The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck (1939,1992)

I haven’t read this since high school, and I’m not even sure we read the whole thing back then.  What I remember most is watching the movie in the auditorium with the entire sophomore class and being dumbfounded by the dust bowl images.  If we actually read the book, I didn’t get much out of it (as I recall, the focus of sophomore English was learning to read the newspaper.   I think this was the late 70’s “New English” approach).  What surprised me the most in reading Grapes of Wrath today is how relevant this novel is to current economic times.  While we are not in a depression, we certainly live in a society of have and have-nots, a society of displaced people, and a society of fear: do what it takes to keep the status quo for the wealthy.  As I was finishing the book, the BBC ran a program on parallels between Steinbeck’s book and life today, interviewing middle class folks living on mattresses in a make-shift shelter after losing their jobs and Oklahoma cattle farmers struggling to keep their farms after suffering the worst drought since the 30’s and Arizona immigrants trying to feed their kids while risking deportation knowing that their decrepit living conditions are still better than those in Mexico.  Perhaps today’s economic crisis is the closest we’ve come to the Depression with the huge number of Americans seeking work due to downsizing, outsourcing, and technological advancement.  Steinbeck personifies the tractor as a monster eating up several families’ labor and the tractor driver as a sell out, one with no connection to the land.  Today, one computer can do the work of 10 or 100 or 1000 people, and it has no human connection to the office (or factory).  Today, jobs are outsourced to countries where people will work for lower wages just as the San Joaquin farmers attracted thousands of men to fill a few hundred jobs, thereby driving down wages.  And in both eras, agribusiness (think Monsanto and ConArga), with their government subsidies and huge crop-small margins model, put small, multi-crop farmers out of business. Yet, should we eschew technological advancement in favor of maintaining traditional methods?  Should we employ a million Bartleby-the-Scriveners instead of using a printing press or a computer?  Where do we draw the line between modernization that betters society and modernization that hinders it? Migrant workers needed organized labor for a fair wage.  Do we still need organized labor today?  Steinbeck’s issues didn’t end with the depression.  They continue to rage today.

That said, Steinbeck’s message is a bit overbearing at times.  Too often he makes the poor our to be perfect and the wealthy out to be evil.  In his effort to drive home his social criticism, he shoots himself in the foot a bit with his heavy-handed approach.  But perhaps he felt that was the only way to bring attention to this cause.  Perhaps without this book it would have taken that much longer for conditions to improve, for unions to organize, and for migrant workers to make enough money to feed their children.  A few images from this book will be forever implanted into my brain: fried dough for dinner; cherries and pears rotting on the ground because it’s more expensive to pick them than they’re worth; and the final scene with Rose of Sharon and the starving man in the barn. I wish there were fewer connections to the realities of today, but unfortunately the book is more relevant to 2011 than Steinbeck could ever have imagined.  (fiction)

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