On Rereading The Grapes of Wrath and the New American Diaspora

I don’t feel like writing a formal literary essay about my recent rereading of The Grapes of Wrath, so a rambling list of my thoughts has to suffice. I will say: it was a profoundly moving experience to read this novel again 35 years later. I had forgotten a lot of it, and most of my memories were connected to the movie. I will also say this: this novel needs to be read and reread. It might have more relevance today than it did when it was published in 1939, for the chief reasons of trying to understand how destitute Americans have changed since then. This book also provides insights into the current hatred of a certain class of destitute Americans, the Americans of a new diaspora that is unlike other ones in our country’s history. It is a diaspora that has people moving, some forced, some not—and then not moving. This diaspora ends in stasis, in the willows or under the overpass, or stretched out on a tarp nearby a crap car that just crapped out.

Thought 1:

Steinbeck isn’t turgid or overwrought in this book like East of Eden. He pulls well out of the narrative every now and then to provide an overarching view of the politics and economics that displaced the Joads from their land, but it doesn’t read like exposition at all. I can’t recall reading any passages like these in contemporary fiction that try to see and know everything. Steinbeck goes for the big view, not the tiny one. Interestingly enough, some of the same issues affecting the Joads are still burning up America today: poverty, prejudice, lack of affordable housing, homelessness, income inequality, loss of hope, violence, fear of immigration.

You know there’s even a wall in The Grapes of Wrath that tries to keep the Okies out of California? Does anything really ever change in America? One wonders. I know we aren’t segregated anymore and women are vying to become President, but…

Thought 2:

I plan on modeling a few passages of my Western after some riffs in the novel, especially the one for Chapter 7 where Steinbeck writes about all the junkers and jalopies for sale to transport (barely) the diaspora from the Dust Bowl

There is a new American Diaspora going on. I see it all the time moving up and down Highway 101. The Grapes of Wrath chronicled a different American Diaspora, the one resulting from the Great Depression and disastrous farm polices that produced in the greatest man-made environmental disaster in American history, the Dust Bowl. As a small child, my father, after losing both parents, was part of this diaspora, leaving the panhandle of Texas for Oregon. That’s why I am in Oregon. The Dust Bowl and The Grapes of Wrath are my story.

But the Joads are different than the new seekers of the new diaspora. The Joads want to work. The current seekers apparently want to check out. They don’t seem to want anything but not to seek. When I read the novel, I had to ask myself a question, and it goes mightily against my political grain to ask it: does our safety net, the very fragile, cobweb this one in American society, enable or encourage this? It is a question worth asking. Another question: is the presence of the current bedraggled diaspora a constant scary reminder to us to toe the capitalist consumption line or—this is what happens. Think about that: what if a partial safety net helps sustain the diaspora and its checking out and homeless going on in front of our faces, at our feet. It is not hidden in America these days. It’s moving and camping and creating mischief and misery all around us. It’s building more of a miasma every day. Don’t you feel it affecting you? How can you not if you feel anything for the downtrodden or displaced?

Thought 3

One of the things that struck me about the Joads is that they never read or play games. They don’t even have a Bible. Their kids have no toys. The only recreation they have is talking to one another, almost exclusively about their plight. There is one dance the younger Joads attend, but even that is marred by violence.

Members of the current diaspora can stream endless shows on their smartphones and tablets. I’ve seen it alongside the roads, waysides and in grocery store parking lots. It all looks very strange to me, but perhaps it connects them to something.

“How can we live without our lives? How will we know it’s us without our past? No. Leave it. Burn it,” writes Steinbeck, about leaving a place you are forced to leave.

In the novel, several members of the Joad’s family and entourage simply disappear, with little or no trace. They can’t take it anymore, the responsibility, the misery, the hopelessness, and they’d rather go it alone and not talk about it than make a plan that can’t possibly work. I think a lot of people still do this in our society when bad times hit. We must reach out in both directions when this happens.

