The vintage is still being trampled out: why “The Grapes of Wrath”, not “Atlas Shrugged”, must be the guidebook for our time

Since Mitt Romney announced Paul Ryan as his choice of running mate in the U.S. Presidential/Vice-Presidential election I’ve heard and read much talk of Mr. Ryan’s devotion to the works and philosophy of that wizened, bitter, anti-Soviet Russian, Ayn Rand (including this bit from CBC’s The Current).  Considering that the U.S. economy was managed into its current state by Rand disciple Alan Greenspan, I confess I find it beyond perplexing that Rand’s repugnant ideas of economy and “morality” are still given much credence in any circles.  But, apparently the old, dead Objectivist still has the ear of some/many of those in power in the U.S.  It’s an ever stranger world, isn’t it?

What surprises me even more, however, is that a far shorter novel than Atlas Shrugged, a far more well written novel than The Fountainhead, has not been raised as a rallying point on the Left or amongst the Sensible.  Published just five years before Rand’s turgid melodrama of rape in the architect set, John Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath is nothing other than a warning to Masters of the Universe (such as sparsely populate Rand’s novels and more densely populate U.S. politics) that a popular revolution is on the very near horizon.  That revolution Steinbeck foresaw as near in 1939 was forestalled by WWII but manifest in the social revolutions and government social programs of the post-war years.  But the times they are a-changing back to a very bad situation for the proletariat of the U.S.

Steinbeck’s tale of the Joad family and their quest to survive in Corporate Capitalist America is an incendiary piece of literature.  As I reread it in fairly late middle age, I find it breathtaking that the novel is assigned to teenagers in High School English classes.  And I find it more than depressing that the novel seems to have had so little effect on all those generations of High School students.  Perhaps Rand has more effect on adolescents’ nervous selfishness, presenting a philosophy of superficial self-indulgence as somehow heroic.  Steinbeck, on the other hand, presents the real world, where the ruthless tread on the masses, and he stands beside Rodney King crying “Can we all get along?” and makes clear that we must if we are to survive as a society.

When the Joads reach the “Government Camp” around the middle of The Grapes of Wrath, they seem to have stumbled upon a paradise of democracy, self-sufficiency and mutual support.  Is the camp not exactly what the Occupy Movement strives for?  The Grapes of Wrath has often been condemned as Communist propaganda but is the camp not exactly the sort of society that Adam Smith himself cautions as the morally correct one?

Is this improvement in the circumstances of the lower ranks of the people to be regarded as an advantage or as an inconveniency to the society? The answer seems at first sight abundantly plain. Servants, labourers, and workmen of different kinds, make up the far greater part of every great political society. But what improves the circumstances of the greater part can never be regarded as an inconveniency to the whole. No society can surely be flourishing and happy, of which the far greater part of the members are poor and miserable. It is but equity, besides, that they who feed, clothe, and lodge the whole body of the people, should have such a share of the produce of their own labour as to be themselves tolerably well fed, clothed, and lodged.

Wealth of Nations, Book I, chapter 8

Early on their first morning in the camp, Tom Joad walks out to explore his family’s new community.  His first encounter is a distillation of the entire point of the novel (sorry for the long passage, but it’s beautiful):

Tom climbed over the truck side and dropped to the ground. He moved slowly toward the stove. He saw a girl working about the stove, saw that she carried a baby on her crooked arm, and that the baby was nursing, its head up under the girl’s shirtwaist. And the girl moved about, poking the fire, shifting the rusty stove lids to make a better draft, opening the oven door; and all the time the baby sucked, and the mother shifted it deftly from arm to arm. The baby didn’t interfere with her work or with the quick gracefulness of her movements. And the orange fire licked out of the stove cracks and threw flickering reflections on the tent.

Tom moved closer. He smelled frying bacon and baking bread. From the east the light grew swiftly. Tom came near to the stove and stretched out his hands to it. The girl looked at him and nodded, so that her two braids jerked.

“Good mornin’,” she said, and she turned the bacon in the pan.

The tent flap jerked up and a young man came out and an older man followed him. They were dressed in new blue dungarees and in dungaree coats, stiff with filler, the brass buttons shining. They were sharp-faced men, and they looked much alike. The younger man had a dark stubble beard and the older man a white stubble beard. Their heads and faces were wet, their hair dripped, water stood in drops on their stiff beards. Their cheeks shone with dampness. To- gether they stood looking quietly into the lightening east. They yawned together and watched the light on the hill rims. And then they turned and saw Tom.

“Mornin’,” the older man said, and his face was neither friendly nor unfriendly.

“Mornin’,” said Tom.

And, “Mornin’,” said the younger man.

The water slowly dried on their faces. They came to the stove and warmed their hands at it.

The girl kept to her work. Once she set the baby down and tied her braids together in back with a string, and the two braids jerked and swung as she worked. She set tin cups on a big packing box, set tin plates and knives and forks out. Then she scooped bacon from the deep grease and laid it on a tin platter, and the bacon cricked and rustled as it grew crisp. She opened the rusty oven door and took out a square pan full of big high biscuits.

