The little-known history of how groups of slaves, native American Indians and Cajun settlers helped change the outcome of the American Revolutionary War.
From our January Readers’ Review: “The Grapes of Wrath” by John Steinbeck. Published 75 years ago, Steinbeck’s story of the Joad family’s migration from Dust Bowl Oklahoma to California holds important lessons for today. Diane and her guests discuss Steinbeck’s classic novel.
- Leslie Maitland former reporter, The New York Times and author, "Crossing the Borders of Time."
- Susan Shillinglaw English professor, San Jose State University (SJSU) and scholar in residence, National Steinbeck Center. For 18 years, she was director of the Center for Steinbeck Studies at SJSU.
- Joseph McCartin history professor, Georgetown University and director, Kalmanovitz Initiative for Labor and the Working Poor. He is an expert on U.S. labor, social and political history.
“The Grapes Of Wrath” 1940 Movie Trailer
Tom Joad’s I’ll Be There Speech From “The Grapes Of Wrath” Movie
MS. DIANE REHMThanks for joining us. I'm Diane Rehm. John Steinbeck's novel, "The Grapes of Wrath," tells the story of the Joad family's migration from Dust Bowl, Oklahoma to California. It was the bestselling book of 1939, won the National Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize. 75 years after it was first published, the issues it raises are relevant as ever. Joining me for our "Reader's Review" of "The Grapes of Wrath," Susan Shillinglaw of San Jose State University. She's scholar in residence at the National Steinbeck Center.
MS. DIANE REHMJoseph McCartin of Georgetown University. He's director of the Kalmanovitz Initiative for Labor and the Working Poor. And Leslie Maitland, former New York Times reporter. She's the author of a memoir titled, "Crossing the Borders of Time." I hope you'll join us. 800-433-8850. Send us an email to email@example.com. Follow us on Facebook or Twitter. And welcome to all of you.
MS. LESLIE MAITLANDGreat to be here, Diane.
DR. SUSAN SHILLINGLAWYes. Lovely.
REHMGood to see you all. Susan, if I could start with you. 75 years after, why does this book still grab at our hearts so?
SHILLINGLAWWell, I think you said it just right then, because it does grab at our hearts. It's a very emotional book. It's a book that he wanted readers to participate in, as they read. It's something he said was very important to him. So, he asked readers to slow down, to feel the Joad's journey, to experience, really, what poverty is like, what the working person experiences. There's a lot of people who work in the book, and he makes you feel what that's like. To dig ditches…
REHMIs it deliberately, then, a slow moving book for that reason?
SHILLINGLAWThat's what he wanted. He had wrote a journal that accompanies, that he wrote, as he was writing, called "Working Days." It's published, also, by Viking Press. And he said, in the journal, again and again, I want this book to be slow, I want readers to slow down. I want them to feel the Joads' journey.
REHMAnd what was the reaction to the book when it was first published?
SHILLINGLAWWell, as Steinbeck anticipated, well, he said it wouldn't be a popular book, first of all. He was wrong on that. But he anticipated that it would be a book that would anger people. And it did. On two counts. One, the language of the book, which many thought was unseemly. He used words that were objectionable, because, as he said, he wanted to describe people the way they talked. He didn't want a language to be pure. But the language upset some people.
SHILLINGLAWBut more importantly, I think, the politics of the book, upset some people. So, there was a lot of discussion in 1939 about whether Steinbeck, the book was true or not, whether it was -- had depicted the Okies honestly and correctly. Whether the depiction of the Associated Farmers in California was accurate, if they were that selfish and self -- and greedy, etcetera. So...
REHMSusan Shillinglaw. She's Professor of English at San Jose State University. Scholar in residence at the National Steinbeck Center. Turning to you, Joseph McCartin, do you think he, Steinbeck, fairly portrays labor, and the working -- the situation of the working man at that time?
DR. JOSEPH MCCARTINI think he does. As Susan pointed out, the novel was very controversial at the time. But, I think those scholars who've looked at the totality of Steinbeck's work in this novel, really think that it holds up, for the most part. Not every agricultural laborer had it as hard as the Joads did. Not every farmer was as mean as some of the farmers that the Joads encountered. But, there's no question that the Associated Farmers in California, the group that represented the growers' interests in the state, had tremendous power in the state.
