where the writers are

There is no denying John Steinbeck's brilliance. I feel that his best work is "East of Eden", but "The Grapes of Wrath" is a monumental work, probably the one that captures his political sensibilities and the times he wrote about better than any. "Grapes" has character development, pathos, irony and social commentary, all biting, poignant and loving at the same time. Its political message is Socialist. The problem with this is that it offers great misery, packaged in the plight of the Joad family and Okies headed to California during the Dust Bowl '30s, but it does not offer solutions. Business owners, capitalists, policemen and authority figures are fairly evenly displayed as unfeeling, selfish, sometimes racist, and mean.

What Steinbeck chose not to do was to see the 1930s from their standpoint. The message would seem to indicate that he advocated that the government just handle all the Okies' problems, but this creates some problems. First, the FDR Administration did more in this regard than any previous government, or any since, possibly. With this in mind, then the question devolves into the conclusion that government intervention is not the answer.

The question I kept asking was, Why do roadside business owners or cops or others barely struggling during terrible times owe something to these Okies? From the Christian standpoint, they do. But the Okies had no job skills. They offered little. They were not marketable. They were willing to work, but they could not do anything other than manual labor.

It is easy to criticize them for coming to California where there were more people than jobs, but they apparently were coerced into it by misleading flyers advertising fruit waiting to be picked and jobs aplenty.

In the light of historical retrospect, the unsaid message of this book at its time was that the people described would be "saved" if they lived in Communism. Those who flirted with Communism in America in the 1930s can be excused, considering the times. But Steinbeck was an educated man, and by the time he finished this book, the basic facts about Stalin's Russia were known. Russia was in shambles, millions had already been murdered, starved and imprisoned. It was hell on Earth. Steinbeck had to know, if not every gory detail, enough to establish the fact that Communism was utterly evil.

This left him, it seems, between a rock and a hard place, which was the big problem for all the Communists and fellow travelers in the West. The Utopian ideal does not adhere to reality. In the end, "Grapes" describes misery and plays to guilt, a powerful strategy.

What history tells us is that the "answer" to the Okies' predicament, while not perfect, while not timely, was in the end the fact that they lived in America, which to paraphrase Chuirchill is "the worst country known to man with the exception of all other countries known to man."

To live in America offered more hope and more chance of success to these people than all other Earthly possibility. Steinbeck does not portray that. He does not necessarily deserve to be excoriated for it; it would require perhaps more vision than he had in light of his publication and probable editorial time constraints. However, travel the California landscape today and one will find the children and grandchildren of these Okies, and they will mainly tell you stories of struggle that ended in various forms of happiness and success for the ancestors of the Okies.

Despite any political differences, Steinbeck is a writer of such talent and inner greatness that it cannot be denied.



2 Comment count
Comment Bubble Tip

Origin of Evil


I found intriguing your insights on Steinback's sociological analysis. As you undoubtedly know, a key issue therein originates in the centuries-old nature-nuture argument.  The "romantic" or idealistic conception of humanity (the "noble savage") includes the idea of its innate goodness that Steinbeck echoes/endorses in his depiction of the Joad family;  whereas a more realistic (some might say "cynical") point of view is Thomas Hobbes' famous quote that, were it not for civilizing institutions, life in a state of nature for human beings would be "solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short." 

A variation of this theme occurs in JULIUS CAESAR when Cassius observes to Brutus that, "the fault...is not in our stars but in ourselves, that we are underlings,"  the stars, of course, being all the fated "givens" or circumstances of our existential predicament from cosmic to societal ones, in which we find ourselves.   It is a message of self-responsibility that is  unpopular if not rejected  in our current age, wouldn't you agree?


Comment Bubble Tip

Could not have said it better

Could not have said it better myself.