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The Grapes of Wrath

Earlier this year I read John Steinbeck’s “East of Eden,” so I was very motivated to read his earlier classic, “The Grapes of Wrath.” I’ve finished it now, and I hardly know how to say what a great novel it is, or what to say that has not already been said.

I did see the 1940 movie adaptation by John Ford, starring Henry Fonda as Tom Joad, but that was many years ago and honestly I don’t remember anything from it, apart from Henry Fonda’s look and speech. The face of Ma Joad, the matriarch of the family, comes dimly to mind, but no more. I recall it as a thoroughly serious movie, and the novel has been a totally different experience for me: yes it’s a serious story, but there is life, and rich, page-turning conversation; there’s frank sexual language (“That preacher’s missus took a god-awful poundin’ after ever’ night meetin’.’’), and a fair amount of humor. Maybe very little of this made it into the movie, which was made during an era of strict Hollywood censorship.

The story is famous enough: the Joad family living in Oklahoma sometime in the 1930s are forced to leave their farm, along with millions of other “Okies” fleeing the drought conditions that have ruined the farmlands throughout the Great Plains. Millions of migrants move west to seek work in California. There they find some jobs at terribly low wages, if they can find work at all; they encounter renewed hardships and oppression.

In the following passage Steinbeck presents a typical scene of the eviction of the tenant farmers from their land. Representatives comes from a bank with a piece of paper and an ultimatum. The families answer:

it’s our land. We measured it and broke it up. We were born on it, and we got killed on it, died on it. Even if it’s no good, it’s still ours. That’s what makes it ours—being born on it, working it, dying on it. That makes ownership, not a paper.

One irony here: the Indians driven out by the white settlers must have felt the same way about the land. They lost the land by force and by paper, too.

The following passage is about the temporary camping spots that the migrants filled every night on their way to California. Steinbeck describes how the migrants in these temporary communities actually developed unwritten laws, how they respected certain rights.

The families learned what rights must be observed—the right of privacy in the tent; the right to keep the past black hidden in the heart; the right to talk and to listen; the right to refuse help or to accept, to offer help or to decline it; the right of son to court and daughter to be courted; the right of the hungry to be fed; the rights of the pregnant and the sick to transcend all other rights.

And the families learned, although no one told them, what rights are monstrous and must be destroyed: the right to intrude upon privacy, the right to be noisy while the camp slept, the right of seduction or rape, the right of adultery and theft and murder. These rights were crushed, because the little worlds could not exist for even a night with such rights alive.

And as the worlds moved westward, rules became laws, although no one told the families. It is unlawful to foul near the camp; it is unlawful in any way to foul the drinking water; it is unlawful to eat good rich food near one who is hungry, unless he is asked to share. 

“The Grapes of Wrath” has been pegged as communist, but there are values in the above passage that are especially anti-communist — particularly the right to privacy. It includes both intimate activity and the right to private secrets, memories, knowledge.

The right to refuse or decline help is also highly individualist, and in that sense very much anti-communist.

Other values highlighted in the above passage point to the common welfare, but that is hardly different from what the earliest Christians practiced:

And the multitude of them that believed were of one heart and of one soul: neither said any of them that ought of the things which he possessed was his own; but they had all things common.

And with great power gave the apostles witness of the resurrection of the Lord Jesus: and great grace was upon them all.

Neither was there any among them that lacked: for as many as were possessors of lands or houses sold them, and brought the prices of the things that were sold,

And laid them down at the apostles’ feet: and distribution was made unto every man according as he had need.

Acts 4:32-35 (KJV)

In the following passage, Ma Joad speaks to her pregnant daughter.

“When you’re young, Rosasharn, ever’thing that happens is a thing all by itself. It’s a lonely thing. I know, I ’member, Rosasharn.’’ Her mouth loved the name of her daughter. “You’re gonna have a baby, Rosasharn, and that’s somepin to you lonely and away. That’s gonna hurt you, an’ the hurt’ll be lonely hurt, an’ this here tent is alone in the worl’, Rosasharn.’’ She whipped the air for a moment to drive a buzzing blow fly on, and the big shining fly circled the tent twice and zoomed out into the blinding sunlight. And Ma went on, “They’s a time of change, an’ when that comes, dyin’ is a piece of all dyin’, and bearin’ is a piece of all bearin’, an’ bearin’ an’ dyin’ is two pieces of the same thing. An’ then things ain’t lonely any more. An’ then a hurt don’t hurt so bad, ’cause it ain’t a lonely hurt no more, Rosasharn.’’

There we have Ma Joad independently expressing a variation on the great theme usually expounded by Jim Casy, the preacher traveling with the family — namely, the unity of creation. Ma’s way of speaking about it is the unity of human experience. She sees all human pain in particular as connected. But she is not merely saying that we all suffer the same things in common. She’s saying that all pain is “two pieces of the same thing,” which implies that even when we think we’re alone, our suffering is not unique, not for one’s self, not by itself.

