The Grapes of Wrath (2)
Reading Grapes of Wrath got me thinking about today’s migrants. Rather than Okies from the plains of the Midwest, today’s migrants are more often immigrants from Mexico and other Central and South American countries who leave their homes to come to the U.S. in search of better-paying jobs. Unlike migrants of the Great Depression era though, today’s migrants don’t haul their whole family with them in a jalopy truck. Instead, migrant workers leave their families behind in their old country and move alone, living as cheaply as possible in the U.S. so they can send as much money home as they can.
Then I saw this article in the New York Times, which discusses how the recession in the U.S. has caused a paradox in the lives of Mexican migrant workers and their families: instead of migrants sending money, called remittances, home, workers are instead being sent money from their already-ailing families: reverse remittances. Because the recession has caused massive unemployment – especially for those migrants who are undocumented and have trouble finding a job even in prosperous times – families back home are finding it necessary to support their sons and daughters abroad with whatever they can scrape together. The article even reports finding that a small bank in Chiapas, Mexico is seeing more money sent from Mexico to the U.S. than the other way around: 50,000 pesos per month are sent north, while only 30,000 pesos per month are being sent south. According to Mexican government data, about 5.9 million households (1.8 million families) receive money from relatives abroad; in fact, remittances from the U.S. comprise “roughly 19 percent of total income for urban households and 27 percent for rural ones,” making the slowing trickle of money coming in from the north a serious problem for the livelihood of a significant number of Mexicans.
Some migrants, having been out of a job in the U.S. for too long to continue surviving there, are even returning home to Mexico. The number of workers returning home is small, however, due to the fact that the crossing to the U.S. is dangerous and costs thousands of dollars (mostly used to hire coyotes, people who make a living getting folks across the border undetected). Most migrants are trying to tough it out in the U.S., hoping the economy will pick up soon so they can find new jobs and start sending money back home again. Now, as during the Great Depression, the livelihoods of migrant workers and their families are constantly in peril: trapped in a system which forces them to live from hand-to-mouth, the absence of a paycheck during an economic downturn causes serious consequences. “We’ve decided to tighten our belt until we’re all working again,” says Mr. Salcedo, the father of an unemployed migrant worker in the U.S. But there’s only so much belt-tightening that can be done: if workers like Mr. Salcedo’s son can’t find another job soon enough, there’s no safety net for them or their families back home.
Returning back to the Grapes of Wrath Bibliography, I somehow ended up on an article entitled “John Steinbeck: Novelist as Scientist.” Though it is not specific to Grapes of Wrath, science seems particularly noticeable in those early characterless chapters that could nearly be described and literary science as their seems not plot or story to them save for that of the changing land. And, after all, Steinbeck did have that interest in science and scientists in him. “The fiction of John Steinbeck has had a special appeal to the scientist, for of all the major American writers of fiction in this century, Steinbeck alone has had an abiding interest in natural science and brought that interest into his writing,” wrote Jackson J. Benson. The Log from the Sea of Cortez details Steinbeck's six-week marine specimen-collecting expedition with his good friend, the marine biologist Ed Ricketts. And then in the character Jim Casy, Steinbeck created an observer of things through an increasing profane lens. “In a parody of Christ’s religious purgation of the self,” Benson wrote, “Casy goes into the wilderness to emerge with a scientific, non-teleological vision: ‘There ain’t no sin and there ain’t no virtue. There’s just stuff people do. It’s all part of the same thing.’” I am always apprehensive to pit religion and science against each other as only the dogmatists of each camp seem inclined to do, but besides in shaping the philosophies implied by Steinbeck in Grapes of Wrath environmental science seemed overall to play a role that ran parallel to the Great Depression as it might run parallel today with the concern for global warming.
Just as farmers in the 1930s found their land ruined by unsustainable farming habits at the same time that their bank accounts were dwindled by unsustainable financing habits, the same two poor habits came ashore in the past few years, and together once again. It seems to make for a particularly darker shade of gloom—one in which both the environment and human institutions both have been misguided by our own appetitive natures. Where we have ruined both what we’ve been given and what we’ve made.
If Grapes of Wrath was the road novel of the Great Depression which put in words these anxieties by the pen of a writer with an interest in science, The Road could be today’s equivalent, who wrote perhaps more allegorically about the issues of what humans make and what they ruin, and how in the wake of that they may survive. Like Steinbeck, McCarthy, who is today regarded as a major American writers, has an interest in science that shows both in his prose and in his themes.
Yet most important in both of these works is that they are not merely scientific. In the end they are about humans and their function as a part of the greater environment. Afterall, Benson wrote, Steinbeck “saw man as part of an ecological whole.”