DR. JOSEPH MCCARTINAnd there's no question that there was a surplus of farm labor at various times. Wages were low. The Associated Farmers fought hard against any effort by the farm workers to organize. All of those things are really beyond dispute.
REHMAnd just to be very clear about this novel. Leslie, it begins as Tom Joad is being released from prison. He has been convicted of manslaughter. He serves several years in prison. He's coming home to what he thinks is his father's farm, and he sees that the weather, the climate has changed so much.
MAITLANDRight. He's confronted by a really barren landscape of dust and dirt and so ragged. He describes it almost in lunar terms, really. The family home turns out to be deserted. The family that he had looked forward to seeing after his four year absence is not there. He fears they may be dead. And I must say that the characters, as Tom in introduced first, and then gradually each other one, are so exquisitely drawn that that's one of the reasons, I think, that you feel their pain. Because they are so real, so profoundly human and decent.
MAITLANDBut he comes home and one of the first things that he encounters is another man who has been run off from his farm, who explains the situation, and that the families have been kicked off their farms. That the growers have found that a tractor can do the work of many men, that they can make more money, that the soil has been so eroded that it's going -- it's very rough, anyway, following a terrible drought and dust and storms. And he meets a defrocked, self-defrocked preacher, who has sort of lost his faith in religion, who accompanies him on the way.
REHMAnd even before that, he is fortunate enough to be given a ride by a truck driver who's not supposed to take on passengers, Susan.
SHILLINGLAWYes, I think that sets up a lot of the issues in the book, because it's power versus powerlessness. Tom Joad is nobody, and this truck driver represents a company. And yet, Tom sort of accosts him and says, you know, who do you -- who are you gonna represent? Are you gonna help me, or are you gonna do what you're supposed to do and not take riders? And, of course, the truck driver picks him up and takes him a ways.
REHMAnd then begins asking him some very personal questions.
SHILLINGLAWExactly. It's a nice kind of dialogue, and so much of the book is dialogue and people talking to one another. And it's a dialogue about what's Tom's past, and Tom feels like he's -- he's a little bit angry.
REHMHe's on the defensive, because he's just come out of prison.
REHMYes. How much do we know about how he got into the argument which led to his killing another man?
MAITLANDWell, he says he was at a dance, that they were drunk. At one point, he says he actually likes the guy that he killed. But the fellow put a knife in him, and he responded by picking up a shovel and bashing him over the head and killing him. And I think this is, actually, for me, one of the most troubling parts of the book, that we find him committing two murders through the course of the book. In both cases, his mother's attitude is sort of like, well, you done what you gotta do. And she's sort of loathed to judge him, though she regrets it. It's a very interesting character that we're given here.
MCCARTINI think it's one of the things that makes the novel enduringly popular, is that Tom Joad is somebody with, you know, a stain on his past. He's somebody who's capable of killing a man, and, in fact, he does again before the book is done. And I think Americans, at the time, of the 1930s, were really attracted to figures who were outlaws. There are several allusions in the book to Pretty Boy Floyd, a bank robber who became legendary in Oklahoma, and he killed people. And yet, he was seen as a hero for the small farmer.
MCCARTINBecause on some occasions, when he did rob banks, he also burned the mortgages that the banks held. So...
REHMSusan, describe the Dust Bowl.
SHILLINGLAWMy goodness. I think pictures probably describe the Dust Bowl best, but I think Steinbeck's prose also is, as Leslie said, it's almost a lunar landscape. because it's scraped clean. And he shows that in his prose, what it looks like. And I think one of the reasons that Tom Joad comes out of prison, in the beginning, is to confront a world that has changed drastically since he went in. And so, he has to see those houses collapsed, the land bare. The consequences of what's happened in the past few years.
REHMAnd you know, you think about what's happened in California, in just the last few months, in the midst of the drought, comes fire. And in Oklahoma, in the 30s, you had this terrible drought, which led to all the circumstances in this book. It is an extraordinary book, and I'm sure many of you have read John Steinbeck's novel, "The Grapes of Wrath." I hope you'll join us with your questions and comments. Call us on 800-433-8850. Send us your email to firstname.lastname@example.org. I look forward to speaking with you.
