The Growing Wrath

If The Grapes of a Wrath has a weakness, it is that at times the novel seems too analytical and relies too heavily on exposition, as if Steinbeck doesn't quite trust his reader to see the causes of the tragedy at work in the novel. When current history is taken into consideration, though, perhaps Steinbeck was right in not trusting the public to see clearly what the causes of the tragedy were. If recent elections are a true indicator, the public has long since forgotten that business cannot always be trusted to do what is best, not only for workers, but, in the long run, even for themselves.

While the drought was the ostensible cause of the Dust Bowl, the banks, if Steinbeck is to be believed, played an equal part in the tragedy for they foreclosed on the farmers, taking over homesteads that had been held for generations and consolidating them into large farms that lent themselves to machine farming, which, in turn, added to the loss of topsoil:

The bank is something else than men. It happens that every man in a bank hates what the bank does, and yet the bank does it. The bank is something more than men, I tell you. It's the monster. Men made it, but they can't control it.

With the loss of their farms, Oklahomans were forced to look for work during the Great Depression, the worst of times to seek a new beginning.

Desperate for jobs, the Oklahomans read brochures from California farmers advertising for workers to pick the crops. When Tom reports to Ma that there are too many people looking for jobs, she doesn't believe him:

""But he says they's too many folks lookin' for work right there now. An' he says the folks that pick the fruit live in dirty "ol camps an' don't hardly get enough to eat. He says wages is low an' hard to get any" A shadow crossed her face. "Oh, that ain't so," she said. "Your father got a han'bill on yella paper, tellin' how they need folks to work. They wouldn't go to that trouble if they wasn't plenty work. Costs "em good money to get them han'bills out. What'd they want ta lie for, an' costin' "em good money to lie?"

Why indeed? It seems that cheap-labor conservatives have been around much longer than the term itself, doesn't it? Trusting and desperate, the migrant workers were ripe for exploitation.

Of course, in order to exploit the Okies, the oppressors, like all oppressors, first had to dehumanize and stereotype the migrants:

"Them Okies? They're all hard lookin'" "Jesus, I'd hate to start out in a jalopy like that." "Well, you and me got sense. Them goddam Okies got no sense and no feeling. They ain't human. A being couldn't stand it to be so dirty and miserable. They ain't a hell of a lot better than gorillas.

It's always easier to exploit people once you've dehumanized them, just as we dehumanized blacks under slavery, just as we dehumanize recent immigrants from Mexico today. Do we really believe that there is no cost to exploiting cheap labor? Do we really believe that people who could otherwise make a decent living are not excluded from the system when we turn to illegal immigrants for cheap labor?

As Steinbeck points out, it's not just the migrant Okies who were being destroyed by the system:

And now the great owners and the companies invented a new method. A great owner bought a cannery. And when the peaches and the pears were ripe he cut the price of fruit below the cost of raising it. And as cannery owner he paid himself a low price for the fruit and kept the price of canned goods up and took his profit. And the little farmers who owned no canneries lost their farms, and they were taken by the great owners, the banks, and the companies who also owned the canneries. As time went on, there were fewer farms. The little farmers moved into town for a while and exhausted their credit, exhausted their friends, their relatives. And they went on the highways. And the roads were crowded with men ravenous for work, murderous for work.

Personally, I thought that the increasing domination by large agribusinesses was a relatively new phenomenon, but apparently I was mistaken. While such consolidation may ensure the lowest prices for food, these savings obviously come at the expense of the small farmers.

While companies may have thought that they were maximizing their profit through such actions, Steinbeck argues otherwise:

And the companies, the banks worked at their own doom and they did not know it. The fields were fruitful, and starving men moved on the roads. The granaries were full and the children of the poor grew up rachitic, and the pustules of pellagra swelled on their sides. The great companies did not know that the line between hunger and anger is a thin line. And money that might have gone to wages went for gas, for guns, for agents and spies, for blacklists, for drilling. On the highways the people moved like ants and searched for work, for food. And the anger began to ferment.

As radical as this sounds, Steinbeck isn't talking about revolution, per se. He's merely talking about the rise of unions and the right of workers to organize and strike as a group for higher wages, basic rights that we all take for granted today. Too often, though, we forget at what price these basic rights were acquired. While we're all used to companies pressuring workers to reject efforts by unions to organize workers, few people remember how far workers have actually come since the 30's and 40's.

Though some unions have obviously abused their power and taken advantage of their own members, those same unions have unarguably helped to ensure better working conditions for the majority of workers.

Saving The Family

Here's hoping that Oprah Winfrey's recent promotion of John Steinbeck's East of Eden will spread to include his acknowledged masterpiece, The Grapes of Wrath. Although the novel's vaguely socialistic tendencies caused J. Edgar Hoover to begin collecting a dossier on Steinbeck and prevented Steinbeck from receiving an officer's commission in World War II, in retrospect the book seems to do little more than explain, and promote, the rise of unionism to counter the exploitation of Oklahoma migrants by California farm owners, and, in a larger historical sense, the rise of unionism to counter the historical tendency of cheap-labor businesses to exploit immigrants to keep wages low. Although the novel is set during the Great Depression of the "30's, it seems as relevant today as it did when published in 1939.

