Now as then: The Grapes of Wrath

Kern County, California. Household equipment of Oklahoma family along highway in small construction camp. (National Archives)
Household equipment of an Oklahoma family along a highway in Kern County, California. (National Archives)

I enjoy reading before bed. But I’ve discovered that I can’t read most modern fiction or any nonfiction—it’s too interesting and keeps me awake. I save that stuff for commuting or when I otherwise want an escape hatch to a different world.

Over the past several years, I’ve discovered—and, in some cases, rediscovered—difficult fiction, mostly capital-L Literature and mostly long, to read before bed. I find that having to use my brain in this way exhausts it, for the most part.

Austen, Dickens, Trollope. Gissing, Tolstoy, James. Hawthorne, Cather, Fitzgerald. I read Gone With the Wind for the first time last year, and it is so good. So horrifically racist! But so good.

I’ve learned a lot, and I’ve learned a lot about myself. But mostly what I’ve learned is that much, if not all, of what these great authors wrote is universal, insightful and exceedingly relevant today. Anna Karenina is my emotional intensity. David Copperfield is my spirit animal.

I began reading The Grapes of Wrath in early November. After the election, I couldn’t pick it back up. I couldn’t do much, to be honest. The day after the heartbreaking loss, my spouse and I moved the TV and cable box into the bedroom and didn’t leave the bed until the following Monday, alternately crying, shaking our heads and otherwise going through the stages of grief. It’s fair to say I’ve been disillusioned. And I’ve been struggling.

I’ve turned toward history for explanations. I’ve been reading about Nixon and Boss Tweed. I’ve been trying to find precedent. Past is prologue and all that.

In mid-December, I rewatched the documentary The Dust Bowl, which is now streaming. It reminded me of the horrors of the worst man-made ecological disaster this country has ever experienced. It reminded me that I wrote a long blog post a few years ago, when I first saw the Ken Burns documentary on PBS, about how the media industry today is very much like farmers during the Dust Bowl (doing more with less, coping with disruptive technology, praying for a miracle solution, losing self-respect, folding up the tent and trying something new but not knowing what that is). And it reminded me that I should pick back up on The Grapes of Wrath, which, if you don’t know, concerns the Joad family, poor Oklahoma tenant farmers who are forced from their land by drought and nefarious bankers. They load up their possessions and travel to California seeking jobs but find only misery.

A family from Oklahoma works in a cotton field. Note the house, which is built almost entirely of packing boxes. (National Archives)

Reading this book now, knowing who will soon be president and who elected him; knowing there are refugees who need help, not hate; knowing this man will massively block immigration and massively increase deportation; knowing he will give tax breaks to the corporations and fat cats who need them least; knowing intimately the fear he strikes in the hearts of anyone who isn’t male, white, Christian and straight. This is the state of mind in which I read The Grapes of Wrath, and it was like Steinbeck fired an arrow in 1939 that landed at my feet in 2017.

I want to share some quotes from the book. Some capture my feelings about trying to forge a career in the media industry today. Some are about how it feels to be Other, to be struggling, to be forlorn, to be without hope. Most are about the America I forgot existed—the dark America whose hatred would propel it to elect to its highest office an unqualified, petty dictator with a history of sexual assault and deceit. The America that has seemingly not changed since 1939, when Steinbeck wrote these words, or since the Civil Rights Act of 1964, or since Obergefell v. Hodges in 2015.

“If ya don’ wanta take what they pay, goddamn it, they’s a thousand men waitin’ for your job.” —Hooverville stranger to Tom Joad

“I ain’t no good anymore. Spen’ all my time a-thinkin’ how it use’ ta be.” —Pa Joad

In the West there was panic when the migrants multiplied on the highways. Men of property were terrified for their property. Men who had never been hungry saw the eyes of the hungry. Men who had never wanted anything very much saw the flare of want in the eyes of the migrants. And the men of the towns and of the soft suburban country gathered to defend themselves; and they reassured themselves that they were good and the invaders bad, as a man must do before he fights. They said, These goddamned Okies are dirty and ignorant. They’re degenerate, sexual maniacs. These goddamned Okies are thieves. They’ll steal anything.

The great owners, striking at the immediate thing, the widening government, the growing labor unity; striking at 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 the stomach, multiplied a million times; the 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.

“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 and crawl.” —Tom Joad

They live on beans, the business men said. They don’t need much. They wouldn’t know what to do with good wages. Why, look how they live. Why, look what they eat. And if they get funny—deport them.

“I’m learnin’ one thing good. 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.” —Ma Joad

Repression works only to strengthen and knit the repressed.

This you may say of man—when theories change and crash, when schools, philosophies, when narrow dark alleys of thought, national, religious, economic, grow and disintegrate, man reaches, stumbles forward, mistakenly sometimes. Having stepped forward, he may slip back, but only a half step, never the full step back.

Families from Oklahoma, Texas and Arkansas settled throughout Weedpatch, in Kern County, California, and brought their church institutions with them. (National Archives)
Families from Oklahoma, Texas, and Arkansas rapidly settled throughout Weedpatch, in Kern County, California, and brought their church institutions with them. (National Archives)

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