Steinbeck's Cognitive Landscapes in The Grapes of Wrath: The Highway as Commentary on 1930s Industrialization


  • Rick Marshall


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Jackson J. Benson, in “John Steinbeck: The Favorite Author We Love to Hate,” states that Steinbeck was “a writer who not only created memorable stories, but he really cared about people, particularly the dispossessed and the persecuted” (Benson 8). Benson's comments summarize very well the life of the writer and activist John Steinbeck. He deeply cared about people, especially the migrant workers who often served as his topic. It is difficult to separate Steinbeck's political activism and desire to help the dispossessed and the persecuted from his story telling ability. In the case of The Grapes of Wrath, some have interpreted Steinbeck to be anti-capitalist and anti-industrialist because of his desire to document migrant workers’ living conditions, but his beliefs and attitudes were actually balanced when writing about the complex relationships that drove social and economic life in the 1930s. Steinbeck revealed his true inner thoughts regarding 1930s industrialization as he created ideologically charged landscapes for the setting of The Grapes of Wrath. In this article I will examine Steinbeck's use of his creation of a highway landscape to illustrate the point that he was not an anti-capitalist or anti-industrialist, but that he held a balanced view regarding increasing industrialization in the 1930s.

Steinbeck's Cognitive Landscapes

Geographers typically distinguish landscapes as either natural or cultural. When most people think of landscape, they think of the natural landscape and believe it looks the way it does because of physical forces acting on the land. But the separation of landscape into natural and cultural divisions is a human-induced separation. As we begin to analyze the processes that alter landscapes, it becomes apparent that all landscapes contain some degree of human modification. Even ancient landscapes contain indelible human marks, showing us that we culturally fabricate the landscapes in which we live. Human effort and energy has molded and altered each landscape so that it exists in its present form. This transformation happens whether the landscape is an actual physical landscape, or one mentally crafted in an author's mind, as in The Grapes of Wrath. I have termed these mentally created landscapes that Steinbeck used to form the foundation of his novels, the cognitive landscape. Pierce F. Lewis, in “Axioms for Reading the Landscape,” provides us with the best motivation for studying landscapes:

Our human (cultural) landscape is our unwitting autobiography, reflecting our tastes, our values, our aspirations, and even our fears, in tangible, visible form. We rarely think of landscape that way, and so the cultural record we have ‘written’ in the landscape is liable to be more truthful than most autobiographies because we are less self-conscious about how we describe ourselves. (Lewis 12)

Whereas in most novels the landscape simply creates a backdrop for the plot, in The Grapes of Wrath, Steinbeck fashioned it as a living panorama to drive the plot forward, describing it with great level of care and detail. He was so meticulous in his landscape description that he organized The Grapes of Wrath by dividing it into “interchapters” supporting landscape development and “narrative” chapters supporting character interaction. The novel contains a total of thirty chapters, sixteen interchapters and fourteen narrative chapters; nearly twenty percent of the novel's text is dedicated purely to landscape development in these interchapters, which contain no reference to any of the major characters of the novel. Dedicated solely to describing the setting of the novel, these interchapters develop Steinbeck's cognitive landscape in great detail.

The portrait that Steinbeck paints in the novel is a very complicated one, and his highway landscape is no exception. The highway provided many benefits to society, but it was also built at a cost to those it served. The highway was one of the most visual and enduring creations of the economic machine of the 1930s, the same machine that oppressed the tenant farmers and forced them off the land they had worked for generations. But the highway also provided new opportunities for those same farm families since many followed the highway west as they continued pursuing their strong desire to remain tied to the land. Steinbeck uses this dual nature of the highway landscape as an illustration of the constant tension between opportunity and oppression in the 1930s. He maintains this tension by placing artifacts in the highway landscape for the reader to discover, stressing the concept of the highway as a product of the economic machine that feeds increasing industrialization, and readers can analyze these artifacts and understand the symbolism of Steinbeck's descriptions. The highway is a product of modern engineering and manufacturing principles, made possible through the centralized coordination and detailed regional planning only a strong federal government could provide. It represents humankind's definitive use of technology in its conquest over nature, even as it facilitates transportation over harsh landscapes at speeds unthinkable only a few years earlier.

