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May 6, 2010

Where the grapes of wrath are stored...

May 6 marks the 70th anniversary of John Steinbeck winning the Pulitzer Prize in literature for "The Grapes of Wrath," and I'm re-reading the book and re-watching the movie to see what resonance there might be between our time of recession and the Great Depression. No surprise that the squalor depicted in both the book and the film is shocking. Poverty is still shocking -- more than any other theme in the book, that one hasn't changed. But what really struck me reading the book this time was the uniquely American sense of judgement leveled at the "Okies" by other characters in the story. Not necessarily the bankers and land owners, who are depicted as outright monsters, but other working people along the Joad family journey -- waitresses, police, clerks, people who could quickly become disenfranchised themselves.

Consider this excerpt. Gas attendants have just refueled the overloaded jalopy the Joads are driving from Oklahoma to California. As the Joads pull away en route to cross the desert, the two attendants reflect on their unfortunate customers:

"Jesus, what a hard-looking outfit!"

"Them Okies? They're all hard-lookin'."

"Jesus, I'd hate to start out in a jalopy like that."

"Well, you and me got sense. Them goddam Okies got no sense and no feeling. They ain't human. A human being wouldn't live like they do. A human being couldn't stand it to be so dirty and miserable. They ain't a helluva lot better than gorillas."

"Just the same I'm glad I ain't crossing the desert in no Hudson Super-Six. She sounds like a threshing machine."

The other boy looked down at his book of bills. And a big drop of sweat rolled down his finger and fell on the pink bills. "You know, they don't have much trouble. They're so goddamn dumb they don't know it's dangerous. And, Christ Almighty, they don't know any better than what they got. Why worry?"

"I'm not worrying. Just thought if it was me, I wouldn't like it."

"That's 'cause you know better. They don't know any better." And he wiped the sweat from the pink bill with his sleeve.

What I particularly like about this passage is the profane invocation of Christianity in the cussing and the absence of so-called Christian behavior at the root of their sentiments.

Steinbeck's book is about many things: the Depression, family life, hardship, survival, the Emersonian oversoul and even literary style. We journalists take special pleasure in the prominence of his work because, after all, Steinbeck was a journalist who made the risky leap into fiction. (He went on to win the Nobel in 1962.) But as I read his masterful story now, I find myself thinking not only about the face of economic poverty but about the emotional and social poverty that too frequently continues to hover when we confront "the other."  

We may be inching out of the recession. But scenes like the one above -- which is equally shocking in John Ford's 1940 movie -- make me wonder when we might truly inch out of the bigotry we as Americans feel entitled to employ in the face -- to the faces -- of people in need. Could be California. Could be Arizona. Could be our own back yard. Seventy-one years after the publication of "The Grapes of Wrath," I wonder what themes Steinbeck might record and excoriate from our own times.     

May 6, 2010 5:08 AM | | Comments (0)

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