More on the Grapes of Wrath

    This week I’m continuing in reading The Grapes of Wrath. I’m just at the point where they’ve left the old home place and are rolling on the “promised land.”

    So far I like the book a lot. Steinbeck does a decent job of capturing dialect (not perfectly, but not bad either), especially when they’re using “colorful language.” His characters (esp. Joad, the Grandpa and the Preacher) curse like men who’ve really lived. I’m not sure why but their language makes them more likable in a way.

    One criticism I have so far of the book though is that you can tell that Steinbeck is probably basing much of his descriptions of Dust Bowl Oklahoma on second-hand information. The dust bowl was bad (look up any good history of the region) especially in the plains of Oklahoma, Kansas, Texas, and Colorado, but the book depicts the Joads as living out in Eastern Oklahoma somewhere in the vicinity of Sallisaw. Sallisaw is in Eastern Oklahoma, and while the man-made lakes of that area weren’t around back then, there were lots and lots of trees (this is very close to the Ozarks of Oklahoma, Arkansas and Missouri). His description of things sounded more like the Western parts of the state or even the Panhandle.

    But despite this bit of inaccuracy (which isn’t a huge deal… most folks who aren’t from Oklahoma would not understand the great geographic diversity between locations a few hundred miles apart. In fact the only two states that have a similar degree of diversity are Texas and California. Oklahoma has alligators in McCurtain county, huge forests in the Ozarks, and Ouachitas, tall grass praires, short grass prairies, high plain steppe lands, and even Rocky Mountain foothills.) I think the book is very dead on with the experience that many had.

    I did read one article that attacked Steinbeck for not presenting an accurate view of things The New Criterion: Steinbeck’s myth of the Okies by Keith Windschuttle but in further reading it is apparent that Windschuttle has his own axe to grind and that the article is published by a conservative publication.

    Here’s one section of his article that I found especially insulting…

      In the film of The Grapes of Wrath, Steinbeck’s statement that people owned their land not because they had a piece of paper but because they had been born on it, worked on it, and died on it is given to the half-crazy character Muley Graves. His sentiments, and the injustice of the dispossession behind them, resonate throughout the drama. Again, however, these remarks bear very little relationship to the real farmers of Oklahoma. American rural communities have rarely been populated by the permanent, hidebound settlers that urban journalists and novelists have so condescendingly assumed. Southwestern farmers in the early twentieth century were highly mobile people who felt free to move about in search of better land or even to leave the land for opportunities in town. At the 1930 Census, forty-four percent of Oklahoma farmers and forty-seven percent of those in Arkansas said they had been on their current farms for less than two years. They were actually more mobile than the national farm average, where only twenty-eight percent answered the same. A 1937 study by a sociologist found that the average Oklahoma farmer moved four times in his working life, five times if he was a tenant. The Joads, who had all grown up in the same place where Grandpa had fought off snakes and Indians in the nineteenth century, would have been most unusual Oklahomans.

    As Mark Twain once said, “there’s lies, damn lies, and there’s statistics.” Windschuttle is forgetting that much of Oklahoma was settled very late. Western Oklahoma was settled mostly between 1889-1903 or so when the land runs and land lotteries took place (this was the land that was taken away by the US government from the “five civilized tribes” as their punishment for siding with the South in the War between the States) while Eastern Oklahoma was settled first by the Five Nations (Cherokee, Choctaw, Creek, Seminole, and Chickasaw) in the 1830’s and later opened up in part to white settlement around the turn of the century. So, what this means is that the Joad family were either descendants of someone who married an Indian and as such could live in the Indian Territory (if you think this isn’t possible since Grandpa talked about having to fight Indians, remember that the relocated five nations had to defend themselves from the fierce Indians of the Southern Plains. Jackson didn’t move the five nations onto empty land someone lived there.), or they were descended from white settlers who came around the turn of the century. They would not have been there long (30-50 years maybe) by eastern standards, but certainly long enough to sink deep roots into a place.

    Also, Windschuttle is arguing that the mobility of Oklahoma farmers in the depression era is proof that Steinbeck’s portrayal of Okies is wrong, but instead his stats only prove that Steinbeck was right. No farmer wants to move around more than necessary. It takes time to build up the soil, install improvements, etc. So, if there were moving around a lot it wasn’t by free choice but rather by economic necessity which was caused by economic oppression.