REHMAnd welcome back. As you, I'm sure, know by now we are talking about John Steinbeck's novel "The Grapes of Wrath." How many copies has it sold now, Susan?
SHILLINGLAWI certainly don't know the total number but it has sold steadily since it was published in April of 1939. And it sells about 100,000 to 180,000 copies a year.
REHMI think Becca Kaufman has a total for us. You gave me a total number earlier that said 50 million. Is that what it is? Yeah, something like that. Extraordinary. Here is a point that I was trying to get at earlier, and that is how what happens in this novel is true even today. And Leslie, you were trying to get at the universality of the themes.
MAITLANDYeah, I personally think that's one of the reasons that, you know, for example Bruce Springsteen picks it up now and I understand Steven Spielberg has acquired the move rights to do a new version of the movie.
MAITLANDThere is such a universality of these themes, the question of a journey toward a promise land, of a search for meaning in the face of suffering and the fight for survival. You know, in my own case, having read it several times before, I found this reading was deeply affected by the research I had done for my book about World War II, and the exodus in my family's efforts to stay alive, you know, running from persecution from the Nazis.
MAITLANDThere are passages in this book where they describe the Okies in such dehumanized vial terms as gorillas and dirty. And you could be talking about Jews in Hitler's Germany just as easily.
REHMThat's very interesting. Of course that movie reference you made, how can we ever forget Henry Fonda's portrayal of Tom Joad? Are you looking forward to a new production of this movie, Susan?
SHILLINGLAWI am actually. I think that, you know, more can be done with the ending. John Ford changed sort of the trajectory of the book so that it ends on this very hopeful note and doesn't include Steinbeck's own ending, which is Rose of Sharon, the daughter, nursing a starving man, which is a gesture of -- empathetic gesture which is so much what the book means to have empathy for those who suffer, even if it won't necessarily result in any concrete change. But I'd love to see that incorporated into the film as a whole. So...
MCCARTINYes. I mean, I think that it's time to revisit this book and to look at it with new eyes, especially in the aftermath of the great recession. I read parts of this book and thought about all of the families that have had their homes foreclosed on in the past several years, and those who now live with underwater mortgages. And I think that it's time to look again at this book and to see how it speaks to this new generation.
REHMYou know, it's interesting because, Susan, you started out by talking about the struggles and the different kinds of receptions that the Joad family had as it made its way across from Oklahoma to California. There were moments of real kindness extended to them exactly as there were moments of get out of here, get away from here. I was touched by that.
SHILLINGLAWI think a lot of them, and the moments of kindness, to some extent they are people who have power occasionally. But usually there are other migrants on the road. They're usually people who also are dispossessed or have nothing to give and yet they try to help the Joads. Certainly the Wilsons, the first family that the Joads meet have nothing. Together they're stronger. And that's one of the central issues, I think, of the book. And that's another reason that it was so incendiary when published because it really advocates a kind of collective action rather than that individualism that is so strong, such a strong current in American culture.
REHMAnd the other aspect you talked about was the slow moving nature of the book. And there are several pages which I think are among the most brilliant in all of literature, where he writes about a turtle crossing the road. Leslie, read that for us.
MAITLANDIt's so interesting. The turtle carrying his home on his back.
MAITLANDRight. The sun lay on the grass and warmed it. In the shade under the grass the insects moved, ants and ant lions to set traps for them, grasshoppers to jump into the air and flick their yellow wings for a second, sowbugs like little armadillos plodding restlessly on many tender feet. And over the grass at the roadside a land turtle crawled, turning aside for nothing, dragging his high-domed shell over the grass. His hard legs and yellow-nailed feet thrush slowly through the grass, not really walking but boosting and dragging his shell along.
MAITLANDThe barley beard slid off his shell and the clover burs fell on him and rolled to the ground. His horny beak was partly open and his fierce humorous eyes under brows like fingernails stared straight ahead. He came over the grass leaving a beaten trail behind him and the hill which was the highway embankment reared up ahead of him. For a moment he stopped, his head held high. He blinked and looked up and down.
