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Sunday, October 23, 2016

It was an angry book.

Much of the response was angry, too. Some towns banned it, some towns burned it. Every town talked about it.

The Grapes of Wrath was published 75 years ago this month, a seminal masterpiece of American literature that seems freshly relevant to this era of wealth disparity, rapacious banks and growing poverty. John Steinbeck introduced readers to the Joads, a poor, proud clan of Depression-era Oklahoma farmers who set out for the promised land of California in a rickety truck after their own land dries up and blows away and the bank seizes what little is left.

Perhaps you remember from English class — or the 1940 film starring Henry Fonda — what happens next, how misfortune piles on misfortune and loss piles on loss, the promises of the promised land receding like a wave from shore. Perhaps you remember how Tom Joad, the decent everyman, becomes radicalized with the realization of how heavily the deck is stacked against him and his. Perhaps you remember what he promises his mother as he prepares to flee after killing a brutal strikebreaker in blind fury.

“Wherever they’s a fight so hungry people can eat, I’ll be there. Wherever they’s a cop beatin’ up a guy, I’ll be there. … I’ll be in the way guys yell when they’re mad an’ I’ll be in the way kids laugh when they’re hungry an’ they know supper’s ready. An’ when our folks eat the stuff they raise an’ live in the houses they build — why, I’ll be there.”

The anger of John Steinbeck’s novel, its litany of indignity and unfairness, galvanized a national dialogue on poverty and the exploitation of workers that reached even into the White House, where Eleanor Roosevelt was inspired to visit a migrant laborers’ camp to see the conditions for herself.

Seventy-five years later, in the wake of the worst economic catastrophe since that time, one is glad to hear faint echoes of the novel’s anger in a population that has seemed docile and somnambulant even as the American Dream was being dismantled around them. One is gratified by the Occupy movement, unfocused as it was, that sprang up three years ago, by the chanting of fast-food workers demanding a living wage, by the lacerating fury of a Bruce Springsteen song.

“Send the robber barons straight to h–l, the greedy thieves who came around and ate the flesh of everything they found,” he growls in 2012’s Death to My Hometown.

These are the sounds and actions of people waking up. Steinbeck would likely approve.

  • disqus_ivSI3ByGmh

    The scary thing is you still see stuff like that in poor White families in Appalachia, and they are the ones the GOP members are courting the votes of. All the while they are working to deny the benefits those families need (welfare, SNAP, Medicaid) by telling those folks that they have to reduce or eliminate those benefits because (insert race/ethnicity of choice here) people are abusing them.

  • Bill Thompson

    The I got mine mentality is commonplace in present-day society. The politicians and the media have been quite successful in pitting middle-class people against one another. For example we should hate anybody that is a member of the union or has better health and retirement benefits than we do. The middle class have been systematically taught to look at their neighbor and compare themselves with them. In the meantime corporate America has taken over, the filthy rich cry that they are the ones that are being discriminated against. Corporations take far more from our society in the form of corporate welfare and tax breaks then the poor could ever dream of taking. Yet the middle class has been trained to pointing fingers at the lesser among us. Contrary to popular belief we are not all created equal, usually where you start has a lot to do with where you end up. What is most interesting to me is the fact that so many see themselves as members of the middle class, when in fact the majority of America are living hand to mouth and living quite meager existences. Depending upon what area of the country you’re from an income of $30,000 up to $200,000 is considered middle-class. In my estimation trying to raise a family on 50,000 dollars or less it’s quite excruciating. When I grew up I was always taught from my father and mother that people that had a little more then you weren’t the enemy but something that you should strive for. Never in my life did I hear my parents curse someone who had a little bit more, today not only do we curse them we have been taught to curse those that have less. Congratulations you advertising wordsmiths you’ve done your job well. It is a said commentary of our present-day society.

