Days of Wrath The vintage wine of The Grapes of Wrath retains its political bouquet

Seventy-five years down the road—Route 66, to be precise—The Grapes of Wrath continues to transport us to relevant and revelatory destinations.

When first published in April 1939, John Steinbeck’s novel about the Joad family’s torturous journey from the arid desolation of Dust Bowl Oklahoma to the supposed paradise of California created an immediate sensation, generating such enormous attention that the reaction qualifies as a mid-20th-century version of going viral. Widely embraced and celebrated—the book sold 430,000 copies in 1939 alone and eventually won both the Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award—The Grapes of Wrath was also vociferously reviled in some quarters for its radical politics and frank language, and a significant number of libraries and cities banned the book. (Close to home, the board of the East St. Louis library voted to set its three copies ablaze on the courtyard steps before quickly rescinding the burning order because of “the national commotion it [Steinbeck’s book] had aroused”; the library instead opted for a less incendiary course, placing the book in its restricted “Adults Only” section.) The subsequent uproar likely further increased awareness and sales of The Grapes of Wrath, with the protesters’ characterization of the novel as forbidden fruit making it appear all the more tantalizingly attractive. For more on the reception of The Grapes of Wrath, see Gerald Early’s review of Rick Wartzman’s Obscene in the Extreme: The Burning and Banning of John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath in Figure in the Carpet.

Despite studio wariness over the book’s controversial content, especially its unabashedly pro-labor stance, Hollywood interest was perhaps inevitable given The Grapes of Wrath’s phenomenal popularity. The astonishing speed with which it arrived on screen attests to the white-hot intensity of the public’s interest: 20th Century Fox’s film adaptation went into production in October 1939 and was released in January 1940, an eye-blink eight months after the book’s publication. Like the novel, the movie earned widespread praise, with both the National Board of Review and the New York Film Critics citing it as Best Picture, and the Academy nominating the film for seven Oscars (with wins for John Ford as Best Director and Jane Darwell as Best Supporting Actress).

Both book and film are now routinely hailed as exemplars of their respective art forms: The novel ranks No. 10 in the Modern Library’s 100 Best Novels, and the movie was in the first class of 25 works named to the Library of Congress’ National Film Registry of “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant films.” Many such anointed classics today seem dust-covered and ossified, their subjects and rhetorical approaches at a far remove from contemporary concerns, but the two iterations of The Grapes of Wrath continue to resonate profoundly. That’s particularly remarkable because both versions of The Grapes of Wrath appear so rooted in the sharply delineated here-and-now of Depression-era America: The works display a present-tense journalistic immediacy (this is happening!) and polemical urgency (this must change!).

But if the specifics of the hard times are now different, the economic inequities that “The Grapes of Wrath” so artfully chronicles are no less relevant in 2014. The Americans forced from their homes by the foreclosures of the subprime mortgage crisis and the Mexicans crossing the Sonoran Desert in desperate search of work and better prospects will sadly recognize themselves in the hardscrabble lives and luckless travels of the evicted Joads and their fellow Okies.

Born of an outraged conclusion

The Grapes of Wrath owes its ripped-from-the headlines quality to its origins in “The Harvest Gypsies,” a seven-part newspaper series by Steinbeck that was published in the San Francisco News in October 1936. An unapologetic work of advocacy journalism, “The Harvest Gypsies” makes no attempt at just-the-facts-ma’am objectivity: Steinbeck not only vividly documents the deplorable conditions in which Midwestern migrants are forced to live while harvesting the orchards and fields of California, he loudly decries the enforced squalor, penurious wages, and jackbooted thuggery employed by the wealthy growers in concert with toadying local governments and police forces.

After outlining specific reforms, including the organizing of agricultural workers, Steinbeck offers this outraged conclusion:

“If, on the other hand, as has been stated by a large grower, our agriculture requires the creation and maintenance at any cost of a peon class, then it is submitted that California agriculture is economically unsound under a democracy.

