The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
This is a story about separation, dismemberment. And if it doesn’t piss you off, go own something.
As I neared the end, I wondered how the story would resolve. Naturally, I was ravenous to read how Tom Joad, the great, enlightened hero, would lead a battle against the owners. I wanted to relish the righteous war he would wage. And then I started thinking how I would be absolutely content if I were to see nothing more of Tom through the remainder of the book, if the story remained with Ma. After all, it’s the story of the Joad family. And Ma is the family. As she said, she, as a woman, can adapt and move on, like a jerkless stream, because she thinks with what’s in her arms, not with what’s in her head. Then the commonality between Tom and Ma struck me, and the secret lies with Casy. His theory of the Soul, its largess, how every person is just a piece of a whole. It sounded like Ma’s talk of family, generations passing on a piece of land as one continuing life, as one constant body. If Tom were to be the guardian of the Soul, he would be no different than Ma, the queen of Family.
But that family would break up and mankind would split between the iron bars of progress, the divide between Natural Law and Man’s Law, both designed to serve mankind; the owner and the worker, both desperate to survive in a changing economy; the greedy and the content, both migrants, like the turtle, never stopping and moving towards some unforeseen destiny.
Progress is never content. The fat need fattening and the lean need leaning…but God bless America all the same! Greed and self-advancement are the heart of capital progress and these qualities are hallowed in the Constitution and manifested in Capitalism. And even The West, the American symbol of the Promised Land, is tainted by the same methodology that scarred the homes they came from. But families will continue moving, will never give up on the integrity and reward of an honest days work. And, Lord, what a model of resiliency they are. And, by the way, thanks for not overthrowing our right to overcompensate for our vacuous void of insecurity.
Hey, you got any natural, fundamental needs you need attending to? Well, by all means, attend to them but you gotta pay us. I know, I know…you were able to take care of yourself and yours just fine but, see, we want more money. Oh, you don’t like that? Well, that’s too bad. We could have had a good arrangement, me and you. But just so you know, ’cause I’m an honest businessman, I’d rather just shoot you because, really, you burden my right to own any and everything I please. But since I can’t, at least at the moment but we’re working on passing a law that will afford me that allowance, we’re just going to jail you after funneling you into misdemeanors and felonies. How? Oh, actually it’s quite easy. You gotta sleep, you gotta eat, you need shelter, etc and I can count on you to pursue these things. So all it takes is to own them so it’ll be illegal for you to take them. Oh, wait wait…you’ll love this. This is the best part. We’re going to call this patriotic. Get it? We’re going to call this good business. No? Wait, hear me out, give it a chance. It’s really quite brilliant. There are so many of you, and despite vast expenditures to repress any reactions from you, I need other ways of keeping you at bay. So I simply solicite the general public to help me out! All they have to do is believe in this ideology of ownership and consumption, and they’ll look at you as thieves, beggars and general ignoramuses! Oh no, they won’t feel bad about it because it’s all in the name of patriotism and the American Dream! They’ll think you aren’t playing by the rules! They’ll think you’re lazy and mooching. The only thing we have to do, once this propoganda…oh yeah, sure, we’ll afford you the actual term for it here. It makes no difference to me at this point. Anyhow, once it’s disseminated, I just have to hide your back story, who you are! Or at least make them not care about those things. Of course you can understand we don’t want them seeing you as people. Don’t be silly, man! Or, okay, if you want them to see you as people you have to give me hatred, at least. If you want government relief because you can’t work, you have to let the people hate you and judge you as lazy for it. What? You think they’ll respect you because you’re looking for work? What work? Their work? Like they’ll be okay with that. Cost benefit, man. You heard of it? More competition, lesser cost. I got the system workin’ for me. No, no…it can’t work for us both. Actually, you’re doin’ me a favor by being poor. Then I don’t have to be! Ha, you’re way in over your head. Hypocritical? If I didn’t manipulate Law, the natural order of things, twist the evolved rules of natural morality and write legislation to cater to my benefit, I’d be starving like you! I can’t work the land. I can’t take care of myself. This is eat or be eaten, man, and I’m gonna EAT! Just because you settle for simple, honest lives doesn’t mean I have to. And the law isn’t going to say I have to either! If you don’t like it, why don’t you find the power to change it! Oh, you think you have the power of God and Natural Law? You think you’ll be the ones to endure?
Separation, dismemberment. Not just from land, but from each other. And it can be attributed to greed, insecurity, overcompensation, but all these things are natural among those who are the smallest, the softest. What is unnatural are the laws of ownership in place to split the classes. Ownership in itself is not bad, we’ll say. After all, a tenth of it isn’t the problem. A man who lives on a piece of land can live a life of self-subsistence; feed his family and enjoy an honest days’ labor. If he is lazy and won’t grow any food, they won’t eat. The equation is quite simple because it’s natural. But the corporate laws of ownership are man made to serve a small group of people. The natural laws are manipulated. And they are enforced despite leaving land farrow, ruining food product to protect high prices, driving wages down to a point where a man can’t eat or feed his family. Yes, these are the natural rules of capitalism, which are at complete odds with the natural rule of morality. Please, don’t preach to me about the goodness and moral integrity of capitalism. The roots of selfishness can’t grow selflessness.
We’ve built a social order that defines a good citizen as one who conforms to an arrangement of man-made, power-serving, greed-encouraging laws and rules. A man can’t live by the fruit of his own labor if there’s nowhere to labor, having it all owned and restricted. And a homeless man can’t sleep in a place fit for a man to sleep because laws funnel him into costly hotels and inns, which make money because these laws prevent men from sleeping out under the stars. Does it make sense to define a good citizen by shifty standards and transient laws? Isn’t it better to be a good citizen of humanity as described by natural order and consistent morality?
Put me in a roadside camp. With good people who don’t own anything but a tent, clothes on their back and some pots and pans; who live by a Rule of Law that needs no enforcing. Partner me up with the harmonica blower and I’ll sling my guitar. Let me take care of my own and give me the right to leave others the same freedom. That’s all I ask.
‘Then it don’ matter. Then I’ll be all aroun’ in the dark. I’ll be ever’where – wherever you look. Wherever they’s a fight so hungry people can eat, I’ll be there. If Casy knowed, why, I’ll be 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’
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