Steinbeck, John: The Grapes of Wrath

We gathered on a Thursday evening in South Edinburgh to tackle one of the most feted books in American literature, ‘The Grapes of Wrath’. To the disappointment of one of our number this wasn’t a Star Trek sequel, but a story of the Great Depression, of the exodus from the dust bowls of Oklahoma and neighbouring states to California in search of fruit picking in the promised land. Clearly, this had timely echoes in current economic migration within Europe.

The proposer had not read much American literature, with the exception of Steinbeck and Hemingway (covered elsewhere in our blogs). He noted that Steinbeck was a great literary figure, winning the Nobel prize for literature in 1962, and found this book well worthy of the accolades. There was digression to talk of Steinbeck’s fascination with Camelot, encapsulated in a posthumous publication, ‘The Acts of King Arthur and His Noble Knights”. Is there a connection? Maybe this exists in the depiction of ‘noble peasants’ within The Grapes of Wrath.

Our proposer noted that Steinbeck was anti-business, anti authoritarian, and this wasn’t exactly surprising given his body of work and this book in particular. The book was widely acclaimed when it came out, yet criticised by some as an inaccurate socialist polemic, for example by the California Farmers Association. In passing, we noted that those who instigated the original clearances in Oklahoma seemed to somehow escape with lesser censure. Maintaining the anti-authoritarian posture, Steinbeck shows how the authorities supported the farmers against the immigrants. However there is reference to the ability to get relief and the setting up of Federal camps. It was suggested that the unsympathetic portrayal of business and authority was largely accurate, and one could draw parallels with the use of illegal workers now, although the practices depicted were legal in 1939. Sanora Babb, whose notes from employment within the Farm Security Administration were used by Steinbeck, would add support to the Steinbeck thesis. Her own, consequent book wasn’t published until 2004, having been gazumped by the Steinbeck novel in 1939.

Another member found the book harrowing, relentless, employing a style of writing which reflects the relentless pressure on the immigrants. The only uplifting factor in the book is the indomitable human spirit of the migrant workers. Steinbeck juxtaposed the story of the Joad family and their co-travelers with the overall historical descriptions of the Great Depression as a very clever structural component. He highlighted the gap between the American dream and the American reality.

The next speaker went further. It is just too long and relentless. There was a lack of light and shade, the text lost its pace, and sometimes went flat. He had read it firstly as a youth, then finding it boring, but now appreciated it more. Nevertheless, he did not join in the generally favourable criticism, even now.

Inevitably, the major issues are universal and pertinent today. Today, Western Europe is regarded by some as new land of milk and honey, but nevertheless there are food banks and illegal worker exploitation as noted above. (Strangely as I write this note after a long dry spell there are stories of a lack of migrant workers to pick fruit, post Brexit referendum, and the gaps are not being filled by the local population.) Having said that, there is considerable social buffering in comparison with the 1930s and allegedly the gap between rich and poor may be decreasing, although that probably depends on how you interpret the statistics. In The Grapes of Wrath, the migrants were treated almost as a sub-human species; is that the case in the UK or Europe today? One suggested that the Brexit referendum result was caused by illogical fear and panic rather than rational debate based on sound arguments put forward by politicians (Surely not! –  Ed.). If alive today, Steinbeck would still find ample subject matter for some new books.

So, in this text, the California farmers don’t get a good press. What of the depiction of the migrants themselves? In general, not all migrants are noble, law-abiding and upstanding citizens, are they? Some are good, some bad, as with any section of population. One questioned the lack of aspiration of the migrants; perhaps they should raise their horizons? Are they ‘losers’ to quote the current US president? Au contraire, many migrants to the UK are highly educated and aspiring and many sectors of the economy, such as the high technology business, and public service, such as the NHS, are very dependent on such citizens. OK, there is some mention of aspirations to study vehicle maintenance but no real practical effort to fulfill these aims. Ah yes, said another, but this a polemic, not a balanced argument. It is quite justifiable to argue case with considerable bias. In some countries, revolutions occurred; here, there are references to the formation of labour movements, strikes etc., but these are peripheral to the main threads.

“Rich fellas come up and they die, and their kids ain’t no good and they die out, but we keep a-coming. We’re the people that live. They can’t wipe us out, they can’t lick us. We’ll go on forever, Pa, cos we’re the people.”

There is an emphasis on family, and on the mother figure, Ma Joad, who holds the family together with such emphasis. Religion is a target of the book, it is implied that religion is a thing of the past, explicitly stated for Jim Casy. The references to religion are quite controversial.

“Maybe there ain’t no sin, there ain’t no virtue… It’s just what people does… Some things folks do is nice, and some ain’t so nice … And that’s all any man’s got a right to say…”.

Can they, should the California farmers feed the world? Should fruit picking not be mechanized? Progress is the elephant in the room and to what extent is a job a job for life?  The Steinbeck solution is, arguably, unworkable, you cannot turn Californian land over to small peasant farmers and feed the country. A car salesman is also portrayed as dishonest; there is a reference to taking a rotten and a god half cucumber and joining then together with a matchstick. Is there no such person as an honest salesman or benevolent farmer?  Again, one emphasised that this book is a polemic and therefore one shouldn’t expect balance or unbiased thinking. This contributor loved the sentimentality of the narrative, he felt empathy with people who work on the land, the gnarled sons of the soil, the salt of the earth, romanticised and self-indulgent. This was absolutely justified in this opinion.

Was there an absence of humour, was the subject too serious for humour? There were occasional passages that raised a smile, as when Tom tricked the driver, The Indian half breed regretted he wasn’t a whole breed as he missed benefits. One called it a misery memoir – that word ‘relentless’ cropped up again.

As the evening drew on, the talk turned to the possible soundtrack of the book, Bruce Springsteen, Dolly Parton, Lonnie Donnegan, Merle Haggard, …

“I’m proud to be an Okie from Muskogee …. We like livin’ right, and bein’ free..”

Leadbelly, Woody Guthrie (the Oklahoma poet!), …

“The highway is alive tonight, Where it’s headed everybody knows, I’m sitting down here in the campfire light, With the ghost of old Tom Joad”

Joan Baez, Linda Ronstadt, Country Music – right wing, south of the Mason Dixon line. Poor white music, three chords and the turn.

“Won’t you get hip to this timely tip, When you make that California trip, Get your kicks on Route sixty six”

To conclude, most thought the novel worthy of the ‘great’ accolade, but this was not the unanimous view. Those who could make the comparison thought this his best book. Is he a good writer? One called the descriptive passages excellent, with dialogue that made the characters believable. Opinion was always divided. An absent colleague was in no doubt, describing the work as a masterful piece of literature. The story romped on, leaving the reader desperate to find out what happens next. The ending was controversial but interpreted as hope for the future and of inbred humanity through Rose of Sharon….hoping for a child but giving her milk to a dying stranger at the end.

… and we missed the England – Belgium game…..

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