Despite being a classic read by high schoolers everywhere, I never did read John Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath. Given Donald Trump's ascendency to the White House, the plight of rural, white Americans has received much attention. I decided to read The Grapes of Wrath because it speaks to a struggling, rural America of a different era.
The novel left me pondering how terribly we can treat our fellow man, and yet, feel just in doing so. The economic hardships that the Okies faced were made more difficult by their being branded with otherness. It also got me thinking about the strong sense of pride that these people have, which informs their reactions to the trials that they face. The virtue of hard work is not lost on them, and they demand a sense of agency.
For the most part, it didn't seem that anyone was truly evil. Everyone was just doing their job or looking out for their families. The police officers are paid to protect tha land. The man running a tractor over homes of his neighbors just wants to feed his families.
Some of the owner men were kind because they hated what they had to do, and some of them were angry because they hated to be cruel, and some of them were cold because they had long ago found that one could not be an owner unless one were cold. And all of them were caught in something larger than themselves. Some of them hated the mathematics that drove them, and some were afraid, and some worshiped the mathematics because it provided a refuge from thought and from feeling.
But the sum of all these mundane jobs and following orders leads to true horrors like children starving. It reminded me Hemingway's A Farewell to Arms about the stupidity of a war. Everyone can agree that what the war and killing is wrong, yet everyone feels powerless to stop fighting. In the same way,
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.
Indeed, it seems as if man is more than happy to make his own idols and become enslaved to them. This attitude is alive and well today. The financial crisis in 2008 could attributed to the worship of such mathematics. We can justify the ruthlessness of companies like Uber because, well, it's just business.
Despite being poor and mistreated, the Okies remain a proud and dignified people. In my younger years, I can admit to falling for the Asian model minority myth and using it as a justification for racism against other minorities. But now, seeing the Joad's invoke their ancestors has started to make me understand the destruction that slavery wrought on African Americans. Mama Joad recalls her ancestors often, which often leads the family to persevere and do right.
I never heerd tell of no Joads or no Hazletts, neither, ever refusin’ food an’ shelter or a lift on the road to anybody that asked. They’s been mean Joads, but never that mean.
Jus' like I said, they ain't a gonna keep no Joad in jail.
Slavery stripped African Americans of that sense of pride and narritive, however. Because the Joad's have so much pride, they won't accept how the police treat them.
“They comes a time when a man gets mad.’’
Did you ever see a deputy that didn’ have a fat ass? An’ they waggle their ass an’ flop their gun aroun’. Ma,’’ he said, “if it was the law they was workin’ with, why, we could take it. But it ain’t the law. They’re a-workin’ away at our spirits. They’re a-tryin’ to make us cringe an’ crawl like a whipped bitch. They tryin’ to break us. Why, Jesus Christ, Ma, they comes a time when the on’y way a fella can keep his decency is by takin’ a sock at a cop. They’re workin’ on our decency.
Eventually, Tom sees violence against the police as the only solution, and yet, we are made to feel sympathetic for the Joad's plight. I suppose that this is how many in the Black Lives Matter movement feel, but many condemn their extreme tactics.
Many attribute Trump's rise to the aloofness and condescension of elites. They are not depicted nicely in THe Grapes of Wrath, either. In addition to the quote about owners and the worship of mathematics, there are many instances of how the so-called Okies are looked down on for being backwards. These attitudes are transmitted to the children, for Winfield says:
“That kid says we was Okies,’’ he said in an outraged voice. “He says he wasn’t no Okie ’cause he come from Oregon. Says we was goddamn Okies. I socked him.’’
This is not too dissimilar to today's depictions of the Christian right or Southern rednecks. While the owner class is depicted as cold and detached, we see a human side of the poor. Mama Joad tells us:
“Learnin’ it all a time, ever’ day. If you’re in trouble or hurt or need— go to poor people. They’re the only ones that’ll help— the only ones.’’
And maybe, there's some truth to that. The most striking hypocrisy among elite liberals is their tendency to self-segregate and resist all attempts at integration. Californians tend to live in enclaves and fight against affordable housing. It was true in Steinbeck's time, and it is true today. Embracing other cultures for many of the globally elite rarely goes beyond dining at ethnic restaurants found on Yelp or taking exotic vacations. While many liberals support refugee resettlement, nearly all of that work is done by Evangelical Christians, who are often derided as denying science like evolution and climate change.
Of course, Christians are not without their hypocrisy, either. Casy is an ex-preacher who admits to having slept around. The reason he is an ex-preacher is that he is well aware of how the Church has failed his congregation. Just as then, today, there are those that would use the Church to enrish themselves.
All in all, though, the book seems to echo some many fundamental biblical teachings. The owner men that oppress the poor are not actually evil. They are simply "caught in something larger than themselves," and so as in Matthew 19:24: "Again I tell you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God." In Casy's last moments, he says, “You don’ know what you’re a-doin’.’’ as in Luke 23:24,
Jesus said, "Father, forgive them, for they don't know what they are doing." And the soldiers gambled for his clothes by throwing dice.
Finally, Tom almost repeats Ecclessiates 4:9-12 verbatim:
‘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.’
I wasn't entirely sure of what to make of the very end, which I won't mention the details here, lest I ruin the book for any readers. It seemed either to be an ultimate act of desperation or a higher call to look after our fellow man. Maybe it was a bit of both.