“And if the terrorism and reduction of human rights, the floggings, murder by deputies, kidnappings and refusal of trial by jury are necessary to our economic security, it is further submitted that California democracy is rapidly dwindling away. Fascistic methods are more numerous, more powerfully applied and more openly practiced in California than any other place in the United States.”

Steinbeck’s passionate identification with California’s agricultural workers eventually reached its fullest flowering in The Grapes of Wrath, but his research into their deprivations also helped seed two other novels, In Dubious Battle (1936) and Of Mice and Men (1937); the trio of books are sometimes referred to collectively as “The Dust Bowl Trilogy.”

Although In Dubious Battle has its acolytes—President Barack Obama included the novel in a 2008 list of books and writers of personal significance—most would classify it as a throat-clearing, running-the-scales warm-up to the extended aria of The Grapes of Wrath; the one seems a dutiful exercise, the other a glorious performance. The story of a California apple-picker strike in the fictional Torgas Valley—the Steinbeck Center speculates that it was modeled on a similar 1933 action in the peach groves of Tulare County—the novel focuses more on the labor organizers than the actual workers. With only a few exceptions, migrants like the Joads serve as largely undifferentiated background figures, and even the book’s two principals—veteran organizer Mac and apprentice Jim, both members of the never-specified “Party”—lack much backstory or psychological complexity. Highly didactic and extremely repetitive, with Mac and Jim’s conversations often resembling a feedback loop, In Dubious Battle gets the proletarian heart racing with a few adrenalizing set-pieces, but the book generally functions more as an instructional tract on strike organization than as a compelling narrative.

Perhaps overcompensating for his previous novel’s colorless protagonists, Steinbeck offers a far more flamboyant pair of central characters in Of Mice and Men. Protective George serves as governing superego to the unfettered id of physically imposing but mentally challenged Lennie. The Depression economy and Lennie’s uncontrollable eruptions of violence conspire to keep the duo ever on the move, working as itinerant ranch hands while pipe-dreaming of “getting the jack together” to secure their own “little house and a couple of acres.” Having fled Lennie-created trouble in the evocatively named Weed, the two find work at a ranch near Soledad, Calif., but their respite proves tragically short-lived.

Like The Grapes of Wrath, Of Mice and Men has entered the standard high-school curriculum, and there’s no disputing its eminent teachability: A play in novella form, the slender book insistently repeats key information, uses a stripped-down approach to language and structure, and features such blatantly obvious foreshadowing and easy-to-interpret symbols that even the least engaged student can become an exegetical adept. Simplicity, of course, is often regarded as a virtue, but Of Mice and Men is so elementally basic that it can seem merely simple-minded. We know from the moment they heave into view, for example, that swaggering, cocksure Curley and his lonely, sexually provocative wife—who never merits a name—will serve as the catalysts for an eventual explosion. Steinbeck’s equivalent of the Chekhovian rifle—he also helpfully introduces an actual pistol—they’re fated to go off with lethal consequence.

In appropriately dialectical fashion, The Grapes of Wrath synthesizes Steinbeck’s two previous novels, combining elements of both—the political engagement of In Dubious Battle, the emotional connection of Of Mice and Men – to produce a superior work that deftly integrates head and heart. Steinbeck, in fact, alternates chapters that provide the general socioeconomic context with those that relate the Joads’ particular struggles. The Joads and their journey serve as the narrative throughline—the highway that runs the length of the book—but the interstitial material allows Steinbeck to make stylistically varied side trips (essays, polemics, even short stories) on the revealing back roads that feed the interstate. Steinbeck’s approach has an experimental aspect—and was likely influenced by John Dos Passos’ U.S.A. Trilogy, which was even more adventuresome in its structure—but the Joads’ concrete reality nicely balances the abstractions of the other chapters, and the book gains considerable strength by intertwining the two story strands.