The Highway Landscape as a Symbol of the Economic Machine

Steinbeck wasted no time in introducing his view of the highway as a symbol of the economic machine. In the first chapter he presents the Oklahoma landscape by describing the fierceness of the countryside–the landscape the highway would attempt to tame. Any system that could dominate the incredibly tough Oklahoma landscape must be strong and decisive. The picture Steinbeck creates in the first paragraph of the story includes a colorful depiction of “red country,”“gray country,”“scarred earth,”“dark red country,”“green cover,”“pale,”“a line of brown,”“green bayonet,”“darker green,”“earth crusted,” and “pink in the red country and white in the gray country” (5).

His portrayal of Oklahoma as a colorful (red, gray, dark red, green), yet difficult (scarred, earth crusted) place paints a picture of an environment of land and weather that dominates everything. Forces beyond human control ordain the destiny of both the Joad family and the other migrant families, and from Steinbeck's tone in the landscape description, it is clear that the outcome will not be pleasant.

Steinbeck is careful from the very beginning to present a visual description of a fierce, physical, controlling Oklahoma landscape which can serve as the physical representation of the endless struggle between humans and the natural world. The highway is the human creation that Steinbeck uses as a metaphor to illustrate the domestication of the landscape. He depicts a horrible thunderstorm symbolic of the struggle between the disadvantaged sharecropper and the economic monster. As the sky becomes darker and the storm rages, the soil cannot resist the wind and is carried away in a manner similar to that of the economic monster that controls the destiny of all in its path. Participating collectively within the system rather than trying to battle it individually is the only hope to survive such a storm. The only opportunity the farm family had to influence the fierce Oklahoma environment was collective participation. The highway is the ultimate example of such collective participation, and it brought hope to the Oklahoma farm families. The highway is the great equalizer, allowing communities to enjoy some level of domination over the harsh environment in which they live. The highway is also the tool providing a path of escape from oppression at home, leading toward a new future in the west.

At the beginning of Chapter 2, Steinbeck introduces human characters and surrounds them with the highway landscape. Tom Joad is hitchhiking outside a diner along the highway. From the beginning of the chapter, all that readers can see, smell, touch, taste, and hear in the landscape are products of the highway–connecting them to this symbol of continuing change. The road on which Tom hitchhikes is the most obvious artifact in the highway landscape, but Steinbeck also placed other artifacts in the scene, including a diner with a big truck in the parking lot, the sounds of customers chatting inside the diner, the smoke and haze of idling diesel engines, and Tom searching for a ride home. Everything Steinbeck placed here, except for Tom, is a result of human beings creating tools to help them manipulate the environment. But Tom's presence in the highway landscape shows as well the inability of the individual to control his or her own destiny in this harsh land and economic system. The highway gives him his path, but as an individual he cannot navigate the road by himself, and Steinbeck provides Tom the tools he needs to overcome his obstacles in the oppressive highway landscape.

Steinbeck introduced an artifact at the diner that dominates this landscape—the big red truck, an icon which represents the increasing technology of the 1930s and the assembly line production methods that are partly responsible for America's fast economic growth. Tenant farmers losing their homes as economics change is one result of the adoption of these production techniques in the field of agriculture. But, at the same time, the truck also represents a new opportunity for Tom, an opportunity to use the truck as a tool by which to rise above the harsh Oklahoma landscape. It is Tom's ride home. Steinbeck describes the truck as Tom first saw it:

A huge red transport truck stood in front of the little roadside restaurant. The vertical exhaust pipe muttered softly, and an almost invisible haze of steel-blue smoke hovered over its end. It was a new truck, shining red, and in twelve-inch letters on its sides—OKLAHOMA CITY TRANSPORT COMPANY. Its double tires were new, and a brass padlock stood straight out from the hasp on the big back doors. (Steinbeck 9)

Steinbeck provides an ideologically charged cognitive landscape as he describes the surroundings of the truck. The contrast between the red truck with the blue-gray diesel smoke, haze, and dusty conditions of the diner's parking lot singles the truck out as the most colorful artifact on the landscape, a symbol of power and domination, standing against and overshadowing its surroundings. It stands in front of the diner shiny, huge, and new, belching a layer of smothering exhaust into the air.

Even if readers may not visualize the truck, they would recognize the smell and sound it produced as it idled. The truck's owners have placed their sign on its side in twelve-inch letters, serving notice to everyone that this truck is the property of the Oklahoma City Transport Company. The boldness of the sign is a statement, by implication broadcasting that, although the country is in the midst of the Great Depression, the Oklahoma City Transport Company is doing well in difficult times. The tires on the truck are new, and the back end has a big shiny brass padlock on it to keep intruders out. Steinbeck creates his highway landscape around the truck in this scene to show its importance as an artifact, that represents total consumption and complete power, with Tom as a powerless individual passing through it. He needs to find a way to harness the power of the truck and the highway to help him in his journey home.