MAITLANDAt last he started to climb the embankment. Front clawed feet reached forward but did not touch. The hind feet kept his shell along and it scraped on the grass and on the gravel. As the embankment grew steeper and steeper, the more frantic were the efforts of the land turtle. Pushing hind legs strained and slipped boosting the shell along and the horny head protruded as far as the neck could stretch. Little by little the shell slid up the embankment until at last a parapet cut straight across its line of march, the shoulder of the road, a concrete wall 4" high.
MAITLANDAs though they worked independently, the hind legs pushed the shell against the wall. The head upraised and peered over the wall to the smooth plain of cement. Now the hands braced on top of the wall strained and lifted and the shell came slowly up and rested its front end on the wall. For a moment the turtle rested. A red ant ran into the shell, into the soft skin inside the shell and suddenly head and legs snapped in. And the armored tail clamped in sideways. The red ant was crushed between body and legs.
MAITLANDAnd one head of wild oats was clamped into the shell by a front leg and for a long moment the turtle lay still. And then the neck crept out and the old humorous frowning eyes looked about. And the legs and tail came out. The back legs went to work, straining like elephant legs and the shell tipped to an angle so that the front legs could not reach the level cement plain. But higher and higher the hind legs boosted it until at last the center of balance was reached. The front tipped down, the front legs scratched at the pavement and it was up. But the head of wild oats was held by its stem around the front legs.
MAITLANDNow the going was easy and all the legs worked and the shell boosted along waggling from side to side. A sedan driven by a 40-year-old woman approached. She saw the turtle and swung to the right off the highway. The wheels screamed and a cloud of dust boiled up. Two wheels lifted for a moment and then settled. The car skidded back onto the road and went on but more slowly. The turtle had jerked onto its shell but not it hurried on, for the highway was burning hot.
MAITLANDAnd now a light truck approached. As it came near the driver saw the turtle and swerved to hit it. His front wheels struck the edge of the shell, flipped the turtle like a Tiddlywink, spun it like a coin and rolled it off the highway. The truck went back to its course along the right side. Lying on its back, the turtle was tight in its shell for a long time. But at last its legs waved in the air reaching for something to pull it over. Its front food caught a piece of quartz and little by little the shell pulled over and flopped upright.
MAITLANDThe wild oat had fell out and three of the spearhead seeds stuck in the ground. And as the turtle crawled on down the embankment, its shell dragged dirt over the seeds. The turtle entered a dust road and jerked itself along, drawing a wavy shallow trench in the dust with its shell. The old humorous eyes looked ahead and the horny beak opened a little. His yellow tail slipped a fraction in the dust.
REHMBeautiful reading. Thank you, Leslie. That is such a famous passage, Susan. What does Steinbeck say about that?
SHILLINGLAWWell, of course he doesn't explain the book -- I mean, he didn't want to explain the book himself but he does -- he took a lot of time with that chapter and it was very important to him. And it's right at the beginning of the book. And I think one thing he's saying here is, this is not fiction but it's -- it is fiction, not history. So you have a little parable in the opening of the book that I think tells readers to think about this as fiction. But I also -- I think it is a turtle that's telling you to slow down.
SHILLINGLAWBut perhaps most importantly, it's kind of a -- it tells us how to read, I think, the book because it's about the casual nature of experience where on the one hand one car tries to hit the turtle, the other tries to miss it. And so to some extent that's the Joad story that things just happen. We don't often know what's going to happen. And then I think the fact that the seed is planted is so important to this book because it's a germ. It's a sense of the potential of life and so much about this book and why -- I think one of the reasons why it endures. It's about living and the potential to move on no matter what has held us back or whatever circumstances we encounter.
MCCARTINYes, and that seed is planted so vividly at the beginning that you're thinking about that turtle later in the book. And especially there's a crucial dialogue between Ma and Tom Joad later when Tom is starting to lose his patience. And Ma says, you've got to have patience. Why Tom, us people will go on living when all them people is gone. Why Tom, we're the people that live. They ain't going to wipe us out. Why we're the people. We go on. We take a beating on the time, Tom says. I know, Ma chuckled. Maybe that makes us tough. Rich fellows come up and they die and their kids ain't no good and they die out.