Thought 4

The Joads take only one of their three dogs (all nameless) on their journey west and leave the other two behind with a neighbor who hadn’t lost his farm. The Joad’s dog gets hit by vehicle and dies not long after they depart. They don’t grieve. They move on. They don’t even bury it.

I think they should have taken all three dogs. The story might have turned out better.

Interestingly enough, members of the new diaspora have dogs, a lot of dogs, and would seem to never leave them behind. What changed there? There’s a novel in that question.

The Joads’s are always fixing thing, jury rigging, to continue the journey. You see members of the new diaspora occasionally fixing their rigs on the side of the roads, but rarely. They just leave them behind.

The Grapes of Wrath migration was forced. So is the new diaspora, some of it certainly caused by economic dislocation, gentrification and declining wages, but something else, too. They migrated to give up. Their migration and eventual settlement is one big giving up, a checking out, or a subtle, but visible protest of the utter bankruptcy and daily brutal exploitation wrought by participating in our culture. They don’t participate, at least not the way they are supposed to, the way schools prepare them. And that makes a lot of people hate these non-seekers and non-workers. I hear it all the time, even from liberals. The sound of seething is getting shriller, too.

One wonders if anything will come along to end the contemporary Grapes of Wrath-scenario like the New Deal and WW II did to Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath. I can’t imagine what it could be.

Did one presidential candidate in the recent Democratic debates mention this issue? I mean really use the word “homeless” instead of the stock phrase “affordable housing?”

Thought 5

What exactly is the wrath in The Grapes of Wrath? One character speaks about his dream of picking grapes and squeezing the juice all over his face, but in reality, his picking of those grapes infuriates a landowner, the wealthy, a bank, the law, and they bring down wrath, unrelenting wrath, upon the people migrating west to start over and work the fields. Why so angry over people who want to come to a place and work where there is work? Sound familiar?

I taught this book one time in my career, to juniors at Taft High School. I wonder if any of them remember reading it? I barely remember the experience. There were early warning signs of this new diaspora in Lincoln City then, but the Great Recession of 2008 took it to another level, historic. Then the so-called recovery that came slowly, the one that left out so many wage workers, undermined the social fabric as well. As High Tech boomed and swallowed our lives, incomes became grossly unequal, rents and housing skyrocketed, the cities became City States that left dispossession in their wake.

Recently, I was listening to an alternate take of Bob Dylan’s “Maggie’s Farm,” a much more snarling version than the album version. I was driving Highway 101 to work and passed a few transients and the song really hit me:

I ain’t gonna work on Maggie’s farm no more
I ain’t gonna work for Maggie’s brother no more
Nah, I ain’t gonna work for Maggie’s brother no more
Well, he hands you a nickel
And he hands you a dime
And he asks you with a grin
If you’re havin’ a good time
Then he fines you every time you slam the door

It could be that simple. Is the work our culture has created (and its meager pay and mindless conformity and sucking up to corporations and their factotums) induce or compel people to just refuse to do it and join the new diaspora? Is checking out better than Maggie’s farm or Dollar General or cleaning motel rooms?

Thought 6

Chapter 29 has perhaps the greatest rain riff in all of American literature, excepting of course, lines from Sometimes a Great Notion. I can’t believe I didn’t recall and integrate them into my rain book.

Steinbeck’s rain is completely different than Kesey’s rain.

Relentless rain floods the encampment where the remaining Joads are staying and they literally get washed away, out to the road, having lost everything, including their jalopy. It’s still raining. They have no food, nothing. No one to help them. No government aid. Rose of Sharon has just given birth to a still-born child. Tom isn’t with them anymore. They struggle down the road until they find an abandoned barn. They find shelter in the barn and encounter a boy and his sick father, who is dying from hunger.

If you’ve the read the book, then you know what happens. The most desolate ending scene of any book I have ever read. I cried. I almost verged on sobbing. Utterly hopeless for the Joads, but, perhaps what Rose of Sharon does to save the dying man, offers a glimmer of…not hope, but something else.

Read The Grapes of Wrath and start looking around you. We’ve got to do something.