Stone Washington
The Grapes of Wrath—How America’s former depression reflects America’s imminent recession
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By Stone Washington
August 30, 2022

"The changing economy was ignored, plans for the change ignored; and only means to destroy revolt were considered, while the causes of revolt went on." ~John Steinbeck, The Grapes of Wrath

Summary: Chapters 1—6

“The Grapes of Wrath” was a prominent realist novel written by John Steinbeck, centered around the economic suffering of the Great Depression in the United States during the 1930s. It provides many literary insights into the suffering of laborers seeking to escape the twin hardships of the Depression and the Dust Bowl. The following summary is based in-part of a critique of Steinbeck’s novel provided by W. John Campbell in “The Book of Great Books: A Guide to 100 World Classics” (2000). The Depression oversees a severe drought that hit Oklahoma farmlands, sprouting what is known as the Dust Bowl, a devastating series of dust storms that prevents crop growth. While grappling the financial hardships of the depression, farmers in Oklahoma are helplessly saddled by the added stress of crop failure, confused about what to do to remedy their situation and unclear about how long the drought will last. During the midsummer, one man, Tom Joad, has completed his time in the McAlester State Prison for killing a man as an act of self-defense. While on parole, he walks the dusty roads, hearing about how the drought is forcing all farmers off their land. On the way to his family farm, Tom encounters Jim Casy, a pastor who had baptized Tom as a boy. Casy admits that he has given up preaching and lost faith in the Holy Spirit, under the misinformed belief that what people assume to be this divine Spirit is really the spirit of humanity and that “true holiness” is the penchant to love all of humankind.

As the men walk to the Joad family farm, they find it deserted, and later encounter Tom’s neighbor, Muley Graves, who informs them that the Joads have moved in with Tom’s Uncle John with the plan of migrating to California. The Joads were evicted from their farm because the practice of farming has proven to be unprofitable in lieu of the severe agricultural damage from the Dust Bowl. A single Tractor can perform the work of multiple families and landowners have directed the blame on the local banks for dispossessing farmers from their properties. The tractors are operated by former farmers who are now paid by the banks to flatten the crop-depraved lands. Many farmers take this job out of desperation to put food on their tables. These workers have taken jobs of bulldozing family homes with their tractors, even if the tenants have not moved out of their homes. Muley’s family has already migrated to California, as have the Joads. As Muley declares that he has chosen fugitive life over leaving his home, a deputy sheriff’s car pulls up, prompting the three men to flee to a nearby cave.

Iconic Great Depression era photo by Dorothea Lange, ‘Migrant Mother’ (1936)

Chapters 7—11

With the period of forced migration has come a boon in used car sales, as many former farmers find themselves victims to unfair deals from car salesmen. Soon, Tom and Casy arrive at Uncle John’s in time to meet the Joad family preparing to leave for California in search for available work. They sell most of their belongings for $18 to purchase an old moving truck. With everything ready to go, the mother, Ma Joad, persuades the father, Pa Joad, to bring along Casy on the journey. Among the large family group is Al and Winfield, Tom’s younger brothers; Noah, Tom’s mentally handicapped older brother; Connie Rivers, Tom’s younger sister; Rose of Sharon, Tom’s pregnant older sister and her husband Connie Rivers; and Pa’s parents Grampa and Granma. Grampa Joad is forced to go on the trip after they secretly give him sleeping medicine.

Chapters 12—18

The family travels along the classic Route 66, emerging from the Oklahoma Dust Bowl on the road to Bakersfield, California. Along the highway, they encounter thousands of disposed farmers, including couple Sarah and Ivy Wilson, who travel in their ragged cars on route to California and other neighboring states. At the first stop on the route, Grampa Joad tragically succumbs to a stroke and dies. Unable to afford an official burial, the family is forced to dig a grave a bury him themselves. As their problems begin to manifest, the Joads slowly come to a collective realization that their family problems are not isolated but are part of a larger group struggle that involves all workers. According to Campbell, “they become conscious of the injustices in life, and begin to think in terms of having lost ‘our’ land instead of ‘my’ land” (Campbell pg. 296). Traveling with the Wilsons, the Joads continue their journey across the Texas Panhandle and through New Mexico. Along the way, the Wilsons’ car breaks down for a second time, prompting Tom to suggest that he and Casy stay behind to get it repaired as the rest of the families continue ahead in the truck. But this idea infuriates Ma Joad, who refused to break up the family along the journey.

