Dust Bowl actually occurred "in the western half of Kansas, eastern Colorado, and the west Texas/New Mexico border country," but not in Oklahoma; although there was a drought throughout parts of Oklahoma and Texas, that part of the country was not affected by the Dust Bowl and did not experience the inundation of dust that Steinbeck describes.
Another mischaracterization that Steinbeck is guilty of is the exaggeration of the Joad's situation: thirteen people piled into one truck, Grandma and Grandpa dying along the way, and the rest of the family slowly separating as members desert the group to strike out on their own. While the Joad's plight is certainly an apt setting for a heartbreaking drama, Windschuttle describes this situation as "demographically unusual" : "Rather than large families extending over several generations, the most common trekkers from the southwest to California were composed of husband, wife, and children, an average of 4.4 members." The average picture is far from the one that Steinbeck paints of the Joads
So clearly, Steinbeck takes certain liberties in telling the story of the Joad family - this much is certain. But is this really relevant? If Steinbeck's intentions were to write a factually accurate depiction of migrant families during the Great Depression, then he would have become a journalist. Steinbeck was trying to write a great novel - and he undoubtedly accomplished this, regardless of what his numerous critics have to say. And if some of his embellishments were motivated by anti-capitalist sentiment, then what of it? The fiction writer is under no obligation to make any sort of "accurate" representation of "the truth" - fiction is, after all, a work of the imagination. And it's not as if the right wing didn't also have its fair share of pro-capitalist propaganda. Whether or not he intended it, Steinbeck's book caused national attention to be focused on the condition of migrant workers, people whose stories are so often unheard, whose struggles to survive die with them in silence. This, to me, is an undoubtedly positive affect of The Grapes of Wrath: not only is it an amazing work of literature, but it also managed to expose some of the grossest inhumanities perpetrated under a capitalist system.
David Cassuto’s article “Turning wine into water: water as privileged signifier in The Grapes of Wrath” explores the conspicuous absence of the Plains’ most valued resource throughout Steinbeck’s novel, and its re-appearance as a threat rather than salvation at the novel’s close: “The flooding that climaxes the novel is thematically situated to provide maximum counterpoint to the drought which originally forced the Joads to migrate west. Disenfranchised and dehumanized, the Joads can only curse the rising floodwaters even as they once prayed for a deluge to feed their parched crops.” Water’s presence as a deity and its numerous Biblical references (Noah, the Flood, etc.) is especially interesting in the face of the other liquids in the novel: coffee, liquor, milk.
Liquids are social lubricants in many situations, from the very beginning. The diner interaction in the second chapter of the novel, between the waitress and the truck driver, takes place over a cup of coffee. The same occurs in Mae and Al’s diner later on in the novel, where coffee acts as a social vehicle and an indicator of social status (the difference between the truck drivers’ attitudes and the “Okies’” attitudes and the tourists’ attitudes.) Tom Joad and Jim Casy bond over the “fact’ry liquor” Tom brings home from the prison; in a slightly ironic twist, their alcohol-fueled bond occurs during Casy’s reflection on the new stance towards God he developed after leaving his position as preacher. Tom seems to use the alcohol (which was either given to him by the prison or purchased on his way out of prison) as a means to promote social interaction with the people he meets along the way home. It loosens both him and his partners in conversation up.
Ultimately, though, liquor gives way to milk—a liquid that sustains life throughout the story. The most important instance of this sustenance is the conclusion of the novel, in which Rose of Sharon gives a dying man her breast milk (meant for her deceased baby) in order to give him the necessary nourishment to survive, as he is unable to stomach bread or water. In another instance, Ma asks Pa to spend some of their hard-earned money on milk for Winfield when he is sick. Milk, like water, is essential for survival; milk, unlike water is accessible. Milk, the nurturing mother, the generous deity; water, the vengeful God.
