The Grapes of Wrath | Traveling the Classics
“The tractors had lights shining, for there is no day and night for a tractor and the disks turn the earth in the darkness and they glitter in the daylight…And this is easy and efficient. So easy that the wonder goes out of work, so efficient that the wonder goes out of land and the working of it, and with the wonder the deep understanding and the relation.”
“…muscles and mind aching to grow, to work, to create, multiplied a million times. The last clear definite function of man — muscles aching to work, minds aching to create beyond the single need — this is man…For man, unlike any other thing organic or inorganic in the universe, grows beyond his work, walks up the stairs of his accomplishments, emerges ahead of his accomplishments…Fear the time when Manself will not suffer and die for a concept, for this one quality is the foundation of Manself, and this one quality is man, distinctive in the universe.”
Within the first few minutes of reading, The Grapes of Wrath brings you instantly back to Dust Bowl America. A fascinating place. And one oft-ignored in the annals of commonly known American history. My only knowledge of the time period, honestly, is that there was a lot of dust, generally in the Midwest region. I know a large cause of said dust was over-farming. And that’s all I got for ya. And it’s not like I was a bum in high school, I think it’s just a lost time period – there was a lot going on in those few decades with two wars and the depression.
I didn’t know the scope of the human impact of the Dust Bowl until reading Grapes. People pushed off their land by greedy owners. Technology replacing the work of human hands. Banks transforming from companies made of people into inhuman and immovable monoliths. Blame being pushed higher and higher up the hierarchic totem pole. Boy, a lot has changed, huh?
Near the beginning of the book, I was sitting in my car with the windows down at the airport. My mom was coming into town, and I was parked for a little while before her plane touched down. The sun was warm. The air was polluted by the sounds of airplanes and the smell of the workings of a major international airport. For some reason it felt like the perfect setting to be reading about a family who packed up everything to move west on nothing but a sliver of hope – a sliver that only got smaller the further west they traveled.
In truth, it’s a sad book. We find death, depression, oppression, corporate buggery, racism, classism, etc. Spoiler alert: there’s no happy ending here. In fact, barely an ending at all. (I must take on the ending for a brief sentence or two – yes, it’s weird, but it keeps in line with the tenor of the novel. It further conveys the reality that there aren’t always happy endings, and that in times of hardship, the words ‘community’ and ‘neighbor’ literally mean the person right in front of you who desperately needs help. It’s a weird ending, but the more I think about it, the more I appreciate it.)
I walked away with a greater appreciation for hard work, especially of the manual sort. With a greater appreciation of the value of community, and neighbors in particular. With a greater appreciation for how far the minutest appearance of hope will drive someone.
I especially began to think about necessity. The Joad Family earned a few dollars a day (when things were good) and spent all of it on food for that evening’s dinner. They knew what true necessity meant. I don’t wish that kind of need on anyone, but it’s a lesson that could be well-learned in a hyper-consumption culture.
As I type this I look around and see four different coffee/tea mugs sitting on my desk (I’m bad at cleaning up after myself), a water bottle, far too many books, a computer, an iPad, a smartphone, a printer, a Keurig (even though I own at least three other perfectly serviceable coffee-making devices), a nice rug on the hardwood floor, and decorations on the wall that border on being too much clutter.
And yet I read about necessity. And hard work. And truly earning (and being thankful for) the things you have. I would love to say that I could go a year without buying anything that wasn’t a necessity. Books? No. Donuts every couple weeks? Doubtful. Music? I have plenty. Clothes? Ditto. When I look around, I know that I could live for a year (and in fact, much longer) with the things around me. And yet, I have a hunch that I either wouldn’t be successful in the endeavor, or that I’d be somewhere and plum forget. That fact doesn’t really bother me, I just hope that I’ll be more aware of what is truly necessary in my life, and be all the more thankful that I have it.
Grapes shows us, in literary form, the bold truth that hardship makes us stronger not just as individuals, but as communities. In fact, if we were relegated to being individuals in times of hardship, we’d likely collapse. But it’s our community and our family that will lift us back up. Just as we’ll do when they fall. In our globalized world, it can be easy to be overwhelmed by the need around us. When you know nothing but your small community around you, it’s easier to say, “If there is need, and I have plenty, how dare I withhold.” In a world and nation chock-full of need, how do we do it?
According to The Grapes of Wrath, and I lean towards agreeing, it all starts with the people you can see right in front of you, whether you know them or not. Next time you see someone in need, extend your hand. I believe that’s what John Steinbeck would challenge us to.