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“Grapes of Wrath”‘s 75th anniversary: Steinbeck’s cornpone Marxism and bad history

December 20, 2014

My latest for the Weekly Standard:

Ma Joad (Jane Darwell), Tom Joad (Henry Fonda), Pa Joad (Russell Simpson),  ‘The
The Joads: No resemblance to real-life Okies

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

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3 Comments
  1. News Flash: Grapes of Wrath was set in the 1930s not the 1980s. Read Will Rogers for more clues.

  2. This article is right-wing political propaganda published in a tarnished rag that only lovers of Rush Limbaugh could appreciate.

    Per Wikipedia: “The Weekly Standard is an American neoconservative opinion magazine published 48 times per year. Its founding publisher, News Corporation [founded by Rupert Murdoch], debuted the title September 18, 1995. Currently edited by founder William Kristol and Fred Barnes, the Standard has been described as a ‘redoubt of neoconservatism’ and as ‘the neo-con bible’. Since it was founded in 1995, the Weekly Standard has never been profitable, and has remained in business through subsidies from conservative benefactors such as former owner Rupert Murdoch. Many of the magazine’s articles are written by members of conservative think tanks located in Washington, D.C.” [In other words, the magazine is a fascist propaganda organ.]

    Propagandist Charlotte Allen has about as much credibility as a Li’l Orphan Annie comic book, itself a fantasy of right-wing propaganda.

    Glaring among Allen’s ridiculous lies is: …Steinbeck had no clue as to what those people could have been thinking about in real life.

    As a young man, Steinbeck worked among the migrant workers as a farm laborer. As an accomplished author (Of Mice and Men and three other novels had been published) he was hired by a magazine to investigate reports about terrible conditions of migrant workers in California’s Central Valley. He toured the labor camps and became so appalled by what he witnessed that he felt compelled to memorialize the suffering in a novel. He wrote history as it was happening. The threat of communism during the Great Depression was real. By holding up a mirror to the grim realities of capitalism, Steinbeck may have helped prevent a revolution. The novel even embarrassed Eleanor Roosevelt into touring the labor camps.

    Steinbeck made sure that someone with years of experience in California farm labor–Tom Collins, head of the Arvin/Weedpatch/”Wheatpatch” labor camp featured in the book and novel–was hired as the film’s technical advisor, making it a condition of sale of the film rights.

    When Darrel Zanuck, himself a conservative, produced the John Ford (another conservative)-directed film of TGOW, he hired investigators and found conditions worse than Steinbeck reported in the book.

    TGOW won a Pulitzer. They don’t give such awards to insensitive distortions of history. You embarrass yourself by posting neoconservative (aka “fascist”) propaganda here. You embarrass humanity.

    Who’s paying you, Murdoch or the KOCH-topus?

  3. wordist45 permalink

    ‘I had seen no sign, in the late 1950s, that any people like the Joads had ever existed: no ragged tent-camps with starving, cruelly exploited inhabitants subsisting on vegetable gleanings; no abandoned boxcars that entire multi-generational families called home. By then, the farmworkers were all of Mexican descent, Cesar Chavez’s people.'”

    Your bigotry is appalling. You dismiss the “farmworkers …of Mexican descent” as “Cesar Chavez’s people.” You infer that being Chicano makes the farmworkers less important than “people like the Joads,” who were white.

    How can such a bigoted view of racial minorities continue to pervade conservative minds?

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