Last fall an unforeseen deadline loomed, and I was asked to choose a topic for a spring lit seminar before the administrator’s cigarette could burn down to the filter. Poverty, I blurted, regretting it even as the word passed my lips like acrid smoke. Yes, it has plenty to do with what I’m working on, but wouldn’t we all have enjoyed Literary Roadtrips more? Humor and the American Imagination? The Dialogic Discontents of Textualized Indeterminacy in Intertextual Climax?
To liven things up, for myself anyway, I put The Grapes of Wrath on the syllabus so I could revisit a book I’d read and appreciated at 18. Back then I was half a semester from dropping out of community college, but there were so many things I didn’t know that I didn’t even know that. The book had the force of instant recognition, but I don’t recall it being taught in any way that encouraged us to think differently, let alone radically, about the economic hardships our region had suffered for half a century. I wrote a paper or took a test on Grapes and suddenly was in the army.
Almost all my fellow soldiers had also had money problems, which is largely why we enlisted. You’ll be surprised to learn, as we were, that we didn’t get rich doing so. After three years I’d made sergeant and was earning $938.70 per month. (Hazardous duty pay was an extra $83.00.) Occasionally, though, we’d find ourselves in a place or situation that money couldn’t (easily) buy—on some inaccessible Caribbean beach, drinking cold drinks, after diving on pristine living reefs—and with more layers of irony than I can easily peel, someone would raise a plastic cup and say, “I wonder how all the goddamn poor people are doing?”
There is, after all, a point for most of us where the suffering of others becomes undigestable, and we begin to blame them for their own problems. As someone in the novel tells men desperate for nonexistent jobs, “Man wants to work, O.K. If he don’t—the hell with him. We ain’t gonna let him stir up trouble.”
We also avert our gaze, avoid suffering altogether, or worst of all, become desensitized. There’s a chapter about the impromptu camps of the traveling poor that spring up along the highway. In them, people share food and water, play music together, speak of the ruined land and their homes left behind forever. Also:
They spoke of their tragedies: Had a brother Charley, hair as yella as corn, an’ him a growed man. Played the ‘cordeen nice too. He was harrowin’ one day an’ he went up to clear his lines. Well, a rattlesnake buzzed an’ them horses bolted an’ the harrow went over Charley, an’ the points dug into his guts an’ stomach, an’ they pulled his face off an’—God Almighty!
What about this passage reveals me to be the awful person I am by making me want to laugh instead of gasp in horror? It’s the piling-up of problems, each terrible in itself—hard labor under the sun with beasts of burden; add a venomous snake, like an asp from the Bible; then unfaithful horses; and finally not only disembowelment by iron spears but also his whole face “pulled off” (slower than “ripped off,” and not merely sliced open or mangled, but actually unmasked like some Hannibal Lecter grotesquerie). This isn’t Steinbeck’s fault, but for me there’s an echo of that scale of woe in the Black Knight from Monty Python.
Add to it bad grammar and truncated words in an attempt to capture dialogue phonetically, and the brother with “yella” (sounding like the yelling yeller he becomes post-accident) hair like the corn he’s trying to plant, and his diminutive name, Charley, despite the fact that he’s “a growed man” who plays the accordion real nice.
Finally, is there not some reaction of the digitized to the experience of those who labor, especially in the earth, an uneasiness at not being in touch with elemental processes that support their privileged lives, which sprouts as fear and blooms as derision? I think of that line in the novel Deliverance, “[T]here is always something wrong with people in the country...the country of nine-fingered people.”
Indeed, after my service, during which I read all of Steinbeck, I went back to college and learned that he’s barely a writer, “sentimental” being the worst epithet that professors, scholars, and critics can throw. “Sentimental,” I wrote in my notebook, then took a date to see the movie Cannery Row and thoroughly enjoyed it, as I had enjoyed the short novels Cannery Row and Sweet Thursday, which the scriptwriters combined for the movie. (“’Cannery Row’ [the film] is gentle, nostalgic, and romantic. If one accepts its fanciful sentimentality, it can work wonders on an ill temper," says a reviewer.) But something had changed, and besides now there was Barthelme, Eco, Marquez, Faulkner, Hemingway, Woolf, Kafka… swimming forward and backward through many wonderful books with a variety of depths.
Jump-cut 25 years. A lot has happened. Reading Grapes of Wrath now, I’m struck not only by how antiquated the mass exodus seems, nearly Biblically-distant, the plagues and duststorms and primitive machinery, the country speech I only ever heard from ancient relatives born decades before the book was published, but also how current the main concerns are. Despite a continual tendency to set-speeches and character-puppetry, the book articulates its thing canonically well, as surely as Ecclesiastes or Moby Dick do theirs. Its thing? Inalienable rights, bedrock justice:
"The families [in the transient camps] learned what rights must be observed—the right of privacy in the tent; the right to keep the past black hidden in the heart; the right to talk and to listen; the right to refuse help or to accept, to offer help or decline it; the right of son to court and daughter to be courted; the right of the hungry to be fed; the rights of the pregnant and the sick to transcend all other rights.
"And the families learned, although no one told them, what rights are monstrous and must be destroyed: the right to intrude upon privacy, the right to be noisy while the camp slept, the right of seduction or rape, the right of adultery and theft and murder. These rights were crushed, because the little worlds could not exist for even a night with such rights alive."
This little parable is part to the whole, since “theft” in the book also means, on the grand scale, industrial agriculture, environmental ruin, real estate practices, and predatory banking.