In this final section of the book, the Joads briefly find themselves in a comfortable situation in a government-sponsored camp, only to be moved along once more after an incident leads Tom to commit murder again. The heavy-handed lesson that follows about human kindness and the importance of giving aid to all that need it and Biblical allusions and so on ties a peculiar bow, but a bow nonetheless, on Steinbeck’s epic. The Joads may be fucked, but humanity will go on. It usually does. A section that strongly stood out to me was Chapter 25, one of the interlude chapters, wherein Steinbeck describes the destruction of food surpluses and arable land left unfarmed in accordance with the Agricultural Adjustment Act, an important piece of New Deal legislation enacted in 1933, found unconstitutional in 1936, and then reworked and replaced by something only slightly different in 1938. Because of this act, and President Franklin Roosevelt’s insistence that keeping the agricultural industry stable would help the rest of the country, an incredible amount of land was not put to use. Food was left to waste, for farmers could make more money from the government than they could from the consumer who needed it. In the world of the book, Steinbeck imagines the frustration that these practices caused to be the precursor to a significant upheaval; this chapter even includes the titular line, “In the souls of the people the grapes of wrath are filling and growing heavy, growing heavy for the vintage.” I don’t get the sense that a revolution was in order, as so much of the American population was still rather comfortable, but rather some sort of organized action that could turn heads and make people see that fellow citizens were starving, jobless and homeless, that they already had nothing and the government was preventing the food from even being taken from their mouths. Unfortunately, this is a situation that we are still dealing with, although obviously it’s not as dire (yet). Farmers today are still paid not to farm, or to save up their crops in order to keep prices high. This is becoming more and more unreasonable as unemployment and poverty rise once again. Corn is one crop that is heavily subsidized while still being overutilized, a fact first brought to my attention by Michael Pollan in his book, The Omnivore’s Dilemma. It is used in feed for animals that do not regularly consume corn, in sodas and fruit drinks as the artificial sweetener high fructose corn syrup, in many processed foods like chicken nuggets and twinkies, and in ethanol fuel. Yet with that much corn being used for so many different purposes, corn farmers are still paid to keep a huge amount of their crop out of the hands of the public. Of course corn is not the only culprit here, but it is one of the most extreme examples. While some full-scale revolt may be a bit overkill right now, I think if economic conditions were to worsen to a Depression-era level, many would begin to take a more serious look at the way the government deals with the agricultural industry.
On a sillier note, here are a few ads released by the Corn Refiners Association about a year ago that claim that high fructose corn syrup isn't so bad, after all!
Last class, we were discussing whether The Grapes of Wrath was art or propaganda. And I was bursting with the question: why art or propaganda?
Not only do I believe that the two aren’t mutually exclusive, I also believe that there needs to be some sort of overlap to make either medium successful. Artless propaganda has been dealt with before, legally and socially: everyone knows how to handle it. It fails to get at the guttural feelings of a human being. It is the information someone needs to be convinced, but without the convincing.
On the other side of the coin, art without motivation falls flat. If the artist didn’t even have a reason for showing me this, why am I looking at it? The purposes of both art and propaganda are to express and communicate; art might be more on the expression side of things, and propaganda more on the communication side, but they absolutely need each other to be successful.
I am reminded of Vladimir Mayakovsky, a futurist poet from Soviet Russia who wrote propagandist poetry still read today as glorious, ingenious literature. His poetry was named as art and propaganda from the start, and neither took away from the other. It didn’t even limit his audience… Americanized Eastern Europeans from former satellite states of Moscow like me are reading it in the year 2009.
In a more modern sense, I’m also reminded of IVAW, or Iraq Veterans Against the War, a group of veterans doing public performances and reenactments of brutal events in Iraq, in places like Times Square and at the DNC in Denver. They are loud, terrifying, disturbing, too real for comfort, and perhaps most importantly, performed by actual veterans who have experienced these things firsthand.
They lend their credence to the cause, rather than being rich college students (who would be easier to dismiss as disconnected, spoiled, misinformed and whiny.) On the other hand, they don’t present themselves as “artists.”
What they are doing is almost undeniably art, and undeniably propaganda. It is artful propaganda, or propagandist art. In today’s age of numbness, an ordinary protest (even if in uniform) would hardly phase anyone. Pamphlets certainly wouldn’t; people can choose to throw them away. Watching their performance is not voluntary; there is no choice.
