Grapes of Wrath as Proletarian Propaganda?
As a rather exuberant fan of Marx, I saw Grapes of Wrath as not only a fantastic piece of literary genius, but also as an enjoyable piece of anti-capitalist writing. Because of my political persuasion, I quickly categorized any criticism of Steinbeck's alleged embellishments of the facts to be little more than red-baiting anger over a book that sparked national concern over the plight of migrant workers - a plight that pro-capitalists often anxiously try to brush off as "inaccuracies."
But after reading Keith Windschuttle's relatively level-headed article, "Steinbeck's myth of the Okies," I felt more inclined to believe some of the allegations against Steinbeck. For example, this passage from Grapes of Wrath leads the reader to connect the Dust Bowl with the migration of farmers like the Joads from Oklahoma:
"In the morning the dust hung like fog, and the sun was as red as ripe new blood. All day the dust sifted down, and the next day it sifted down. An even blanket covered the earth. It settled on the corn, piled up on the tops of the fence posts, piled up on the wires; it settled on roofs, blanketed the weeds and trees."
But, says Windschuttle, "nothing like this happened anywhere near where Steinbeck placed the Joad family farm, just outside Sallisaw, Oklahoma." The Dust Bowl actually occurred "in the western half of Kansas, eastern Colorado, and the west Texas/New Mexico border country," but not in Oklahoma; although there was a drought throughout parts of Oklahoma and Texas, that part of the country was not affected by the Dust Bowl and did not experience the inundation of dust that Steinbeck describes.
Another mischaracterization that Steinbeck is guilty of is the exaggeration of the Joad's situation: thirteen people piled into one truck, Grandma and Grandpa dying along the way, and the rest of the family slowly separating as members desert the group to strike out on their own. While the Joad's plight is certainly an apt setting for a heartbreaking drama, Windschuttle describes this situation as "demographically unusual" : "Rather than large families extending over several generations, the most common trekkers from the southwest to California were composed of husband, wife, and children, an average of 4.4 members." The average picture is far from the one that Steinbeck paints of the Joads
So clearly, Steinbeck takes certain liberties in telling the story of the Joad family - this much is certain. But is this really relevant? If Steinbeck's intentions were to write a factually accurate depiction of migrant families during the Great Depression, then he would have become a journalist. Steinbeck was trying to write a great novel - and he undoubtedly accomplished this, regardless of what his numerous critics have to say. And if some of his embellishments were motivated by anti-capitalist sentiment, then what of it? The fiction writer is under no obligation to make any sort of "accurate" representation of "the truth" - fiction is, after all, a work of the imagination. And it's not as if the right wing didn't also have its fair share of pro-capitalist propaganda. Whether or not he intended it, Steinbeck's book caused national attention to be focused on the condition of migrant workers, people whose stories are so often unheard, whose struggles to survive die with them in silence. This, to me, is an undoubtedly positive affect of The Grapes of Wrath: not only is it an amazing work of literature, but it also managed to expose some of the grossest inhumanities perpetrated under a capitalist system.