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Ghosts of Tom Joad
Steinbecks’ “Grapes of Wrath” at 70

Homeless camps now sprawl instead of developments. Unemployment numbers are spilling off front pages into our lives. Employers are turning workers into modern-day sharecroppers (every man his own contractor). And next week, as if on cue, marks the 70th anniversary of the publication of “The Grapes of Wrath,” John Steinbeck’s novel of foreclosure and dispossession in the 1930s. How timely.

The Oakies at the heart of the story were sharecropper migrants drummed off their land by banks and the Dust Bowl only to be terrorized by locals across the West in what Time in 1939 called “one of the grimmest migrations of history.” By then the Depression and Franklin Roosevelt had shaken up the country’s conscience, but Steinbeck gave the decade’s angers its voice. It was outraged and lyrical — as revolted over the country’s exploitative instincts as it was hopeful of its redemptive capital. Have we lost something since? The din of hateful sanctimony mugs the airwaves, giving no chance to a voice like Steinbeck’s, at once protesting, confident and forgiving. But nothing has been lost, exactly.

 

“The Grapes of Wrath” resonated with American empathy as few works of art ever have. It sold 100,000 copies in less than a week and became the biggest-selling novel of 1939. Within six days of publication Twentieth Century-Fox had acquired the movie rights for $75,000, close to a record for a novel back then. Within 20 days Henry Fonda was cast as Tom Joad and the ending was rewritten, supposedly to make it less grim, but in fact to avoid the image of Tom’s sister, Rosasharn (who’s given birth to a stillborn baby), breastfeeding a stranger demolished by starvation. The most charitable image of the novel somehow turned, in the perverted little minds of Hollywood producers, into an objectionably unhappy ending.

In the movie ending, what’s left of the Joads amble down a road toward the promise of 20 days of cotton picking while Ma, played by the wonderful Jane Darwell, who won an Oscar for the role, sums it all up: “I ain’t never gonna be scared no more. For a while it looked as though we was beat. Good and beat. Looked like we had nobody in the whole wide world but enemies, like nobody was friendly no more. Made me feel kinda bad and scared, too. Like we was lost and nobody cared. … We keep a comin’. We’re the people that live. They can’t wipe us out, they can’t lick us. We’ll go on forever Pa, ‘cause we’re the people.” The End.

Steinbeck loved it. “In fact,” he wrote his agent, “with descriptive material removed, it is a harsher thing than the book, by far. It seems unbelievable but it is true.” He couldn’t have objected to the ending because his books were nothing if not sentimental anyway. It was their weakness and their strength, what makes reading Steinbeck the kind of guilty pleasure that secretly wishes irony wasn’t every contemporary novel’s inside joke.

Judging from the bestseller list’s biggest titles of the last 40 weeks (a novel about one woman’s resistance to space aliens and comedian Chelsea Handler’s “Are You There, Vodka? It’s Me, Chelsea”) you’d think Tom Joad’s famous last words, in the book and the movie, would themselves sound like alien gibberish to contemporary ears: “Wherever they’s a fight so hungry people can eat, I’ll be there. Wherever they’s a cop beatin’ up a guy, I’ll be there….” Steinbeck took the lines from Eugene Debs, the social democrat and union founder who said, “While there is a lower class, I am in it; while there is a criminal class, I am of it; while there is a soul in prison, I am not free.” Speak these words today — words that once redeemed America — and you’re more than likely branded a scumbag, a socialist, a loser, or worse.

But self-pity would be very un-Ma like. So would romanticizing Debs and Tom Joad as some sort of irrecoverable standard of decency. Recently I came across words similar to theirs: “Where there is injustice, we should correct it; where there is poverty, we should eliminate it; where there is corruption, we should stamp it out; where there is violence we should punish it; where there is neglect, we should provide care; where there is war, we should restore peace; and wherever corrections are achieved we should add them permanently to our storehouse of treasures.”

Those weren’t in any fiction. You can read the words on one of the most famous tombstones at Arlington National Cemetery — that of Earl Warren, the lifelong Republican and Chief Justice of the United States from 1953 to 1969. You can also see the line from Tom Joad’s last words to Ma Joad’s to Warren’s, with this difference: Warren and people like him, when they had the power, made them real. That voice, that instinct, is as American as grand old plagues of greed and exploitation. It was on the defensive for a few decades. But it was never absent. Last November, it was 10 million voices louder than the cynics’. There’s wrath in those grapes yet. And wine, too.

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