John Steinbeck's bitter fruit
Seventy years after The Grapes of Wrath was published, its themes –
corporate greed, joblessness – are back with a vengeance. Melvyn Bragg
on John Steinbeck's remarkable legacy
I READ The Grapes of Wrath in that fierce span of adolescence when
reading was a frenzy. I was all but drowned in the pity and anger John
Steinbeck evoked for these people, fleeing Oklahoma to seek work but
finding nothing save cruelty, violence, the enmity of immoral banks
and businesses, and the neglect by the state of its own people in the
Land of the Free. The novel was published in 1939 and delivered a
shock to the English reading world.
But for years I did not read him. Earlier this year, when asked to
make a film about Steinbeck for the BBC, I went back with
apprehension. The peaks of one's adolescent reading can prove troughs
in late middle age. Life moves on; not all books do. But 50 years
later, The Grapes of Wrath seems as savage as ever, and richer for my
greater awareness of what Steinbeck did with the Oklahoma dialect and
with his characters. It is just as alive, with its fine anger against
the banks: "The bank – the monster – has to have profit all the time.
It can't wait … It'll die when the monster stops growing. It can't
stay in one place."
We started filming with a small crew in Oklahoma, near the spot where
the novel begins. This summer there was another drought, as there had
been in the 1930s. They farm land better now, but even so, many
farmers are going bust. The resonances with contemporary America were
powerful: the working and middle classes have once again been holed by
the big banks. Once again, the protests have started up, as Americans
scan their continent for work. As in the 1930s, there is a powerful
feeling that the promised land promises nothing, not even hope.
In Steinbeck's day, this was part of the American dust bowl. "Every
moving thing lifted the dust into the air," he wrote in The Grapes of
Wrath. "A walking man lifted a thin layer as high as his waist. An
automobile boiled a cloud behind it." Archive footage of the time
shows dust storms swirling across the flat lands like tornadoes.
In the novel, the Joad family are driven off their farm by the banks.
They pile, all 12 of them, into a truck which takes aim for the west
coast, more than 1,000 miles of desert and a mountain range away.
Although Steinbeck was not a Christian, he plundered the King James
Bible for stories (Cain and Abel became East of Eden) and for the
pulse of his prose. The family of 12 on that truck are as the 12
tribes of Israel seeking liberation. The truck itself is an ark; there
is even a man named Noah on board. It was this journey that my camera
crew and I followed, often down Highway 66, "the main immigrant road …
the path of people in flight, refugees from dust and the shrinking
land, from the thunder of tractors and shrinking ownership". Upwards
of half a million Americans migrated west in the space of two or three
years in the 30s, the biggest internal migration in US history.
What happened to the Joad family was an attempt to keep them and
everybody like them out of California. In effect, the state
unilaterally seceded from the rest of the country, refusing entry to
their fellow Americans and criminalising them. There were beatings,
and the loss of civil rights. The Nation magazine reported that at a
place called Salinas, near the Californian coast, "something
shockingly like a concentration camp had recently been constructed … a
water tower rises in solitary grandeur in the midst of the camp.
Surrounding the tower is a platform splendidly adapted for
observation, night illumination and marksmanship." In September 1936,
a pitched battle was fought in Salinas between the forces of
agribusiness (stiffened by 250 proto-fascist American Legionnaires and
2,000 local vigilantes) and workers who had been forced to accept
less-than-subsistence wages, forever undercut by the desperation of
other workers prepared to take any wages. They were loosely organised
by communists, but mostly driven by hunger.
Undercover on the bread line
Salinas was Steinbeck's home town. It made him, and after that street
battle, it made him anew. His birth house is now a museum. It is a
detached building, on what was in his boyhood the upper professional
class road in the town, as Victorian as you could imagine. Fine bricks
and wood, good-sized and plentiful rooms, sturdy furniture. On the
wall there is a Christmas photograph of Mr and Mrs Steinbeck and their
children, every one of them dressed as if for church. Every one of
them is reading a book. The camera receives not a single glance. The
Steinbecks are engaged in things of the mind.