The Joad family decides to remain at a migrant camp for the night and depart early in the morning in order to pass through Arizona and cross the California border. At the migrant camp, a raggedy man informs them that he has recently left California on a trip to the East because the living conditions in the state are actually worse than in the Dust Bowl. Despite this despairing news, Casy remains optimistic, believing that things will be different for them as they enter the state. As the Joads travel to Arizona, they establish a communal bond with the migrant families traveling alongside them, setting up camp together each night, test if the water is drinkable, and play entertaining music on the guitar. Getting up early the next day, the families travel across the scorching hot California border upon leaving Arizona. They set up camp beside a river near Needles California and the men go bathe in the water.

One father and son pair arrive to the camp as they are enroute to Oklahoma from California. The father mentions that they are originally from Oklahoma and have been called “Okies”, a term that once referred generally to citizens from the state but now is used as a derogatory phrase to demean travelers hailing from there. Many California farmers have sought to deter any more travelers from the Oklahoma Dust Bowl, viewing the migrant farmers as desperate and dirty. The Joads decide to cross the desert that night, but are separated from Noah, who secretly wanders off to the river, never to be seen again. As the Joads make the trek, they are stopped by a hostile police officer who threatens to put the family in jail if they remain at the migrant camp overnight. The Joads and Wilsons decide to heed the warning and leave. But as they prepare to go, Sarah Wilson succumbs to a bout with cancer and dies, after being too sick to travel the prior day. Before the Joads depart, they leave food and money for the Wilsons. Following Sarah’s passing, the Grandma Joad also is stricken with an illness that had become progressively worse from the emotional stress of losing Grampa. She dies as the Joads cross the desert overnight.

Chapters 19—25

In his work, Steinbeck seems to portray the history of California as a settlement grab from the Mexican people. Landownership is depicted as eager American settlers taking the land from Mexico, living off the land as squatters, and eventually farming it under new occupation. Over time, the once desperate land-seeking settlers have accrued wealth over their farms and began hiring immigrants to help maintain the lands. The owners contracted the migrants to manage the daily operations of the farms. Transitioning from this portrayal to the actual setting of the book, America sees a new generation of eager settlers from the West—people like the Okies escaping the Dust Bowl—who were hated by the land-owning Californians because of their intense desperation to feed their insatiable appetite for food and better living, which drove many to steal from the more privileged for basic survival.

The Joad family make their way to a camp stop known as Hooverville, where Connie decides to walk down a nearby road and abandon his wife Rose of Sharon (Tom’s sister), due to being discouraged by the harsh treatment of migrants by the police and bleak outlook on available jobs in the state. This depressing narrative is further conveyed to them by a resident by the name of Floyd Knowles, who attributes this job shortage to the trend of too many people migrating in pursuit of work, making it easier for landowners to slash wages to exceedingly low levels. A contractor makes his way to the camp with an announcement that male workers are needed for a farm in Tulare County. But when Floyd demands that he be provided with a contract that clear cites the wages, the contractor becomes enraged and calls the deputy sheriff in the area, who would later threaten to burn down the camp if the workers refused to go to Tulare. After a fight breaks out, Floyd escapes, while Casy is arrested and willingly takes the fall for the incident. Hearing about the sheriff’s brazen threat, the Joads quickly leave Hooverville.

The mood across California farms grows bleaker by the day, as local citizens continually detest migrant workers for absorbing available jobs and lowering wages. This, while once profitable tenant farmers are now poor victims plunged into bouts of “hunger and hostility” toward others. On the other hand, some local owners enjoy profitable circumstances and by their earnings are capable of sending out handbills to draw in more workers to their farms. More bills are capable of being created and sent out due to the affordability of increasingly cheap labor. With this cheapness of labor, major farmers are able to force smaller farmers out due to the competitive price reductions they set. And, akin to a circle if misery, these disposed farmers join the ranks of desperate people seeking work. As Steinbeck warns, with the separation between anger and hunger diminishing more as time passes, the “grapes of wrath [anger] are…growing heavy for the vintage” (Campbell, pg. 297). The Joads decide to drive to a government operated migrant camp called Weedpatch. Timothy Wallace, a local migrant, greets Tom with the promise of 12 days of work. During their stay at the camp, the Joads are warned by a local orchard owner that the police and their local Land Association will be sending some agitators to disrupt a weekend party they have planned. When the three agitators arrive, the migrants successfully halt their plan and ward them off.