The artfulness of this protest is what makes it effective. It is working outside of the normal language of protest, so people don’t know how to react and therefore aren’t immediately dismissive. It is engaging and immediately emotionally involving.
I feel as though all of this could be said about The Grapes of Wrath. True, writing has been a form of protest for almost forever, but The Grapes of Wrath presents itself as literature, not as propaganda or protest. Steinbeck uses his credence as an upper-class, skillful and reasonable man, to lend to the cause of the migrants.
The Grapes of Wrath was so dangerous because it got at the guttural feelings of human beings, it made people put their protest/propaganda-guard down, it made them experience the information before they realized what it was promoting. And because of this, I would argue that Grapes of Wrath was important and incredible because it was both art, and propaganda.
As I was beginning to write my blog entry, I turned on South Park for a little background entertainment. The episode that came on was, ironically enough, a sort of homage to the Grapes of Wrath. I watched, delaying my blog writing and somewhere in my mind I began to draw a correlation between society's criticism of Steinbeck's novel in the 1930's and society's criticism of South Park today.
In 1939, the Kern County board of supervisors officially banned Grapes of wrath from its libraries and its schools, stating that the piece of literature has "offended our citizenry by falsely implying that many people are a low, ignorant, profane, blasphemous type living in a vicious and filthy manner, and WHEREAS, Steinbeck presents our public officials, law enforcement office and civil administrators, business men, farmers, and ordinary citizens as inhumane vigilantes, breathing class hatred and divested of sympathy or human decency." They go on to say that the Grapes of Wrath is "filled with profanity, lewd, foul, and obscene language unfit for American homes." And so it was banned.
I think there are many in authority positions today who would have very similar arguments against South Park as the Kern County board of supervisors had against Grapes of Wrath.
Why are we, as a society, so afraid of the truth? A ban on books and television is a banning of intellectual freedom. How strange it is that we are not allowed to see in the pages of a book or on the screen what we already see in life every day. Granted, South Park has not been banned from network television, but there are schools, parents, teachers, etc. who have set their own personal bans on the show.
Going back to Steinbeck's novel in particular... why was his book so controversial? Because it was true. Sure it was fiction, but sometimes there's more truth in fiction. Steinbeck's novel displayed the harshness of the human condition at the time, as well as the economic and social realities of the local government and there were a large number of people at the time who did not want to confront reality.
The character of Uncle John has always left me a bit puzzled. He hardly shows up in the novel, yet he is one the surviving members of the Joad clan. One would assume his character would take on more responsibility because he initially provides a home for his family when they were forced to leave the only one they knew. Unfortunately, Uncle John’s overwhelming guilt for having denied his wife a doctor at a time she unknowingly needed it stays with him throughout the novel, as he believes his sin to be the cause of the family’s misfortune.
His interjections are rare, and for the most part, banal. He is painted as a morose man, prone to moments of weakness that most often manifest themselves in the form of alcohol. He uses it as a tool to forget, to momentarily relinquish feelings of guilt. Steinbeck relates the relief that alcohol brings the bereaved in Chapter 23, and provides insight into Uncle John’s rationale: “The hard edges gone, and the warmth. There was no loneliness, for a man could people his brain with friends, and he could find his enemies and destroy them… Failures dulled and the future was no threat” (327). Booze was a comfort, and became for him a form of artificial salvation, a relief from the turmoil he perpetually causes himself.
The Joads’ experience in the Weedpatch illustrates one of the novel’s central philosophies: that humans find their greatest strength in numbers. However Steinbeck isolates Uncle John in his useless depression, as he regularly demonizes himself for his tendency towards sin. Obviously, in regards to the idea of “sin,” I am reminded of the crazy lady at Weedpatch who preached that sin is everywhere, and that it will kill Rose of Sharon’s baby if she involves herself in “sinful” activities like dancing, acting, etc. Her obsession with sin has literally driven her mad, and she becomes an example of what could become of Uncle John is he continues in the way that he does.