As even the current administration realizes, the family is the critical building block of society, and The Grapes of Wrath initially focuses on the breakdown of the family caused by the losses of farms during the Oklahoma Dust Bowl. Perhaps ironically, Steinbeck states that the "Women and children knew deep in themselves that no misfortune was too great to bear if their men were whole." Unfortunately, the loss of their homesteads undermined the men's confidence, because they knew that they could no longer provide for their families.

Luckily, the women seemed more than ready to rise to the situation when the men felt like failures. In the early part of the novel it is Ma that dominates:

She seemed to know, to accept, to welcome her position, the citadel of the family, the strong place that could not be taken. And since old Tom and the children could not know hurt or fear unless she acknowledged hurt and fear, she had practiced denying them in herself. And since, when a joyful thing happened, they looked to see whether joy was on her, it was her habit to build up laughter out of inadequate materials. Imperturbability could be depended on.
Although cheap-labor conservatives claim to emphasize family values and decry liberals who would foster a welfare state of unwed mothers, they seem unaware that low wages and unemployment directly contribute to the collapse of the family. Too often men judge their self-worth by their ability to be the "breadwinner" and when unable to do so, they lose faith in themselves. Though too often men leave when they can no longer support their families, the women know instinctively that they must hold the family together if it is going to survive.

Tom Joad, the novel's protagonist, has recently gotten out of prison after stabbing a man in a bar fight, and Ma is worried that Tom will become bitter and go out on his own to fight back:

"Tommy, don't you go fighten' em alone. They'll hunt you down like a coyote. Tommy, I got to thinkin' an' dreamin' an' wonderin'. They say there's a hun'erd thousand of us shoved out. If we was all mad the same way, Tommy"they wouldn't hunt nobody down"" she stopped.
Though Ma is the symbol of the family in the novel and is worried that Tom will abandon the family and light out on his own, her concern for others is critical in Tom's conversion from an angry loner to a union activist.

Casy, the fallen minister, is redeemed in Ma's eyes when he says to the family:

I got thinkin' how we was holy when we was one thing, an mankin' was holy when when it was one thing. An' it only got unholy when one mis'able little fella got the bit in his teeth an' run off his own way, kickin' an' draggin' an' fightin'. Fella like that bust the holiness. But when they're all workin' together, not one fella for another fella, but one fella kind of harnessed to the whole shebang"that's right, that's holy.
Ma suddenly recognized Casy as "a spirit, not human anymore, a voice out of the ground" because he had put into words her own feelings about the need to stick together.

For a while the disintegration of the family seems inevitable. The death of grampa while crossing the desert symbolized both the oncoming disintegration of the family and the family's need to do what it must do in order to survive. Unable to afford a funeral, the family ponders what they will do with their grandfather's body:

Pa said softly, "Grampa buried his pa with his own hand, done it in dignity, an' shaped the grave nice with his own shovel. That was a time when a man had the right to be buried by his own son an' a son had the right to bury his own father." "The law says different now," said Uncle John. "Sometimes the law can't be foller'd no way," said Pa. "Not in decency, anyways. They's lots of time you can't. When Floyd was loose an' goin' wild, law said we got to give him up"an nobody give him up. Sometimes a fella got to sift the law. I'm sayin' now I got the right to bury my own pa. Anybody got somepin to say?" The preacher rose high on his elbow. "Law changes," he said, "but "got to's' go on. You got the right to do what you got to do."
This emphasis on the "got to's" ties Steinbeck's novel to the great tradition of Victor Hugo's Les Miserables and Charles Dickens' novels.

Although Ma defers to Pa in most cases, when the family is threatened she stands up to Pa for the first time. One car breaks down and Pa suggests that the family should go ahead and let Tom and Casy attempt to catch up later, but Ma refuses to go on, fearing that the family will never be reunited. The family expected that Pa would be furious at being challenged by his wife, but Pa is too tired and too defeated to get angry:

"You done this "thout thinkin' much," Ma said. "What we got lef' in the worl'? Nothin' but us. Nothin' but the folks. We come out an' Grampa he reached for the shovel-shelf right off. An' now, right off, you wanna bust up the folks""""
Ma firmly believes that the family that stays together survives together. Without each other survival is impossible.

Somehow it seems appropriate that Labor Day weekend is a family celebration of the last day of summer, for there is an inextricable link between work and family. While good jobs cannot guarantee good families, unemployment and low-wage jobs inevitably weaken the links that bind families together. For all their propaganda about "family values," cheap-labor conservatives threaten the very foundations of the family.

