Fiction — print. Penguin Classics, 2006. Originally published 1939. 464 pgs. Library copy.
At the beginning of chapter nineteen, which I used as the dividing line between parts one and two, Steinbeck traces the ownership of the land know forming California from Mexicans to land-hungry Americans who actually worked the land, to owners who are more like overseers than farmers. This land is a distant notion — a sort of line in an accounts book – to these men rather than something they live and breathe. The Joads and other “Okies” streaming into California are people to fear as they are the new land-hungry men and women looking to make a buck and feed their children off this land.
“In the West there was panic when the migrants multiplied on the highways. Men of property were terrified for their property. Men who had never been hungry saw the eyes of the hungry. Men who had never wanted anything very much saw the flare of want in the eyes of the migrants. And the men of the towns and of the soft suburban country gathered to defend themselves; and they reassured themselves that they were good and the invaders bad, as a man must do before he fights. They said, These goddamned Okies are dirty and ignorant. They’re degenerate, sexual maniacs. These goddamned Okies are thieves. They’ll steal anything. They’ve got no sense of property rights.” (pg. 283)
There is also the conflict amongst those laborers already here and those arriving by the hundreds thousands every day. Unable to find workers, these large landowners imported people from Mexico or China or other parts of the globe. Should these workers get out of hand or start talking about unionizing, it’s quite simple to deport them. You can’t deport an American from America. Plus, as more and more men streamed into the lush valleys, wages were driven down.
“If that fella’ll work for thirty cents, I’ll work for twenty-five. If he’ll take twenty-five, I’ll do it for twenty. No, me, I’m hungry. I’ll work for fifteen. I’ll work for food.” (pg. 283)
Not to mention, prices stayed up as wages went down. Steinbeck gives the example in chapter twenty-one of a cannery paying lower than cost of production for the input and keeping the price of canned goods high so small farmers were forced to sell out to those farmers, banks, and companies who owned the canneries. People, this is the food system we have in the United States today! The fields are even more fruitful today than they were back then, and yet there are people all over this country (and the world) who are still hungry. This is the world in which the Joads live, and it’s a world that still exists today. We still dump food today.
“There is a crime here the 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 the children 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.” (pg. 349)
So, of course, this book is still relevant for today’s readers. This raw social commentary still applies to so many factions of our society – immigration, crop laborers, our food system, the face of hungry – that it’s still as difficult of a read as I’m sure it was back then. But it deserves it’s title of “classic” and I urge you to pick it up if you haven’t already.