The overarching message of “The Dustbowl Trilogy”—the thread that knits the books together—is the necessity of collective action, of interdependence. Forming a union, of course, is the subject of In Dubious Battle, and though Steinbeck seems uneasy with some of strike organizer Mac’s hardheartedly cynical calculations—the movement requires the sacrifice of individuals, with the martyrs’ deaths used to stoke anger and solidify unity—he understands the bad-means-to-good-ends calculation. The theme is less overt in Of Mice and Men, but the “little house an’ a room to ourself” for which George and Lennie persistently long appears briefly possible when they make that private dream public. George outlines the plan—like Mac, he leads—but success is achievable only by working cooperatively as a group. Significantly, the men who gather for warmth around George’s wan flame of hope are all societal outcasts, marginalized by age, infirmity, or race: the slow-witted Lennie, the old, one-handed Candy, and the African-American Crooks.

In The Grapes of Wrath, as the family travels, son Tom Joad—first introduced as a solitary figure walking toward home after a stretch in prison—makes his own journey to social awareness, to the recognition that progress can only be made in concert with others. Tom learns this lesson in increments throughout the novel, but he’s particularly inspired by former preacher Casy, who eventually chooses to minister to people’s material, rather than spiritual, needs by becoming a labor organizer. When Casy is killed by a strike-breaking goon, Tom realizes that he must take up the dropped baton. As he prepares to separate from his family, Tom beautifully articulates his newfound knowledge to his mother:

“Lookie, Ma. I been all day an’ all night hidin’ alone. Guess who I been thinkin’ about! Casy! He talked a lot. Used ta bother me. But now I been thinkin’ about what he said, an’ I can remember—all of it. Says one time he went out in the wilderness to find his own soul, an’ he foun’ he didn’ have no soul that was his’n. Says he foun’ he jus’ got a little piece of a great big soul. Says a wilderness ain’t no good, ’cause his little piece of a soul wasn’t no good ’less it was with the rest, an’ was whole. Funny how I remember. Didn’ think I was even listenin’. But I know now a fella ain’t no good alone.”

Never shying from honest despair

In adapting The Grapes of Wrath for the screen, scriptwriter Nunnally Johnson and director John Ford necessarily discarded vast sections of the 500-page novel, but they faithfully captured its vital essence. The film does dilute the potency of Steinbeck’s leftist politics—it is especially skittish about the Communist Party’s role in organizing farm workers—and by rejiggering the order of the Joads’ journey, the movie ends on a slightly more optimistic note than the book, which grows ever bleaker as the family continues its downward spiral to disintegration. However, given the conservatism of Fox studio head Darryl F. Zanuck—a firm opponent of Hollywood trade unions—The Grapes of Wrath is a remarkably tough-minded work that never shies from honest despair.

Ford’s direction of The Grapes of Wrath also seems anomalous to some: He’s regarded as a poetic elegist for America’s past, not a fact-finding documenter of its present-day realities, and in his final few decades, he turned increasingly rightward in his political views. But Ford was never easily categorized—he both defended and deplored Hollywood communists during the blacklist—and he was even active in his industry’s early labor movement, helping found the Directors Guild. In fact, in Searching for John Ford, biographer Joseph McBride quotes a 1937 letter in which the director declares himself “a definite socialistic democrat—always left.”

Ardently proud of his Irish heritage, Ford also saw his ancestors’ Potato Famine experiences reflected in the Okies’ Dust Bowl travails. In both cases, ecological disasters—the first mercilessly exacerbated by England’s malign neglect, the second caused by human avarice and hubristically unsustainable agricultural practices—destroyed lives and livelihoods, and forced the mass migration of the afflicted. Ford thus identified the Okies’ broken-down jalopies crawling toward California as the contemporary equivalents of the diseased, ill-equipped coffin ships in which the Irish sailed to America.

The Okies’ difficult trek further echoes the journeys of the pioneers who populate Ford’s signature Westerns. In 1940, Ford was not as closely identified with the West as he is now, but his directorial reputation during the silent era was largely established with Westerns—including the epic “The Iron Horse,” which chronicled the construction of the transcontinental railroad—and he had only recently made a triumphal return to the genre with 1939’s Stagecoach.

Ford’s persistent interest in the virtues of family stability and mother love—motifs that recur throughout his work—was undoubtedly another attraction of The Grapes of Wrath. The close relationship between Ma (Jane Darwell) and Tom (Henry Fonda) is considerably more central to film than book, and Ford’s shaping hand is likely at work there.