Concluding Chapters 26—30

The Joads have been unsuccessful in obtaining any long-term employment. Aware that they are running low on money and food, the Ma Joad insists that they leave Weedpatch in search of better work opportunities. The family drives 35 miles to Hopper ranch, which operates a peach farm. They are each paid five cents a box for the fruit being picked. While working throughout the day, the Joads are yelled at by other laborers on the opposite side of a fence, belligerent about mistreatment from the landowners and being ignored by the local police. After the Joads make only $1 from the day’s work (due to many peaches being renounced as unripe), Tom and Casy decide to organize a strike of migrants against the orchard. But along the way, the two are ambushed by a group of men who succeed in killing Casy. Tom kills two of the men and escapes to a nearby cotton field, where he rendezvouses with his family later in the night.

While traveling in a boxcar with another family, the Wainwrights, Al Joad meets and becomes engaged with Agnes Wainwright, one of the daughters. Tom is forced to flee the boxcar after his mother warns that his sister Ruthie, has bragged about his exploits of killing two men. The novel concludes during the wintertime with a bleak outlook on the Joads working alongside other migrants under heavy rains at a camp. Rose of Sharon gives birth to a stillborn child, and the men of the camp are forced to work harder to overcome the strain of fearfulness for their family’s survival. The women come to the realization “that the men will survive only as long as their anger is stronger than their fear” (Campbell, pg. 298).

Analysis and Lessons for Today’s Financial Hardships

There is much to learn from John Steinbeck’s Pulitzer Prize winning social novel, The Grapes of Wrath. First published in 1939, the novel’s setting during the financial sufferings of the Great Depression is emblematic of the time that the novel was written during the height of the Depression in the U.S. The setting and destination of the novel being in California resonates with Steinbeck’s place of birth in Salinas, California, the most populous city nestled in the Monterey Bay Area, and his time studying at Stanford University (1920—1925) during the Roaring Twenties. He has written a host of other prominent works, including Of Mice and Men (1937), with themes largely centered around promoting the humanistic struggle of the common man against financial strife and the importance of upholding human dignity against work-related abuse or injustice. The most prominent allusion provided through Steinbeck’s novel for modern day America is the setting of economic depression, just as America today grapples with foreboding signs of an incoming economic recession by mid-2023, after experiencing two connected quarters of negative growth. Already, many economists (nearly 1 in 5) argue that the economy is already undergoing a recession, based on research from the National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER).

Inflation rates have recently climbed to 9.1% in June, attaining a 40-year high unseen since 1981. This, while Joe Biden made the false proclamation that the U.S. has zero inflation during the month of July, which in actuality saw a rate of 8.5% according to the Consumer Price Index, and contradicted himself by urging Congress to pass the Inflation Reduction Act (why the need for such legislation if he claimed there is zero inflation?). The Act brazenly grants $400 billion in environmental programs, a $64 billion extension of covid-19 relief, a 15% corporate tax on businesses, and billions in funding toward the hiring of 87,000 IRS agents. Where there was a dramatic drop in the price of goods during the Great Depression (deflation), America today grapples with a gradual increase of product prices (inflation) due to out-of-control government spending and the devaluation of the dollar. The catastrophe of the Dust Bowl spurred by drought in Oklahoma, which saw a depletion of crop growth and devastation to the farming market provided similar financial devastation to the modern American economy adversely impacted by covid-19 lock-downs that crippled business activity over the previous two years. Where the natural devastation produced by the drought lead to the dust storms that deprived Oklahoma farmers of their livelihoods, the covid pandemic produced an artificial storm of hysteria that saw restrictive shutdowns imposed by Democrat mayors and Governors depriving many of work. The results similarly saw large segments of the population be forced out of work.