The Family of Man

Although Tom Joad starts out merely trying to help his family survive after they are dispossessed, through Casy's influence he begins to realize that it is not enough to merely help his own family survive. Indeed, his family will not survive unless they join forces with the other families victimized by the economic system. While Ma taught him that a man needs family and will be destroyed if he strikes out on his own, Casy taught him that the only way for the migrant families to survive was to unionize and to stand up to the banks and agribusinesses that exploit them. For Casy, an ex-minister, working together starts as a Christian value:

I got thinkin' how we was holy when we was one thing, an mankin' was holy when it was one thing. An' it only got unholy when one mis'able little fella got the bit in his teeth an' run off his own way, kickin' an' draggin' an' fightin'. Fella like that bust the holiness. But when they're all workin' together, not one fella for another fella, but one fella kind of harnessed to the whole shebang"that's right, that's holy.

Though I personally remain unconvinced that Jesus ever said much about the economic aspects of life, other than "Render therefore unto Caesar the things which are Caesar's; and unto God the things that are God's", those who work to improve the lives of the impoverished still seem to me to have a better claim to traditional Christian values than those who are primarily concerned with their own welfare. Early in the novel Tom realizes that the workers should unite to gain higher wages:

Tom said angrily, "Them peaches got to be picked right now, don't they? Jus' when they're ripe?" "Course they do." "Well, s'pose them people got together an' says, "let "em rot.' Wouldn't be long "fore the price went up, by God!" The young man looked up from the valves, looked sardonically at Tom. "Well, you figgered out somepin, didn' you. Come right out of your own head."

What Tom didn't realize, and what too many today have forgotten, is that the right to unionize came at a heavy price, at the cost of the lives of many who first tried to organize workers:

Folks figured that out. An' the folks with the peach orchard figured her out too. Look, if the folks get together, they's a leader"got to be"fella that does the talkin'. Well, first time this fella opens his mouth they grab "im an' stick "im in jail. An' if they's another leader pops up, why, they stick "im in jail.

As usual, the authorities are, at best, on the side of the status quo, and, at the worst, on the side of those who have the money to buy their loyalty.

The cheap-labor conservatives in the "30's convinced people that anyone who objected to the way business ran the country must be "reds:"

Well, sir, Hines says, "A red is any son-of-a-bitch that wants thirty cents an hour when we're payin' twenty-five! Well, this young fella he thinks about her, an' he scratches his head, an' he says, "Well, Jesus, Mr. Hines. I ain't a son-of-a-bitch, but if that's what a red is"why, I want thirty cents an hour. Ever'body does. Hell, Mr. Hines, we're all reds.'

If you used this definition of a "red," wouldn't Presidend Bush and his cronies be considered the greatest reds of all? In an ideal society, one that's never existed, of course, people would be free to organize and express their ideas, no matter how controversial those ideas would be. Unfortunately, in the real world you often have to resort to at least a show of force in order to get your ideas heard:

An' these here mountain people up an' joined the union. Well, sir, hell jes' popped. All them storekeepers and legioneers an' people like that, they get drillin' an' yellin', "Red!' An' they gonna run the union right outa Akron. Preachers git a-preachin' about it, an' papers a-yowling, an' they's pick handles put out by the rubber companies, an they're a-buying gas. Jesus, you'd think them mountain boys was reg'lar devils!" He stopped and found some more rocks to shoot. "Well, sir"it was las' March, an' one Sunday five thousan' of them mountain men had a turkey shoot outside a town. Five thousan' of "em jes' marched through town with their rifles. An' they had their turkey shoot, an' then they marched back. An' that's all they done. Well, sir, they ain't been no trouble sense then.

The one thing those in power understand is power itself, even when they don't control it. And if you can get your ideas heard, the greatest power of all is the power of the people to vote, which is still what makes America one of the greatest countries in the world.

In the end, Tom Joad is convinced that he must leave the family and help to unionize his people. He realizes that his life is in danger, but he doesn't feel he has a choice:

Tom laughed uneasily, "Well, maybe like Casy says, a fella ain't got a soul of his own, but on'y a piece of a big one"an' then"""" "Then what, Tom" "Then it don' matter. Then I'll be aroun' in the dark. I'll be ever'where"wherever you look. Wherever they's a fight so hungry people can eat, I'll be there. Wherever they's a cop beatin' up a guy, I'll be there. If Casy knowed, why, I'll be in the way guys yell when they're mad an'"I'll be in the way kids laught when they're hungry an' they know suppers ready. An' when our folks eat the stuff they raise an' live in the houses they build"why I'll be there. See? God, I'm talkin' like Casy. Comes of thinkin' about him so much. Seems like I can see him sometimes." "I don' understan'," Ma said. "I don' really know."

By the end of the novel, the man who got thrown into prison for killing a man in a bar fight has been transformed into a man who is willing to risk his life for the welfare of others. Because of Casy he has even transcended Ma and is able to think beyond his own immediate family.

Though I'll admit that The Grapes of Wrath is not my favorite novel for a number of reasons, it is a powerful, thought-provoking reminder of the history of the labor movement in America, a history that has been nearly buried by union scandals and a steady stream of anti-union propaganda from pro-business political forces. But no amount of propaganda can refute the simple truth that even the most anti-union worker has probably benefited directly or indirectly from unions.