Steinbeck didn’t want us to lose hope he wanted us to get angry at those who would strip hope from us
John Steinbeck was not the best or most brilliant writer America ever had. He may have a brighter legacy than any other, though, in part because he suggested wrath could be good. He inspired Cesar Chavez and John Kennedy; Bruce Springsteen and Woody Guthrie (and by extension Rage Against the Machine); John Ford and South Park. The Grapes of Wrath, published 75 years ago today, means just as much to the US now as it did in 1939, when the Dust Bowl destroyed the American west, the economy lay in tatters, a minority held the keys to the bank, and a vast migrant population wandered without homes or rights.
For those unfamiliar with the book (or at least for those who don’t remember), The Grapes of Wrath tells a simple story: devastating weather and a bank’s debt system force the Joad family off their farm; they go west, for work and good weather in California. They discover thousands of other migrants living in desperate poverty, exploited by the rich, abused by police, and abandoned by the government; they suffer, fight back and endure.
In the morning the dust hung like fog, and the sun was as red as ripe new blood. … An even blanket covered the earth. It settled on the corn … it piled up on the wires, settled on roofs, blanketed the weeds and trees.
Some of the owner men were kind because they hated what they had to do, and some were angrey because they hated to be cruel, and some were cold And all of them were caught in something larger than themselves.
“It’s a free country.”
“Well, try to get some freedom to do. Fella says you’re jus’ as free as you got jack to pay for it.”