When the smell of the biscuits struck the air both of the men inhaled deeply. The younger said, “Kee-rist! ” softly.

Now the older man said to Tom, “Had your breakfast?”

“Well, no, I ain’t. But my folks is over there. They ain’t up. Need the sleep.”

“Well, set down with us, then. We got plenty-thank God! “

“Why, thank ya,” Tom said. “Smells so darn good I couldn’ say no.”

“Don’t she?” the younger man asked. “Ever smell anything so good in ya life?” They marched to the packing box and squatted around it.

“Workin’ around here?” the young man asked.

“Aim to,” said Tom. “We jus’ got in las’ night. Ain’t had no chance to look aroun’.”

“We had twelve days’ work,” the young man said.

The girl, working by the stove, said, “They even got new clothes.” Both men looked down at their stiff blue clothes, and they smiled a little shyly. The girl set out the platter of bacon and the brown, high biscuits and a bowl of bacon gravy and a pot of coffee, and then she squatted down by the box too. The baby still nursed, its head up under the girl’s shirtwaist.

They filled their plates, poured bacon gravy over the biscuits, and sugared their coffee.

The older man filled his mouth full, and he chewed and chewed and gulped and swallowed. “God Almighty, it’s good!” he said, and he filled his mouth again.

The younger man said, “We been eatin’ good for twelve days now. Never missed a meal in twelve days-none of us. Workin’ an’ gettin’ our pay an’ eatin’.” He fell to again, almost frantically, and refilled his plate. They drank the scalding coffee and threw the grounds to the earth and filled their cups again.

There was color in the light now, a reddish gleam. The father and son stopped eating. They were facing to the cast and their faces were lighted by the dawn. The image of the mountain and the light coming over it were reflected in their eyes. And then they threw the grounds from their cups to the earth, and they stood up together.

“Got to git goin’,” the older man said.

The younger turned to Tom. “Lookie,” he said. “We’re layin’ some pipe. ‘F you want to walk over with us, maybe we could get you on.”

Tom said, “Well, that’s mighty nice of you. An’ I sure thank ya for the breakfast.”

Glad to have you,” the older man said. “We’ll try to git you workin’ if you want.”

The Grapes of Wrath, Chapter 22

Here is a foreshadowing of the final scene of the novel, a scene which has shocked generations of insensitive prudes.  Here is the whole point, a point lost on so many in modern political culture, particularly in the U.S.  It is never a question of either individual rights or social programs; it is never a question of either personal freedom or helping the disadvantaged.  Rather, just as the young mother can feed the baby from her own flesh while simultaneously performing the essential chores of her microcosm and welcoming and feeding the needy stranger, a well-structured society must and, most essentially, can easily provide for all its members, lifting up those in hardship, sharing with those in need. And an important message of Steinbeck’s Camp is that it is a Government Camp, although the Government has little to do in this ideal little society.  The people have become their own government.  Isn’t that an odd idea?

The lesson of The Grapes of Wrath is not simply that we can look out for each other, but that each of us must look out for the other if we wish to live a happy life.  The only individuals who have happiness are those who successfully help each other.  The most miserable and hopeless are the “wealthy” and those who selfishly try to get ahead while ignoring the needs of their larger society, the very sort of people who are Ayn Rand’s “heroes”.  The lesson of The Grapes of Wrath is obviously of particular relevance to the U.S. today, a society in which the gap between rich and poor is as great as it has ever been.  Indeed, the Joad family is a mirror held up to millions of contemporary American families.

Will they look in that mirror?  Or will they be seduced by the absurd promise of Atlas Shrugged, that “self-interest” is the only moral good and the salvation of society?  Lest anyone forget:  there is only one John Galt in Rand’s vision.  There are millions of Rose of Sharons, holding life together for everyone, in the U.S. today.

Is it not long past time to give them praise?

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2 comments on “The vintage is still being trampled out: why “The Grapes of Wrath”, not “Atlas Shrugged”, must be the guidebook for our time

  1. barnswell says:

    >> Or will they be seduced by the absurd promise of Atlas Shrugged, that “self-interest” is the only moral good and the salvation of society?<<

    The evidence suggests they will carry on being seduced. Community is big there as well but mostly centred on 'God'…the abstract, in all its guises. The American dream fits well with that. Culturally Rand is more in tune with this.

    It'll take a massive cultural revolution to come closer to the Steinbeck philosophy. It's the US of A..not Canada.

    Simple thinking suits their culture best. One or the other, not both. I'm losing more and more patience with this simplicity of outlook…especially as I see it being manipulated here via the new 'Big Society' myth. It infects.

    Good on you for caring about them. I can't at present.

    A bit of shooting from the hip from me here…I fully admit….;)

    (Love your writing style. It's a pleasure to read).

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