Of Land and Men Over 100 years ago, a large number of homesteaders settled in a area which wouldcome to be known as The Dust Bowl. Spreading from New Mexico and Colorado throughOklahoma and Kansas, hardy grasses and fine-grained soil provided an incentive for thesesettlers to pursue a future in farming. And so they did. Over the years they cultivated the landby planting wheat and raising cattle; over the years the overworked land became more andmore vulnerable to erosion. While the squatters reaped the rewards of their toil, a time bombwas ticking . . . Disaster was about to strike. Then, beginning in the early 1930s, the region suffered a period of severe droughts,and the soil began to blow away. The organic matter, clay, and silt in the soil were carriedgreat distances by the winds, in some cases darkening the sky as far as the Atlantic coast. Sandand other materials drifted against houses, fences, and barns. In many places 8 to 10 cm oftopsoil were blown away. Many thousands of families, their farms ruined, migrated westward;about a third of the remaining families had to accept government relief. The tenants had tostart anew; the land had erased acres of property and generations of ownership Once again, alarge number of homesteaders were forced to seek their future elsewhere. In his classic novel,The Grapes of Wrath, John Steinbeck addresses customs, anger, and familial relations toemphasize the strong bond between land and people. I. Customs Casting Off the Old Ways The Grapes of Wrath is the story of one Oklahoma farm family, the Joads, who arekicked off of their property and forced to journey westward to the promised land ofCalifornia. When the Joads change from farm people to road people, they have to cast off notonly many of their belongings, but their habits and customs as well. Nowadays, most people in the United States do not depend on land for their livelihood,and it is hard to understand just how strongly a dust-bowler of the 1930s could be bound tohis land. For the tenant farmers of the novel, however, to be torn away from their land isa shattering experience, akin to death itself. While everyone around them is packing up for a new life out west, Muley Graves andGrampa Joad refuse to accept any changes from their traditional way of life. The former, trueto his name, is determined to stay on the land to which his pa (had) come fifty years ago (64) Stubborn as a mule, he boasts that there ain t nobody [who] can run a guy named Gravesouta this country. (62) Justifying his decision to stay, Muley reasons that somebody needs tobe . . . lookin after things so when all the folks come back it ll be all right. (65) Graves isable to distinguish this wistful thinking from reality when he brings himself to admit that thefolks ain t never comin back, and that he is . . . jus wanderin aroun like a damn ol graveyard ghos . (65) For Muley, abandoning the land would force him to abandon hisfamily heritage, but by staying on it he lives in isolation from the family itself. Faced with achoice between the ones he loves and the land he lives on, Graves professes to rather walk thecountryside alone like an “ol’ graveyard ghos’” than join the throngs going west. Such is thenature of a man s relationship to the land, that he would rather die before resigning himself toa new life alienated from the customs and traditions of his home. As the head of the household, Grampa Joad s pride for his family is hardly concealed. Upon hearing that his grandson had been paroled from prison, he remarks (in typical MuleyGraves fashion) that “they ain’t a gonna keep no Joad in jail.” Muley inspires Grampa Joad’srebellion. Grampa claims that if Muley can stay behind and live off the land, so can he. Incontrast to Muley, however, he appears to have boundless enthusiasm for going west: “Jus’ letme get out to California where I can pick me an orange when I want it. Or grapes… I’m gonnasquash ‘em on my face an’ let ‘em run offen my chin,” he says on the day before the journeybegins. But the next morning he states, “I ain’t a-goin’.” He demands to be left behind in thecountry where he feels at home. Although he doesn’t say it in words, he is tied to the land ofhis fathers, and to be wrenched away would break him. It is a life or death situation, however,and the family is forced to take him anyway. They overpower him by spiking his coffee withmedicine. But Grampa never recovers from his stupor. He dies the next day and is buried in aroadside grave. After the makeshift funeral, Casy tells the others, “Grampa didn’ die tonight.He died the minute you took ‘im off the old place.” Grampa and the land were one and thesame. Because the Joads have been transformed from farmers to migrants, Grampa had to die.He had no place in a family that settled in a new land every night. II. Anger – The Grapes of Wrath Anger in many guises dominates the book. Why else call it The Grapes of Wrath? Ifwe compare Frankenstein to the Dust Bowl of the 1930s, then anger is Frankenstein smonster, Frankenstein s creation. The conditions of the time gave everybody a reason to hold
