Extremism weakens an argument and such is the case with Gardner in the following excerpt from his The Art of Fiction: "One trouble with having read nothing worth reading is that one never fully understands the other side of one's argument, never understands that the argument is an old one (all great arguments are), never understands the dignity and worth of the people one has cast as enemies. Witness John Steinbeck's failure in The Grapes of Wrath. It should have been one of America's great books. but while Steinbeck knew all there was to know about Okies and the countless sorrows of their move to California to find work, he knew nothing about the California ranchers who employed and exploited them; he had no clue to , or interest in, their reasons for behaving as they did; and the result is that Steinbeck wrote not a great and firm novel but a disappointing melodrama in which complex good is pitted against unmitigated, unbelievable evil."
Gardner's as entitled to his opinion as anyone, but his position is undermined by his obvious errors in fact and his narrow-minded rhetoric. Steinbeck did not know "all there was to know" about Okies, nor did he claim to. He knew less about "Okies" than he did about the ranchers, around whom he'd grown up and for whom he'd worked as a farm laborer himself. His uncle Hamilton, whom he adored, owned and lived on a ranch. Johneven worked as a chemist in a Spreckels sugar factory in Manteca, CA, the middle of the San Joaquin Valley. He was on solid ground because of first-hand knowledge of the agribusiness community. He didn't just read about it as a classroom assignment; he lived it.
Gardner, and I've a good deal of respect for his work and particularly his influence on Raymond Carver, was largely wrong about The Grapes of Wrath. The book was never intended as a dissertation on agronomic history. Its intent was to spotlight for the nation and for the world a massive horrific social injustice. It was a call to action so that lives could be saved. And they were. The book may have even prevented a communist revolution.
I agree with Gardner to an extent that it would have been a richer novel to show at least one corporate farmer who cared about the workers, but that wouldn't have been realistic. It was the smaller farmers who showed sympathy for the migrants. Steinbeck could have digressed and shown that but it would have little purpose than balance and would have slowed down an already cumbersome volume.
Indeed, the book could have gone much farther in depicting how the wealthy farm interests organized against the workers. Via the Associated Farmers of America, farmers and bankers and other agribusiess interests organized to lobby against anything that gave the laborers strength. And they went far beyond mere lobbying. They were known for violence against anything that resembled worker organization, including the federally backed labor camps who provided sanitary living facilities.
Steinbeck stopped short of naming the AFA and he barely scratched the surface of their brutality in the book (nor did John Ford in the film). The AFA got off lightly.
The best rebuttal I have found to the argument that Steinbeck exaggerated the plight of the migrating Okies comes from the right-leaning filmmaker, Daryl Zanuck, executive producer of the film version of The Grapes of Wrath. Zanuck had his people do their own investigation and found the conditions worse than portrayed in the book.
Conditions today for farm workers are much better but still sub-optimum and anyone who expresses concern for them is still viewed with suspicion or labeled a socialist or a communist. I worked for a large farming operation in the San Joaquin Valley from 1987-1992, and I've rubbed elbows with the bankers, the insurers and the owners. I also worked for a supplier of agri-chemicals and fertilizers.
Agribusiness in the San Joaquin and Imperial Valleys of California is unbelievably productive and profitable, but people died to make that happen. And the vast majority weren't the ranch owners; they were the poor and powerless. It is fitting and proper that the ugly history of the California agribusiness miracle be preserved, lest it be repeated.
I wish Gardner were still around to contribute to the discussion. He left us way too soon.
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