Last night I finished reading The Grapes of Wrath, by John Steinbeck. Almost every other Californian read it in high school, but I skipped that grade. I am glad that I had not read it then, because I would probably not have read it again. (I have been making a project of Steinbeck in the past year or so, beginning with the surprisingly powerful Travels with Charlie, and then another half dozen books including East of Eden. I have not, however, re-read Of Mice and Men, which I read in school.
The Grapes of Wrath seems to me even more urgent today than when it was first published in 1939, for the injustices described in it alive in our land again but with less general awareness than there was during the Depression. Steinbeck’s voice needs be heard now for its probing of the grievous wounds to our body politic that were bandaged up by the administration of FDR but not healed. They were instead left to fester and now, since the avaricious, hypocritical, and mendacious policies of the Reagan and Bush administrations have poisoned this country’s political discourse, denigrating unions and mindlessly proclaiming the “failure” of communism, the pustules have once again burst open in running sores.
So I have copied out some passages that I believe we all must hear. They appear in bold below.
And the great owners, who must lose their land in an upheaval . . . Know the great fact: when property accumulates in too few hands it is taken away. And that companion fact: when a majority of the people are hungry and cold they will take by force what they need. And the little screaming fact that sounds through all history: repression works only to strengthen and knit the repressed.
And the companies, the banks worked at their own doom and they did not know it. The fields were fruitful, and the starving men moved on the roads. The granaries were full and the children of the poor grew up rachitic, and the pustules of pellagra swelled on their sides. The great companies did not know that the line between hunger and anger is a thin line.
And money that might have gone for wages went for gas, for guns, for agents and spies, for black lists, for drilling. On the highways the people moved like ants and searched for work, for food. And the anger began to ferment.
Burn coffee for fuel in the ships. Burn corn to keep warm, it makes a hot fire. Dump potatoes in the river and place guards along the banks to keep the hungry people from fishing them out. Slaughter the pigs and bury them, and let the putrescence drip down into the earth.
. . . There is a crime here that goes beyond denunciation.. There is a sorrow here that weeping cannot symbolize. There is a failure here that topples all our success. The fertile earth, the straight tree rows, the sturdy trunks, and the ripe fruit. And children dying of pellagra must die because a profit cannot be taken from an orange. And coroners must fill in the certificates -- died of malnutrition -- because the food must rot, must be forced to rot.
The people come with nets to fish for potatoes in the river , and the guards hold them back; they come in rattling cars to get the dumped oranges, but the kerosene is sprayed. And they stand still and watch the potatoes float by, listen to the screaming pigs being killed in a ditch and covered with quicklime, watch the mountains of oranges slop down to a putrefying ooze; and in the eyes of the people there is the failure; and in the eyes of the hungry there is a growing wrath. In the souls of the people the grapes of wrath are filling and growing heavy, growing heavy for the vintage.
Things ain’t near bad enough -- yet.
I heard on this morning’s news report that the Supreme Court will be hearing a case that could have disastrous results for Public Employee Unions.. The ironic thing, and the most frightening thing, was that the unions and their employers -- the State governments -- are on the same side. The challenge to the unions comes from only three individuals (out of 28,000 home health care workers in Illinois) who resent having to pay the portion of union dues that cover the costs of negotiating the labor contratcs from which they benefit. They want a free ride.
Made me wonder who is paying them to file this suit.
The story also reminded me of what my dear Irish friend, GH, said about the American Revolution: “Well, you know, growing up in Ireland we didn’t really learn much about it in school -- just that it was a bunch of country yokels who didn’t want to pay taxes.”
“But now I been thinking’ 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.”
“He was a good man,” Ma said.
Tom went on, “He spouted some Scripture once, an’ it didn’ soun’ like no hell-fire Scripture. He tol’ it twicet, an’ I remember it. Says it’s from the Preacher.”
“How’s it go, Tom?”
“Goes, ‘Two are better than one because they have a good reward for their labor For if they fall, the one will lif’ up his fellow, but woe to him that is alone when he falleth, for he hath not another to help him up.’ That’s part of her.”
“Go on,” Ma said, “Go on, Tom.”
“Jus’ a little bit more. ‘Again, if two lie together, then they have heat: but how can one be warm alone? And if one prevail against him, two shall withstand him, and a three-fold cord is not quickly broken.”
“An’ that’s Scripture?”
“Casy said it was. Called it the Preacher.”
“Hush -- listen.”
“On’y the wind, Ma. I know the wind. An’ I got to thinking’, Ma -- most of the preachin’ is about the poor we shall always have with us, an’ if you got nothing’, why, jus’ fol’ hands an’ to hell with it, you gonna git ice cream on gol’ plates when you’re dead. An’ then this here Preacher says two get a better reward for their work.”
“Tom,” she said. “What you aimin’ to do?”
He was quiet for a long time. “I been thinking’ how it was in that gov’ment camp, how our folks took care a theirselves, an’ if they was a fight they fixed it theyself; an’ they wasn’t no cops wagglin’ their guns, but they was better order than them cops ever give. I been a-wonderin’ why we can’t do that all over. Throw out the cops that ain’t our people. All work together for our own thing -- all farm our own lan’.”
“Tom,” Ma repeated, “what you gonna do?”
“What Casy done,” he said.
“But they killed him.”
“Yeah,” Tom said. “He didn’ duck quick enough. He wasn’ doin’ nothin’ against the law, Ma. I been thinking’ a hell of a lot, thinking’ about our people livin’ like pigs, an’ the good rich lan’ layin’ fallow, or maybe one fella with a million acres, while a hunderd thousan’ good farmers is starvin’. An’ I been wonderin’ if all our folks got together an’ yelled, like them fellas yelled, only a few of ‘em at the Hooper ranch --’
. . . They sat silent in the coal-black cave of vines. Ma said, “How’m I gonna know ‘bout you? They might kill ya an’ I wouldn’ know. They might hurt ya. How’m I gonna know?”
Tom laughed uneasily, “Well, maybe like Casy says, a fella ain’t got a soul of his own, but on’y a piece of a big one -- an’ then --”
“Then what, Tom?”
“Then it don’ matter. Then I’ll be all aroun’ in the dark. I’ll be ever’where -- wherever you look. 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. If Casy knowed, why then I’ll be in the way guys yell when they’re mad an’ -- I’ll be in the way kids laugh when they’re hungry an’ they know supper’s ready. An’ when our folks eat the stuff they raise an’ live in the houses they build -- why, I’ll be there. See?”
This morning I heard something else -- something when I first woke, before I turned the radio on and heard about the Supreme Court and the unions. An odd feature of my new home is that the window opens on an airshaft that is itself open at one end. Lots of sounds from the street and from a neighboring restaurant and from backstage at a little theater two doors down get funneled into my room and into my ears. This morning I heard two voices. I was able to understand most of the words, though chunks here and there were muffled and unintelligible:
First voice, strong, clear, angry but not excited or uncontrolled: “[unintelligible] used my mouthwash! You can’t just just arrest me because [unintelligible] . . . sober.”
Second voice, clear but subdued: “[unintelligible] your date of birth?”
“December 20, [unintelligible].”
Silence. Then the voices again, but nothing I could understand.
I think they let the poor fellow be.