“How can you frighten a man whose hunger is not only in his own cramped stomach but in the wretched bellies of his children?”

Apologies for the distance between posts, including a missed Poetry Friday—computer chaos has reigned for a short time here, but I think it’s passing and I should be able to resume a more regular schedule in the near future.  In any case, we return now to the plight of the Joads, now adrift in the sea of human misery that is the migrant worker experience in California in the 1930s (and, I fear, resembles the migrant worker experience in California in the 2010s more than it should).  The quote I chose as the post’s title is a good capsule summary of Steinbeck’s argument, and it’s both convincing and utterly useless in this context.  Convincing, because it really does emphasize the reality of poverty and how it can inspire the most desperate kinds of action.  Too many of us comfortable middle-class First World types like to think of crime as a moral failure that other people have (and we do not).  Few, if any, of us have experienced the kind of real deprivation that motivates most people to transgress laws and boundaries—fewer of us would be in any position to lecture others about morality, if we had.  But I also said “utterly useless” because it’s clear that Tom Joad and his family cannot easily leverage that grim determination into doing anything about their plight.  All the cards are in the hands of the owners, and the workers can either go along or lose their (temporary ramshackle) homes, if not their lives.  The Grapes of Wrath can read like a dystopian science fiction novel.  It is one of our country’s lasting shames that this dystopia was all too real, and that we allowed it to persist.  (This shame is not limited to America and Americans, by any means, but given my national identity and the national identity of the Pulitzers, it’s where my gaze is traveling right now.)

This image was selected as a picture of the we...

Florence Thompson in an iconic photograph: I think I have always fixated so fully on her facial expression that I missed the ragged children flanking her, both turned away from the camera’s eye (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I’d rather not make this blog too political—I’m a fairly political person, but I’d like to keep as much of that as possible out of my comments here—but I think certain things about Steinbeck’s novel are inescapable.  The hellscape inhabited by the Joads is, in almost every respect, the way the world would operate if free market capitalism was given absolutely free reign to work its laissez faire magic.*  There is an oversupply of workers, and so (in the absence of minimum wage laws, workers’ unions, etc.) each person must take however little is offered.  It is to the employer’s advantage to solicit far too many prospective employees, which in migrant farm work means uprooting these people and having them spend time and money traveling to you, and then to offer the least money you can get away with, knowing that (in the absence of any social safety net) even a dime for a day’s work is probably more than these people can afford to pass up.  They’ll buy cheap flour with it, maybe, and mix it with rainwater into a paste that staves off hunger.  That’s what the lucky employees will do.  The unlucky, the thousands who came to you at your bidding but find themselves turned away, will eat nothing, or eat stones to fill their bellies, and try again the next day.  We talk a lot of smack in the public arena, on news shows and on Facebook feeds, about food stamps and welfare.  The reason Americans today don’t starve to death—the reason California’s highways are not littered with dying children tonight—is because we have things like food stamps and welfare programs.  I am personally sure those programs waste some percentage of their money on people less than fully deserving of the aid.  I consider it a small price to pay for the knowledge that, in my country, even poor children will eat dinner today.  I consider it a small price to pay for the ability to go to sleep at night, the ability to live with myself.

I don’t think there’s a way to read Grapes without contending with this message—it’s what Steinbeck wants us to hear, certainly.  I don’t think it has to be the end of the story, or that somehow Tom Joad’s fictional existence (and the many non-fictional people he represents) automatically implies that we ought to have the exact programs we do today.  But I do think it’s one of the most powerful arguments that can be made for the idea that there needs to be something in the world other than corporations playing by their own rules and private charities filling in the gaps.  You’ll notice a distinct lack of charitable support for the Joads in this book (at least thus far)—I don’t think that’s an accident, or that Steinbeck is obscuring from us the great willingness of the American charity organizations to aid Okie migrant workers in the 1930s.  It was an era where so few had money to help those in need.  And it was an era that exposed the divisions in our nation—the “redneck” Okies were not welcome in California.  Whatever local charities existed, surely many of them were run by the same sorts of well-heeled community types who drive the Joads off of vacant land and who threaten violence against anyone talking about uniting the workers.  There was charity in California for some people, I am certain, but not for the Joads…just as I know plenty of charitable people today who would gladly donate to the needs of the poor, but who are not particularly interested in funding charities that aid undocumented immigrants.  I’m not blaming people for deciding where to give their charitable donations—that is, and should be, entirely their business.  It’s for that very reason, though, that I’m acknowledging the truth that there needs to be something in the equation other than volunteer-funded charity to make sure Ruthie and Winfield don’t starve.

This is not entirely altruism, either.  What will that fearless man do whose family goes hungry every night?  What will that fearless mother do when she cannot face another morning without bread for her children?  As Steinbeck shows us, it breaks some people—they lose their minds, their will, their sense of purpose.  They abandon their commitments.  But what kind of violence can it give birth to, there in the hungry shadows on the outskirts of “civilization”?  Businesspeople attacked FDR and his “radical” policies of the New Deal, but I wonder if they should not have been thanking him from the bottom of their hearts for saving their livelihoods and their lives.  Poverty under the thumb of a wealthy few has been a recipe for revolution in more than one country, and I don’t see any reason it couldn’t have taken the United States.  There are a lot of competing interests at work in the world Steinbeck is narrating, but I think it’s clear that almost every kind of motivation (morals, ethics, self-preservation) should be coming down on the side of the wealthy taking more care in structuring a society in which Tom and the other Joads can find a fair day’s work and a fair day’s wage.

I am cruising along now, perhaps 2/3 of the way through the novel, which is far enough that I’d rather not give away too many plot details (as you can already see above).  I’m sure I’ll comment on an event or two between now and the review, but mostly I aim to follow this story to its end and then give this the most honest review I can.  Thus far, the brilliant success I detected early on has hardly faded at all—this is still the best of the Pulitzers, and we’ll see if it can hold its course the last stretch of the journey.

*I should emphasize, I don’t think many people actually advocate the kind of totally unfettered free market approach I’m describing here.  But I think many times we do talk as though “the free market” is this holy, wonderful thing.  I think it’s always worth reminding ourselves that the market needs to be balanced by other concerns, and that this balancing act is complicated for everyone involved—market economics has also created great opportunity and quality of life for a very wide range of Americans, after all!  My interest is in getting rid of the equation of “market-based reform” and “good”, and replacing it with a complicated, nuanced way of thinking and talking about economics and human happiness.  But that’s a topic for a very different kind of blog.  To put it in a more literary setting, I guess what I’m saying is that I wish members of Congress spent more time reading The Grapes of Wrath, and less time reading Atlas Shrugged.  And now I’ll stop before I get myself in worse trouble.



2 comments on ““How can you frighten a man whose hunger is not only in his own cramped stomach but in the wretched bellies of his children?”

  1. Nerija S. says:

    An excellent reflection on how relevant the Joads’ experience is to us now, and I love your final comment. I completely agree that there needs to be some safety net for people with low income, rather than just depending on private charities. I think Jon Stewart said something in his mock-debate with O’Reilly, to the effect of: “Why is it that when the wealthy take advantage of government assistance, it’s called good business sense, but when the poor take advantage of government assistance, it’s called mooching?”

    Aaaand I’ll stop with the political soapbox now, before I, too, get in trouble 😉

  2. bonniegayle says:

    Perfect timing. Ken Burns’ The Dust Bowl will be on PBS in November.

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