The Grapes of Wrath

The Grapes of Wrath, by John Steinbeck

For Karen's Back to the Classics Challenge, I needed a classic set in a place where I have lived, and the solution was obvious: The Grapes of Wrath.  Cleo wanted to do a readalong in December, which suited me just fine, and so three people set out to read it together.  It's possible the timing was less than ideal, as this is the least wintery or Christmassy book I have ever read in any December ever.  It's an August book for sure.

What connection do I have to the locations in this novel?  The Joads set out from Oklahoma and take Route 66, with their destination being Bakersfield, California.  It's the only time I've ever seen anybody describe the land around Bakersfield in glowing terms.  I was born in Bakersfield, and so was my dad; his parents were not Okies, but they were pretty much part of the same migration west around that time.  (I did have a great-aunt who was an Okie; she said when she was little there were 14 children in their one-room schoolhouse, and only one of them wasn't her cousin.)  We moved away when I was in 6th grade, and went back to visit often.  The bitty places named in the novel -- Shafter, Weedpatch, Tehachapi -- are familiar names to me.  I can even tell you that Shafter became famous for its potato, the Shafter Long White.

So, it's the Dust Bowl in Oklahoma, and all the small farmers that claimed the land and have been living there for 2 or 3 generations...are now in debt to the banks.  They're growing cotton, a cash crop, and cotton takes a lot out of the soil, so every year it gets worse, and years of drought have made the land dry up and blow away.  The banks are forcing the tenant farmers out and bringing in mechanized, large-scale farming in hopes of getting something out of the land.  The Joads are part of this mass eviction, and everybody is heading to California in hopes of getting jobs picking crops.  Ma hopes for a little white house among the orange trees.

Half the book is the trip out to California, which is desperate.  If you look at a map, Route 66 is now Interstate 40, and it goes through a lot of hot and dry land.  It looks like an utterly miserable trip, and at the end of it is the Mojave Desert and a mountain range before you get to the promised land of...Bakersfield?  The Joads find themselves just one family in a crowd of thousands, all desperate for work, and the landowners pay almost nothing for wages when any work is to be had.  The family moves around, picking peaches and cotton, until...well, Nature itself rebels.

What's interesting to me is Steinbeck's attitude about the whole thing.  He's naturally angry about the farmers being kicked off the land.  What we now know, however, is that the Dust Bowl was caused by the farming methods themselves; that land was naturally drought-prone, but it was settled during some unusually wet years and nobody knew back then that farming it would also destroy it.  Cotton must have been a particularly bad crop to choose, in fact.  One tenant farmer says "if only we could rotate the crops..." and he's right; you have to replenish the land with clover or something.  But I think the tenant farmers were too poor to be able to do that -- in the eternal kick-in-the-pants of poverty, they can't afford the short-term loss that would give a long-term gain.  But I don't think Steinbeck (or anybody) knew back then that the whole enterprise was doomed.  Apparently different farming methods made a big difference; Oklahoma seems to do okay now, but I don't know anything about it.

Steinbeck waxes highly poetic in several places about the relationship between Man and the Land.  His idea is that tractor farming on the large scale is dead, while the small farmer who knows his soil has the one true way of farming.  And he's got this whole thing about vegetables not being as dignified as wheat.  Very poetic but maybe not entirely practical.

...the machine man, driving a dead tractor on land he does not know and love, understands only chemistry; and he is contemptuous of the land and of himself.  When the corrugated iron doors are shut, he goes home, and and his home is not the land.
A man may stand to use a scythe, a plow, a pitchfork; but he must crawl like a bug between the rows of lettuce, he must bend his back and pull his long bag between the cotton rows, he must go on his knees like a penitent across a cauliflower patch.
On the other hand, he's got a lot of good stuff to say about the anger of people who want to work, but who are not only unable to find work, but are harassed and cheated and beaten for not already having it. the eyes of the people there is the failure; and in the eyes of the hungry there is a growing wrath.  In the souls of the people the grapes of wrath are filling and growing heavy, growing heavy for the vintage.
It's pretty clear that he's figuring on some kind of riot or revolution.  Instead, the war came along and brought a lot of jobs and money with it.

When The Grapes of Wrath was published, it was not popular in Bakersfield.  My grandmother told me once that "they burned it in the streets," and that is true, but just the once for a photo op.  A couple farmers convinced a migrant worker, Clell Pruett, to burn a copy:

 You can read a nice short piece about the book's reception and outright banning in Kern County (for 18 months), plus the local librarian's fight against that ban, at this NPR story.

Here is some lovely Bakersfield scenery for you!
The Kern river and country near Bakersfield; be sure to imagine the 110 degree heat too.

The Joads pick cotton toward the end of the novel.  My elementary school was surrounded by cotton fields, and I used to pick it through the fence.  It's all housing now of course.

Oil is also a major industry.  My grandfather worked on oil derricks in the early 30s before he decided it was a good way to get mangled or killed and that electrical engineering would be a good idea.
The Fox theater opened in 1930, so the Joads might have seen it if they'd gone into town.  I was taken to movies there as a kid.


  1. Ugh, this story was such a drainer. I know the farmers hated it, and Hitler loved it. He used it as propaganda to encourage his military, saying that if Americans are as stupid as the Joads...Germany has nothing to worry about....(my interpretation). So sad.

    But GofW gets such notoriety in literary circles, everyone should read it and decide for themselves.

    BTW, I live in the Mojave Desert. : D And I have some friends moving to Bakersfield this year due to employment. (They're not happy about it.)

  2. It's been a long time since I read Grapes of Wrath, but I remember it being powerful...and I'm sure when I read it in highschool, I wasn't thinking about farming practices or the practicality of Steinbeck's farming preferences!

    Thanks for sharing the pictures of Bakersfield and the area, they're really neat to see. Especially since I've had a work project in Kern County recently, and the only pictures I've seen have been of a dusty project site - a world away from the fields the Joads would have worked in! (I'm an architect, we didn't have to visit, just do the drawings.)

  3. Ruth, I'd like to see Hitler's guys get the Joads' truck 2000 miles across several states! I know I couldn't do it. If you live in the Mojave, you must have felt that big ol' earthquake earlier this year!

    Amanda, yeah, I was about 20 last time I read it and I'm sure I didn't think about those things either, ha! Now I'm curious about where your project is...someplace out in the suburbs that didn't exist when I lived there, I'm sure. There are so many new neighborhoods.

  4. Jean, I think it's technically in Arvin, but I believe it's pretty much just off the interstate, part of a travel plaza/shopping development. Based on Google Maps, it looks like all new development.


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