by Elizabeth J. Rosenthal
What’s this country coming to? What’s the world coming to? People ask these questions daily, reacting to wave after wave of bad or scary news. Here in the U.S., gun violence is out of control. The wealth gap between rich and poor probably hasn’t been this wide since the days of the late 19th century Robber Barons. America’s infrastructure is in serious disrepair. Americans fear terrorist attacks on U.S. soil, and we’ve actually had a few in the last several years, although, thankfully, nothing remotely approaching the scale of 9-11. Overseas, millions have been displaced by war, disease, famine, and natural disasters, and millions more have died.
I’m here to reassure people that – believe it or not – it’s not really that bad. We’ve got nothing on the 1930s! Nothing! Overseas, Italy’s Fascist leader, Mussolini, had been in power since the early 1920s. In 1933, Hitler seized power in Germany and, while commencing domestic screw-turning on minorities like the Jews, began dropping hints that Deutschland needed more living space. Japan, ruled by an imperial government dominated by extreme militarists, invaded China, and signed a military pact with Hitler and Mussolini. Less than 20 years since the end of the Great War, which until then had been the bloodiest and most barbaric ever fought, powerful nations were again threatening aggression, which was inherently unsettling, even in a U.S. gripped by isolationism.
At home in the 1930s, the impact of the Great Depression on ordinary Americans was profound. The stock market crash of October 1929, and its cascading effects over a period of years, ultimately threw one-quarter to one-third of the U.S. labor force out of work. When people lost their jobs, they had nothing to fall back on. Thousands of banks across the country were failing and savings accounts wiped out. There was no such thing as unemployment compensation. For those who had work, there was no minimum wage; these “lucky” working people were often paid so little that they couldn’t afford food or clothing or gas for the car to look elsewhere for a better job (if one existed), or to keep a roof over their heads. There was no right to unionize in hopes of negotiating a living wage or a more humane work schedule. There were no food stamps or other public assistance, nor support for starving children or babies. On top of that, even before the Depression hit, too many Americans were already living hand-to-mouth. And Great Depression or no Great Depression, in the fourth decade of the 20th century millions of families across the U.S. still had no electricity or running water. This was the America of March 4, 1933, the date on which Franklin D. Roosevelt took office as president.
Despite the remarkable achievements of the New Deal, including arresting the downward spiral of the economy, stabilizing banking, instituting relief programs, and employing huge numbers of people to do useful things that private enterprise was not going to do, the enormity of the country’s problems was so great that, by the mid-30s, too many people were still suffering too much on too large a scale. Business interests were launching legal challenges to New Deal programs and local communities who didn’t want “those” people to be helped in their neighborhoods began pushing back. “I see millions of families trying to live on incomes so meager that the pall of family disaster hangs over them day by day,” declared President Roosevelt in his 1937 second inaugural address. “I see one-third of a nation ill-housed, ill-clad, ill-nourished.”
In the middle of all this, the Dust Bowl happened. It has been called the worst environmental disaster in U.S. history, a terrible legacy from too many years of terrible farming practices, combined with a historic drought, that ruined the soil and turned huge portions of nine states, including Oklahoma, Texas, and Kansas, into deserts of swirling dust storms that blackened the sky and ruined farms, homes, livelihoods, lungs, and lives. This crisis led to the biggest migration of people in U.S. history. Over the course of the decade, an estimated 2.5 million people were ultimately displaced, with hundreds of thousands, desperate for work, making the arduous journey to California by any means possible.
This brings me to John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath. Widely considered to be one of the greatest works of literature in the English language, or in any language, Wrath was a timely novel with its 1939 publication. Like Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle 30 years earlier, Steinbeck’s Wrath exposed the heartbreaking economic and social injustices heaped upon a vulnerable American population. In Jungle, it was the exploitation of poor eastern European immigrants in Chicago; in Wrath, it was the struggle for survival of dispossessed “Okies.” Like Jungle, Wrath focuses on one sympathetic family headed by one heroic, male protagonist. In Jungle, the protagonist was newlywed Jurgis Rudkus, just arrived in the U.S. from Lithuania along with his extended family; in Wrath, it was young Tom Joad, newly released from an Oklahoma prison after serving a minimum sentence for a case of self-defense the law called a “homicide.” Both men were at or near their physical apex and naively hopeful of enjoying a fresh start.