Where the practice of farming was deemed unprofitable and improbable across the southern plain regions of the U.S. due to the severe dust storms seen in Grapes of Wrath, the covid pandemic saw most in-person labor to be an unworkable option across many institutions for nearly two years. The book’s scene of former farmers using tractors to bulldoze evicted peoples’ homes and flatten farm properties at the bidding of banks reminiscent of how people were forced to permanently shut down their own businesses and forsake their livelihoods to satisfy the toxic “new normal” that was killing the U.S. economy. Many blue states like Washington, New York, and Illinois, that imposed the most restrictive covid measures reaped the most severe economic consequences and despite the overprotective climate of alarmism, were unable to competitively lower their rates of infection for covid compared to red states like Georgia, Florida, and Texas that imposed far fewer restrictions and were quick to return to normalcy. The migration to California by many displaced from the Dust Bowl as portrayed by Steinbeck is not so different from the migration that were made by many living in oppressive blue states and cities to flee to more free red states. In a reverse comparison to Steinbeck’s work, California in particular experienced massive drops in people immigrating to the state, while seeing substantial rises in people leaving. California’s depiction in both the novel and in reality during covid saw a scarcity of dependable jobs.

Tom’s neighbor, Muley Graves, opting to live as a fugitive by remaining on his Oklahoma property amid the surrounding demolition of homes embodies the same principle that many have taken when openly defying draconian covid-19 mandates. Oklahoma during the Dust Bowl had grown so harsh and inhospitable to farmers and profitable for banks cashing in on vacant properties that it had become a “crime” to continue living on a farmland. Muley knew and openly defied this reality by evading law enforcement and remaining on his property, despite his family having left for California. Muley chose to stay behind and protect his God-given natural right to preserve his possessions from corporate takeover. Steinbeck’s negative and corrupt portrayal of big business, particularly of mega farm monopolies squashing competition, is evident throughout the novel.

A final important point of symbolism in Steinbeck’s work is that of immigration. Steinbeck’s anti-imperialist portrayal of California landowners squatting on and later stealing land from Mexico is partially accurate representation of what happened prior to the United States obtaining California following Mexico ceding control over it in the 1848 Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo. This exaggerated portrayal of Americans in California squatting and usurping land from Mexicans, later forcing them to work as laborers to uphold the farm, is inversely related to the modern reality of how illegal immigrants from Mexico, Central and South America have unlawfully entered into border states, like California, to obtain cheap labor, including agricultural work on farms. Many illegal immigrants squat on U.S. ranches, are desperate for cheap labor, and occupy migrant camps that often overflow from the large volume of illegal entries across the southern border. This is similar to the embattled migrant camps in The Grapes of Wrath that saw an overflow of desperate, work-depraved migrants, such as the Joad family, fleeing the Dust Bowl in pursuit of work in California.

Steinbeck consistently portrayed police as unfairly hostile to migrants occupying the labor camps of southwestern states, similar to how Progressive mainstream media peddles falsified portrayals of ICE officers and border patrol agents “mistreating” or acting hostile toward illegal aliens as they attempt to flee across the border to evade capture. The reality of the matter is that ICE officers are working their hardest to suppress what has been historic levels of illegal crossings into the U.S., using permissible methods for apprehending illegal aliens crossing the border. When understanding the significant lessons that are conveyed through Steinbeck’s work, readers must be aware of the true meanings behind the symbolism used in the novel and how these can better explain the realities of today. As my article describes, there are many alarming parallels between the Depression during the Dustbowl and the modern looming recession following the covid pandemic. Readers should do their best to become informed of these literary lessons, and avoid falling prey to the financial miseries of coordinated crisis events like a Dust Bowl, covid pandemic, or humanitarian catastrophe from illegal immigration.

*N.B.: This essay is based in part on a synopsis of John Steinbeck’s famous realist novel, The Grapes of Wrath, contained in Dr. W. John Campbell, Book of Great Books: A Guide to 100 World Classics (Fall River, 2000), pp. 295-302.

© Stone Washington

 

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Stone Washington

Stone Washington is a second year PhD student in the Policy Studies Program at Clemson University Graduate School. Stone is employed as a Research Assistant in the Legal Policy Department at the Manhattan Institute, where he recently completed the Collegiate Associate Program. He is also employed as a Graduate Teaching Assistant in Clemson's Department of Political Science and serves as a WAC Fellow for the Pearce Center for Professional Communication. Stone is a recent addition to the Steamboat Institute's Emerging Leaders Council.... (more)

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