Perhaps why we don’t hear much from him is because we become so engrossed in the story that we share in the Joad’s pain, and we relate to their frustration. When their hope slips, ours does as well. Since Uncle John is a constant source of negativity, we tune him out, because like the Joad’s and other migrant workers, we just want things to work out in the end and we will take whatever positivity we can (Thanks Ma!): “Uncle John shook his head over his plate. ‘Don’t looks like we’re a-gonna get shet of this here. I bet it’s my sin.’ ‘Oh shut up!’ Pa cried. ‘We ain’t got the time for your sin’” (392.) At this point in the novel, John seems incapable of taking any sort of affirmative action towards the collective good, as John Casy, for example, so wholeheartedly does.
Thankfully, my perception of Uncle John took a turn for the better when he accepted the task of burying Rose of Sharon’s stillborn baby. Although the birth of a stillborn is a tragic event, the moments preceding the birth contain images of hope. As the baby’s body floats down the flooded stream, we are reminded of the story of Moses, who was sent down the Nile river as an infant, and later in life led his people to the promised land of Israel. Here's a quick reminder in case you forgot. The stillborn acts as a messenger, speaking for the hundreds of thousands of migrant workers whose voice goes unheard the entire novel. In this moment, John works towards the collective good, defending his family, his integrity, and all those deaf to the ear of the oppressor. He has clearly undergone a dramatic change, and in the end, leaves us feeling hopeful and ok. Seems like if he can do it, we can too. We just have to keep on truckin’.
And just because I like Mel Brooks:
Adjustment has been for me a fascinating theme in The Grapes of Wrath. We see it first at the very beginning of the book when many of the sharecroppers quickly adjust to the new industrialized, monolithic agricultural system, turning out their neighbors and plowing their fields. It's most evident and most pointed, however, in how the dispossessed farm workers adjust to the brutal existence they are thrust into.
Steinbeck tells us how many of the families on Rt.66 adjust quickly and completely from living and working on their own land to life on the road, moving from camp to ad-hoc camp, and of the informal laws, etiquette and customs the migrants develop. We learn also about the Hoovervilles, which work much in the same way, only there the people must learn to deal with the police raids and burnings as if they were some particularly violent force of nature: brutal, but also regular, inevitable and unstoppable, and thus just not worth getting angry about.
On the one hand, we can be deeply saddened when we see that the Joads are joyous and count themselves lucky to live in half of an old boxcar, that that is what now passes for a kind of aristocracy among the workers. We can see how far they have fallen, and in many of the others—especially those who have truly lost their dignity, like the store clerk at the peach farm or the saboteurs at the square dance—how far they can still go. On the other hand, we can also be truly amazed at the human ability to cope and adjust with extreme hardship, and especially that ability to make nearly any place into a home, from a jalopy to an ad-hoc campground to a boxcar, as long as they are not totally corralled.
Part of the book's journey is the transformation that the family endures, from a stable, dependable world ruled by a fairly rigid hierarchy of men in the beginning to the totally unstable, unpredictable world of vagrancy in which Ma Joad really comes into her own as the leader. This is both a demonstration of ability and inability to adjust. Pa, the erstwhile patriarch, depended too heavily on the stability of the farm to ground his power, but Ma is much more flexible, for her power had little official status before the family was uprooted.
The male-dominated system on the farm was simply too brittle, and the “jerk”, as Ma called it, of losing the farm was enough to break it. “Woman,” she says, “it's all one flow, like a stream, little eddies, little waterfalls, but the river, it goes right on. Woman looks at it like that. We ain't gonna die out. People is goin' on—changin' a little, maybe, but goin' right on.” (577) It may be what Ma sees as an essentially female flexibility and fluidity that is necessary to weather this new kind of hardship, not one merely of bad crops and hard work, but of changing categories and social structure.
I finished reading The Grapes of Wrath for the second time in the early afternoon at the Starbucks across from NYU next to the Astor Place subway stop. It was loud, and the Beatles’ “Let It Be” was blasting over the dull roar of the caffeinated crowd. I felt tired by the Joad’s struggles, worn out by their hardship and aching for the tough times to come. I could almost feel the wetness of the endless rain, smell the damp hay in the old barn, hear the urging cries of Ma Joad pushing the family through the storm…
But I was in the Starbucks on Astor Place.