The Highway as a Symbol Of Freedom

The highway provides the sense of escape that migrants seek in the 1930s. The road leads westward and represents a new beginning somewhere beyond the horizon far away from the problems of daily life on the plains. But the highway, as the creation of the economic machine and as its greatest symbol, cannot fulfill the promises of freedom, for the road is tied too closely to the processes that have created it. For the road itself is nothing more than an asphalt ribbon of hope leading somewhere else. The artifacts in the highway landscape left behind by those who had gone before the migrants (such as the diners, gas stations, hotels, migrant camps, farms) give them hope. The highway landscape and its associated artifacts assure them that others have ventured west on the highway ahead of them and that life for them may also have meaning and substance.

Steinbeck's Highway 66 is a fictional road very similar to the actual US Route 66. When US Route 66 is born, the look and feel of the American heartland changes. The original Route 66 is called many names, including “The Mother Road” and “America's Road,” as it serves to link the small towns of America together. It is one of the national roads that run through the heart of the country, a lasting symbol of all that is American, which endures today.

Highway 66 becomes the path of escape, not just for the Joad family, but for many of the migrants. When tenant farm families are forced off their farms, many use highways very similar to Steinbeck's Highway 66 as their path to the West and the prospects that California holds. Steinbeck highlights the physical qualities of Highway 66:

Highway 66 is the main migrant road. 66—the long concrete path across the country, waving gently up and down on the map, from the Mississippi to Bakersfield—over the red lands and the gray lands, twisting up into the mountains, crossing the Divide and down into the bright and terrible desert, across the desert to the mountains again, and into the rich California valleys. (119)

Here Steinbeck describes the physical landscape that Highway 66 tames. He writes about “the red lands and the gray lands,” using words very similar to those he used to describe the Oklahoma landscape back in Chapter 1. He portrays the difficult terrain the highway enables us to take for granted when traveling across the continent today. But the benign landscape that we now traverse at sixty to seventy miles per hour in the comfort of our own cars is a formidable obstacle to those, like the Joads, wishing to migrate west in the 1930s, even though the highway is the technological answer to the desire to tame this environment.

Whereas Highway 66 is very important in conquering the tough physical landscape, it also transcends its utilitarian use and becomes a cultural symbol, the significance of which Steinbeck describes:

66 is the path of a people in flight, refugees from dust and shrinking land, from the thunder of tractors and shrinking ownership, from the desert's slow northward invasion, from the twisting winds that howl up out of Texas, from the floods that bring no richness to the land and steal what little richness is there. From all of these the people are in flight, and they come into 66 from the tributary side roads, from the wagon tracks and the rutted country roads. 66 is the mother road, the road of flight. (Steinbeck 119)

The migration west along Highway 66 takes on a sense of urgency. One doesn't feel the same rapidity of movement while reading the stories of the wagon trains that went west to Oregon, Utah, and California nearly a century earlier. Taken at the speed of a walk, the trip in the 1840s and 1850s took several months to complete. The transcontinental railroad sped up movement across the continent, but there was not much freedom of travel as migrants were limited to the locations the railroad serviced and by the train schedule. The highway is different. The open road provides the traveler a sense of freedom. Travelers may choose a destination, pick convenient stops, and enjoy the route to their destination. And they are able to travel at their own pace across the country in a matter of a week or two. John Jakle and Keith Sculle describe this sense of freedom in their book, Motoring, The Highway Experience in America: “Early on, the automobile enhanced human physicality by fostering geographical mobility and by doing so in ways that seemed fundamentally liberating” (Jakle and Sculle 217). The automobile's ability to foster geographical mobility helped the Joad family to travel at a fast pace. Steinbeck's description of the towns and landscape along Highway 66 simulates the rapidity of the journey west, enabling the reader to understand it as a race against time. Instead of taking the time to enjoy the journey, the migrants move as quickly as possible to get to their destination and then promptly go to work. Steinbeck also creates cultural milestones along this highway to be viewed as markers of progress, almost as if the reader can check them off a list as the Joads pass them by. The migrants are not on vacation, but on a march to arrive in the central valley as quickly as possible. They have no idea that they are linking these cultural markers along Highway 66 into a symbol representing the American Dream for future generations.

