“Grapes of Wrath”‘s 75th anniversary: Steinbeck’s cornpone Marxism and bad history
The Okies I knew of when I was growing up were also diehard political conservatives of the quasi-John Birch variety who wouldn’t have gone for the cornpone Marxism that Steinbeck put into the mouths of Tom Joad and his rebarbative mother, Ma Joad, the family matriarch. (She’s symbolic, so Steinbeck didn’t give her a first name.) Ma Joad regularly spouts pithy hick-dialectic in Grapes, such as, “If we was all mad [at the evil capitalist growers] the same way . . . they wouldn’t hunt nobody down.” The Okies believed in revolution, all right: the Reagan Revolution. They were the backbone of support for Reagan as both California governor and president of the United States. To this day, the Okie-culture-saturated San Joaquin Valley is California’s main “red-state” region.
As time rolled on, it became clear to everyone except English teachers that Steinbeck had gotten everything wrong in The Grapes of Wrath, perhaps deliberately. He was even off on Dust Bowl geography, having the Joads begin their California-bound trek in Sallisaw, in eastern Oklahoma, near the Arkansas border, where they have lost the family farm thanks to evil banks and evil machines such as tractors. In reality, the Dust Bowl of the early 1930s in Oklahoma was confined to the state’s western panhandle.
Like the Depression photographer Dorothea Lange, who was so infatuated with the picturesque primitivism of her iconic “migrant mother” in the pea-picker camp that she neglected to obtain the woman’s name or permission to take her picture, and like Woody “This Land Is Your Land” Guthrie, whose homespun collectivism was mainly popular with East Coast intellectuals, Steinbeck viewed the Okies through a lens clouded with sentimentality, fashionable leftist ideology, and an insistence on seeing only what he wanted to see.
Posted by Charlotte Allen