Steinbeck studied science at university, but from an early age
declared himself to be a writer and set up an unrelenting daily
routine. His intellectual fascinations were great literature and
biology, especially marine biology. His whole world view began in a
rock pool and swept up to a study of the stars.
He had written articles about the migrants passing through Salinas,
and worked at menial jobs around California for months during his
protracted university years, but The Grapes of Wrath proved radically
different. It was as if he had transplanted himself into another
class, and into areas of passion and politics he had only observed
before. A previous novel, In Dubious Battle, was an examination of
earlier labour battles, but he wrote of that book: "I wanted to
achieve a kind of detached perspective. I'm non-partisan, I'm just
going to report, as a journalist, what's going on." In that curiously
bloodless book, the communist organisers are as manipulative as the
landowners themselves. In Dubious Battle was his rock pool. He was the
In The Grapes of Wrath you feel (correctly I believe) that Steinbeck
was a core participant. What had changed him? In my view, it was
probably a man called Tom Collins. After the battle of Salinas,
Steinbeck decided to go undercover for months, to research what would
become The Grapes of Wrath. He contacted the headquarters of the Farm
Security Administration in Washington and said he wanted to work as a
migrant. They assigned him to Collins, a camp manager at Arvin in
California. The two men worked in the valleys for several months in
1937. Steinbeck dedicated the book "To Tom – who lived it".
The camp Collins ran features like a utopia in the novel. We filmed
there this summer, and it is deeply touching to see that Collins not
only ran a rare, uncorrupt and democratic camp, but had put up a
schoolhouse, a library and a meeting hall. Collins and Arvin are at
the moral centre of the book; what he learned there gave Steinbeck the
vision and mass of knowledge he needed to write the book. He learned
how to keep battered trucks on the road, what food was possible on the
poverty line. His descriptions of physical work are authentic, as are
the flashes of human kindness and the constant stab of inhuman
Steinbeck wrote furiously and said that the effort nearly destroyed
him. "I'm trying to write history while it is happening, and I don't
want it to be wrong." He added: "[I]t is a mean, nasty book and if I
could make it nastier I would … the book has a definite job to do … I
want to put a tag of shame on the greedy bastards who are responsible
for this." He took his title from the Book of Revelation, via the
triumphalist 1861 Battle Hymn of the Republic, reprinting it in full
at the beginning of the novel.
A liar and a communist
It was the bestselling book in America in 1939. A film version
starring Henry Fonda and directed by John Ford followed, itself a
classic. Arthur Miller wrote of Steinbeck, "I can't think of another
American writer, with the possible exception of Mark Twain, who so
deeply penetrated the political life of the country." And yet
Steinbeck was also called "a liar", "a communist" and "a Jew acting
for Zionist-Communist interests". The book was burned in the streets;
it was banned in schools and libraries, with its explicit sexuality
given as the excuse. It was virulently attacked in Congress, and
Steinbeck's subsequent success in Russia eroded his reputation from
the cold war onwards. He bought himself a revolver for self-defence
and had good reason to fear for his life. The book has sold about 14m
copies and still sells steadily.
Steinbeck went on to develop his interest in natural science and to
write many more books. His large attempt was to find common ground
between the observable natural world and the worlds of myths and
mysticism. His reputation was blasted regularly by the new
metropolitan tastemakers. The New York Times poured bile over his head
the day before he won the Nobel prize, in 1962 ("The Swedes have made
a serious error by giving the prize to a writer whose limited talent
is in his best books watered down by 10th-rate philosophising"),
though there were many fine writers who rushed to defend him.
Steinbeck answered his critics in his acceptance speech in Stockholm.
"Literature is not a game for the cloistered elect. Literature is as
old as speech. It grew out of human need for it and it has not changed
except to become more needed."