a grudge against something. Take, for example, the migrants. These people are furious at society, and with goodreason. While food is being buried and burned, hundreds of thousands of malnourished,underfed people roam the countryside. Now, here is the root of anger and shame: What does aman with a starving child do when food is deliberately destroyed before his eyes? What can hefeel but rage? History has confirmed that when a nation is on the losing side of a war, its people oftenturn against themselves; patriotism aside, their primary concern deals with creating ascapegoat for their troubles. The Joad s, saddled with poverty, hunger, and overpopulation are obviously on the losing side of a war, but the question is who they are fighting. Early on inthe novel, the tenant men stood up angrily against the tractor drivers who were threateningto destroy their homes. The tractor driver responded that he was only following orders fromthe bank. When the tenant resolved to fill up the magazine of the rifle and go into the bank, the driver responded that the bank gets their orders from the East: Maybe there s nobody toshoot . . . maybe, like you said, the property s doing it, he noted. With no target for angerother than the dormant land, hostility shifted to the inner circle of the Joad family. The degreeof this hostility becomes manifest when Ma Joad alarms the menfolk by stating flatly that she ain t gonna go unless the family sticks together. The only way to force her into going, shesays to Pa, would be a whipping, an abuse that no Joad could have dreamed of back on thefarm. Pa does not take her up on the offer, but it is hard to determine whether this is due tohis good-nature or fear of Ma s promise to slap you with a stick of stove wood and knockyou belly-up with a bucket. Is this the same woman who Steinbeck dubbed citadel of thefamily only a short while earlier? III. Love The Human Family Anger, while being a natural reaction to the injustices of the time, was hardly aproductive reaction. Anger murdered Jim Casy and his killer, too. Anger cast the one-eyedman into a state of self-pity, and it touched Muley Graves to the point of insanity. Whatkind of survival mechanism was this? Indeed what accounted for the Joads incredibleendurance capacity? What gave them the will power to persevere as they did? The answer is love. The improvement of human relations was the one and onlypositive influence that the Dust Bowl had on squatters and their families. The degree ofsuffering during this era was enormous. During the 1930s, aside from the natural disasters inthe midwest, the entire United States was going through an economic depression. He whosuffers alone, according to Steinbeck, is left to cry in bed . . . only strengthened (by) thewalls of his loneliness. Collective suffering, however, can actually strengthen the walls oftogetherness; bind the love of one man and his neighbor. In chapter 17, Steinbeck writes that twenty families became one family, drawn together by loneliness and confusion . . . . all wereheaded toward a place of hope. This, as we know, is entirely untrue. Togetherness,however, is known to plant the seeds of optimism. The story of the Joads provide a typicalexample. Wandering from place to place, searching for work, the Joad family no longer had anyland to support them. Desperate for a replacement of foundation, a reason for living Ma Joadis able to identify the most important thing left: What we got left in the worl ? Nothin butus. Nothin but the folks . . . . All we got is the family unbroke. Nor could they turn to religion, because even the former preacher, Jim Casy, had hisdoubts: Why do we got to hang it all on God or Jesus? Casy s solution bears a strikingresemblance to Ma s: Maybe it s all men an all women we love; maybe that s the HolySperit – the human sperit – the whole shebang. The tenants discover that people need to help each other every step of the way. Farfrom being a mere pleasantry, to them human kindness is necessary for survival. It is becauseof this that Muley feels compelled to share his rabbit with Tom and Casy: I ain t got nochoice in the matter, he mutters. Over the course of the novel, there are many more instances of people helping people. Without assistance from the Joads, the Wilson s would not have been able to go on. A bit laterin the novel the Wallaces invite Tom to work with them. By the end of the book Mrs.Wainwright aids Rose of Sharon in childbirth who subsequently offers her milk to a dyingman. Without this community, without this extended human family, none of the migrantscould have found the moral and/or physical sustenance needed to complete their journey toCalifornia. What would it be like to leave your home forever and be allowed to take with you onlyone full suitcase? What would you choose? What could you do without? To put things intoperspective, imagine yourself as a southern farmer in the early 1930s. You re family has livedoff of the farmland for over two generations. When the land goes bad, life goes bad, andwhen the land is good, life is good. In keeping with this theory, more than half of the mid-western tenants of the time were forced to leave their homes. Throughout the novel, JohnSteinbeck discusses change, anger, and love to illustrate the physical and emotional tiesbetween Midwestern farmers and their land.