    • christianh

      And most people don’t got shit…

    • charleo1

      Yes, absolutely! The Right constantly hammers into their adherents,
      the idea that economics is a zero sum affair. That the pie is only so
      large, or so small. And that total amount is finite, and there isn’t near enough to go around. It’s the perfect foil in hard, or uncertain economic times. When the philosophy of your opponent is to make
      sure though a wide variety of initiatives, that none of the population,
      but especially the very young, the poor, and disabled, are not subjected to the full brunt of such an economy. The GOP has been able to effectively thwart many of the efforts of the Obama Administration, to assist the broader economy, and protect the most vulnerable, by continuing to insist, “the pie,” cannot possibly accommodate what they are proposing we do. Because, we are essentially out of pie. And, furthermore they hold, that borrowing pie that doesn’t exist, only shrinks the size of the pie in the future.
      While declaring off limits those huge delicious looking slices, we can see being devoured, by those other “special people.” Who they explain, require those extra large slices. Because they are the only ones capable of making more pie, that everyone needs to live. So then, if that scenerio is accepted as it has been to some fair extent by the rank, and file Right. Logic would have it, that down at the other end of the table, there is a lot of looking at the other fellow’s slice. With a lot of measuring, being carried on with a very critical eye. And a lot baloney being bandied about, as to why the pieces are getting smaller on one end of table. And larger, and fancier, up on the other end. Where they sense the grumbling, and seem to be taken aback, their feelings, crushed. And admonish those squabbling, and bickering at the crowded lower end. Or, rather they have their servers ask. Why do you hate us so? If this persists, we’ll be forced to leave, and take all of the pie with us! Then, what will you do?

  • latebloomingrandma

    Why is it we never learn from our history? The same mistakes keep turning up century after century. Perhaps when history is taught in schools, the emphasis should be on the issue and the parallel to today, rather than the boring stuff of memorizing dates, etc. Sometimes great literature demonstrates this better than history books. “The Grapes of Wrath” was a heartbreaking book and important to our history. If we can’t use these lessons to keep going forward toward a more perfect union, rather than going back in time, we are not that “exceptional” country. It’s only exceptional for some. For all the emphasis on the USA being a Christian country, those who shout the loudest are forgetting about the most important part of the Christian message—-our common humanity and caring for one another.

  • sigrid28

    Steinbeck exposed the dust covering the tropies of the wealthy few in a gilded age, we should heed his severe disclosure at the beginning of our own. I refer you to “Why We’re in a New Gilded Age,” a superb review by leading economist and Nobel laureate Paul Krugman, who analyses Thomas Piketty’s “Capital in the Twenty-First Century” (Boston: Belknap Press/Harvard University Press, 2014). This article appears in “The New York Review of Books,” dated May 8, 2014. In this sense, our economists are like the canary in the coal mine, warning of a disaster that does not have to happen. It would be inappropriate and impossible to summarize usefully here Krugman’s succinct analysis and Piketty’s book (over 600 pages), where we acknowledge the sharp pangs if inequality turning more and more American families into the Joads. But I cite these works because they point to the kind of action–public policy–that might help our societies avoid what Piketty calls “a drift toward oligarchy” ; “wealth taxes, global if possible, to restrain the growing power of inherited wealth.” As Republicans in the U.S. have aligned themselves exclusively with capital (despite the Marxist origins of the term) it will be up to Democrats and Independents to restore opportunity for workers and wage earners, before it is too late.

    • Bill Thompson

      Very well said! The majority of the American public of being played like fiddles. The right / GOP take social issues and makes it their cause using religious and social prejudices to rally the troops. The mentality of the right and the GOP brings to mind the movie, Planet of the Apes. The Apes in charge decide that ignorance is better than facts and verifiable history, they decide to raise the Younger generation to protect them from their own advances, for fear of ending up in humanities plight. Remember knowledge, facts and history are the enemy of anyone that is in a position of power.

    • midway54

      Beautifically written post.