MCCARTINBut Tom, we keep a coming. Don't you fret none, Tom. A different time's a coming.
MAITLANDYou know, the message throughout is so much from Ma and from Tom that one just has to put one foot in front of the other day by day. Live each day for what it's going to be. And I think the message that you really come away with is that it's the journey that for as much as they move ahead with a vision of a promised land that includes orange trees and little white houses, that in the end the promise land is the land that we create among ourselves in the way we treat each other.
MAITLANDAnd so in that last scene that Susan eluded to where Rose of Sharon feeds a starving man with her breast milk after her own baby has been born dead, that it's the human decency that is the promise land, the world that we can create by the way we treat each other. And that's sort of the message that I found there.
SHILLINGLAWI think also important is -- back to the seed -- is that Rose of Sharon who's pregnant is literally sort of a seed in the book. And she's initially a little bit self centered, a little bit -- she whines. A lot of male critics have commented on Rose of Sharon whining but to some extent she has good reason to whine. She's pregnant, she has a worthless husband and she's on the road and she doesn't have anything to eat. And of course her baby dies. But Ma is coaching her throughout the book in such beautiful pros, passages about how to become a woman, how to become not so self centered.
SHILLINGLAWAnd so she becomes a kind of seed for growth and change and development herself.
REHMAnd you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." We're going to open the phones now and welcome our listeners to this Readers' Review of John Steinbeck's "The Grapes of Wrath." And first to Joe in Melbourne, Fla. You're on the air.
JOEHi, good morning.
JOEI've been a fan of Steinbeck's since childhood. I've wondered about an anecdote I read in a biography "The Great Adventures of John Steinbeck." And from what I understand, he wrote -- he actually wrote "Grapes of Wrath" or got the background for it prior to going to Stanford. And while he was at Stanford, I understand he was invited to his roommates home for Thanksgiving.
JOEAnd during a church service the minister there at the church pleaded for bread and wine for the souls of the faithful. And Steinbeck reportedly stood up and called back to the minister, what about bread and wine for the poor Okies, and stormed out of church. I always wondered if that's an anecdote that was based on fact.
REHMSusan, maybe you can help out there.
SHILLINGLAWYes, it's published in a little book called "The Wrath of John Steinbeck" by a friend of his named Robert Bennett. So that anecdote's true. I think probably Steinbeck's experience as a teenager in Salinas where he saw families of migrants working in the fields up through his college experience working as a -- you know, he did work himself as a working stiff. And up through the '30s a lot of experience certainly bares on the creation of "The Grapes of Wrath."
REHMAll right. Thanks for calling. Let's go to Phil in Pittsburgh, Penn. You're on the air.
PHILYeah, good morning.
PHILI grew up in Kern County in -- where "The Grapes of Wrath" takes places in the 1950s. And my father actually was involved in that period of time as a young man who traveled by train across the country and suffered at the hands of the railroad bulls. And finally ended up in Kern County. And it was an extremely difficult time for him as he related to me throughout my entire youth. And he always taught my brothers and myself, you know, to be able to do anything, to be able to work, to not -- and to do anything that allowed us to be able to put food onto the table of our families.
PHILIt was an extremely -- in Kern County when I was in school, they actually had banned "The Grapes of Wrath" from the school library so that we were not even able to read the books.
REHMWow, that's very interesting. Joseph, did you know that?
MCCARTINI didn't know about that in Kern County but it doesn't surprise me. The authorities in California and the Associated Farmers were really -- they launched an aggressive campaign to try to discredit Steinbeck and the book.
REHMJoseph McCartin. He's professor of history at Georgetown University. Short break here. When we come back, more of your calls, your email. Stay with us.
REHMAnd welcome back. Susan Shillinglaw is here. She's scholar in residence at the National Steinbeck Center. Joseph McCartin is professor of history at Georgetown University. Leslie Maitland, former reporter for The New York Times, and author of "Crossing the Borders of Time." Susan, your most recent book is a portrait of Steinbeck's first marriage. What role did his wife, Carol, play in "The Grapes of Wrath"?