Jurgis and Tom both assumed that they could pick up where they left off before the break between old life and new. The Lithuanian would just show up at a meat-packing plant, be selected because he was so big and strong, work really hard, make lots of money, and move up in the world. He rejected warnings that things could go very wrong: “That is well enough for people like you… puny fellows – but my back is broad.” Tom, with a criminal record, looked forward to working the farm with his own extended sharecropping family. “I’m goin’ to my old man’s place so I don’t have to lie to get a job.” The truck driver he was hitching a ride with was surprised at Tom’s confidence. “A forty-acre cropper and he ain’t been dusted out and he ain’t been tractored out?” “Well,” said Tom, “I ain’t heard lately. I never was no hand to write, nor my old man neither.”
Jurgis and Tom were both due for a rude awakening. Jurgis’s was more incremental than Tom’s. Calamity befell one Rudkus family member after another. Illnesses and work-related injuries sidelined cousin, father, and finally, Jurgis himself. The small children of Aunt Elzbieta would have to work, too. Jurgis’s wife, Ona, was forced into prostitution by his boss; then she died, along with their only child. Jurgis’s long odyssey to becoming a radical took years, and the book ended like a political tract rather than a story, with long passages of preachy language uttered by activists exhorting Jurgis and his fellows to join the Socialists: “There are a million people, men and women and children, who share the curse of the wage-slave; who toil every hour they can stand and see, for just enough to keep them alive; who are condemned till the end of their days to monotony and weariness, to hunger and misery, to heat and cold, to dirt and disease, to ignorance and drunkenness and vice!” Author Upton Sinclair ensured that no one missed his point, so he used a cudgel where a poker would have done just as well.
Tom Joad’s odyssey was shorter; Steinbeck had a knack for interweaving his beliefs into the dialogue and the plot. His points were folksier and filled with more genuine emotion. If he couldn’t convey exactly what he wanted through his characters, he put the plight of the Joad family and the other migrants into context with short chapters of Bible-style declaratives that gently broke up the story’s narrative.
What living in dust was like: “All day the dust sifted down from the sky, and the next day it sifted down. An even blanket covered the earth. It settled on the corn, piled on the tops of the fence posts, piled up on the wires; it settled on roofs, blanketed the weeds and trees.”
What being forced out of their homes by the big banks or large, absentee owners was like: “The owners of the land came onto the land, or more often a spokesman for the owners came. They came in closed cars, and they felt the dry earth with their fingers, and sometimes they drove big earth augers into the ground for soil tests…. The Bank – or the Company – needs – wants – insists – must have – as though the bank or the Company were a monster, with thought and feeling, which had ensnared them…. And the owner men explained the workings and the thinkings of the monster that was stronger than they were.”
What it looked like to have their homes ploughed under: “Across the dooryard the tractor cut… The iron guard bit into the house-corner, crumbled the wall, and wrenched the little house from its foundation so that it fell sideways….”
What it was like to leave the Dust Bowl for California: “People in flight along [Route] 66. And the concrete road shone like a mirror under the sun, and in the distance the heat made it seem that there were pools of water in the road.”
Tom Joad returned from prison to his hometown of Sallisaw in his only clothes – his prison-issued suit, shoes and hat – and walked down dusty and desolate roads, to find that his family was gone; the house was ploughed under; the Joads had gone to live with Uncle John, whose house was safe for the moment, until they were ready to head West. Tom and a homeless, ex-preacher named Casy arrived at Uncle John’s just in time for the long journey. Tom and Casy and Ma and Pa and Grampa and Granma and Uncle John; brother Noah; 18-year-old, pregnant Rosasharn (actually “Rose of Sharon”) and her immature husband Connie Rivers; horny, 16-year-old, brother Al; and children Ruthie and Winfield - plus the dog – all piled into a used 1925 Hudson Super Six Coach that they had just purchased and converted into a kind of truck. Neatly organized and stacked were mattresses, tarpaulin, essential household items, and salted meat from two just-slaughtered hogs. The Joads also took with them all the money they had in the world, a little over one hundred dollars.