Pictorially, Ford’s influence is very much in evidence. Although the film is frequently praised for its documentary-like qualities—and it clearly owes a debt to Pare Lorentz’s The Plow That Broke the Plains and The River—the lighting approach taken by Ford and cinematographer Gregg Toland (who shot Citizen Kane the following year) is far more expressionist than realist in its design. Many scenes unfold in an enveloping darkness—evoking the claustrophobic oppressiveness of the dust storms—and even daytime sequences often feature severely slanting shadows that communicate menace and unease. However, Ford does consciously reference the haunting, exquisitely painful images captured by such Farm Security Administration photographers as Dorothea Lange, Arthur Rothstein, and Walker Evans in a perfect (and uncharacteristic) traveling shot, seen from the Joads’ subjective viewpoint, as the family’s truck wends its slow way through a harrowingly grim migrant camp.

A highly effective blending of two seemingly disparate talents, the film of The Grapes of Wrath immediately gathered gape-mouthed admirers, including a surprised Steinbeck, who had been properly skeptical of Hollywood’s ability to adapt the novel without fatal compromise. New York Times critic Frank S. Nugent was almost embarrassingly lavish in his praise: “In the vast library where the celluloid literature of the screen is stored there is one small, uncrowded shelf devoted to the cinema’s masterworks, to those film which by dignity of theme and excellence of treatment seem to be of enduring artistry. … To that shelf of screen classics, Twentieth Century-Fox yesterday added its version of John Steinbeck’s ‘The Grapes of Wrath.’”

Nugent’s review can be retroactively accused of serving as a brown-nosing job application—he later worked as screenwriter on 11 Ford films—but he was scarcely alone in his enthusiasm. America’s first great film critic, Otis Ferguson, nearly one-upped Nugent’s hosannas in The New Republic: “The word that comes in most handily for ‘The Grapes of Wrath’ is magnificent. Movies will probably go on improving and broadening themselves, but in any event, ‘The Grapes of Wrath’ is the most mature picture story that has ever been made, in feeling, in purpose, and in the use of the medium.”

Not everyone was quite so taken, of course. James Agee, another early giant of American film criticism, introduced his first column in The Nation with this deliberately charged remark: “I would talk to even so good a director as John Ford, for instance, with deep respect for him as a technician and as a serious man, but I might at the same time regret ninety-nine feet in every hundred of ‘The Grapes of Wrath,’ and be able to specify my regret.” (Agee’s harsh assessment is grounded in legitimate aesthetic and ethical criticisms, but Steinbeck partisans might argue that it’s tinged with envy: Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, Agee’s endlessly astonishing book on Southern sharecroppers, explores territory similar to The Grapes of Wrath but with far greater depth, complexity, and tortured self-consciousness. When released in 1941, after a difficult five-year gestation, the book sold a scant 600 copies – a figure so minute that it would qualify as a rounding error when calculating sales of Steinbeck’s novel.)

Agee’s 99-percent-objectionable judgment seems unduly extreme, but the film certainly has its faults: There are a few too many moments when the actors tilt their heads skyward with stylized theatricality and speechify, and Ford can’t resist some characteristically overbroad comedy (though Steinbeck’s novel shares that attribute). In a puzzling lapse in continuity, son Noah Joad simply disappears somewhere along the road, no explanations given, no further mention made (in the book, he leaves the family deliberately, opting to go it alone along the Colorado River). Most egregiously, the studio-imposed ending is unadulterated hokum, with misty-eyed Ma giving Pa a pep talk of false uplift, promising that the poor will prevail because of their apparently superior fecundity: “Rich fellas come up an’ they die, an’ their kids ain’t no good an’ they die out. But 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 book’s conclusion is scarcely less cringe-inducing: As a storm of biblical scale rages outside a sheltering barn, Joad daughter Rose of Sharon, days after delivering a stillborn child, offers her life-saving breast to a starving man in a selfless gesture of human solidarity. Given the Production Code’s blue-nosed restrictions, such a provocative scenario was never a viable option, but it is regrettable that Ford’s own preferred ending was vetoed as too open and unsatisfying. Ford more appropriately finished with what is now the film’s penultimate sequence, an echo of its opening, with Fonda’s Tom Joad in silhouetted long shot, once more walking alone, reluctantly leaving Ma and family behind but moving toward a larger purpose and a wider community.

