The Grapes of Wrath and Contemporary America

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                                                    The Grapes of Wrath

US economy expanded rapidly in the roaring twenties driven by the recovery from wartime devastation and deferred spending. It went through a boom in construction and rapid growth in the production of consumer goods like automobiles and electrical machines. Troops returned from war and the entrance of women in workforce also helped in production.

The radio brought the inciting advertisement of hot commodities such as fridges, washing machines, vacuum cleaners and cars to everyone. Banks were offering easy loans to buy goods and it was the era of the emerging middle class in America. Life-style and living status were rapidly changing. Though Europe was suffering, but America was progressing leaps and bounds. The US became the richest country in the world in per capita income and had the largest GDP at that time. One of the most enticing things to invest then was stocks.

The Stock Market centered at the New York Stock Exchange in Wall Street in NYC was the scene of reckless speculation where everyone from a millionaire to a janitor poured their savings into stocks. But, as it is said, for every boom, there is bust. It actually happened.

From 1922 until 1929 the market saw an increase of 20% a year on average, and this growth encouraged investors to risk their life savings in what that is considered now as one of the biggest failed gambles in history. The practice of buying on margin became popular as it enabled investors to borrow money from their brokers of which they had to pay only 10-20% down payments. Companies started investing in stocks and banks were using customer money without permission.

As a result, the Stock Market underwent rapid expansion reaching its record high on September 3, 1929, but had fallen by 20% on Tuesday, October 22. It was on this day that New York Times published articles about short selling, foreign investors leaving the market and margin sellers. The Times and Washington Post fanned the flames on Wednesday and panic began to set in on Black Thursday. The market lost 11% of its value at the opening bell on quite heavy trading.

After five days, some 16 million shares were traded after another wave of panic swept Wall Street. The Roaring Twenties was thus replaced by Terrible Thirties. It was the main reason of The Great Depression. Unemployment raised 25%, wages fell over 40%, and global trade fell 65%.

Besides, failure of banks, reduction in purchasing across abroad, American Economic Policy with Europe, drought conditions and the dust bowls added severe miseries to American people.

Though, everyone in US was suffering from this Economic Pandemic, but the farmers suffered most. As a matter of fact, farmers didn’t get much enjoyment from the roaring twenties also. Here is the reason-

During the Great War (WW1), demand for food was high and prices paid for grain rose dramatically. In 1913, US farmers harvested more than 50 million acres of wheat and at the peak, in 1919, more than 75 million acres were harvested. It was because during the war Food Administrator Herbert Hoover exhorted farmers to increase the production.

As the prices rose, farmers began to borrow money to buy more acres and machinery, especially farm tractors since labor costs were sky high. Farm mortgages were doubled between 1910 and 1920, but after the war, when a recovering Russia and Europe began to feed themselves, the prices dropped off. In 1921, the price of wheat dropped to $0.92.6 per bushel in comparison of $2.14.9 per bushel in 1919.

Since it was roaring twenties and the credit was easy, the farmers limped along, falling further and further behind the rest of the country. Though the prices were low because of the over-production, but in the hope generating enough cash to pay off the debts they kept planting large acreages. The seeds of dust bowls had been sowed in these times. Between 1925 and 1930, more than 5 trillion acres of previously unfarmed land was plowed. In 1931, though it produced record crops, but due to already debilitating economy in the Great Depression, people were too poor to buy, and farmers burned wheat to warm themselves because the coal was too expensive to buy.

Being unable to get back their production costs, farmers expanded their fields and in an effort to turn profit they covered the prairie with wheat in place of natural drought resisting grasses and left any unused fields bare. As a result, it produced an unexpected yield in a time when people had no money to buy but the most dangerous thing it did was the loss of fertile topsoil that literally blew away in the winds leaving the land vulnerable to drought. In a brutal twist of fate, the rains stopped. By 1932, 14 dust storms known as black blizzards were reported, and in just one year, the number increased to 40.

When the drought hit the Great Plains, roughly one third farmers robbed from their belongings, homes and lands left their homes and headed to the mild climate of California in the search of work and good wages. They were often called Okies by the Californian because 20% of these migrant poor were from Oklahoma.

And here comes the writer- John Steinbeck- who borrowed the field notes taken during 1938 by Farm Security Administration worker and author Sanora Bobb. Bobb collected personal stories about the lives of displaced migrant workers for a novel she herself was developing, but her supervisor shared the reports with Steinbeck. Bobb’s own novel ‘Whose Names Are Not Known’ was eclipsed by the success of The Grapes of Wrath in 1939.

