It was seventy years ago today that The Grapes of Wrath, John Steinbeck's epic novel of Depression-era dispossession, homelessness and hardship, was published. Upending the classic rags-to-riches narrative of America, Steinbeck traces the anguished migrant journey of the Joad family from the Oklahoma farm they've lost to a mirage of California. Steinbeck scholar Robert DeMott suggests the book offers a prophetic look at today's tough times. So does Steinbeck's anger at the faceless, heartless, greedy forces – particularly the
"bank" and the "company" – that have caused so much pain.
Here's Steinbeck on the anonymous money men driving down-and-out tenant farmers off their dusty land.
"The owners of the land came onto the land, or more often a spokesman for the owners came. They came in closed cars, and they felt the dry earth with their fingers, and sometimes they drove big earth augers into the ground for soil tests. The tenants, from their sun-beaten dooryards, watched uneasily when the closed cars drove along the fields. And at last the owner men drove into the dooryards and sat in their cars to talk out of the windows. The tenant men stood beside the cars for a while, and then squatted on thier hams and found sticks with which to mark the dust.
Some of the owner men were kind because they hated what they had to do, and some of them were angry because they hated to be cruel, and some of them were cold because they had long ago found that one could not be an owner unless one were cold. And all of them were caught in something larger than themselves...If a bank or a finance company owned the land, the owner man said, The Bank - or the Company – needs – wants – insists – must have – as though the Bank or the Company were a monster, with thought and feeling, which had ensnared them...The owner men sat in the cars and explained. You know the land is poor. You've scrabbled at it long enough, God knows...
The squatting men raised their eyes to understand. Can't we just hang on? Maybe the next year will be a good year...Next year, maybe. They looked up questioningly.
We can't depend on it. The bank – the monster has to have profits all the time. It can't wait. It'll die...You'll have to get off the land...
And now the squatting men stood up angrily...But it's our land. We measured it and broke it up. We were born on it, and we got killed on it, died on it. Even if it's no good, it's still ours. That's what makes it ours – being born on it, working it, dying on it. That makes ownership, not a paper with numbers on it.
We're sorry. It's not us. It's the monster. The bank isn't like a man...The bank is something more than men, I tell you. It's the monster. Men made it, but they can't control it...
But if we go, where'll we go? How'll we go? We got no money.
We're sorry, said the owner men. The bank, the fifty-thousand-acre owner can't be responsible. You're on land that isn't yours. Once over the line maybe you can pick cotton in the fall. Maybe you can go on relief. Why don't you go on west to California? There's work there, and it never gets cold. Why, you can reach out anywhere and pick an orange. Why, there's always some kind of crop to work in. Why don't you go there? And the owner men started their cars and rolled away."