Thursday, May 13, 2010

Reading Steinbeck

Thoughts on The Grapes of Wrath

As long ago as 1920, in his book The Acquisitive Society, the English social critic R. H. Tawney wrote about capitalism:

The concentration of authority is too deeply rooted in the very essence of Capitalism for differences in the degree of arbitrariness with which it is exercised to be other than trivial.(p 129)

Without dwelling on the inaccuracies or inadequacies of that statement (or of Tawney's approach to property) it seems like a good starting point for a discussion of the views expressed by John Steinbeck in his early novels, particularly in The Grapes of Wrath. I was merely disappointed when I read Tortilla Flat, an earlier novel of Steinbeck from 1935. In it he depicted a group of paisanos who, soft-hearted, unquestioningly loyal to one another, and in complete disregard of social conventions and expectations, cheerfully resided in a world of idyllic poverty. By 1939 Steinbeck had written The Grapes of Wrath in which, for the most part, the idyllic side of poverty has been blown away along with the dust that covers the fields of the Oklahoma that the Joad family leaves behind as they move to California in search of an Eden. While they do not believe that their journey is doomed, at least at the beginning, they seem to exist in a world where Nature is strong and often dark and where god is a bit player. Ayn Rand would call this a "malevolent universe".

The picture of Oklahoma we see on the opening page of the novel is filled with color, but even in the first paragraph the dark side of nature is seen as, "The weeds grew darker green to protect themselves, and they did not spread anymore." Followed in the next paragraph by, "The weeds frayed and edged back toward their roots." they seem to be waiting for better days. The corn and the flowers fare even worse.(p 1) Just as nature is dark, there are other dark presences on the horizon.

One of these presences is a view of capitalism portrayed as dark and foreboding in the images presented to the reader. This presentation is not direct, but one can infer from the people and actions presented the worldview behind it. The first member of the Joad family we meet is young Tom Joad as he is released from a prison and approaches a truck with a windshield displaying the welcoming "No Riders" sign. This is the face of capitalism, ameliorated slightly by the trucker who takes a chance on losing his job to give Tom a ride. In Chapter 5 we see the "owners of the land", all of whom were "caught in something larger than themselves."(p 31) Namely, the mathematics of the capitalist system, a system that breeds monsters:

"The tractors came over the fields and into the fields, great crawlers moving like insects, having the incredible strength of insects. . . Snub-nosed monsters, raising the dust and sticking their snouts into it, straight down the country, across the country, through fences, through dooryards, in and out of gullies in straight lines." (p 35)

So much for the world of idyllic poverty. The Joads were on the road west, forced there not by nature alone but also by a capitalism that had no room for the poor outcast sharecroppers. For better or worse, they headed toward California and the promise of a warmer, more vibrant community. What can we make of such a world that is turned upside down? Materialism vs. idealism first comes to mind; but perhaps thoughts on this reading will reveal further clues as to the meaning of such a stark beginning.

The Acquisitive Society by R. H. Tawney. Harvest Books, New York. 1967 (1920)
Tortilla Flat by John Steinbeck. Penguin Books, New York. 1976 (1935)
The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck. Penguin Books, New York. 2002 (1939)

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