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Grapes of Wrath author inspires hope for a better world
Steinbeck: Poet of the dust bowl

March 8, 2002 | Page 8

ONE HUNDRED years after John Steinbeck's birth, his books continue to be read and loved by millions of people around the world. DAVID RAPKIN explains how Steinbeck gave voice to workers' struggles during the Great Depression and expressed hope for a better world.

FOR MANY, the name John Steinbeck is synonymous with fiction that honestly depicts the lives and struggles of ordinary, working-class people. His best known works--Cannery Row, Tortilla Flat, East of Eden, Of Mice and Men, The Pearl and especially The Grapes of Wrath--all show what life is really like for workers, small farmers and poor people fighting to survive.

Steinbeck's best fiction is not only about human potential crushed by capitalist society, but also about the possibility that ordinary people might just claim their rightful place as owners of all they produce.

Steinbeck was born in Salinas, in California's agricultural Central Valley, and much of his best fiction is set in the surrounding countryside. He published novels from the late 1920s until his death in 1968.

He won the Nobel Prize in 1962, yet by that time, the celebration of working-class potential that so characterizes his earlier work was largely absent from his books. Ultimately, the quality of Steinbeck's fiction rose and fell with the class struggle.

Although Steinbeck never considered himself a socialist, his deep sympathy for workers and his experiences in the 1930s--including his occasional attendance at Communist Party meetings and his travels with displaced Oklahoma farmers--led him to write several books that drew sharply socialist conclusions about the world.

The huge working-class fightback of the 1930s left its unmistakable stamp on Steinbeck's most-loved books. Even when all hope seems lost, Steinbeck's characters sense that another world is possible.

In Of Mice and Men, written in 1937 at the height of the Depression, Steinbeck introduces us to two migrant workers--George and Lennie. Lennie, a big, strong man with the mind of a child, constantly begs George, his traveling partner, to tell him what it will be like when they get a little money together and can "live off the fatta the lan." Throughout the novel, Lennie sits rapt as George explains what it would be like to "have a little house and a couple of acres."

While the novel ends tragically, the very fact that George loves and protects Lennie, despite the risk, flies in the face of the common idea that during the Depression it was "every man for himself." And while the two men's friendship shows human nature at its best, the novel makes it clear that their relationship, while special, is not unique.

Late in the story, despite the fact that things look bleak in general, a group of outcast white ranch hands, including Lennie, come together to support the one Black worker on the ranch in the face of a racist attack.

I am a high school teacher, and many of my students--even the ones who say they hate to read--tell me that Of Mice and Men is their favorite book. Most of them say that they hope some day to have at least one relationship like the one George has with Lennie.

Steinbeck's characters, despite Lennie's mental disability, the grinding poverty of the Depression and the novel's tragic ending, make my students imagine a better world.

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STEINBECK'S GREATEST work leaves much less to the imagination. The Grapes of Wrath, published in 1939, is one of the most popular books of the 20th century. It shows how small farmers--forced off their land and onto the bottom rung of the working class--come to understand their oppression and become a tremendous force for social change.

Steinbeck's depiction of human courage and dignity in the face of terrible brutality and starvation is unforgettable. The misery the The Grapes of Wrath's characters suffer--which so many readers can identify with--only serves to nurture their power to transform a brutal world into a beautiful new one.

Unfortunately, today, many people in the U.S. think that their counterparts in the 1930s were naive and foolish to believe in the possibility of a new, better society. At a time of relatively low class struggle, it's understandable that people doubt our power to change things.

Few books ever written so sharply contradict this pessimistic assumption as The Grapes of Wrath. Tom Joad, the novel's hero, goes from being an unjustly imprisoned farmer at the beginning of the story to a revolutionary whose fighting spirit goes everywhere and anywhere that ordinary people are suffering injustice.

Steinbeck describes the process through which people like the Joad family move from thinking about only themselves to fighting with thousands of workers in one of the novel's most inspiring passages:

"In the night one family camps in a ditch and another family pulls in and the tents come out…Here is the node, you who hate change and fear revolution. Keep these two [families] apart; make them hate, fear, suspect each other…For here 'I lost my land' is changed; a cell is split and from its splitting grows the thing you hate--'We lost our land…'"

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IN A famous passage in The Communist Manifesto, Karl Marx and Frederick Engels show that by creating a huge working class, the "bourgeoisie produces, above all, its own grave-diggers." In a brilliant moment in The Grapes of Wrath, Steinbeck breathes new life into this classic Marxist metaphor:

"The tractors which throw men out of work, the belt lines which carry the loads, the machines which produce, all were increased; and more and more families scampered on the highways, looking for crumbs…The great owners formed associations for protection and they met to discuss ways to intimidate, to kill, to gas. And always they were in fear of a principal--three hundred thousand--if ever they move under a leader--the end…And the great owners, who had become through their holdings both more and less than men, ran to their destruction, and used every means that in the long run would destroy them."

The "grapes of wrath" are the ripe fruit of revolution, born of the rage of millions of workers who are forced to watch their children starve as crops almost too wonderful to imagine are destroyed to keep prices high. As the Joads experience this horror, Steinbeck tells us, "Their anger began to ferment."

The revolutionary legacy of Tom Joad is alive and well today. Immortalized by songwriters Woody Guthrie, Bruce Springsteen and now Rage Against the Machine, the Joad family and their fight are very much alive. From a small picket line in Los Angeles to the streets of Buenos Aires, a new generation of working-class fighters is picking up where Tom left off.

As Ma Joad says goodbye to her son at the end of the novel, she leaves him with these comforting words: "Don' you fret none, Tom. A different time's comin'." Today, we can take inspiration from Ma Joad and from every page of The Grapes of Wrath.

The system may try to grind us down and starve us, but as the novel promises, "Some day--the armies of bitterness will all be going the same way."

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