As a parolee, Tom wasn’t supposed to leave the state, and if he got into even minor trouble outside Oklahoma, he could be arrested and sent back from whence he came. But he had no choice; there was nothing to keep him in Oklahoma, and he had to be with his family.
The trip to California was, at best, monotonous and uncomfortable. They drove through heat and rain and nighttime and daytime, hour after hour and day after day, up mountains and into valleys, with stops along rivers, creeks, and streams at camp grounds that took an unwelcome bite out of the family budget. Despite having just been reunited with everyone after four years, Tom was the leader and moral center of the Joads. And he was very much needed as they slowly lost family members: the dog was run over by a car; Grampa and then Granma passed away; Noah, the oldest sibling, feeling alienated, left the Joads to make his way alone; and, once they reached California, Rosasharn’s husband Connie disappeared, while Casy surrendered to authorities for a physical altercation he had had with an uncaring, reckless sheriff’s deputy. Almost all of this is told by means of dialogue, in the vernacular, which is probably the easiest way to get to know the characters.
When Wilson and sickly Sairy’s car broke down – the Joads had met the couple at their first camping stop and they teamed up for much of the rest of the trip (“We got almost a kin bond,” said Pa) – panic set in; they were low on funds, food and gas, short on time, and without replacement auto parts. Teenage Al, who had taken charge of the truck and much of the driving, fancied himself an auto mechanic, but deferred to Tom, the handiest of the Joads. Tom advised: “We got to get a new part an’ hone her an’ shim her an’ fit her. Good day’s job.” He suggested that everyone but him and Casy keep going: “Me an’Casy’ll stop here an’ fix this here car an’ then we drive on, day an’ night, an’ we’ll catch up, or if we don’t meet on the road, you’ll be a-workin’ [in California] anyways.” But Ma was so stressed that, in an irrational fury, she threatened the family with a jack handle, and rejected Tom’s idea: “All we got is the family unbroken. Like a bunch a cows, when the lobos are ranging, stick all together. I ain’t scared while we’re all here… but I ain’t gonna see us bust up.” Tom, wiser and less easily rattled than everyone else, reminded Ma that Granma needed shade and water, neither of which was available where the car had broken down. The wise son directed the others: “Al, you drive the folks on an’ get ‘em camped, an’ then you bring the truck back here. Me an’ the preacher’ll get the pan off. Then, if we can make it, we’ll run in Santa Rosa an’ try an’ get a con-rod [connecting rod].”
On the road, the Joads had little opportunity to eat, drink, bathe, or wash their clothes. They struggled to keep their “decency,” as Tom put it, and by that he meant their dignity, but they couldn’t help but be hungry, thirsty, exhausted to the point of numbness, and filthy. When they reached California, their unsightly possessions thrown willy-nilly in the back of the truck after days and days of packing and unpacking, the well-scrubbed natives recoiled in horror. A white-uniformed employee of a service station where the Joads stopped for gas remarked afterward: “Them goddamn Okies got no sense and no feeling. They ain’t human. A human being wouldn’t live like they do. A human being couldn’t stand it to be so dirty and miserable. They ain’t a hell of a lot better than gorillas.”
In California, the Joads faced one indignity after another. They and other families abandoned one migrant camp because the locals threatened to burn it down if they didn’t. The Joads reluctantly left the “government camp” they found, one of 18 established in California by Roosevelt’s Farm Security Administration – a democratically-run place with running water, toilets, showers, and tubs, country dances on Saturday night, and an opportunity for migrants to work on site for their rent – because, without paying work, they could never get ahead, no matter how wonderful the camp was. So it was back to squalor and hunting for work as far as the meager gas they could afford would take them.
