Monday, 8 March 2010

A note on John Steinbeck's "Grapes of Wrath"

"Grapes of Wrath" describes the emigration to California of the Joads; a family of farmers from Oklahoma in the early 1930s fleeing drought and land repossession; and the appallingly callous treatment that they meet on reaching the "promised land". Some notes to explain the context may be useful, especially to British readers.

Under the Homestead Act, any citizen could be entitled to 160 acres of "public land", by squatting on it and cultivating it for 5 years. This was intended to help fulfil Jefferson's dream of an America inhabited by sturdy independent yeoman farmers. By 1900, 80 million acres had been claimed this way, and the number of farmers had trebled. But increasingly the small farmers found they could not compete with the big operators, they fell into debt with the banks, and drought led to 100 million acres being ruined by soil erosion. There followed an immense number of foreclosures, attended by riots in amy areas. President Roosevelt attempted to deal with the situation by the Farm Credit Association and the Agricultural Adjustment Act.

Until late in the 19th century, eastern Oklahoma was "Indian Territory", with also a long strip of "public land" in the west. In 1889 the goverment purchased the land from the "Five civilised tribes" and opened it up to homesteader settlement. On April22nd of that year a gun was fired to start the process and there was a veritable cavalry charge of would-be settlers trying to stake a claim to the best land. One of these could have been Grandpa Joad, the tragically senile patriach of the novel, since Steinbeck makes it clear from the towns mentioned in chapter 13 (Sallisaw, Checotah and Henrietta) that the Joad farm was in the extreme east of the state, on former Indian land, near the Arkansas border; the jail at McAlester where Tom was imprisoned being a litle south of this. This means that the Joads and their fellow farmers were not at all like European peasantry, who might have cultivated the same field for countless generations: they identified with the land, but were actually very recent arrivals.

By 1900, 800,000 settlers were in residence, and in 1907 Oklahoma was admitted as a fully-fledged state. Its first Senator was the blind lawyer T. P. Gore; grandfather of the novelist Gore Vidal.

Steinbeck describes the flight of the Joads along Route 66 to California, through towns which will be familiar to those who remember the early Rolling Stones song about the "highway that's the best" (though not, alas, for the Joads and other refugees) - "Oklahoma City; Amarillo; Albuquerque, New Mexico; Flagstaff, Arizona". But the Joads never reach Los Angeles, ending up instead in Bakersfield at the southern end of the San Joaquin valley, where they find nothing but starvation wages and hostility and violence. The only welcoming treatment they receive is at the Arvin Migratory Labour Camp, which, significantly, is run by the Federal government and deeply hated by the locals.

Of course Steinbeck is trying to make a left-wing point, but even so we are left wondering why no-one sees the refugee Okies as fellow-citizens in need of help. We can contrast an almost contemporary British case, that of the Jarrow hunger marchers, who on their way to London found widespread public sympathy and the support of M.P.s and other influential people. The Joads, by contrast, are without any friends other than their fellow-refugees. It occurred to me that their sufferings would not have seemed abnormal had they been black: after all, this was the way "niggers" were treated. But the Joads and all their fellow-Okies were white; in fact there are no black characters in the book. To find a modern European parallel we might consider the case of Romanian gypsies: after all, the Okies have had to travel just as far as the gypsies!

No comments:

Post a Comment