The Grapes of Wrath was first published in 1939, and yet it is a novel of significant relevance in our current political climate. The protagonist Tom Joad, and his family find themselves jobless and homeless in the dust bowl of Oklahoma after the rise of heavy machinery in the area makes farming cheaper and quicker for the landowners. They dream of a better life in California, and become part of 250,000 people to complete the journey by 1940. In the 1930’s alone, 2.5 Million people left the Plains in search of hope. https://migration.ucdavis.edu/rmn/more.php?id=1355 (for more information).
Think about the pressing headlines in the UK and US at the moment. The omens of Brexit, Trump, deepening poverty gaps, abortion laws, a strict ‘No Immigrants’ sentimentality. Steinbeck gets it, and offers respite for those who are feeling powerless to stop it. This isn’t to say he gives us all the answers – his book doesn’t end with any obvious conclusions – but he is there nonetheless, to weep with, to console, to offer lessons in how not to repeat the past.
In my opinion, his lasting legacy stems from his ability to write the most human of characters. His stripped back writing style presents the naked soul of humanity as the only factor worth fighting for. His characters are hopelessly flawed and idealistic, and yet so so loveable. Lose yourself in the story of Tom, adopt Ma and Pa, and open your hearts to a whole new family.
So many modern parallels can be drawn to a world nearly 100 years ago. How far have we truly come? Women’s suffrage in the novel is a stark reminder of conditions for the working class back then and unfortunately also screams of the ‘ideal’ level of body autonomy for women in Alabama as preferred by Republican lawmakers in the modern age.
Furthermore, the rise of technology and funding of the sciences over the arts brings convenience into our everyday world in the forms of phones, faster computers, mass manufacturing, and self-checkout machines. It also results in less human interaction, fewer available manual jobs, and therefore a severe cut in wages and a stifling lack of social mobility. Human migration becomes a problem, with working class anger resulting from the government’s insistence that ‘immigrants are stealing our jobs’.
If anyone else is feeling the impending dread like myself, read Steinbeck. The Grapes of Wrath is not a book of answers, but it is a book of truths. There is power in human empathy, sharing what little you may have with another also in need, in giving rather than taking. No matter how temporary your community, give back to it, give in to it, give graciously. Support your locals, your indies, and your arts.