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So many displaced people attempted the move west that to some it seems as if it is just one continual stream of migrants. Steinbeck highlights the large numbers of migrants traveling west along Highway 66:

Two hundred and fifty thousand people over the road. Fifty thousand old cars—wounded steaming. Wrecks along the road, abandoned. Well, what happened to them? What happened to the folks in the car? Did they walk? Where are they? Where does the courage come from? Where does the terrible faith come from? (Steinbeck 123)

Each story and individual path west is unique, but at the same time the road west forces assimilation. The migrants have left a place where they are not wanted and have begun a new mission, finding a better life working in the farm fields of California. The path they follow to arrive in the central valley starts from many different locations, but by the time they arrive in California, they are all one: migrants with the same experiences and desires. Steinbeck illustrates the migrants’ common experiences, which force assimilation, as he describes the sights and sounds of the highway landscape:

The people in flight streamed out on 66, sometimes a single car, sometimes a little caravan. All day they rolled slowly along the road, and at night they stopped near water. In the day ancient leaky radiators sent up columns of steam, loose connecting rods hammered and pounded. And the men driving the trucks and the overloaded cars listened apprehensively. How far between towns? It is a terror between towns. If something breaks–well, if something breaks we camp right here while Jim walks to town and gets a part and walks back. (Steinbeck 120)

Steinbeck creates this picture of migrants streaming out onto Highway 66 as a “people in flight” from their individual backgrounds and different experiences, but the farther they work their way west, the more they have in common with the other migrants. While he describes the daily life of the migrants, he also creates a common framework for the reader to understand migrant life. As the migrants travel west, Steinbeck translates their actions into the landscape around them. He uses pictures and sounds to help the reader imagine they are part of the story, describing the highway landscape in such a way that it breathes life, action, and movement into his saga. As the Joad family travels along Highway 66, Steinbeck lures the reader into a participatory role in the story by providing a believable, but incomplete cognitive landscape, one in which the reader becomes Steinbeck's co-creator as the story moves west—with sights and sounds as much a part of the landscape as the physical appearance of the land.

Steinbeck moves from a broad overview of the Highway 66 landscape to a description of the Joad family's specific trip west along the highway. As the family leaves Sallisaw and are now a part of the mass migration west, they have become part of the great assimilation of migrants that headed out before them:

The ancient overloaded Hudson creaked and grunted to the highway at Sallisaw and turned west, and the sun was blinding. But on the concrete road Al built up his speed because the flattened springs were not in danger any more. From Sallisaw to Gore is twenty-one miles and the Hudson was doing thirty-five miles an hour. From Gore to Warner thirteen miles; Warner to Checotah fourteen miles, Checotah a long hump to Henrietta–thirty-four miles, but a real town at the end of it. Henrietta to Castle nineteen miles, and the sun was overhead, and the red fields, heated by the high sun, vibrated the air. (124)

The departure of the Joad family from the farm signals a change in style for Steinbeck. Until the family leaves the farm in Sallisaw, the story has been very descriptive, with Steinbeck providing an incredible level of detail of the landscape surrounding the farm. Once the family has left the farm and has “grunted” to the highway, the level of detail becomes more rapid, with six towns flying by in a single paragraph. Leaving their individuality behind on the farm, the Joad family will now be defined by the highway. It is hard for a family to pull up stakes and leave the farm they have known for generations. They love the land, but once the decision is made, there is no turning back. The Joads are no longer an Oklahoma farming family—they are now migrants. Every mile that clicks by on the highway means they are a mile closer to their future home in California. The move west will not only change the location of their lives, but it will change the quality and very fabric of their future. Progress is measured in distance covered and towns checked off like items on a shopping list the entire way to California.

The rhythm of the trip is similar to that of an army moving into battle. The towns go by like a progression of small, tactical battle victories endured in the larger strategic campaign. The afternoon battle march continues on at the same pace as the morning. The Joad family drives past each town as if in a race against time: “Castle to Paden twenty-five miles and the sun passed the zenith and started down” (Steinbeck 126).