SHILLINGLAWWell, the book is dedicated in part to Carol who willed the book, and I think that's very much true. She had a very muscular social conscience, and I think she was the one that politicized him in the mid '30s, dragged him to meetings of the John Reed Club in Carmel, a little socialist group that was very active in Carmel near where he lived. She helped him interview migrants. She perhaps went on some of the trips with him. She edited the book. She typed the manuscript. She came up with the title "The Grapes of Wrath," which is from "The Battle Hymn of the Republic."
SHILLINGLAWAnd I think more important she just -- her very presence was essential to Steinbeck. I write in my book "Portrait of a Marriage" about how their relationship was really kind of a small phalanx, a word he uses a lot. But it was a kind of team. And he really needed that sense of another presence there, an audience for his prose. He read aloud a lot. He needed to, you know, bounce off words and talk about language with somebody else, and she functioned in that way. And so she also told him to write more about place. She urged him to write about California early on, so she was extremely important to his whole career.
REHMWhat kind of background did she come from?
SHILLINGLAWShe grew up in San Jose. She was -- also felt a little bit marginalized in her family. She was a very feisty woman, and so I think she's got a lot of Ma Joad in her. She was very strong, very resolute, very determined. And so I think that Steinbeck drew from his marriage and from Carol, and his own mother was like that as well, in creating the portrait of the very strong and remarkable Ma Joad.
REHMI should say. All right. Let's go back to the phones to Houston, Texas. Louisa, you're on the air.
LOUISAHi, good morning. I'd first like to acknowledge my appreciation of your show, Ms. Rehm...
LOUISA...and the guests coming on and celebrating this novel. I'm actually hoping to study undergrad history at Georgetown, so, McCartin, I've especially enjoyed hearing your comments.
LOUISAAnd I was wondering whether any of you could comment on the events that happened in 1939 and preceding 1939, like the Anschluss and the Nazi invasion of Poland, British immobilization of their forces and how those events could've influenced Steinbeck as he was finishing and publishing his novel.
REHMAll right. Thanks for your call. Joseph.
MCCARTINSo the novel was published in April of 1939. That was about four months before World War II began with the Nazi invasion of Poland. But storm clouds had been gathering over Europe since the previous couple of years, including the Anschluss in Austria in 1938. The novel I think hit at a time that was kind of a magical window for a novel like this to break through. The country was just on the verge of coming out of the depression and may be more open to looking at the horrors of it in some ways. And it was not yet drawn into the maelstrom that World War II would become.
MCCARTINSo when the novel came out in 1939, it really seized the imagination of the country in a way that had it come out two years later it might not have done.
SHILLINGLAWThat's very true. And I think Steinbeck -- all the publicity for the films of both "The Grapes of Wrath" and "Of Mice and Men" said Steinbeck was a household name in the late 1930s. And I think because of this trilogy that he wrote, "In Dubious Battle," "Of Mice and Men," and "The Grapes of Wrath," about marginalized people, the working poor, he really kind of educated a country on the whole -- the experience of poverty. And so he really was -- there was a national dialogue about poverty and the working class, and everything that he talked about in "The Grapes of Wrath" in 1939. And as Joe said, two years later it would've been another kind of dialogue altogether.
REHMAll right. To Eddie in Rockford, Ill. You're on the air.
EDDIEHowdy. Just wanted to mention that Woody Guthrie commented and wrote stories and songs about "The Grapes of Wrath," and also about many of the depression era occurrences, especially in the dust bowl. And one of them that made a particular impression on me was the one about California. The name of it is "Do Re Mi." California is the Garden of Eden, but believe it or not, you won't find it so hot, if you ain't got the do re mi.
SHILLINGLAWThat's a very famous song.
REHMAnd as a matter of fact, Ed, at the very end of this program, you'll hear Woody Guthrie's version of "Tom Joad," so stay tuned, and thanks for your call. Let's go now to North Sutton, N.H. Al, you're on the air.
ALYes, I told the person that I'm holding in my hand the term paper for English 517, Merrimack Valley Branch of UNH, oh, boy, submitted 8-7-75 by me. And it was the factual basis for "The Grapes of Wrath." We're having an English course in which we were comparing books and the movies made from them. And I asked a question in class, should we care about only about the artistic merits of these works, or should we care about the people? And she said, my professor said, there's your term paper.