The Joads flee to California along with what at times appear to be the entire populations of Oklahoma and Kansas. But why? Why California, specifically? Can it really be that they believed it to be a land of easy living in white houses and orange groves? Would they believe any pamphlet you handed them? They might, if it just gave them hope. The Joads come across as naive and tragically hopeful, leaning heavily on confirmation bias to inform their decisions and world view.
As readers, we see the foreshadowing in all of the warnings and admonishments from those travelers who have experience with California, that life is no better there than anywhere else, but the Joads and their fellow travelers are able to forgo this information and rely instead upon the narrow authority of the pamphlet, building on this tenuous base an entire structure of hope and expectation, which they are reluctant to tear down even when the reach California and the reality of the Hoovervilles. Only Uncle John and Connie have been able to do that so far.
"You know when you see an advertisement for a casino, and they have a picture of a guy winning money? That's false advertising, because that happens the least. That's like if you're advertising a hamburger, they could show a guy choking: 'This is what happened once.'" --Mitch Hedberg
I'm reminded of many people I know who want to become successful musicians or artists or writers or filmmakers, and who blindly follow the narrow routes presented to them by media execs and those already in the industry; they integrate themselves into structures which, though they have produced a few wildly successful careers, are certainly not reliable means of satisfying those dreams. Those careers are held up and displayed like the photo of the white California house surrounded by oranges, or a photograph of a man winning the lottery outside a convenience store. Hope can be a great support in a time of need, as it is for the Joads, but there are those that will manufacture and sell their own brand of hope.
A friend who grew up in a far worse neighborhood than I did told me he felt professional sports were one of the worst aspects of our country's culture because of the false hope it gave many of the kids he grew up around. He said that a lot of the inner-city poor feel they are presented with three ways of rising up in the world: drugs, music, and sports. The first we can instantly recognize as dangerous, and more likely to get you killed than rich. (And even if you do get rich, you'll probably still get killed.) The second we know is a hell of a long shot, and there are enough stories about musicians getting ripped off by their labels to give us pause. But the third, we often think, though also a long shot, it may at least get you into college. And that's a good thing, right?
Well, most kids just aren't that good, and the vast majority of the people who do go on to college on sports scholarships never rise above the level of college sports. Those that do almost always have incredibly short careers. We can look at Shaq's $21M salary and 17 years in the NBA, but he's just another white house in California. Most players that make it into the NBA are out within 5 years. Pro football players sustain incredible injuries all the time that ruin their careers. At my high school, there were at least two gym teachers I knew of who were failed pro athletes (1 near-olympian, 1 near-NFL player), both of whom ended up being accused of stealing money from the school. And the gym teachers are the ones who've done okay for themselves. Many go through college without much difficulty--or learning--and come out the other side with a degree signifying nothing. Maybe they'll have a blip of a sports career, but then what? A quarter-way through their life expectancy their luck's run out and they don't know what to do.
The long-winded and circuitous point I'm making here is that the Joads typify a common problem with poverty that undercuts the despicable image that headed my last post, which correlated poverty and laziness. The poor, especially those born into it, often aren't shown any way out except through exploitative systems that offer elusive pie-in-the-sky rewards. These systems, as the Joads find out in a Hooverville, use that promise to get lots of people to do whatever they want for however little they want, and blind them to the possibility of another way to live.
While reading the last couple chapters of Grapes of Wrath, when the Joad family is given a boxcar to live in, but forced to share it with another family, struggling to get enough money to buy food and clothing, I was reminded of a childhood book series that I used to read, the Boxcar Children. Living in a boxcar is not exactly a fun experience, given the description of the Joad family's hardships, especially during heavy rains, when the most of the cars flood. Running out of food, building a dam, giving birth to a stillborn child, and watching it's homemade coffin float down the river do not exactly make for light reading.
Yet, the Boxcar Children represented made living in a boxcar seem like a children's paradise. I remember reading the book and wishing that I didn't have to live in a house, which suddenly seemed incredibly boring. I became jealous of families that got to live in abandoned box cars and even regular cars. The books, originally published in 1924 by Rand McNally, tell the story of four orphaned children who run away from the orphanage and move into an abandoned box car in the forrest, which they furnish from searching through an abandoned dump (fun!). The boys spend the day going out to hunt and search for food, while the girls stay in the box car, cook, and sew. And in the meantime, all the kids would team up to solve mysteries! It's interesting that these stories are so popular with children. I remember as a kid wanting so badly to be an orphan so that I could be just like Annie, and homeless so that I could be just like the boxcar kids.
