Reflections on Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath

I participate as a scholar through the Oklahoma Humanities Council Let’s Talk About It Oklahoma series. Last night I addressed an audience in Broken Arrow about John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath. The gist of my comments follow:

At his first Inaugural as President of the United States in March, 1933, President Franklin Roosevelt addressed a nation in shock over the overwhelming material and emotional depression that had cast a pall over the American people. Rarely does a President capture the spirit of the times as Roosevelt did in this inaugural address. “First of all,” he said, “let me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself–nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance.”

Indeed, fear gripped the United States of America: fear of economic woes, political ineptitude, gang violence, bank failures, job loss, home and farm foreclosures, hunger, famine, disease, death. The fear was felt everywhere in America: not only did the poor, abandoned, dispossessed, and hungry feel it, but the wealthy, secure, and full felt it as well. The fear was, that what was happening to some—poverty, hunger, disease—would happen to all notwithstanding class, wealth, and ability.

Yes, Roosevelt was correct, the only thing, really, that Americans, who lived in a land of relative plenty, peace, and freedom, had to fear was that they would become inept, weak, unable to move, in the face of an overwhelming terror that it was all coming to an end. And, notwithstanding all that Roosevelt attempted to do to belie the fear, it would not go away, and it continued to spread, continued to grip people, rich and poor alike.

The presence of this fear was captured wonderfully, poetically, in The Grapes of Wrath by the author John Steinbeck. Rarely has an author been able to capture the spiritual malaise and despair of a people faced with overwhelming fear as Steinbeck did in his book. Set in the 1930s in Oklahoma, a land hit particularly hard by the depression because of a decline in agricultural production due in part to the erosion of topsoil–the Dust Bowl—Steinbeck tells the story of the Joads, a tenant farm family forced off their land with nowhere to turn. An impersonal, cold, calculating, economic and technological power wrought by the modern machine age of the Industrial Revolution scatters machines and heartless men across the land, taking, dispossessing, destroying peoples’ lives. The Joads and many others—the Okies—hear of an almost paradisiacal situation of jobs and fruit and land in California, and set off to take advantage of this western Elysium as have so many others from the East (Europe, Asia, Eastern United States) journeying to the supposed utopia of the West.

The Joads experience something akin to the frontier experience on their journey along Route 66. Wherever they stop along the way, along the roadside, in makeshift camps, in Hoovervilles, there is a democratic spirit of equality and people helping people, a wonderful sense of community of empathy and love, periodically countered by the angry violent fear of the settled and satisfied in the places to where these Okies have come.

Steinbeck thought that the dreamlike potential of America as a land of freedom and plenty had not been actualized. America is supposed to be a place of opportunity and liberty, not a place of famine and exploitation. Steinbeck was clearly influenced by the philosophy of the Marxists and others who believed that class struggle was the result of industrial capitalism. The Joads and other Okies were the Proletariat struggling against the minority Bourgeoisie that controls the economic and political infrastructure of society. But Steinbeck could see a future where the Bourgeoisie overplays its hand, exploits too much too often, and the Proletariat, the people, rise up, harvest the grapes of wrath, and take over, destroy.

Steinbeck was also influenced by writers of the late 19th/early 20th who saw the organic, community fabric of society being fractured by the artificial, the mechanized, the impersonal bureaucrat, the rational calculations of the money power, which leaves the old traditions upon which America has been built—family, community, faith, trust, work, the land—falling, almost disappearing. But the Joads, and others like them, hold on to the old values, refuse to give in to the new ways, and hope, in the end, remains.

But so too does fear: of all of the problems that perplex and overwhelm humans and other life forms–disease, starvation, weakness, despair, hopelessness, anger and wrath, injustice, faithlessness—the greatest fear of all is Fear itself.

About theamericanplutarch

Writer, thinker, historian.
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