      • sigrid28

        Thanks. Those who appreciate my post will be blown away by not only Steinway’s book (that Leonard Pitts so beautifully evoked in his article), but Paul Krugman’s review of Piketty’s important book in the “New York Review of Books” (May 8, 2014)–and just about every other article in that issue–as well as Ken Burns’s documentary, “The Dust Bowl.” It may be late to do so, but there is still time to correct course and avert disaster.

  • omleach

    Whats really sad is all the hell that people back in those days went through to make unions work and to get a good wage for a good days work.Now even the people who are working for the robber barron’s will run down the unions.I worked for a large co. and was active in the unions. We lost most of any power we had during the 80’s when R. Reagan was in power.The big co’s got bold and there big thing was down size,get one person do what ten was doing.If you don’t like it we will just kill the whole thing sell it off to some non union co. and your all out on your butt. All the while the top dogs at these co’s are taking in big bonus checks for saving the co. all that money.Read about any co. report and its still the same story,cut people and shut down sens over sea’s and get big bonus and sell ton’s of stock options.
    Its much like the many people who vote for the republicans who could care less about there poor butt. I all ways said if your not worth a million at least your a fool to vote for the republican’s because if your not rich they could care less about you.The only thing worse is a person of color voting for them.Just look at what they have done because Obama is black. Its not that he is a democrat its because he is black and no matter what he does good or bad he gets talked about like he is the most low life enemy of this world.

  • TZToronto

    Just today it’s been noted that the Canadian middle class is doing much better than the U.S. middle class. It’s not that Canadians are so much more productive; it’s that the U.S. middle class has lost a lot of what it had before 2008. I can’t imagine why any so-called middle-class U.S. voter would even consider voting for a Republican. All I can think of is that the GOP has brainwashed their base into thinking that Democrats are all tax-and-spend while Republicans are careful stewards of the American economy, eliminating waste and fraud committed, interestingly, both those who have almost nothing. Nothing can be further from the truth. Republicans spend more than Democrats and collect fewer revenues to pay for their economic excesses. That’s why Republicans, when they hold power, almost always run deficits while Democrats tend to either break even or run surpluses (the current administration excepted for very good reasons). The grand scheme of the rulers of the GOP is to eliminate all federal government power and to put all power into the hands of self-appointed and self-serving corporate rulers. Anyone want to have the Koch brothers, Sheldon Adelson, and Donald Trump running the country?

  • ThomasBonsell

    There is the old axiom about investing in stocks: that is “buy low and sell high.”

    It’s almost impossible to judge when stocks are at their lowest and at their highest so most people lose money in such investing.

    As an investor of several decades my advice, for those who wish to invest and build an estate, is buy Republican and sell Democratic.

    It has been shown over the previous century-plus that stocks gain twice as much when a Democrat is in the White House than when a Republican occupies that position, To wit, Bill Clinton inherited a Dow Jones Industrial of 3,241.95 from the Reagan-Daddy Bush mismanagement and left the DJI at 10,671.28 for George W. Bush.

    Bush then left a crumbling economy for Barack Obama that had the DJI at 7,949.09 on inauguration day and plunging until its descent was halted March 9, 2009 at 6,547.05. Obama’s DJI is now well above 16,000 and hit its all-time high just this year. If it appears a Republican might take the White House in the 2016 election, sell out, sit on your gains until a Democrat is elected.

    Remember: buy Republican and sell Democratic.

  • Allan Richardson

    A parable: three men walk into a bar just before closing time, and there are a dozen peanut packets left on the complimentary peanuts plate on the bar. The first man, a CEO, grabs 11 packets and stuffs them into his pockets. Then he turns to the other two men, a non-union office worker and a union electrician, and tells the office worker, “Watch out, he wants to steal YOUR peanuts.”

  • adp3d

    I love the juxtaposition of The Grapes of Wrath(of which I just finished reading, BTW) with Hank Paulson’s book…