Industrialism in John Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath
Article first published online: 14 JUN 2011
© 2011 The Martha Heasley Cox Center for Steinbeck Studies/Wiley Periodicals, Inc.
Volume 8, Issue 1, pages 109–111, Spring 2011
How to Cite
LESLIE, S. W. (2011), Industrialism in John Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath. Steinbeck Review, 8: 109–111. doi: 10.1111/j.1754-6087.2011.01144.x
- Issue published online: 14 JUN 2011
- Article first published online: 14 JUN 2011
LouiseHawker , ed. New Haven : Greenhaven P , 2008 . 179 pages. $22.46 .
The highway is alive tonight But where it's headed everybody knows I’m sittin’ down here in the campfire light Waitin’ on the ghost of Tom Joad
—Bruce Springsteen, “The Ghost of Tom Joad”
As Springsteen, the rock-poet laureate of the American highway, so well understood, The Grapes of Wrath is most essentially a road book. Route 66, memorably hailed by Steinbeck as the “Mother Road” in his novel, is a twentieth-century counterpart to Walt Whitman's “Open Road” and Mark Twain's Mississippi River, a main artery beating out the pulse of a nation. Tracing the Joads’ journey along Route 66 from Oklahoma to Southern California, Steinbeck perfectly captured the ethos of an era, characterized most obviously by industrialization and migration. Industrialism, of farm and factory, may have made migration necessary, as it did for the uprooted Joads, but it also provided opportunities for a better life at the end of the road and powerful incentives to seek them. Much like Dorothea Lange's iconic photograph, “Migrant Mother,” The Grapes of Wrath provides us with an indelible portrait of the Dust Bowl and the Great Depression, but one that conceals as much as it reveals. To see that world only through the Joads’ eyes, even with the context provided by Steinbeck's intercalary chapters, is to miss the much bigger story of a nation in transition. That does nothing to diminish the power of Steinbeck's novel. It does, however, offer a challenge for those introducing The Grapes of Wrath to a generation far removed in time and experience from the Okies, tenant farming, and migrant camps. This collection offers a way of rethinking Steinbeck's relevance for students in the global economy of the twenty-first century, when issues of migration, uprootedness, the mobility of capital, and the environmental and human costs of agribusiness are as urgent and compelling as in Steinbeck's day.
As Keith Windschuttle points out in his contribution to this volume, Steinbeck crafted a mythology so powerful and persuasive that his masterpiece “defined the experience of the Great Depression” for his own and subsequent generations (120). Much of what we think we know about the Dust Bowl we have learned from Steinbeck, and much of that turns out to be inaccurate. Few California migrants actually fit the description of the fictional Joads. Most of the Okies came west in the 1940s, seeking jobs in the burgeoning defense industries of Los Angeles, not to work the fields of the Imperial Valley. In his brilliant memoir Holy Land, D. L. Waldie talks about these “aviation Okies” and about growing up in Lakewood, California, a Douglas Aircraft company town where Okies and their neighbors from across the country built a thriving suburban community. Certainly, some migrants did find themselves as destitute and dispossessed as the Joads. Most of the Okies reached California in a few days, stayed in motels along Route 66 on the way, and eventually found good jobs once they arrived. For them, industrialism offered more opportunity than oppression.
Steinbeck's Exodus, captured in all of its biblical imagery and metaphor in Joseph Fonterose's essay, misleads in a more insidious way as well. The farm workers most brutally exploited in California in the 1930s, Charles Cunningham tells us, were Mexicans and Filipinos, as utterly invisible in The Grapes of Wrath as black southern sharecroppers in James Agee and Walker Evan's Now Let Us Now Praise Famous Men. The Great Migration of African-Americans from the south extended west as well as north, though neither Steinbeck nor any of these contributors seemed to have noticed it.
This collection skillfully excerpts a surprisingly wide range of sources, from classic biographies, literary criticism, and Steinbeck's Nobel Prize citation to short pieces on corporate ethics, homelessness, and the decline of the family farm. We even hear from the Grand Archdruid of the Ancient Order of Druids of America, who weighs in on “the age of scarcity industrialism.” Some essays address industrialism directly, noting the parallels between The Grapes of Wrath and Factories in the Field, Carey McWilliams’ contemporary expose of the plight of farm workers in their unequal struggle with agribusiness. Most of the rest take industrialism as a proxy for modern capitalism and its ruinous consequences for people and the land. Only the essay by Robert Griffin and William Freedman, first published in 1963, deals with the machines—the automobiles, trucks, and tractors which feature so prominently in the novel. Not until Thomas Pynchon's The Crying of Lot 49 would any American author came close to matching Steinbeck's bitter caricature of used cars as battered alter egos. Where Steinbeck's cars evoke pathos, his tractors project menace. Several contributors cite the famous confrontation between the tenant farmers and the Tractor Men. Oddly, despite what its caption implies, the only tractors illustrated in the volume (86) are not ready to “tractor off” any Dust Bowl stragglers. These are postwar Ford tractors bound from Great Britain to the continent. Someone should have thought to include a photograph of the Joads on the road. Stalin banned the film version of The Grapes of Wrath when Soviet audiences seemed to overlook the oppression of the capitalist proletariat and instead noticed that even the poorest Americans owned automobiles.
One risk of highlighting “social issues in literature” is that the social issues can end up overshadowing the literature. From the time of its publication, The Grapes of Wrath has been (mis)read as unvarnished journalism. And however valuable it may be for today's students to consider the “accuracy” of Steinbeck's epic and to ask themselves whether there is some way “to balance the perceived benefits of industrialism with preservation of the environment, concern for the individual, and adherence to traditional ways of life, such as the family farm” (165-166), as prompted by the suggested discussion questions, it would certainly distract them from an appreciation of Steinbeck's genius. Undoubtedly, as Richard Astro insists, Steinbeck's “lasting fame will rest largely on his great novels of the American Depression” (28). But those novels, The Grapes of Wrath most of all, still resonate with readers today because of what they tell us about the American character in the face of adversity. That Steinbeck chose the road as its setting reveals his shrewd appreciation for geographical and social mobility as a defining American trait. Cannery Row, and In Dubious Battle may tell us as much about industrialism and its consequences as The Grapes of Wrath, though none of them match Aldous Huxley's Brave New World as the defining novel of Fordism and its legacy or Charlie Chaplin's Modern Times as its cinemagraphic equal. Students assigned this collection will have a better appreciation of Steinbeck as social critic. Will they also understand why he is still considered one of America's greatest novelists?
Stuart W. Leslie teaches the history of science and technology at The Johns Hopkins University. The Grapes of Wrath always finds a place on his syllabus for his course “On the Road: America in the Rearview Mirror.”