Why are so many children's books written to make poverty seem so fun and glamorous? Is it to cheer up kids who actually live in destitute situations or is it a way to exoticize that lifestyle for the more privileged classes? I think it's most likely the latter, since orphaned children who actually live in boxcars unfortunately don't have too many people buying them popular book series. So why are middle class kids brought up reading these books? If it's to make them feel lucky to have parents with jobs and real homes to live in, that certainly did work with my friends and I, who proudly told our parents that we wished we were orphans. There must be something innately fascinating about living in poverty and hardship or there wouldn't be so many popular books about it. Many critics argue that Grapes of Wrath was written to make the upper classes more aware of what was really going on in America during the Depression, but maybe it was also made to appeal to our attraction to reading about struggling families. Maybe there is something that makes us want to imagine ourselves in these tight situations, where obtaining food and shelter is so immediately necessary to stay alive. Maybe that is part of the appeal of Great Depression literature in general, the real reason why so many writers and photographers took to the road to tell stories of being down and out...
The 1930’s were a time entrenched with racial prejudice. At various points in the Grapes of Wrath, racism (not just on a ethnic, but also on a class level) develops in minute yet potent statements. As the novel opens up, stories are told about how past generations of farmers fought to acquire the land from Native Americans, “Grampa took up the land, and he had to kill the Indians and drive them away.” In chapter 18, violence and hatred directed towards minorities are exemplified once again when Tom Joad describes how his grandfather “an’ another fella whanged into a bunch a Navajo in the night. They was havin’ the time a their life, an’ same time you wouldn’ give a gopher for their chance.” Even police officers refered the Joad family in Chapter 18 as Okies; “Okie use’ ta mean you was from Oklahoma. Now it means you’re a dirty son-of-a-bitch. Okie means you’re scum. Don’t mean nothing itself, it’s the way they say it.” As discussed in class, was the Grapes of Wrath truly representative of the people affected by the Dust Bowl at that time?
In Cunningham’s article Rethinking the Politics of The Grapes of Wrath, he poses an interesting observation, “The novel scarcely mentions the Mexican and Filipino migrant workers who dominated the California fields and orchards into the late thirties, instead implying that Anglo-Saxon whites were the only subjects worthy of treatment.” Not all of the citizens affected by the Dust Bowl were Anglo-American. Mexican immigrants heavily occupied California and other areas of the West coast. Migrant farm workers of all races lived in temporary camps like this as they moved from farm to farm to follow the seasonal work. In the 1900s, the Mexican Revolution and the series of Mexican civil wars that followed pushed many Mexicans to flee to the United States. Many U.S. farm owners recruited Mexicans and Mexican Americans because they believed that these desperate workers would tolerate living conditions that workers of other races would not. Mexican and Mexican American workers often earned more in the United States than they could in Mexico's civil war economy, although California farmers paid Mexican and Mexican American workers significantly less than white American workers. By the 1920s, at least three quarters of California's farm workers were Mexican or Mexican American. As the Great Depression took a toll on California's economy during the 1930s, however, Mexicans and Mexican Americans became targets for discrimination and removal. White government officials claimed that Mexican immigrants made up the majority of the California unemployed and white trade unions claimed that Mexican immigrants were taking jobs that should go to white men. In reality, a new supply of white refugees desperate for jobs was flooding California from the Midwest due to the Dust Bowl crisis, making up the majority of the unemployed.
The scene in Mae’s diner, where she talks about the “shitheels” living well and stealing things from her anyway, embarrassed me. I’m from south of Boston, and those people were undoubtedly from the “North”. Beyond that, in the conversation between the Wilson family and the Joad family, where they are identifying as Kansans and Okies, they make a snide comment about how they both talk a little different, but folks from Massachusetts talk and you can’t even tell what they’re saying. Those bay-staters are the people flying around in their nice cars, hitting people in jalopies and killing caravans of homeless families, lacking in human empathy born out of struggle.
I assumed it was human empathy born out of struggle, anyway. There seemed to be a direct correlation between who was willing to give a little (the gas station owner, Mae, the Wilsons, etcetera) and who had been struggling.
However, look at this map of unemployment rates in the US. It shows rural areas, metropolitan areas, the change in unemployment over one year, and so on. And all of the states mentioned/traveled in Grapes of Wrath (with the ironic exception of California) are not only doing better than the rest of the country, but also have been less changed over the past year. Montana, North Dakota, South Dakota, Nebraska, Kansas, Oklahoma, Colorado, Utah, Wyoming; all of these states had been doing pretty well, and are doing even better when compared to everyone else within the past year.
