Usually, when I decide to write a book review on this blog, the project involves a book that I want to share with a wider audience, a new release, a hidden “gem,” or simply something interesting that is not already in the awareness of many. As one can easily understand, the classic, Pulitzer Prize-winning work by Nobel laureate John Steinbeck certainly does not belong to this category.
However, “The Grapes of Wrath” hold a special place in my thoughts lately because I notice that it is a story that unfortunately is being written again and again, with its latest pieces, those of impending optimism, missing from the headlines of current events. However, they undoubtedly exist in reality, just like everything else that Steinbeck wrote almost 85 years ago, during the period of the “Great Depression.”
The legendary work refers to American society in the 1930s, the change in the lives of millions of people during the Great Depression and the mechanization of agricultural production, and consequently of the Earth itself, or “their Earth.” So, what could the story of a family uprooted from Oklahoma in the 1930s to seek their fortune in the fertile plains near Salinas, California, have in common with what is happening in the world today?
The first answer obviously comes through the reference to “uprooting”. Steinbeck’s work highlights, for many, the strong relationships within the family, the family as an institution, and how younger and older members face situations. These “many,” of course, have names, they are not so many and are more urban, who in this way try to strip this monument of world literature of its straightforward message.
The uprooting of the Okies (the inhabitants of Oklahoma) was not random and disconnected from the course of the American economy. The “modernization” of agricultural production, the tradition of transferring vast expanses to large enterprises, was not simply done with the truth of numbers, but with the truth of weapons, with the truth of impoverishment. Millions of people were forced to abandon their homes, the houses they wanted to live in, not just because they were looking for a better place to live, but because capitalism, when it is pressured and shows its teeth, leaves no room for choice. The “invisible hand” of the market is armed, along with the hands of some willing ones, to “clear” with any human presence that is an obstacle to its needs, which is the necessary profitability.
Steinbeck dedicates almost a third of his book to discussing the political, economic, and social situation of the residents being uprooted from Oklahoma, focusing on how this process is expressed on a more personal level through family relationships, and preparing the reader to follow “the damned of the earth” on a journey towards false or real hope, fully knowing where they come from and why they are leaving.
Do people who are uprooted from their homes today share common characteristics? Is war the “armed hand” of capitalism, which for profit engages in conflicts where millions of people have learned to stay and live? Are there families who do not want to leave, and when they do decide to do so, are they ready to reach surreal levels of cynicism in order to get back their stolen lives?
Steinbeck doesn’t stop there, but he shapes characters that are exactly in the crosshairs of those who “close their eyes” to this parallelism. The central character of the story has been released from prison on bail and is essentially illegal if he leaves the borders of the state. The reason he went to prison is almost random and the characteristics of his personality unfold generously within the pages of the book. Does anyone find another parallel in the fate of poor people who even in their own place are from one day to the next, “for a mistake” on the targeted side of any society?
The portrayal of the family, their exploitation in the land they leave behind, by people who drive them away but also by those who profit from their need to leave, is written in detail and one wonders if an old Ford, ready to collapse and leave a family to starve in the snowy Rocky Mountains, has any connection today with an inflatable boat that crosses an imaginary line in the frozen waters of some ocean.
The place of arrival and the place of pursuing one’s dream is not ideal either. Is it enough that someone has the appropriate citizenship to be accepted in an area where they go to claim their life, constitutionally and legally? Steinbeck shows that racism can find support in locality and color, but its essence lies in class exploitation. Poor uprooted Americans are treated as mice by the “privileged” Americans, who essentially protect their right to exploit and overexploit the wretched masses through violent reception.
The analogy with what we experience around us today, we residents of the “Western States,” can be found in one of the small chapters that describe the author’s general thoughts as interjections in the narration of the main story.
“THE WESTERN LAND, nervous under the beginning change. The Western States, nervous as horses before a thunder storm. The great owners, nervous, sensing a change, knowing nothing of the nature of the change. The great owners, striking at the immediate thing, the widening government, the growing labor unity; striking new taxes, at plans; not knowing these things are results, not causes. Results, not causes; results, not causes. The causes lie deep and simply – the causes are a hunger in a stomach, multiplied a million times; a hunger in a single soul, hunger for joy and some security, multiplied a million times; muscles and mind aching to grow, to work, to create, multiplied a million times. The last clear definite function of a man – muscles aching to work, minds aching to create beyond the single need – this is man. […]
The land company – that’s the bank when it has land – wants tractors, not families on the land. Is a tractor bad? Is the power that turns the long furrows wrong? If this tractor were ours it would be good – not mine, but ours. If our tractor turned the long furrows of our land, it would be good. Not my land, but ours. […]
If you who own the things people must have could understand this, you might preserve yourself. If you could separate causes from results, if you could know that Paine, Marx, Jefferson, Lenin, were results, not causes, you might survive. But that you cannot know. For the quality of owning freezes you forever into “I,” and cuts you off forever from the “we.” […]”
The Grapes of Wrath – John Steinbeck, Chapter 14
The residents of the Western States, who are affected by the flows of “migrants”, organize almost mafia-like mechanisms through which they sell fear and hope every day to the uprooted who come from the interior. If this reminds us of something nowadays, surely the presence of the corresponding organization is not a random inspiration of some “crazy” people but the same rotten face from the decay of every society, which must be eliminated accordingly with organization.
For this reason, Steinbeck does not just focus on presenting the exploitation but goes further in narrating the real pursuit of the dream. It is the organization of the destitute that allows them to claim their lives on better terms, to work as employees and not as slaves. That is why their organization becomes the target of the “natives,” the “privileged,” the “middle-class” who, where the state’s mechanisms cannot reach, reach them with their weapons and their gangster-like organization.
For this reason, Steinbeck’s story was not only written in America in the ’30s, but it is so fully presented that one can find it intact in countless places around the world as long as there is exploitation, and more specifically, as long as there is capitalism. Its last page has not been written, as the work ends in a cliffhanger, in a calm scene, leaving us to imagine how things might evolve in the boiling society around us. We must all write this last page together, as Steinbeck took the trouble to summarize what was needed in all the previous pages.