In the following passage, Steinbeck says that the bankers and landlords will lose, and says why they will lose.

And the great owners, who must lose their land in an upheaval, the great owners with access to history, with eyes to read history and to know the great fact: when property accumulates in too few hands it is taken away. And that companion fact: when a majority of the people are hungry and cold they will take by force what they need. And the little screaming fact that sounds through all history: repression works only to strengthen and knit the repressed. The great owners ignored the three cries of history.

However, right around the time that “The Grapes of Wrath” is set, Soviet Russia starved to death at least 3 million Ukrainians (the Holodomor of 1932-33), who found it impossible to take by force what they needed.

Now we come to the famous passage, near the end of the novel, a conversation in the dark between Tom Joad and his mother:

They sat silent in the coal-black cave of vines. Ma said, “How’m I gonna know ’bout you? They might kill ya an’ I wouldn’ know. They might hurt ya. How’m I gonna know?’’

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 all 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 laugh when they’re hungry an’ they know supper’s 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. ’’

Casy, the preacher traveling with the Joads, had often spoken of the idea that Tom expresses here. As Casy had said earlier, “Maybe all men got one big soul ever’body’s a part of”.

Tom’s promise to be there even in the way that kids laugh has mystical overtones, and there are possible echoes here of Eastern religions. I’m thinking particularly of the Bhagavad Gita, particularly those passages in which Krishna identifies himself with the best qualities in the created world:

I am the taste in water, Arjuna…
the sound in space, valor in men…
the life in all living creatures

VII, 8-9 (trans. by Barbara Stoler Miller)

Tom’s emphasis is on social justice, and as such it has reminded me of this verse from the Gita, in which Krishna declares who he is and explains that he has continually reappeared throughout history with the same purpose:

Whenever sacred duty decays
and chaos prevails,
then, I create
myself, Arjuna.

To protect men of virtue
and destroy men who do evil,
to set the standard of sacred duty,
I appear in age after age.

IV, 7-8 (trans. by Barbara Stoler Miller)

However, there is a strong contrast between these two passages. Krishna is speaking as the all-encompassing, life-giving Lord of creation. Tom is affirming something far more humble; he’s merely a creature, who seems to be talking about passing into a larger reality.

Yet, because of the emphasis on social justice, there is a certain agency remaining in Tom, as when he talks about being there to help the guy who’s getting beat up by a cop.

On the one hand, he will be merely visible, ghost-like, in the laughter of children; on the other hand, he’ll be there as a companion offering his strength to the guy who’s been targeted by a cop, to the strikers fighting for food, to the family building a house.

I’ll leave off with an earlier passage in which Tom recalls some lines from the Book of Ecclesiastes. He had learned of these lines from the preacher, Jim Casy, whom you can tell just from his initials that he’s a Christ-figure — and in fact this J.C. makes a direct imitation of Christ at least twice in the course of the novel. Anyway, here’s Tom telling Ma about Jim’s preaching:

Casy! He talked a lot. Used ta bother me. But now I been thinkin’ what he said, an’ I can remember— all of it. Says one time he went out in the wilderness to find his own soul, an’ he foun’ he didn’ have no soul that was his’n. Says he foun’ he jus’ got a little piece of a great big soul. Says a wilderness ain’t no good, ’cause his little piece of a soul wasn’t no good ’less it was with the rest, an’ was whole. Funny how I remember. Didn’ think I was even listenin’. But I know now a fella ain’t no good alone.’’

“He was a good man,’’ Ma said.

Tom went on, “He spouted out some Scripture once, an’ it didn’ soun’ like no hell-fire Scripture. He tol’ it twicet, an’ I remember it. Says it’s from the Preacher.’’

“How’s it go, Tom?’’

“Goes, ‘Two are better than one, because they have a good reward for their labor. For if they fall, the one will lif’ up his fellow, but woe to him that is alone when he falleth, for he hath not another to help him up.’1 That’s part of her.’’

“Go on,’’ Ma said. “Go on, Tom.’’

“Jus’ a little bit more. ‘Again, if two lie together, then they have heat: but how can one be warm alone? And if one prevail against him, two shall withstand him, and a three-fold cord is not quickly broken.’ ”

“An’ that’s Scripture?’’

“Casy said it was. Called it the Preacher.’’ 

Tom and Casy quote from Ecclesiastes —

9 Two are better than one; because they have a good reward for their labour.

10 For if they fall, the one will lift up his fellow: but woe to him that is alone when he falleth; for he hath not another to help him up.

11 Again, if two lie together, then they have heat: but how can one be warm alone?

12 And if one prevail against him, two shall withstand him; and a threefold cord is not quickly broken.

Ecclesiastes 4.9-12 (KJV)

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