Saturday, December 21, 2019

John Steinbeck, The Grapes of Wrath


Opening Passage:

To the red country and part of the gray country of Oklahoma, the last rains came gently, and they did not cut the scarred earth. The plows crossed and recrossed the rivulet marks. The last rains lifted the corn quickly and scattered weed colonies and grass along the sides of the roads so that they gray country and the dark red country began to disappear under a green cover. In the last part of May the sky grew pale and the clouds that had hung in high puffs for so long in the spring were dissipated. The sun flared down on the growing corn day after day until a line of brown spread along the edge of each green bayonet. The clouds appeared, and went away, and in a while they did not try any more. The weeds grew darker green to protect themselves, and they did not spread any more. The surface of the earth crusted, a thin hard crust, and as the sky became pale, so the earth became pale, pink in the red country and white in the gray country.

Summary: The banks have been evicting small farmers and repossessing their farms in the aftermath of the Dust Bowl. The Joads are among them, and they pile all of the possessions they can into their rickety Hudson and head out for California. All sorts of handbills have been sent out asking for people to pick fruit, so surely there's work there. As they travel, however, a number of warning signs begin to develop: they meet a lot of other people doing the same, and everywhere they go, people are worn down with all the people passing through to get jobs in California. And in California itself, they find vast numbers of people looking for jobs, jumping on every employment opportunity they can find. The whole state is awash with migrant workers, and not enough jobs for them all. Which, of course, is deliberate.

When you have a large population of migrant workers, it's never the case that they just happened to be looking for a job and then were exploited. A large population of migrant workers is always, always, a sign of highly exploitative conditions that are making that flood of migrants. Say you are a landowner, growing fruit on your land for a nice price. You need fruit-pickers -- let's say a couple hundred. You hear about another area that is struggling economically. So you send out handbills, perhaps twenty thousand, promising work. You see, if you just sent out enough handbills to get your couple hundred workers, you'd have to pay them well. But if you ask for a couple hundred and five thousand show up, you can make your wages low, low, low, and desperate people will still jump on them in order to feed their children. Of course, you could just hire your couple hundred and try to pay them well anyway, but then the Farmer's Association might come around and tell you that if you keep paying your workers well, it will cause unrest among all the other workers hired by other people, and they can't have that; they will make sure that you never get a loan from the bank again -- risky investment, raising wages like that when you could pay so much less. If you're really savvy, you can get your pick of workers out in the middle of nowhere by paying wages that are moderately nice, at first, but collect some of it back by a company store. Your company store can sell at a higher price than they could get in town; if the cost is still less than they cost of the gasoline they would have to use driving back and forth, what else will they do but return some of your money to you, at a further profit to you? And as the numbers of workers build up, hoping desperately for a job, you can cut wages. And what will they do? They could go on strike, but you can pay for strikebreakers at the wages you started with, and lower those, too, when the police have helped you break the strike. Populations of economic migrants do not spontaneously arise like magic; they are created by people who benefit from them.

It's a self-interested system, not one that arises rationally from the actual needs of the situation. Steinbeck, in one of his semi-poetic interludes to the Joad family's troubles, and one of the candidates for my favorite passage, has a striking description of orange growers burning and destroying oranges to keep the price of oranges up:

The works of the roots of the vines, of the trees, must be destroyed to keep up the price, and this is the saddest, bitterest thing of all. Carloads of oranges dumped on the ground. The people came for miles to take the fruit, but this could not be. How would they buy oranges at twenty cents a dozen if they could drive out and pick them up? And men with hoses squirt kerosene on the oranges, and they are angry at the crime, angry at the people who have come to take the fruit. A million people hungry, needing the fruit—and kerosene sprayed over the golden mountains.

And the smell of rot fills the country.

It is profiteering by the cultivation of waste. No one may have the crumbs because they might not then buy the bread. If the poor can have the gleanings, you might not be able to squeeze a few dollars more out of them. So many people capable of doing so many things, and you waste all that ability by getting them into one place competing for a few jobs, just so you can keep the payroll costs down. The extra oranges must be burned, so that you can still charge twenty cents an orange for oranges gathered at two or three cents a crate. And the smell of rot fills the country.

The book is stylistically a bit uneven, I think; I'm not sure that Steinbeck quite manages to integrate the Joad passages with the more poetic passages in a completely adequate way. But the prose poetry is very effective at making this a novel not just about the Joads but about an entire country of which they are merely representatives.

I also listened to NBC University Theater's version of the story, which stars Jane Darwell, who had won an Academy Award for the same role in the more famous movie:

Like the movie, and perhaps a bit more so, it is fairly faithful, allowing for differences of medium. However, one thing that struck me is that both the movie and the radio play are more hopeful than the book is. When we get a phrase like "the people go on", said by Jane Darwell playing the role with all of her talent, it sounds like hope. But the Ma Joad of the book is not so much hopeful as practical; 'the people go on' is not an aspiration but a statement of a practical fact. The people go on because that's all there is to do, and they are used to doing it. It's not about looking to the future but about surviving today. The book is not without its version of hope, but it's not an exalting hope but the confined and limited hope that comes from making do, something a bit less like what we usually think of as hope and a bit more like relief at not having died yet. And with respect to the future, the overall tone of the book, as opposed to the movie and the radio episodes, has no hopeful tinge, but rather an ominous one: the grapes of wrath are being trampled out as the poor are being crushed, and there will be a reckoning.

Favorite Passage:

Ma studied him. Her hand went blindly out and put the little bag of sugar on the pile in her arm. "Thanks to you," she said quietly. She started for the door, and when she reached it, she turned about. "I'm learnin' one thing good," she said. "Learnin' it all a time, ever'day. If you're in trouble or hurt or need--to go poor people. They're the only ones that'll help--the only ones." The screen door slammed behind her.

Recommendation: Recommended. I found it a bit slow at the beginning, but it picks up once the story is not relying on Tom Joad alone.

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