Ghosts of Tom Joad: Steinbeck's 'Grapes of Wrath' at 70

Homeless camps now sprawl instead of developments. Unemployment
numbers are spilling off front pages into our lives. Employers are
turning workers into modern-day sharecroppers (every man his own
contractor). And next week, as if on cue, marks the 70th anniversary of
the publication of "The Grapes of Wrath," John Steinbeck's novel of
foreclosure and dispossession in the 1930s. How timely.

Oakies at the heart of the story were sharecropper migrants drummed off
their land by banks and the Dust Bowl only to be terrorized by locals
across the West in what Time in 1939 called "one of the grimmest
migrations of history." By then the Depression and Franklin Roosevelt
had shaken up the country's conscience, but Steinbeck gave the decade's
angers its voice. It was outraged and lyrical - as revolted
over the country's exploitative instincts as it was hopeful of its
redemptive capital. Have we lost something since? The din of hateful
sanctimony mugs the airwaves, giving no chance to a voice like
Steinbeck's, at once protesting, confident and forgiving. But nothing
has been lost, exactly.

Grapes of Wrath" resonated with American empathy as few works of art
ever have. It sold 100,000 copies in less than a week and became the
biggest-selling novel of 1939. Within six days of publication Twentieth
Century-Fox had acquired the movie rights for $75,000, close to a
record for a novel back then. Within 20 days Henry Fonda was cast as
Tom Joad and the ending was rewritten, supposedly to make it less grim,
but in fact to avoid the image of Tom's sister, Rosasharn (who's given
birth to a stillborn baby), breastfeeding a stranger demolished by
starvation. The most charitable image of the novel somehow turned, in
the perverted little minds of Hollywood producers, into an
objectionably unhappy ending.

In the
movie ending, what's left of the Joads amble down a road toward the
promise of 20 days of cotton picking while Ma, played by the wonderful
Jane Darwell, who won an Oscar for the role, sums it all up: "I ain't
never gonna be scared no more. For a while it looked as though we was
beat. Good and beat. Looked like we had nobody in the whole wide world
but enemies, like nobody was friendly no more. Made me feel
kinda bad and scared, too. Like we was lost and nobody cared. ... 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

Steinbeck loved it. "In fact," he
wrote his agent, "with descriptive material removed, it is a harsher
thing than the book, by far. It seems unbelievable but it is true." He
couldn't have objected to the ending because his books were nothing if
not sentimental anyway. It was their weakness and their strength, what
makes reading Steinbeck the kind of guilty pleasure that secretly
wishes irony wasn't every contemporary novel's inside joke.

from the bestseller list's biggest titles of the last 40 weeks (a novel
about one woman's resistance to space aliens and comedian Chelsea
Handler's "Are You There, Vodka? It's Me, Chelsea") you'd think Tom
Joad's famous last words, in the book and the movie, would themselves
sound like alien gibberish to contemporary ears: "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...." Steinbeck took the lines from Eugene
Debs, the social democrat and union founder who said, "While there is a
lower class, I am in it; while there is a criminal class, I am of it;
while there is a soul in prison, I am not free." Speak these words
today - words that once redeemed America - and you're more than likely
branded a scumbag, a socialist, a loser, or worse.

self-pity would be very un-Ma like. So would romanticizing Debs and Tom
Joad as some sort of irrecoverable standard of decency. Recently I came
across words similar to theirs: "Where there is injustice, we should
correct it; where there is poverty, we should eliminate it; where there
is corruption, we should stamp it out; where there is violence we
should punish it; where there is neglect, we should provide care; where
there is war, we should restore peace; and wherever corrections are
achieved we should add them permanently to our storehouse of treasures."

weren't in any fiction. You can read the words on one of the most
famous tombstones at Arlington National Cemetery - that of Earl Warren,
the lifelong Republican and Chief Justice of the United States from
1953 to 1969. You can also see the line from Tom Joad's last words to
Ma Joad's to Warren's, with this difference: Warren and people like
him, when they had the power, made them real. That voice, that
instinct, is as American as grand old plagues of greed and
exploitation. It was on the defensive for a few decades. But it was
never absent. Last November, it was 10 million voices louder than the
cynics'. There's wrath in those grapes yet. And wine, too.

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