Steinbeck enables us to realize what life on the road is like as he describes the march west. Although the landscape is still centered on the highway, the focus changes as the Joad family enters Oklahoma City. Instead of the familiarity of their home country, it seems as if they have entered a foreign land:

Paden to Meeker is thirteen miles; Meeker to Harrah is fourteen miles; and then Oklahoma city—the big city. Tom drove straight on. Ma waked up and looked at the streets as they went through the city. And the family, on top of the truck, stared about at the stores, at the big houses, at the office buildings. And then the buildings grew smaller and the stores smaller. The wrecking yards and hot-dog stands, the out-city dance halls. (133)

The highway connects the small towns of Oklahoma with the Oklahoma City urban area. Here Steinbeck does not mention the people of Oklahoma City. The Joad family has been enjoying the freedom of the open highway as they keep moving west, but now Steinbeck reintroduces the concept of the highway as a representation of oppression, depicting a landscape full of artifacts of consumption, including numerous stores, big houses and office buildings, wrecking yards, hotdog stands, and dance halls. The farm families are connected to the consumption of the big city only as viewed from the highway. All these artifacts along the highway landscape symbolize a society that has disposable income, which the Joad family does not have. Considering these artifacts while passing through Oklahoma City on the highway reveals how hopelessly out of place the Joad family must have felt and how they cannot help but reflect on what has happened to them during this first long day on the road. After losing their family farm, they have begun a new life on the road as a family of migrants, and now now, as outsiders, they look at the landscape of consumption along the highway roadside in Oklahoma City. They are not a part of the economic force that created this landscape of consumption, and it is foreign to them.

The scene in Oklahoma City shows that the migrants weren't the only class of people affected by the move west. As more and more families have left their tenant farms for brighter futures in California, the highway landscape changes and businesses begin to locate alongside the highway. To the migrants the highway may have been a symbol of the freedom of the open road, but it is also a symbol of prosperity and capitalism. Businessmen and businesswomen understand that wherever large groups of people are located, profits can be made, and their establishments begin to dot the highway landscape providing services to those traveling west. But the treatment the families receive while traveling along Highway 66 is substantially different, depending on whether they are traveling for pleasure or out of necessity.

The highway not only served as the primary route the migrants took west, but also as the economic artery for those communities it crossed. Today the interstate system guides travelers through large towns without stopping for traffic, cross streets, or stop signs. Many large urban areas have interstate by-passes that send travelers around an outer loop, keeping vehicles out of the traffic they might encounter with the large numbers of intrastate and intracity users in downtown areas. These interstate bypasses fulfill their mission by quickly routing travelers around the busiest downtown traffic of cities, but at the same time insulating people from the city center, sending traffic through the suburbs. In the 1930s Highway 66 was made up of intercity roads that were built to take a traveler from one city to another. The object of the earliest highways was to connect towns and cities, and bring travelers into them, not to insulate the traveler from them. Each town and many smaller places along the highway offered services to the travelers. The communities along the migration route benefited tremendously from the constant flow of tourists and migrants across their land. The transportation infrastructure was already built and the communities saw Highway 66 not as the vehicle of escape to take the migrants west, but as an economic boom that was the path to bring people to their town to spend money.

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In 1930, not long before Steinbeck wrote The Grapes of Wrath, Elizabeth Lawton commented on the changing landscape that accompanied the creation of new highways: “Hot dog stands, filling stations and billboards spring up like magic” (4), a comment Steinbeck echoed in depictions of Highway 66 landscape in The Grapes of Wrath. Steinbeck documents one of the economic beneficiaries of Highway 66 in particular, the hamburger stand:

Along 66 the hamburger stands—Al & Susy's Place—Carl's Lunch—Joe & Minnie-Will's Eats. Board-and-bat shacks. Two gasoline pumps in front, a screen door, a long bar, stools, and a foot rail. Near the door three slot machines, showing through the glass the wealth in nickels three bars will bring. And beside them, the nickel phonograph with records piled up like pies, ready to swing out to the turntable and play dance music. …

The walls decorated with posters, bathing girls, blondes with big breasts and slender hips and waxen faces, in white bathing suits, and holding a bottle of Coca-Cola and smiling—see what you get with Coca-Cola. Long bar, and salts, peppers, mustard pots, coffee urns, shiny and streaming, with glass gauges showing the coffee level. And pies in wire cages and oranges in pyramids of four. (153)

Diners such as this one located along Highway 66 were a permanent fixture on the landscape and only lost their economic impact when the interstate highway system began to bypass smaller towns in an effort to save travel time. As Steinbeck illustrates in interchapter 15, most of the migrants were too poor to eat at the diners or use many of the services they provided, but the services were there in case of emergency or for those who could afford to use them. Perhaps one of the reasons that Steinbeck included the description of the roadside diners was to visualize the growing gap between those who had disposable income and those who did not–in essence separating those who were migrating out of necessity from those who were traveling for business or pleasure. The truckers, the wealthy, and those who were mobile of their own choice had the income to spend in the diners and to use the services they provided, while those who were mobile out of necessity saw the diner as an oasis that they did not have the luxury of using. Steinbeck describes the cars passing by on Highway 66, illustrating that the hamburger stands were there for the more wealthy travelers and not for the migrants. The cars passing by are from places outside the plains and represent those with an ample supply of money: “Cars whisking by on 66. License plates. Mass., Tenn., R.I., N.Y., Vt., Ohio. Going west. Fine cars, cruising at sixty-five” (155).

