In the souls of the people the grapes of wrath are filling and growing heavy, growing heavy for the vintage.
John Steinbeck, 1939, The Grapes of Wrath
I will first disclose that John Steinbeck is my favorite author. I believe that his cannon of work is a national treasure and I don't believe that any writer has so consistently moved me and challenged my perception. In a golden era of American novelists like Faulkner, Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Carson McCullers and Flannery O'Conner; Steinbeck, at least in my mind, stands tall among such literary giants.
Of Mice and Men, Cannery Row, East of Eden... all masterpieces of English literature and The Winter of Discontent is a beautiful orientation to the perpetual nature of small town politics and corruption of which most Americans are sure to be able to relate. But if there is such a thing as The Great American Novel, then even Gatsby and To Kill a Mockingbird are likely to take a back seat to the story of Tom Joad and company.
Steinbeck's seminal work is not only a brilliant novel, but a masterful social examination of the historic struggle between owners and the labor class. It's also a reminder of how far we have come from our not so distant semi-feudal times to something much less disparate. As the debate over workers' rights once again rages, I'd like to invite those who've never read the book to give it a look, and those who only experienced it as a young student, to reexamine the message with the experienced perspective of an adult. I try to revisit the book every year or so and I always seem to take yet something more from its words.
The novel – set amidst the dust bowl crisis of the Midwest, a tragic environment that was then compounded by the Great Depression, causing famine, death and mass migration from America's heartland – is a poignant look at human nature in the face of uncertainty and struggle. To prepare, Steinbeck actually lived with an Oklahoma farm family and made the miserable journey westward with them, where the “Okies” hoped to find the desperately-sought paradise of minimal pay for honest work in California, which had been billed as a plentiful oasis that existed just beyond the edge of their quiet desperation.
Of course, they instead find an overcrowded state filled with hostile natives and exploitative mega-farmers who would pit the over-supply of migrant workers against each other, challenging each to work for less than the other until the point when literal starvation forces a man to work for just enough flour to keep his children from starving to death.
Laced with beautiful prose and told through simple, yet purposeful dialog, the book is an accurate portrayal of the economic forces of the time – a feudal Renaissance in which new machinery expanded capacity, while drastically reducing the demand for labor and creating counterintuitive practices of commerce capable of quickly manipulating supply and demand in ways that our traditional agrarian sensibilities could not have fathomed.
The former sharecroppers couldn't comprehend rich and fertile land lying fallow, while eager workers starved on its edges, or picking a season's worth of fruit in a few days for the canneries, let alone an entire system designed to keep available less food than was needed and far fewer than all of the willing men from being put to work – all just to keep wages low and profits and prices high for the benefit of those with more than they could ever need, and at the expense of those with nothing. It defied the way of life they'd known, where honest hard work ensured a meager, though certain existence for each able body – a way of life which had defined their America.
It was one of a handful of watershed moments in our history when innovations and other market forces allowed for massive transfers of wealth and the creation of near limitless fortunes for few, at the expense of utter misery and squalor for many more – regardless of their willingness to labor, or their desire to profit.
The book was incredibly well-received, selling over 500,000 copies when it was published in 1940. Steinbeck was awarded the Pulitzer and later the Nobel Prize for Literature, but not everyone was happy with the work. The elite that benefited from the status quo attacked it as being dangerous, socialist propaganda for its message of worker's strength through unity when they had no other means to bargain with their paymasters.
Over the last decade, the wealth gap in the United States has expanded to the greatest point since 1929. Economic forces have once again created a class of mega rich thought impossible only a few years ago. As our economy has fallen into its worst condition since the era Steinbeck depicts, the amount of billionaires has grown almost exponentially – much faster than in periods of our greatest overall economic growth. Again, that class warns that unless we continue to employ policies that only serve to expand that gap – more tax cuts for the rich, cuts to the social safety net and a heavy tax-payer subsidy to our most profitable businesses – things will only get worse. They have to get more, or the rest of us will get even less, or so the story goes.
We're also being told once more that the systems which served to build the middle-class that American greatness was built upon are actually the enemy – that giving up collective bargaining, defined benefits and regulatory protections are the only way to shake the table for more crumbs than are currently falling. Revisiting The Grapes of Wrath is a harrowing glimpse at America before the worker's rights movement, a time of unbridled capitalism and rampant greed. It's a history lesson in the malevolence of those who horde the collective wealth and fight for a rigged system that makes a veritable sharecropper of nearly every occupation.
It reminds us that there will always be a constant struggle between employer and employee, but that there is only so much disparity which can ultimately exist. Humans, at least the majority, have proven passive by nature and the proletarian American class has tended to allow for great lapses and erosion in rights and living standards during periods of calm. It has only been when our life, liberty and pursuit of happiness are genuinely and significantly hindered that we've risen up and accepted confrontation.
On the whole, the powerful have been very good at maintaining an acceptable balance. The United States emerged from World War II with an accidental fortune of historic proportions. Our industrial strength grew at unthinkable speeds out of necessity, and when the Great War left the dominant countries of old Europe in shambles, unable to service the colonial markets they once ruled and indeed built, there was but one true economic superpower to fill the vacuum – the United States of America. Shielded from 2/3 of the world's labor competition by the Iron and Bamboo Curtains, we experienced economic growth that would have been otherwise impossible – and that no policy can possibly promise to recreate. The post-depression strength of organized labor combined with a post-war appetite for consumption fueled a boom that much of America's current wealth is still owed to.
But as years passed and walls fell, the producers saw opportunity in that cheap labor that had been kept at bay and the American monopoly was no more. They managed to pacify the American worker with the introduction of easy credit, a flood of cheap foreign goods and a shift toward the two-income family, all of which masked our flat wage growth and allowed us to continue to drive consumption without the genuine means. Shedding a gold-related currency system to allow for massive debt and continued war-driven imperialism all but eradicated the market forces of inflation and interest rates which once reigned in irresponsible financial practices.
And now... here we are. The American Dream is no longer having it better than your parents. It is no longer early retirement or even retirement at all. The American Dream has once more become putting food in our children's bellies and hoping that we will have the means to care for them if they fall ill. It is that we won't have to stand in bread lines, worry about our elderly relatives freezing in their homes for lack of fuel oil, or watch a loved one die in our arms for lack of proper medical care.
Understandably, we are angry. Some blame too much government ... others blame too little. Others still have found no to place to properly direct their anger, so they continue to boil. What is undeniable on either end of the political spectrum is that the balance that gave us that dream has disappeared – that too many have too little for us to be anything more than a fractious society.
As passive as the masses tend to be, these cycles have existed through time and across civilizations. Disparity can increase further and fear can hasten its ascent. But that fear can go only so far. For as Steinbeck put it, “How can you frighten a man whose hunger is not only in his own cramped stomach, but in the wretched bellies of his children? You can't scare him – he has known a fear beyond every other."
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