I finished reading The Grapes of Wrath for the first time several years ago in the late summer evening, on a couch in Commerce, Texas, an hour and a half away from anything that could be deemed a “major city.” It was quiet, and my mom was playing Carlos Santana in our kitchen and grilling peppers. The experiences, needless to say, were quite different. But no matter where I am when I finish The Grapes of Wrath, it always gives me the shivers—that tingle of solidarity and a deep realization of the history of Southern culture. Because the Joads unfailingly remind me, no matter where I am when I read about them, of the families I grew up with. The story takes place mostly in California, but the attitude of resilience and revolt, the cult of hospitality, and the instant camaraderie with fellow farmers invokes a strong Southern tradition.
In the middle of downtown New York City, it’s hard to imagine the silence and emptiness of where I grew up, but this will give you a pretty good picture (feel free to skip around, it gets boring). This isn’t a town where we live and die by the land—it’s more livestock country than farming country—but we are home to an agricultural college, and we share the connection to our dirt articulated in the Joad’s migration. Commerce can trace its roots back to a general store opened in 1864 by a man named Si Jackson. We built ourselves up thanks to the St. Louis Southwestern Railway, our cows and our cotton (thirty minutes outside of town lies the Audie Murphy American Cotton Museum). The town was originally known as Cow Hill due to—you guessed it—all the cattle ranches surrounding the area. Just outside town, a ranch called “Almost Heaven” epitomizes the love locals have for their land. We are the proud home of the oldest Bois d’Arc tree in the state, and hold an annual festival in September which boasts funnel cake, beauty pageants and crocheted pillows sold to commemorate this sacred gift. Indie rock artist Ben Kweller once wrote a song about us (it’s not that complimentary).
I think there are many reasons why Southerners understand each other and bond together in the way the migrant workers in the Hoovervilles and government camps of The Grapes of Wrath did. The Joads can take the hardships because every year, without fail, the weather climbs to 100 by June and stays there for a month while the skies remain empty and bright. There’s absolutely nothing to do, so people become involved in things like hog-showing. Besides having dialects that are almost impossible to understand at times, local vernaculars often boast colorful phrases related to hunting, fishing, or farming. For example, “That dog will hunt,” means “yes” in Texan.
“Think it’ll rain by October?”
“That dog’ll hunt.”
And then, of course, there’s the hospitality, and the food. It’s just the law—even if you think so-and-so’s family is a bunch of snot-nosed brats, you still have to talk to them and give them a glass of sweet tea and some brisket if you’ve got it. Why? I’m not sure—I guess because there just aren’t that many families to grow up with. Tom Joad knew everyone he came across when he got back to Oklahoma because there’s no way to not know everyone in town when the town’s population hasn’t broken a thousand yet. But thanks to the counteracting cult of Southern bluntness—a characteristic Ma Joad’s hard, feisty exterior displays well throughout the novel—you can always tell so-and-so’s family that they are, in fact, snot-nosed brats, while you’re handing them the brisket.
Underneath all the bigger issues of socialism and government and economy and morality that saturate The Grapes of Wrath lies a small, subtle sub-theme: the beauty of Southern families. In many ways, the Joads fulfill all the terrible stereotypes of the South—the pregnant teenage girl, the uneducated farmer, the accent-ridden country rubes, the impoverished family—but in many ways they encompass all that is good in the South. They make it through with resilience, family values and a deep sense of their homeland’s culture. By the end of the book, the reader is impressed with their scrappy ability to survive, and convinced that any big-city folk would not fare nearly as well.
Steinbeck uses the road as a tool to develop his characters. There is a clear flight, as shown in the Joad family, to a better life in the West. The experiences along the road are arguably more significant than the actual goal of arriving in the West. Through the road trip, Steinbeck illustrates an unspoken system of kindness, empathy, and misunderstanding. In the end when the dreams of the West don’t turn out as promising as they seemed, he tries to leave the reader with hope as one man is saved by the death of a child. Overall, one of the strengths of the novel lies in the depiction of the human condition; whether fictional or not. Ashley states in The Grapes of Wrath: Overview, “Steinbeck at his best, as in The Grapes of Wrath, writes of basic plights of mankind”. Whatever his intentions were, Steinbeck expressed trickles of hope in the good of mankind throughout his novel.