So, The Grapes of Wrath is a realist fiction set during The Great Depression times. It is the story of the Joads, a poor family of tenant farmers driven from their home in Oklahoma by draught, economic hardship, changing agriculture industry and bank foreclosures forcing the farmers out of work. Trapped in the dust bowls, nearly hopeless in the situations, the Joads set out for California in the search of work, dignity and a good future.

But California didn’t welcome the influx of Okies as number of migrant workers outnumbered the available jobs. The Joads had to go through great hardships, travelling in a dilapidated truck, better call it a hybrid jalopy, spending nights in tents, living in dump-yards with fancy names ‘Hoovervilles’, going hungry for days and eating fried dough and boiled potatoes most of the times, living like hell and dying on the way and getting buried in unknown places, weeping, laughing, quarrelling, cursing the fate and people and country, but still, cherishing hope, preserving their dignity, they kept on living the life driven by the old Christian belief ‘all that live is holy.’

The Grapes of Wrath is just a manifestation to show how can the last family in the last row be affected by the great happenings in a country, it’s a manifestation of the unyielding life-force of proletariat matted in dehumanized cycle of capitalism, it’s the manifestation of the revolutionary phenomena when ‘I’ started to split into ‘we’. Now I’m using the language of Communism, but as a matter of fact, the book was accused by the wealthy Californian ranchers as ‘pile of lies’ and ‘tool of Communist propaganda’, and it was burned and banned. The truth is, Steinbeck himself visited the camps before the publication and said that, ‘their inhuman nature destroyed the settlers’ spirit’ and his sole aim was, as he said, while writing the novel, ‘I want to put a tag of shame on the greedy bastards who are responsible for this.’

As a reader, I was devastated while reading about the hardships of the Joads and people like them who were forced to leave their lands and homes and travel to some unknown dream city named California which was eagerly waiting to kill them by hunger, shame and helplessness.

The Joads are a joint family of twelve people, Granma, Granpa,  Ma Joad, Pa Joad, Tom, Al, Rose of Sharon and her husband Connie, Noah, Uncle John, Ruthie, and Winfield- same as the people live in villages everywhere. There is another important character, Casy-the preacher. Casy is a sympathetic character, but he is killed by the Californian cops because he wasn’t ready to die hungry while working in the farms for less than a dollar in a day.

Though, Tom is the main character and much focus is given on him, but another best character in the novel is Ma. She is always practical and warm-spirited and tries to hold the family together in every dire situation. I have never met any fictional character with such patience and goodness, but in real life, you can find such attributes in every mother.

Steinbeck is a master of characterization, description and language. Whenever he introduces a character, he writes every relevant curious thing about him/her and if he describes general things like weather, location, machinery, the paragraph flows like poetry. He has great command on rustic dialect, in fact, more than the half of the book is written in pastoral dialects, almost every page has a usage of double negatives as people of those times really spoke in America.

The Grapes of Wrath was the book which made Steinbeck a celebrity and it was especially mentioned when he received the Noble Prize of literature in 1962. It was an instant bestseller, got National Book Award and Pulitzer Prize- some 430,000 copies had been printed by February 1940. After the controversy raised the Associated Farmers of California, Steinbeck was so afraid that he started carrying a gun for protection. For a time, the FBI put him under surveillance. In Salinas, where he grew up and people he knew his entire life became unfriendly. He even received death threats.

In 1940, director John Ford made a movie by the same name starring Henry Fonda in the lead role of Tom Joad. I watched the movie after finishing the novel. It was good, but not better than the book. The first half of the film version follows the book but the second half and its ending differs significantly. Ford won an Oscar for best director and Jane Darwell won best supporting actress as Ma Joad.

Well, it was one of the best novels I ever read, and if you haven’t read it yet, give a try. Thank you.

~Ravi

Note- Some photos are borrowed from internet owing the full credit to the original owner.

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2 comments

  1. Ravi’s review includes a comprehensive explanation of the financial and agricultural factors that led to the Great Depression in the U.S. Don’t skip over it because it prepares the reader well for the excruciating hard luck story of the Joads. Steinbeck’s powerful narrative cannot be overstated and Ravi knows this from his frank praise of the Nobel prize-winning novelist. I learned for the first time from Ravi’s thorough research that Steinbeck suffered threats and dishonor for correctly stating the case against unbridled capitalism.

    Ravi should not expect review readers to automatically understand why the Joads and people like them were called Okies or why slum-like settlements of homeless people were called Hoovervilles.

    Also, a language corrections: unemployment did not fall to 25%. It rose to 25% during the Great Depression.

    1. Thank you so much for your insights and apprehensions. I will correct the errors, and thank you so much for giving your precious time to read this review.

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