These cars from other places are not a part of the plains landscape, as they represent those who can afford to travel for pleasure. Moving along the highway at sixty-five miles per hour means that they are not overloaded with all the memories and valuables from a home that has been left behind, as the migrants were. They do not have all their household belongings and worldly possessions piled high in the back of a truck. In a hurry to get to their destination, they do not look back on what they leave behind. Steinbeck describes the migrants' vehicles as they move west as “bugs” (194), but here he describes rapid motion (whisking by, going west, cruising) and comfort (fine cars) to show the marked difference between those traveling for pleasure and those migrating out of necessity.

In another scene, Steinbeck depicts the different treatment these two groups of travelers receive at the roadside places of hospitality, highlighting two completely different world views. The first is Steinbeck's view of the wealthy business or pleasure traveler, the second of the migrant family. The following short excerpts demonstrate the dual nature of the highway landscape along Highway 66, with its competing forces of oppression. About the treatment of the wealthy business or pleasure traveler, Steinbeck writes:

Mae looks at and past them as they enter. Al looks up from his griddle, and down again. Mae knows. They’ll drink a five-cent soda and crab that it ain't cold enough. The woman will use six paper napkins and drop them on the floor. The man will choke and try to put the blame on Mae. The woman will sniff as though she smelled rotting meat and they will go out again and tell forever afterward that the people in the West are sullen. And Mae, when she is alone with Al, has a name for them. She calls them shitheels. (157)

It is clear from this paragraph that Steinbeck does not like the boorish behavior of some wealthy travelers, with the money to travel in comfort and move quickly across the continent.

Describing the treatment of the migrants, Steinbeck paints an entirely different, compassionate picture, although he uses the same diner:

A 1926 Nash sedan pulled wearily off the highway. The back seat was piled nearly to the ceiling with sacks, with pots and pans, and on the very top, right up against the ceiling, two boys rode. On the top of the car, a mattress and a folded tent; tent poles tied along the running board. The car pulled up to the gas pumps. A dark-haired, hatchet-faced man got slowly out. And the two boys slid down from the load and hit the ground.

Mae walked around the counter and stood in the door. The man was dressed in gray wool trousers and a blue shirt, dark blue with sweat on the back and under the arms. The boys in overalls and nothing else, ragged patched overalls. Their hair was light, and it stood up evenly all over their heads, for it had been roached. Their faces were streaked with dust. They went directly to the mud puddle under the hose and dug their toes into the mud.

The man said, “Can we git some water, ma’am?” (160)

Steinbeck creats a scene with an opposing theme, that of the migrant traveler, a portrait of an honest, hard-working man with his family, looking for a new future.

The services along Highway 66 are minimal. Yes, there are shacks with gasoline pumps, but the owners frown if the migrants only want to use the water and the restrooms and not purchase anything. The owners cannot turn a profit from these people. They make their profit off of those who purchase gasoline, eat their food, and buy supplies. The migrant family traveling out of necessity is again segregated from those traveling for pleasure or work. Steinbeck's highway landscape portrays an inhospitable environment for those who do not have the means to purchase anything.

The Joads need gasoline and stop along Highway 66 at a station where the gasoline attendant's words provide a key for the interpretation of Steinbeck's highway landscape:

Well, I don't know what the country's comin’ to. I jus’ don’ know. Here's me tryin’ to get along, too. Think any of them big new cars stops here? No, sir! They go on to them yella-painted company stations in town. They don't stop no place like this. Most folks stops here ain't got nothing. (127)

Big new cars don't stop at this gas station. Here another landscape underscores class differences between traveling by choice and migrating of necessity. The migrants are poor and cannot afford the amenities that the pleasure or business travelers enjoyed–those who stop at the yellow-painted stations in town that offer amenities such as diners and stores, while the migrants settle for the gasoline-only establishments.