“The movement changed them; the highways, the camps along the road, the fear of hunger and the hunger itself, changed them” (Steinbeck 282). It seems as though people, whether characters or not, embark on road trips with a goal in mind. The goal can be realized, changed, or forgotten along the way, but there is some sort of change that happens. For the Joads, their goal was to go West in search of a better life. Although the ending is ambiguous as to their future, the movement, as Steinbeck writes, did change them. When we are put in situations that are unfamiliar we are forced to adapt to survive. Sometimes these survival instincts will be animalistic in nature and other times compassion will overcome them. As I read the novel, I envisioned Steinbeck had some sort of belief in the good in man. Although a good portion of the novel was about the machines holding the man down, I also saw a more hidden optimistic side. Through the compassion and willingness of the Joad family and other characters in The Grapes of Wrath, there is a clear undertone of unity and perseverance of mankind.
On another note:
The conclusion on the Grapes of Wrath, is to me the most intriguing scene of the novel. Not only does it leave the remaining Joad family members possessionless and stranded in a flood, it also leaves a Rose of Sharon suckling a starving man and smiling "mysteriously" (455). One reaction I had to this ending was disappointment, for the fates of the Joads remain unknown. The other was surprise at Rose of Sharon's actions - not only that the young girl, who throughout the novel has been portrayed as rather self-centered, is offering her swollen breast to a stranger to keep him alive, but also that she smile mysteriously. Her smile, reminiscent of the all-knowing smile of Da Vinci's Mona Lisa, directed at whom or what, we know not, was particularly compelling. The ending of the novel has been criticized and praised by many literary critics, and these criticisms and more postulations are explored in Martha Heasley Cox's article "The Conclusion of The Grapes of Wrath: Steinbeck's Conception and Execution".
According to Heasley Cox, the ending of Steinbeck's novel has been criticized as some of his worst writing. However, she also reveals that many critics were unaware of the fact that throughout the process of writing The Grapes of Wrath, Steinbeck kept a journal, from which it is clear that Steinbeck had imagined and prepared the end of his novel from early in it's inception. His characterization of Rose of Sharon throughout the novel was a purposeful lead up to the final scene, in which she has been compared to the Madonna, the Great Mother and many other mythical, religious and historical figures.
Knowing that Steinbeck had this purpose as he wrote the novel, I have, in retrospect, considered the characterization of Rose of Sharon, and why her final act in the novel contradicted her character for most of the rest of the book. Heasley Cox also explores this question, stating that many literary critics found, ""Thematic significance in Rose of Sharon's act, saying that it "symbolically transmutes her maternal love to a love of all people"; that it symbolizes "the main theme of the novel: the prime function of life is to nourish life"". One cannot forget that Rose of Sharon, who has prepared for the birth of a child and a life as a mother, has now found herself without a child at all, and all the nurturing and maternal energy she has stored within herself needs an outlet.
But why does Steinbeck end the novel here and not follow the Joads until they die or find work and a home? Would the novel go on forever? According to some literary critics quoted by Heasley Cox, ""It is fitting that the novel ends with the Joads wiser and more experienced, but still with no sense of belonging, no permanence in the country, no home of their own"; "Steinbeck ends his book on a quiet note: that life can go on, and that people can and must succor one another"". These analyses of the final scene of The Grapes of Wrath are right on the mark, in my opinion. The Joads' journey is one of a lifetime, and Steinbeck had to leave them somewhere, so why not at this point, in which several of the themes of the novel are embodied in the actions of Rose of Sharon? In addition, Rose of Sharon's mysterious smile across the barn could be directed at us, the readers, symbolizing the mystery of life, and the mystery that even at that moment of crisis, enshrouds the futures of the Joads.