    As to Windschuttle’s remark, “American rural communities have rarely been populated by the permanent, hidebound settlers that urban journalists and novelists have so condescendingly assumed,” this is insulting. To be a permanent settler is not to be “hidebound” (a def. according to – “Stubbornly prejudiced, narrow-minded, or inflexible”) but rather to be smart and a good steward of the land. Windschuttle obviously does not understand farming. If anything, the only thing the Joad family was hidebound or inflexible about was in sticking to agricultural practices that were bad for them, particularly by getting spread too thin so that they were forced to go into debt. When this happened it was only a matter of time before they were in over their heads and had to give up their land to the bank, and not much longer before the bank would kick them off since they didn’t need tenant farmers anymore. — The key lesson that those who live off the land have to remember is the axioms: DEBT IS DEATH and THE BANK IS NOT YOUR FRIEND.

    That’s enough for now. That article got me riled up. Certainly the Joads’ experience was not universal. My own grandparents on my Mom’s side had it bad too during the depression. They were newly weds (eloped as teenagers) during the height of the depression in Western Oklahoma and were so poor that all they had to eat most weeks was eggs from their chickens. After awhile they ended up moving off the farm for awhile and moved to town (Guthrie, OK since my grandpa’s sister and her husband lived up there), my grandpa getting a job as a milkman and apprenticing as a carpenter but after a few years they moved back to the farm and stayed there ever since.

    Lots of folks stayed in Oklahoma like them and found ways to survive (often by moving in with extended family and whatnot), others moved to California and learned what suffering was really like (just listen to Woody Guthrie’s song, “Do Re Mi” and you’ll see what it was like), some waited until WWII to move out there (as a side note — one thing Windcshuttle is right about is that a lot of Okies did move out to California during the war. One man I knew in Thomas, OK at a church I used to preach at told me that he went to San Francisco as a teenager to work in a war plant and because he had no money for a place to stay, would sleep in air conditioned movie theaters for his first few weeks because it was the best place to sleep since the theaters were dark and cool. But that man also came back home after a few years. He told me he liked California but it wasn’t Oklahoma.) but they survived. That they survived is certainly cause for them to be remembered as some of the heroes of our cultural heritage, but their suffering should not be sugar-coated either. It never should have had to happen that way. Corporations had too much power back then (just like they do today) and since companies don’t have souls and consciences to keep them awake at night, those did did a lot of nasty things and dispossessed a lot of folks from the land that gave them life. In the end, things are not much better today than they were then. The end of the great drought of the 30’s and the advent of WWII might have eased the pressure from exploding the powder keg but it did not fix the problem.

    And the problem still ain’t fixed. We the people are still for the most part estranged from the land. We don’t know where our food comes from and we play no part in bringing it to the table, other than doing intangible work in exchange for magical tokens (a.k.a. money) that we give in exchange for what we need, and the tokens continue their journey through the so-called “economy” until they reach the folks who really created the wealth in the first place, the farmer. But the farmer and the consumer don’t know each other, so there is no real connection other than the trail that the magical tokens go on (in which of course the magical tokens disappear through each stage so the farmer gets the shaft)

    That is no real connection and as such we are now spiritually poor. I think it’s high time that we the people repossesse the land. I’m not talking about violence or anything like that, but just that we start buying our own land and growing our own food, and striving to live autonomous lives. By refusing to partake in the money economy (or limit our participation in it) we can be free.

    Think about it for a second. This week in my garden I’ve grown I would say $10-20 worth of produce that I’ve eaten. Fresh vine-ripened tomatoes, jalapeƱo peppers and a whole mess of new potatoes. I probably spent 50 cents on the seeds and seed potatoes that I planted for what I harvested but profited at least $10. But since no money changed hands (someone paying me for my produce) or even trading for it, there are NO taxes on that profit. The profit won’t show up any ledger sheet or national GDP report, but it’s every bit a real part of the true economy as Mark Twain’s proverbial “damn lies” (statistics) would show.

    It’s time for revolution. Not with guns but with gardens.