ALWell, I remember a hot Saturday up in the stacks of Dartmouth, which is only about 40 minutes away, and I held a Life Magazine from 1939 with the picture of Eleanor Roosevelt in the squalor of the camps. And I also read where Steinbeck had veto power if they tried to sugarcoat it too much. One of the interesting things, as I'm looking at my bibliography here, and one of the things that was funny to read was a book by -- oh, it doesn't matter. It was called "Grapes of Gladness." And it was just so, you know, silly propaganda.
ALOne of the things that struck me was how they would call these people names and say how dirty they were, where they forced them to live in these terrible camps. Let me quickly -- this won't take long, but let me just quickly read you the last -- a little bit of the last. "The migrant and his family are lonely wanderers on the face of our land. They're living testimonies to the poverty and neglect that is possible even in our wealthy and dynamic democracy." I'm not going to read the whole thing, but I ended my paper and I said, it was dated 1960. So anyway, when I heard this program, oh, my God, where's that paper, and I dug it up.
REHMI'm glad you found it, Al. Thanks for calling.
REHMDo you want to comment, Leslie?
MAITLANDJust as you -- well, for one, I understand that both President Roosevelt and Eleanor Roosevelt did vouch for the accuracy of the picture that was painted by Steinbeck. And of course, you know, he had made so many journalistic kind of trips in the years before he wrote the book, really observing firsthand, and had even made previous stabs, I understand, at writing different versions of this before -- which he subsequently even tossed out before he came up with this one, which was really a distillation of his thinking about the subject and his firsthand witnessing of the situation.
MAITLANDBut as you describe, you know, the vilification of the people, you know, there's one scene that was extraordinary where the family's pulling out of a service station and the two service station men are looking at them depart. And they say -- one of them says, "Jesus, I'd hate to start out in a jalopy like that. The other says, well, you and me got sense. Them Goddamn Okies got no sense and no feeling. They ain't human. A human being wouldn't live like they do. A human being couldn't stand it to be so dirty and miserable. They ain't a hell of a lot better than gorillas." So, I mean, the...
MAITLAND... demonization of these people.
MCCARTINI think that's a great passage. I'm glad Leslie highlighted it. One of the things that it does is it brings us into an understanding of one reason this book really grabbed people, and that was that this was a book about whites, but it was a book about whites who were treated as though they weren't white by other whites. In this book we don't encounter any African Americans, a couple of allusions to them. We don't really encounter Mexican Americans. In fact...
REHMIt's just the poor.
MCCARTINRight. So because race really isn't present, class can be brought forward in a more straight forward, less complicated way, in a way that maybe Americans at the time wouldn't have been able to do had this been about a black family.
SHILLINGLAWI think Steinbeck was very aware of that, as was Carey McWilliams, who was another commentator in the '30s. Because, you know, the history of labor in California was about Chinese and Filipino and then Mexican sort of waves of different migration, which he actually talks about in "The Grapes of Wrath." And then the new wave of migrants was white, and so it was a challenge, you know, throwing down the gauntlet, if you will, to the powers that be in California. Okay, now we have white migrants. How are you going to treat them? These are people that look like you, are going to have the same kind of disgraceful conditions...
REHMAnd picking up on that very theme, here's an email from Jerry in Queens, who says, "When you read "Grapes of Wrath," it's easy to get angry at the way big farmers treat the workers. There are so many workers in need of jobs. They can pay them less than necessary to survive. They can put them up in squalid conditions. They allow only -- they allow them only to shop at the farm store. Today these practices continue in large numbers, only it tends to be Latin Americans who we relegate to these grueling jobs with no power."
REHM"Do you think it's easier for Americans to turn the other way as these practices continue, because it's no longer white, formerly of independent means, folks who are being taken advantage of, but rather some of our internal others? I guess I wonder where is the continued anger and if you see it as related to the underlying issue of race." Susan.
