identifying the enemy | 2018.07.23

The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck | Review

Steinbeck, John_The Grapes of Wrath

Publication: The Viking Press, 1939

Genre: Historical Fiction, Political Fiction

Pages: 455 | 20 hours 43 minutes

Formats: Hardcover, Paperback, Audiobook, eBook

Source: MCL

After reading this one, I found myself disturbed by the political implications. What just happened? What was Steinbeck trying to say through this story, exactly?

Gloom and doom seem close to the heart of the novel for sure. Is this book about the value of being allowed the space and resources to pull oneself up by one’s own bootstraps? Is it about socialism, the text and plot both serving, as is often proclaimed, as a truly American socialist’s battle cry? Is it perhaps jointly about how economic trajectory, no matter the founding governmental structure or theory, will ultimately always get in the way of the goals of communal, socialistic living while simultaneously destroying the great “American” ideal of individual-made success? Is Steinbeck saying that both capitalism and socialism are doomed each by turn? Capitalism because the machine of the invisible hand in this book became the disease that killed the aspirations of the individual, and socialism because the governmental plans to revitalize the economy in the 1930s failed so devastatingly?

There can be no doubt, in my conjecturing opinion, of the timelessness that Steinbeck achieved in this novel. And I’m guessing that is because the types of questions noted above are still up for debate even in the political climate that the United States is struggling with today. For example, our current incumbent was chosen because he spoke to the depression and self-styled oppression (let’s come back to that in a bit, shall we?) felt by many of the working class of our “great” nation (at least this seemed to be evidenced by interviews with a number of his supporters before his election).

Surely, The Grapes of Wrath has everything to do with showcasing the demise of life for the community-supported (and in turn, the free-to-be-independent, I’m going to argue) field worker, farmer, shop owner, and others like them. But I believe the conversation has become confused within our current state of quick and lightning-reactive politicos. (This is an extremely complex web, so your patience in my attempts at untangling is appreciated.)

In our current political environment, the would-be independent and self-sufficient, frontline workers, who supported the agenda of the current head of state, repeatedly speak about being tired of having to step aside in the name of giving room to people that the “other side” of the argument calls marginalized. Many of the frontline workers in our country have turned the screw of confusion even further by arguing that these same individuals who they refuse to call truly marginalized are marginalized only because they don’t belong within the borders of the United States of the great and wonderful America. As a result, the small business owner, the frontline worker (no matter your original nationality or political heritage), and anyone else feeling dissatisfaction at whatever short end of the stick the system has handed them are pointing fingers of blame at each other while ignoring the systemic root causes for their own discomfort and tribulations. We are fighting amongst ourselves to show who is the most marginalized to spite the system of “greatness” the other side is aligning themselves with.

It’s interesting that what makes a country great, just like with literature (Steinbeck’s book often being touted as the great American novel . . . and, well, sure!), can be predicated on opposing ends of a very wide spectrum. Again, this web is complex in its intricacies, no doubt, making “the enemy” a difficult fucker to adequately identify.

In Steinbeck’s novel, the enemy, that dark and inevitable force of destruction that made the book’s main characters homeless and drove them to the very edge of the Pacific Ocean was comprised of the banks backed by the often faceless system of capitalistic grasping and bulldozing for perpetual growth, growth, GROWTH! Ursula K. Le Guin (sorry to go on and on and quote her yet again) talks about the need capitalistic economies have for this type of self-engorgement. She quite pointedly states, “Capitalism is a body that judges its well-being by the size of its growth. Endless growth, limitless growth, as in obesity? Or growth as in a lump on the skin or in the breast, cancer? The size of our growth is a strange way to judge our wellbeing.” (If you’re interested, this comes from her essay “Staying Awake While We Read” in her book sold under her adjoining novella Wild Girls.) So is socialism the answer, then?

Socialism is predicated (in my estimation) on giving the individual space to create their own definition of success within the support of a strong community. Whether such individual success has anything to do with the amassing of wealth comes from such an absolutely subjective perspective, I feel. And I feel Steinbeck’s novel is arguing this also. Because if the individual is left enough space and is given enough resources, they can then be free to pursue their own happiness. The example I’m thinking of is seen in how the Nordic governments try to give their citizens the room and the resources to create their own success-definitions by allowing individuals to take care of each other within a strong community setting.

So how can we pursue our own happy success without throwing everyone else under the bus? Without engorging profits that rely on cutting out the working class? Do we offer our own breast milk to the starving homeless? Maybe. Or maybe we should also ask how we got here in the process. Let’s find out why the homeless. Let’s find out the current-state, systemic cause of why the working class feel so oppressed by the already marginalized. Let’s find out why we keep circling this same spiral of self-destruction. Do we dare even take on such a task? And how can we think about these aspects of our own troubled and oftentimes troubling society without shaking in our boots at the prospect of sharing the goal of growth without engorgement? Maybe we should be shaking.