(The government camps were also under threat from the locals, who were eager to stage a violent incident so that deputies could go in and “clean out the camp,” as one kindly small farm owner warned Tom and some eager-to-work companions, and explained the prevailing point of view among the large farm owners: “Those folks in the camp are getting used to being treated like humans. When they go back to the squatters’ camps they’ll be hard to handle.”)
The fruit- and cotton-picking jobs, which everyone wanted, and which migrant children also worked, were few compared to the number of migrants seeking employment, and of short duration. The companies happily hired as many migrants as wanted to stick around, regardless of pay, and proceeded to lower everyone’s already low daily wages to well below subsistence level.
The tipping point in Wrath came when the beloved Casy was murdered right in front of Tom. It happened after Tom tiptoed out of a squatters’ camp at night to see why the authorities were surrounding the area, and he literally stumbled upon Casy, who, released from jail, had joined other striking migrants and was camping with them in the shadows. Casy explained why they were on strike: “Lookie, Tom…. We come to work there. They says it’s gonna be fi’ cents. They was a hell of a lot of us. We got there an’ they says they’re payin’ two an’ a half cents. A fella can’t even eat on that, an’ if he got kids – So we says we won’t take it. So they druv us off. An’ all the cops in the worl’ come down on us.”
Deputies wielding clubs found the hiding place of the striking men. Startled, Casy told the officers, “You fellas don’ know what you’re doin’. You’re helpin’ to starve kids.” A deputy called him a “red son-of-a-bitch” and smashed in his head with a club. Tom reflexively grabbed the same club and killed the deputy with it; he, in turn, received a blow in the face from another deputy. Badly wounded, Tom fled. Now a fugitive, he must separate himself from the remaining Joads to keep them from trouble, even though they depended for their well-being on his common sense and stoicism. Ma begged him to stay. “Pa’s lost his place,” Ma said. “He ain’t the head no more. We’re crackin’ up, Tom. There ain’t no fambly now.”
Eventually, Ma accepted that Tom had to leave, but she worried that he would be killed. He movingly told her that, even so, he would be present: “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…. And when our folks eat the stuff they raise an’ live in the houses they build – why, I’ll be there.”
And here is where the dichotomy between The Grapes of Wrath and Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle is broadest. Jungle never approached the eloquence of Wrath. Jurgis Rudkus was unable, probably, to put his plight and the plight of his family, and others like them, into words. Other, tangential characters – Socialist thinkers – did this for him, in stilted, abstract language. He and most everyone else in Jungle seemed distant from the reader, symbols rather than human beings. Tom Joad, especially, and other important characters in Wrath, internalized, embodied, and recounted the message of the book throughout its pages, while the Biblical cadence of the author’s narrative – between scenes, as it were – contextualized what was happening to the Joads. Yet Wrath’s message of economic and social justice is very similar to that in Jungle.
The very existence of The Jungle has been reduced to a factoid that children learn in school, that the book was simply an expose of the disgusting slaughterhouse practices and working conditions of big-city meat-packing plants, and that these things led to the Meat Inspection Act and the Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906. No one knows Jurgis Rudkus or his extended family now, and the long, political speeches at the end of the book remain largely unread today. But it’s impossible to read The Grapes of Wrath without shedding a tear over the plight of the Joads and the other migrants, and the social and economic web that held them captive and was destroying their lives. You loved the Joads, who tried so hard and so unsuccessfully to better themselves, and you viscerally hated what was happening to them. This is one reason of many why The Grapes of Wrath is so memorable, so treasured, and, despite its 1930s setting, so timeless.
(c) Elizabeth J. Rosenthal 2016, all rights reserved
A blog about everything: Abraham Lincoln, birds, Jewish history, Elton John, classic literature (Henry James, John Steinbeck vs. Upton Sinclair), America's gun problem, and who-knows-what-else.
by Elizabeth J. Rosenthal