Future wrath

After the onset of World War II, many of the Okies whose plight The Grapes of Wrath laments eventually found work in California’s defense industry. Some ironists sardonically note that the Okies’ descendants have since become Orange County Republicans, with the memory of their families’ former impoverishment now suppressed and treated as unpleasant history best forgotten.

But if the specific victims change, the root problems persist. As Steinbeck noted in “The Harvest Gypsies,” the Okies were merely a link in an unbroken chain of exploitation, with immigrant populations of Chinese, Filipino, and Mexican farm workers preceding them. When the Okies found employment elsewhere, the Mexicans returned, and the deep-pocketed, politically connected growers continued their intractable resistance to the organization of pickers. For those interested in the subsequent struggles to unionize farm workers in the 1960s and ’70s, the upcoming biopic “Cesar Chavez” may provide a helpful primer.

Farms and orchards, with their rapidly closing time windows for harvesting, necessarily require large influxes of temporary migrant labor, and it may be tempting to view the resulting labor inequities as somehow unique to agribusiness. But other industries—oil and gas, for example—have similar boom-and-bust cycles, and they serve as irresistible lures for the down-and-out jobless, tempting them onto the road.

Bruce Springsteen, an heir to Steinbeck in his unshakable identification with working-class struggles, chronicled the bleak results when a boom goes bust in “Seeds,” an outtake from 1984’s “Born in the U.S.A.”: “Well a great black river a man had found / So he put all his money in a hole in the ground / And sent a big steel arm drivin’ down down down / Man now I live on the streets of Houston town / Packed up my wife and kids when winter came along / And we headed down south with just spit and a song / But they said ‘Sorry son it’s gone gone gone’ / Well there’s men hunkered down by the railroad tracks / The Elkhorn Special blowin’ my hair back / Tents pitched on the highway in the dirty moonlight / And I don’t know where I’m gonna sleep tonight.”

Three decades later, in 2014, a similar migration is taking place, as the long-term unemployed leave families behind and stream northward to North Dakota, where fracking has unlocked a great reservoir of natural gas. The extraordinary documentary “The Overnighters”—which premiered in January at the Sundance Film Festival—details the unpleasant realities the would-be workers face on arrival in the unwelcoming town of Williston. The Joads would surely see reflections of themselves in the men’s cheerless, defeated faces.

The wheel keeps turning, with the workers all too often crushed beneath.

Springsteen again sounded this recurring theme in his 1995 album “The Ghost of Tom Joad.” In the midst of the Clinton-era IT bubble, when a robust economy seemed to promise prosperity for all, Springsteen instead focused his attention on those bypassed by good fortune, especially the illegal aliens crossing the United States’ southern border in fruitless search of a promised land. On the opening track—a despairing ode to Steinbeck’s working-class hero—Springsteen efficiently summarized the tenuous existence of this forgotten underclass: “Men walkin’ ’long the railroad tracks / Goin’ someplace, there’s no goin’ back / Highway Patrol choppers comin’ up over the ridge / Hot soup on a campfire under the bridge / Shelter line stretchin’ ’round the corner / Welcome to the new world order / Families sleepin’ in their cars in the southwest / No home, no job, no peace, no rest.”

Three-quarters of a century after Tom first materialized on the pages of Steinbeck’s book, bumming a ride on an Oklahoma highway, far too many of us—the dispossessed and discarded, the downwardly mobile—still look longingly to him for inspiration. Tellingly, director Steven Spielberg—our contemporary John Ford—last year announced plans to remake “The Grapes of Wrath.”

Our need never appears to abate: We still sit by that campfire light, forever searching for the ghost of Tom Joad.