On April 14, 1939, The Grapes of Wrath was released, to immediate public and critical success. And to immediate controversy. In Oklahoma, the book was sometimes misunderstood, or perhaps understood all too well, and thus maligned for craven political purposes. Anyone who reads the book with even a scintilla of awareness can recognize that the Joad family is admirable, endowed by Steinbeck to embody and represent human decency and compassion, Tom Joad being among the most noble characters in all of literature.
Steinbeck’s work quite appropriately became a classic despite the efforts to suppress it, and its inspiration and message — righteous outrage at injustice — thus continues to be spread to every generation of young people who read it. It certainly informed my early political development, and I am happy to know that it continues to be the incubus for democratic social consciousness, much more so than the works of Upton Sinclair, which dealt with similar themes, but have not aged as well.
On this anniversary, I’m glad to see it is being not only recalled for its historic value, but for how its theme speaks to the current economic crisis.
In this sense then, The Grapes of Wrath is a prophetic novel, rooted in the economic and environmental tragedies of the Great Depression, but speaking just as directly to the harsh realities of our own time.
At this moment of global economic meltdown, when the whole world is gripped by severe financial recession (much of it caused by rapacious greed, fiscal malfeasance, and corporate arrogance), when groups around the globe are in migration from one kind of tyranny or another, when the gap between rich and poor seems insurmountable, and when homelessness and dispossession caused by widespread financial failure and mortgage foreclosure is rapidly rising in the US and elsewhere – symbolised by shantytowns and tent cities on the outskirts of major metropolitan areas – then it is fitting to think of The Grapes of Wrath as our contemporary narrative, our 21st Century jeremiad.
But Steinbeck can still say it best. From Chapter 19:
“And the great owners, who must lose their land in an upheaval, the great owners with access to history, with eyes to read history and to know the great fact: when property accumulates in too few hands it is taken away. And that companion fact: when a majority of the people are hungry and cold they will take by force what they need. And the little screaming fact that sounds through all history: repression works only to strengthen and knit the repressed.”