SHILLINGLAWYou know, Steinbeck writes in chapter 14, which I think is at the center of this book, it's about the emergence of something that's going to happen. And he says, "The great owners striking at the mediate thing, the widening government, the growing labor unity, striking at new taxes, at plans, not knowing these things are results, not causes. Results, not causes. Results, not causes." He repeats it three times. "The causes lie deep and simply. The causes are a hunger in the stomach multiplied a million times. A hunger in a single soul, hunger for joy and some security, multiplied a million times. Muscled in mind, aching to grow, to work, to create, multiplied a million times."
SHILLINGLAWAnd I think that gets to so much of the essence of the book. It's about suffering, about human suffering. And that is -- that crosses boundaries certainly of ethnicity and race.
MAITLANDEven now, where we talk about the huge discrepancy, the growing discrepancy between the poor and the very, very rich, the super 1 percent, you know.
REHMWouldn't it be wonderful if for 135 copies of this book were sent to the Congress right now. And you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." Let's go now to Hastings, N.Y. Hi, Dan, you're on the air.
DANGood morning. Just a little thought, let's not forget the cause of World War II was World War I. A nice little war for markets and colonies. And the people of Germany had suffered through their own depression trying to repay reparations, loans by the U.S. Congress, which led us to Hitler. I see this book as a damnation of capitalism.
REHMIs that how you see it, Susan, and you see it, Joseph?
SHILLINGLAWWell, I certainly think that it suggests -- as many people in the '30s, one -- I interviewed somebody, Caroline Decker, once and she said, you had to be a hunk of protoplasm not to be -- to resist capitalism in the 1930s. And so I think to some extent that's what Steinbeck is trying to do, to say what is an alternative to a system that has left so many people on the margins.
MCCARTINAnd Steinbeck does come close to, you know, articulating a socialist vision...
MCCARTIN...even in the passage following the one that Susan quoted earlier, where he talks about once you get two of these dispossessed people together and they start to talk amongst each other, they'll come to, you know, a realization of the exploitation and to the idea that we've lost our land and we need to get it back. But Steinbeck didn't have a coherent critique of capitalism. He associated around people who were communists. And those John Reed Clubs that Carol took him too, that was a communist party movement for intellectuals. But he was not a communist. He didn't have a real, you know, clear, you know, Marxist vision in any sense.
MCCARTINI'd see this book as more of a populist book and a deep American tradition of talking about the little guy being squashed by the big powerful interests. And you don't need to be a Marxist to see that happening.
MAITLANDI must say given the fact that, you know, he was attacked for being sympathetic to what he called the reds in the book, I was sort of relieved to discover that he had not been targeted by the house -- an American activities committee which, you know, went after some of the others suspected of leftist leanings.
SHILLINGLAWAnd I must add that I -- in a couple of weeks a book that I just finished called "On Reading the Grapes of Wrath" is coming out. And I do talk about this whole issue Steinbeck as a communist in that book. And he did edge close to certainly a great sympathy for the communist ideology in the late '30s. He wanted one of the articles that he wrote right before "The Grapes of Wrath" called "Starvation Under the Orange Trees."
SHILLINGLAWThe orange being a kind of iconic symbol of the plenty of California, what the potential that it offered. And he wanted it published in the Daily Worker in San Francisco, so he really was angry. And some of that anger is of course Tom Joad. And some of it was tempered in the book, but in some ways it's an angry book about the situation that exists in California.
REHMDo you recommend this book, Joseph, to people who are in your classroom?
MCCARTINAbsolutely. I'll be teaching a course on the Great Depression in the fall, and I will assign this book, and maybe Louisa from Houston will be in the class.
REHMI hope so. Joseph, McCartin, he is professor of history at Georgetown University. His books include "Collision Course; Ronald Reagan, the Air Traffic Controllers and the Strike that Changed America." Leslie Maitland, former reporter for The New York Times. She's author of "Crossing the Borders of Time." Susan Shillinglaw, professor of English at San Jose State University, scholar in residence at the National Steinbeck Center. Her forthcoming book is titled "On Reading the Grapes of Wrath." Thank you all so much.
MAITLANDThank you, Diane.
SHILLINGLAWThank you, Diane. It's been wonderful.
REHMAnd thanks for listening. I'm Diane Rehm.
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