We started our seminar this semester with Slavoj Žižek’s idea of systemic or “objective” violence and its relevance to the problems of poverty:
At the forefront of our minds, the obvious signals of violence are acts of crime and terror, civil unrest, international conflict. But we should learn to step back, to disentangle ourselves from the fascinating lure of this directly visible ‘subjective’ violence, violence performed by a clearly identifiable agent. We need to perceive the contours of the background which generates such outbursts. A step back enables us to identify a violence that sustains our very efforts to fight violence and to promote tolerance. […] Systemic violence is thus something like the notorious ‘dark matter’ of physics, the counterpart to an all-too-visible subjective violence. It may be invisible, but it has to be taken into account if one is to make sense of what otherwise seem to be ‘irrational’ explosions of subjective violence.
This is most true in the novel when people can’t even find the thing hurting them. The main threat is always back over the horizon somewhere. When the tractor operator comes to plow everything and knock over a family’s home:
But it’s ours, the tenant men cried. We—
No. The bank, the monster owns it. You’ll have to go.
We’ll get our guns, like when the Indians came[!]. What then?
Well—first the sheriff, and then the troops. You’ll be stealing if you try to stay, you’ll be murderers if you kill to stay. The monster isn’t men, but it can make men do what it wants.
‘But where does it stop? Who can we shoot? I don’t aim to starve to death before I kill the man that’s starving me.’
‘I don’t know. Maybe there’s nobody to shoot. Maybe the thing isn’t men at all. Maybe, like you said, the property’s doing it. Anyway I told you my orders.’
Of course it takes agents to enact the monster’s will, so to speak; in the passage above, it’s a young man from a local family, seen as a class traitor. More often, it’s middle-class businessmen, the local bourgeoisie, who sound like this:
Those sons-of-bitches over there ain’t buying. Every yard gets ‘em. They’re lookers. Spend all their time looking. Don’t want to buy no cars; take up your time. Don’t give a damn for your time. Over there, them two people—no, with the kids. Get ‘em in a car. Start ‘em at two hundred and work down. They look good for one and a quarter. Get ‘em rolling. Get ‘em out in a jalopy. Sock it to ‘em! They took our time. […] Get ‘em under obligation. Make ‘em take up your time. Don’t let ‘em forget they’re takin’ your time. People are nice mostly. They hate to put you out. Make ‘em put you out, an’ then sock it to ‘em. […] Take out that yard battery before you make delivery. Put in that dumb cell. Christ, what they want for six bits? Roll up your sleeves—pitch in. This ain’t gonna last. If I had enough jalopies I’d retire in six months.
I’m reminded, in Grapes’ anger and insistence on this theme, of the 2007 book Deer Hunting With Jesus: Dispatches from America’s Class War:
"Despite globalism, owners of small and medium-size businesses run much of the heartland. Many of those picturesque towns you whip by on the interstate are small feudal systems ruled by local networks of moneyed families, bankers, developers, lawyers, and merchants. That part of a community’s life you cannot see from the road or from your Marriott hotel room, and it certainly does not appear in tourist brochures pushing Winchester’s Apple Blossom Festival or the Oktoberfest in your Midwestern town. It is in the interest of those well-heeled conservative provincials to maintain a feudal state with low taxes, few or no local regulations, no unions, a cheap school system, and a chamber of commerce with the state senate on its speed dial. At the same time they dominate most elected offices and municipal boards. It seems only natural that these small business owners, after generations of shaving down the soap bars in the back room and soaking the pork chops in water for extra scale weight, would conclude that America is solely about the quickest buck. ‘Screw the scenic creek, you tree hugger. I’m getting an Outback Steakhouse franchise! Pave it, baby!’
"Members of the business class, that legion of little Rotary Club spark plugs, are vital to the American corporate and political machine. They are where the institutionalized rip-off of working-class people by the rich corporations finds its footing at the grassroots level…."
Steinbeck draws a pretty hard line between the haves and have-nots:
This is the beginning—from ‘I’ to ‘we’. If you who own the things people must have could understand this, you might preserve yourself. If you could separate causes from results, if you could know that Paine, Marx, Jefferson, Lenin were results, not causes, you might survive. But that you cannot know. For the quality of owning freezes you forever into ‘I’, and cuts you off forever from the ‘we’.
Of course, I don’t believe Steinbeck’s romantic enough to believe the We will always cohere. And there is some psychological understanding, if not sympathy, for those he’s accused of treating as mere types:
Some of the owner men were kind because they hated what they had to do, and some of them were angry because they hated to be cruel, and some of them were cold because they had long ago found that one could not be an owner unless one were cold. And all of them were caught in something larger than themselves.
Somewhere, back even behind his moral and ethical mind, Steinbeck thinks, rather grudgingly, like a natural scientist—the struggle of life itself the real danger—which helps to fend off didacticism.
“Well. We all got to make a livin’.”
“Yeah,” Tom said. “On’y I wisht they was some way to make her ‘thout takin’ her away from somebody else.”
I’m glad to be back with Steinbeck, for this brief and pertinent moment. Class warfare is in the news. Of course I read about it in the Times, where I’m also told what $700,000 will buy for housing around the country, what to do for 36 hours in Davos, Switzerland, and how to add fitness to my itinerary while traveling on business. (“Heavy dinners. Endless meetings. Delayed flights. Uncomfortable hotel beds. Business travelers contend with them all, and that takes a toll.”)
We could use a Steinbeck again, someone whose heart is fully devoted to portraying, with the utmost compassion, deeply genuine human situations in need of bedrock justice.
Photo: Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division. LC-USZ62-58355. Caption: "Nipomo, Calif. March 1936. Migrant agricultural worker's family. Seven hungry children and their mother, aged 32. The father is a native Californian."