The metropolitan areas were horribly hit. And yet, we still don’t see the basic human empathy; rather, we see people scrounging for whatever they can despite living in relative luxury, financial crimes, white collar crimes, Ponzi schemes, demands for bonuses and vacations and other unnecessary, indulgent things.
So maybe empathy isn’t about who’s hardest hit. Maybe it’s about the nature of one’s business, what one does for a living, being connected to the work one does…along the same lines as Steinbeck’s writing on the mechanization of farming. The middlemen and middlemen of middlemen in white-collar business and the workplace is essentially infinite. There is no connection to any physical product, or how the product helps people. There is no "produce" to love.
In a small business there’s no room for the inhuman, unnameable something that runs Banks and Large Companies to sneak inside. It is all solidly humans. And it is all human empathy. The small restaurant I work for (and I mean small: ten two-person tables) feeds any homeless person that walks in. Somehow I can’t imagine an Applebees or Chili’s or McDonalds doing that, and it has nothing to do with the people working at that particular branch. Those waiters and waitresses care just as much about other people – but they have to fear the nameless, formless something that would punish them if they did not do as they were told.
I suppose what I’m trying to say is: despite our actually having someone to “go after” now (those big headlining white-collar criminal) going after them won’t solve it, because this empathy problem is more than the couple of sociopaths we hear about. How lovely if we could return to being a country of small businesses, where everyone knows what exactly they’re doing and why they’re doing it, where people feel close enough to the center of the company that they don’t fear retribution if they do something kind.
Grandma's death doesn't come as a big surprise. I had a slight suspicion when she wasn't waking up and sleeping with her mouth wide open. The journey Westward in Chapter 18 reminds me of the good ol' days of when I would play Oregon Trail (for nostalgia, click here) and the family members would drop one by one. I guess what did surprise me at first was the Joads' willingness to keep on going towards California even though they encounter so many that warn them against it. At first, I thought it could be their naivete but then I realized they just have no other choice. They have to move from their home in Oklahoma because it is no longer a home and the only other option they have is to find a new location where they can stay together and perhaps continue their agricultural lifestyle. I suppose California sounds good in theory. Or at least on handbills. Each chapter in this book brings me to a new level of familiar uncomfortability; in the scene where the children stare at the stew from pot to plate, I feel that same unease when a homeless man watched me inhaling a falafel on a park bench. Reading about the woman who gets her knuckles shot off with her fingers "hanging on strings against her palm" (ch. 20) makes my teeth grit automatically.
What really gets to me is the hostility for the outsiders who have come to work in California. It is not only the non-native workers who are outcast and ridiculed but the fellow mid-west man in search of some means to get by. In Harvest Gypsies, Steinbeck writes that although the migrant workers are necessary, they are hated. What I found most interesting was that I forgot to consider the fact that these Okies (and Arkies, too) were land-owners once. They had experienced the pain of watching their land dwindle and die and get taken away by some anonymous source. "They are descendants of men who crossed the middle west, who won their lands by fighting, cultivated the prairies and stayed with them until they went back to the desert. And because of their tradition and their training, they are not migrants by nature. They are gypsies by force of circumstance." (pg. 22) It seems obvious now, that the family, of course, would have had much grief about leaving their land but it happened so quickly and so unhesitatingly that I disregarded the weight of their situation. The apathy of the contractors, the cops, and other Okies is striking.
On a different note, I was surprisingly amused by the events described in these last few chapters. I only realized as I was explaining to a friend what happened: a man is caught planting a secret garden carrot and turnip seeds on someone else's land, a neighbor gets angry the Ma Joad for making stew, the Joads are shocked when they realize Ma Joad was keeping mum about grandma's death because the "fambly hadda get acrost" (ch.18) the desert first. Done the right way, The Grapes of Wrath could be a hoot. Maybe.
I was struck by something that was discussed in class on Tuesday in regards to a comparison of the times and the notion of people in today's society picking up and moving out west. "People wouldn't do that now... we wouldn't want to leave behind our TV."
Are we really living in a world today where we can't pack up and move in search of a better life because we're too afraid to leave our television sets behind? Is the prospect of watching someone else's glamorous (or unglamorously comical) life on television enough to keep us where we are? Are we so wrapped up in media and the world of make believe television has created for us that we can't free ourselves from its grasp? Why make the effort to pack up and move? Why look for a better life when we could just watch someone else's life?
Or maybe it's a measure of "stuff." The television set is merely a symbol; for luxury, for wealth, for status, for power. The Joads had to leave everything behind, as did other families heading out west during the Great Depression. They're viewed as vagrants and thieves. They perservered, though, despite the hardships. Sure, they didn't have TV's , but they left their valuables behind because it was about saving themselves and saving their families. How sad it is we can't swallow our pride and leave our TV sets behind.
