As harrowing and heartbreaking as a novel can be, The Grapes of Wrath tracks the journey of the Joad family from eastern Oklahoma to California, a voyage made by thousands of Midwestern families during the Dustbowl of the 1930s in search for a new life and prosperity. Beginning with his release from prison, Tom Joad returns to his Uncle’s home to find his family packing for California in order to escape the drought and find work. After their journey across half a continent, the Joads arrive in California and are immediately plunged into a world where desperate workers compete in reverse auctions to determine who will work for the lowest wage, often just a few cents a day. Farm conglomerates print off thousands of flyers advertising for workers in order to gain a surplus of interest, and then drastically lower the wage knowing that workers will always stay. Upon moving to a government camp, the family find hope in their new surroundings, a federal-operated camp which is largely run by residents as a collective, but a further move results in them inadvertently working as scabs at an orchard where union organisers are assaulted by business owners and Californian vigilantes.
This wrenching, uneasy story of struggle and toil laid bare the true nature of big business and marked the peak of Steinbeck’s literary career. The story is remarkably straightforward in its composition, with chapters forming a neatly consecutive contrast between of longer, dialogue-based sections and short periods of blistering social commentary and stinging criticism of the system of agricultural conglomeration, exploitation and ownership. Indeed, this simplicity in form creates an effectiveness and power that is at best frightening, and at worst downright traumatising, and Steinbeck’s extraordinary talent at reaching into the reader’s imagination and creating rich textures enables this conversation-and-commentary style to flow in the most natural manner.
Steinbeck’s tale did much to convince native Californians of their unfair treatment and exploitation of migrant labour, but was also demonised nationally as communist and unpatriotic, facing claims of exaggeration and libel from the state and federal executives and business associations. But these accusations, whilst typical of establishment figures at the time when seeking to disparage an opponent, were not entirely untrue. Steinbeck stated in one letter (found in the preface) that, ‘Every effort I can bring to bear is and has been at the call of the common working people to the end that they may eat what they raise, use what they produce, and in every way and in completeness share in the works of their hands and their heads.’ Further, he was determined to bring the story of migrants he met during the writing of his novel to the attention of the wider American consciousness, where jingoistic pre-war chest-beating was suppressing any and every critical report.
The Grapes of Wrath has remained at the pinnacle of American literature for over seven decades, and is today more vital that ever. The desperation of the Joad family is reflected daily in the lives of eastern European workers in western EU countries, Africans making the perilous journey across the Mediterranean, and Central Americans working on the same Californian farms that formerly employed thousands of Oklahomans. Steinbeck’s ambition was to document fully the horrors that migrant workers faced, and he fulfils this completely, and The Grapes of Wrath cements his legacy of helping working people ‘dream of a dignified and free society in which they can harvest the fruits of their own labour.
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