The Joad family begins to refuel and refresh as the gasoline attendant continues talking with Tom. As they banter back and forth about the people coming into the gas station, their conversation focuses on another key point regarding the difference in consumption between the traveler and the migrant. Tom has some cruel words for the attendant and then apologizes:

“I didn't mean to sound off at ya, mister. It's the heat. You ain't got nothin’. Pretty soon you’ll be on the road yourse’f. And it ain't the tractors’ll put you there. It's them pretty yella stations in town. Folks is movin’,” he said ashamedly. “An’ you’ll be movin’, mister.” (129)

Tom hit the gasoline attendant's situation right on target. The agricultural conglomerate has put the Joad family off the farm, and the oil companies will eventually put the small independent gasoline station out of business in the same way. It is just another manifestation of the same greedy corporate “monster” that kills the Joad family farm.

Steinbeck brings the point to a climax in the cognitive landscape as he describes the capability of the economic system to crush the small farmers and the gasoline stations, illustrating his point by introducing the first disaster to hit the Joad family as they head west on Highway 66. Their dog is thirsty and hops out of the truck in search of water. Steinbeck describes what happened:

The dog wandered, sniffing, past the truck, trotted to the puddle under the hose again and lapped at the muddy water. And then he moved away, nose down and ears hanging. He sniffed his way among the dusty weeds beside the road, to the edge of the pavement. He raised his head and looked across, and then started over. Rose of Sharon screamed shrilly. A big swift car whisked near, tires squealed. The dog dodged helplessly, and with a shriek, cut off in the middle, went under the wheels. The big car slowed for a moment and faces looked back, and then it gathered greater speed and disappeared. And the dog, a blot of blood and tangled, burst intestines, kicked slowly in the road. (131)

This scene has many implications. The description of the dog being crushed while crossing the road shows how difficult the world was and how many things were lurking beyond the horizon to pounce on and break people (or dogs, as in this case), without caring what disaster is left behind. As the reader comprehends the story of the dog's being killed on the highway, the fierce landscape's capability to continue to disintegrate the Joad family on the trip west becomes more and more inevitable. Just as the dog does not see the car coming until it is too late, the Joad family has no idea what is waiting for them just beyond their small portion of the highway.

There is no time to grieve over the dog. Each time the Joads slow down, the delay keeps them from working in the fields of California and establishing a new home. They push on as if on a mission. The dog is the first member to leave the family, and the crisis serves as an example of how the family overcomes difficult situations and survives. They are quickly tested by fire in their new life on the road.

Although Steinbeck's migrants are impoverished, there is often some nobility in their behavior. Outsiders looking in see their extreme poverty and often treat them as though they are less than human. Inside the Okie migrant group, however, although there may not be much money, there is dignity and moral fabric. And, importantly, the Okies are tough. They have been through difficult times and have come out as survivors. It may take them a while longer to reach California than the pleasure travelers, but they will eventually get there. They do not know what their future holds once they arrive in California, but they hope to be ready for it whatever it is.

After the family leaves Oklahoma City, the familiarity of home is gone, every landscape they experience is new, and their only desire is to push hard and fast to get to work in California. The traveling takes its toll on the family as the landscape becomes more fierce and lonely the farther west they travel. As the Joads make their way across the plains, Steinbeck describes the changes in both the landscape and the family:

Two days the families were in flight, but on the third the land was too huge for them and they settled into a new technique of living; the highway became their home and movement their medium of expression. Little by little they settled into the new life. … The land rolled like great stationary ground swells. … In the far distance, waved up in the sky, the mountains stood. And the wheels of the cars creaked around, and the engines were hot, and the steam spurted around the radiator caps. (164)

The Joads have experienced a transition, and the highway has become their home. Highway 66 traverses a difficult landscape. The Texas Panhandle is a scene of shimmering heat in the summer, marked by dry and dusty eroded ravines. The earth absorbs the heat all day long and radiates it at night. The highway has done its best to tame the landscape, but it is still a fierce place. The landscape Steinbeck describes as the Joads escape from Oklahoma and plod across Texas portrays a future full of gloom for the family.