In times of hardship and pain, we seek out the ones we love, for they provide us with comfort and shoulder to cry on. When our wills falter, they are there to support us, because they love us. This love, this indelible bond between people, is what keeps the Joad family afloat. Even in the midst of two deaths, poverty, and a rickety jalopy, the Joads exemplify the philosophy behind the phrase “All for one, and one for all.”
A veritable troop of musketeers.
Yes, their bond keeps them together through thick and thin. But what about the people they meet along the way? The roadside families they come to know throughout their travels establish a system of thought that frames their journey. A new perspective is created; an overwhelming force takes hold, uniting all families into one collective soul and spirit: “The loss of home became one loss, and the golden time in the West was one dream” (Steinbeck, 192). Steinbeck almost incites envy from his reader, who, by a mere educated guess, was a wee bit more well off than Dust bowl migrants. By labeling these road-side families as “builders,” Steinbeck reveals their increasing strength: “And as the worlds moved westward they were more complete and better furnished, for their builders were more experienced in building them” (Steinbeck, 194). These relationships are real, raw, and no-nonsense.
Why does this seem so hard to find these days? Just the other day, I was robbed, and I was completely scandalized by this con man’s obvious lack of compassion. Reading Grapes of Wrath and studying Jim Casy’s character in particular (a real life jesus?), has aided me in seeing the good in people, which I always anticipate is there. The man who took my money approached me as I was leaving my friends apartment at third and D. His car was double parked, light flashing and all, and he came up to me immediately, his words tumbling out of his mouth: “Hey listen you’ve gotta help me out here. I’m from Staten Island and I really need to get home. But the thing is I’ve run out of gas, and I don’t have any money….” He chose an easy target: unsuspecting, young, and naïve (clearly). I was determined to see the good in him, and when he told me that he just needed money to get a red gas bucket, I believed him. As I was watching him drive away with my forty dollars, I cursed myself for having been so ignorant, but then I paused and imagined the scenario differently. If I has ignored him and just driven away on my bike without listening to him, I would have felt awful that this potentially stranded guy needed help desperately. I wanted to help him, I wanted him to go home and see his wife and kids. I sympathized with him: once in a while, everybody needs help out of a jam. Perhaps this is taking it a bit too far, but I wanted to be his road-side family. I wanted to be his breath of fresh air, the restoration of his faith in mankind.
Instead, I got slapped in the face by reality. Time for me to wake up and smell the coffee, I guess.
I was inspired by The Grapes of Wrath and by our class discussion, to explore migration to cities (similar to migration in America during the Great Depression) in other continents. Though we may never see car/trucks with mattresses on the back speeding down the highway in America anymore, the phenomenon of migration to cities for the purpose of finding a better and more prosperous life, is still common in many poor countries around the world.
I have chosen to focus on Mali, one of the world's poorest countries, in which farmers and others living in rural areas are greatly affected by the unpredictable West African climate. There have been numerous year when rainfall decreases and Malian farmers find themselves in similar situations to the farmers of SouthWest during the American Great Depression of the 1930's, when the farmland of that region became a dustbowl. In these cases, mass migration towards Bamako in particular, and other smaller cities has ben documented. Malian farmers leave their homes to earn money as laborers and support their families, many of whom have remained on the farms. These farmers hope to return during the rainy season to profit from the regeneration of their land.
However, in Mali mass migration has been regular during dry seasons for over two centuries, and in America, especially the America of the 30's portrayed by Steinbeck, mass migration was a new phenomenon. So why was migration so uncommon before the depression? One possible answer is that the United States is not afflicted by the same severe weather patterns as West Africa, and people have less of a reason to leave their homes. Another answer is that Americans have never been displaced by war in their own country (except perhaps some during the civil war and revolution), whereas Malians have been migrating to escape violence for hundreds of years. Another possible reason is that the US economy was, until the Depression, relatively stable, and remained stable for years after. The Malian economy is very weak, with over 80% of Malians relying on the agricultural system for income.
Another question that must be posed is why have Americans, especially farmers such as the Joads, been able to come out of the depression with greater determination to not let such an economic catastrophe touch them again? And why have Malians been migarting to and from cities for centuries, without changing the pattern? Certainly technology plays a great role in this, as does climate (once again) and the fact that the US government even during economic depressions, has still had more resources to devote to jump starting the economy than a country like Mali.
So America was lucky, and we look back at the Depression as a dark time in our history, when so many were displaced and unemployed and generally miserable. However we ought not to forget that the Great Depression exists in perpetual forms throughout the world today.