When Capital Becomes the Monster

Photo by Myles RobinsonThis month, the California Council of the Humanities inaugurates its One State, One Book program, designed to get people to read the same California book at the same time, and then get them to attend lectures, films and discussion groups about it at events held all over the state. "This program," the council says, "gives Californians from every walk of life a chance to read and discuss the book together, consider the place of their own story in the story of California, and discover the book's relevance to current California issues."

It sounds like a nice idea, a way of staving off that eventuality that all book lovers know and cringe at: those times when you get all excited about a book and fulminate like crazy to a friend who either hasn't read it and has no idea what you're talking about or who read it five years ago, in college, and vaguely remembers that there was like, um, bird images in it or something. I'm inclined to support anything that ameliorates the pain of the lonely reader, even if the ameliorator is a big old machine like the state of California.

But there are some savory ironies operating here. The inaugural selection of the program is John Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath; supposedly, this is a nod to the centenary of Steinbeck's birth and to the fact that Steinbeck is California's lone Nobel Prize winner.

Now, I can see the state having an interest in promoting Mr. Steinbeck as a bona fide cultural hero, but does the state really want to encourage people to "discover the book's relevance to current California issues"? Do Gray Davis' agribusiness campaign contributors know about this? The California of 1937 and '38 doesn't come off so hot in this book, and examined through Steinbeck's lens, contemporary California looks pretty bad, too. It's very easy to read The Grapes of Wrath, in fact, as one long howl of desperation directed at the forces of California big business working in concert with the state (particularly cops and judges) to take advantage of destitute migrants who are willing to work for pissant wages because it's better than what they were making in the impoverished land they left behind. Does this ring anybody's bell?

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When the book first came out in 1939, everybody understood it this way, which accounted for the fact that it was quickly banned in libraries statewide and considered by the Lynn Cheneys of the day as "communist agitation." (Lyle Boren, congressman from Oklahoma at the time, is quoted in the Congressional Record as saying that it "was a dirty, lying, filthy manuscript . . . a black, infernal creation of a twisted, distorted mind.") Journalists from major newspapers were dispatched to California to demonstrate how Steinbeck's facts were wrong, that though "the lot of the 'fruit tramp' is admittedly no bed of roses, neither is it the bitter fate described in The Grapes of Wrath." That made agribusiness and politicians feel better until Carey McWilliams wrote his great piece of investigative journalism, "California Pastoral," showing that Steinbeck's poor Joad family was about as typical as can be.

The campaign to discredit the book was furious, but to little avail. It sold hundreds of thousands of copies to a nation of readers who, 10 years into the Depression, knew goddamn well how big business exploited the vulnerable when it could.

The controversy surrounding the book died down after World War II. The factual basis for Steinbeck's tale of the Joad family's fateful trek from Dust Bowl Oklahoma to Bakersfield's fruit and cotton fields may have been established, but by the 1950s, American readers didn't want to know from the poor. Levittowns were thriving, and Michael Harrington's Other America had yet to be rediscovered. And by then, the controversy had become mostly literary, even left-leaning critics like Alfred Kazin and Edmund Wilson weighing in with the complaint that, Steinbeck's big heart and good politics notwithstanding, his characters are "always on the verge of becoming human, but never do." Tom Joad, Jim Casy the Preacher, Ma Joad: they were "marionettes" manipulated by their creator to embody populist idealizations of, say, Silent Integrity, Faith in the People, the Mysterious Power of Woman.

These critics were probably right, but the effect of their critiques shifted the focus of interest in the book from its politics to its aesthetics (much to the relief of conservative critics), which led in turn to its cozy domestication as a work of sentimental humanism and its current safe enshrinement in California high school English curricula.

The Grapes of Wrath is a terrific read, though, in high school or out. It's long but easy to understand. (You learn stuff, too: You want to prepare a just-killed jackrabbit for a barbecue? See Chapter Six. You want to know how farmers stopped the bleeding when they cut their hands open? They peed on the ground, mixed it with the dirt, and applied the resulting mud to the wound.) Steinbeck's prose style is a model of visual lucidity: he writes as if he's transcribing what a movie camera sees (which is one reason John Ford's film adaptation was so successful: the novel's already a screenplay). The characters are sharply outlined, vivid and specific, and everything they think and feel is easily read in their gestures and behavior. There isn't a moment of internality in The Grapes of Wrath, not a line that begins "Tom Joad thought" or "Rose of Sharon felt." Everything's on the surface, and if that simplifies the characters, it never really condescends to them either.

Steinbeck clearly loves his people, he loves their fateful connection to the land, and his book testifies to a genuine grief about what happens when the forces of history—when Capital becomes the Monster—overwhelm the poor. The controversial "interchapters," which take us away from the Joad narrative to a macrocosmic view of the whole Dust Bowl migration story, can be tediously didactic, but some of them are simple and potent primers on what happens when people who own the land don't work the land or when forms of technology get between a man and his work. They're like mini-lectures on Marx or Heidegger for the masses, not so much dumbed-down as learned-up. It's honorable, moving stuff.

Honorable and moving, but the time's probably way past when a book like The Grapes of Wrath can be politically efficacious, even if tens of thousands of Californians read it this month and, awed by the strength and endurance of its Okie heroes to withstand the inhuman treatment of the landowners and the banks, start to wonder who the new Joads are and what they're putting up with these days up and down the San Joaquin Valley. I'd like to be wrong, but I suspect the One State, One Book program serves Davis and his agribusiness people just fine: if they can appropriate The Grapes of Wrath, turn it into an advertisement for the Golden State, then they've defanged one of the most powerful critiques California's ever made of itself.

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