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As the Joads move from the plains of Oklahoma and Texas into the mountains and deserts of New Mexico and Arizona, Steinbeck highlights the changes the family has made in order to cope with the surroundings. They no longer have roots in Oklahoma, but are now permanently in transition. Rather than the freedom of an open road, they have found great hardship as they travel with limited funds. Although the highway helps them flee dispossession and loss of home, it does not bring opportunity for betterment of their lot. Settling into life on the road means they have had to learn new coping skills to address the changes they face, to stop struggling against life on the road, and to become defined by the highway. The in-betweenness of having no permanent place to call home back in Oklahoma and a glimmer hope for a brighter future somewhere in the west keep them moving, but the anchors of home have been removed—realization has set in that they are now living a life of transition. Nor are they alone in this transition as they join the ranks of thousands of other families fleeing similar problems on the plains. The freedom of the open road is balanced by the need for the highway to bring the diverse families together and assimilate them into their new home. Some of the families choose to remain separate, and Steinbeck uses the highway as the setting to illustrate what happens to those families that choose not to assimilate. The story of a jackrabbit symbolizes the dual nature of the highway, which is on the one hand a symbol of the economic monster and on the other the freedom associated with the open road:

A jackrabbit got caught in the lights and he bounced along ahead, cruising easily, his great ears flopping with every jump. Now and then he tried to break off the road, but the wall of darkness thrust him back. Far ahead bright headlights appeared and bore down on them. The rabbit hesitated, faltered, then turned and bolted toward the lesser lights of the Dodge. There was a small soft jolt as he went under the wheels. The oncoming car swished by. (Steinbeck 186)

Steinbeck describes this incident shortly after the Joad family dog is killed. Both illustrate what may happen to the migrants if they stray too far from of the norm. If the individual migrant families refuse to assimilate into the massive group marching west or if they refuse to become part of the economic factory system operating in California's central valley, there will be dangerous consequences. In both instances, with the jackrabbit and the dog, Steinbeck highlights the benefits and liabilities of living in a technologically advancing society. The same lights that provide the jackrabbit an opportunity to see where it is going also take its life. Steinbeck seizes the opportunity this story provides to show that the economic machine, that builds the highway that leads to the hope of a better future, is the same economic machine that demands assimilation and limited freedom. From the tone of the cognitive landscape surrounding them, readers sense that the Joad family is headed for a miserable end. They assimilate into the life on the highway, and like the jackrabbit, this life radically defines their limits while it also seems to offer them the opportunity for a new future.

When the family reaches the edge of California's central valley, they have an initial view of the place they hope will be their new home. At first glance it appeared to be everything Ma Joad has been hoping for, like a fairy tale:

They drove through Tehachapi in the morning glow. … Al jammed on the brake and stopped in the middle of the road, and “Jesus Christ! Look!” he said. The vineyards, the orchards, the great flat valley, green and beautiful. The trees set in rows, and the farm houses.

And Pa said, “God Almighty!” The distant cities, the little towns in the orchard land, and the morning sun, golden on the valley. A car honked behind them. Al pulled to the side of the road and parked. …

Pa sighed, “I never knowed they was anything like her.” The peach trees and the walnut groves, and the dark green patches of oranges…

Ruthie and Winfield looked at it, and Ruthie whispered, “It's California.” (227)

The sunrise seems to signal a new day for the Joads, a new life in California's central valley. But Ma's vision of the California landscape is totally flawed. The Joad family views the landscape through the lens of their tenant farmer worldview. They are not prepared for what they will find, and they have no capability to fight the system they encounter. What they see from the highway along that pass is a landscape they associate with a peaceful, productive life, but the reality is that they are migrants. Their life on the highway already had provided them with intimations that the California agricultural fields will not be kind to them. The agricultural landscape is molded from an intense economic system that they can never control. The view of the central valley from the highway pass above Tehachapi validates the family's flawed vision of life in California but becomes the transition point from which the Joad family moves from the difficult task of migrating west to an even more challenging task of assimilating into California's central valley.


Returning to Pierce F. Lewis’s comment that the cultural landscape is an unwitting autobiography provides a suggestion that Steinbeck's creation of the highway's cognitive landscape reveals his inner thoughts on the economic difficulties of the 1930s. Steinbeck uses the highway to illustrate the struggle between opportunity and oppression, and it represents both the best and the worst in human achievement, for the economic machine that takes away the Joad family's livelihood also provides them what they believe to be an avenue of escape, although the outcome approaches a disaster as dire as that they leave behind.

Steinbeck is familiar with the economic forces that affect people's lives; he comprehends them both from the need to make the country economically strong but also from the personal side as people suffer as victims of industrialization. The Grapes of Wrath is created from Steinbeck's desire to portray the polarizing and destructive effects of industrialization and giant corporations, as shown in the struggles of those traveling along the highway landscapes he created as the setting for the novel.