Steinbeck's Grapes of Wrath

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.