Replace farmers from Oklahoma with migrant workers from Mexico and I doubt you’d be able to tell that this novel was written back in 1939. And that’s what really stuck me about this novel – how relevant it still is – in some ways even more now than then.
The first similarity is economic. As I write this we are still either going through a ‘great recession’ or are slowly emerging from an economic downturn. The causes are different, of course, here in the novel it was bad farming techniques mixed with new technology that drove the farmers from their land. Today it’s an over-saturated housing market – people banking all their futures on the bubble of hope that perhaps the value of their own home will increase enough for them to make a tidy profit. And just like land that’s been worked too hard, people worked the housing market too hard and it collapsed. Banks came to take the farms in the novel and banks came to take the homes in our own time.
And both examples were of people running as fast as they could just to stay a little ahead of disaster. The farmers grew crops that destroyed the soil because they had no choice – they couldn’t compete with the new farms, the corporate farms and machine efficiency. A family can’t compete with a fleet of harvesters and tractors – working the land by hand can’t keep up with a tractor. And the same goes for the people with houses these days. Everybody borrowed on cheap credit from the bank to hopefully ‘buy low’ and then ‘sell high’, but when everyone does it then there isn’t no value in any of it and it all falls apart and everyone still owes the banks. And all they wanted was a piece of a dream, a chance to stay afloat economically, to send their kids to a good college, to make the car payments, put food on the table.
In the novel the Californian’s hated the Oakies, called them lazy, called them animals, called them thieves; in today’s world we call the homeowners who lost it all idiots, greedy, lazy. But we also hate the banks. Call the banks greedy, inhumane, a great machine that’s too big to die and too big to fail and everybody has to keep feeding it because nobody is really too sure how to control it anymore.
But there is one difference, and that’s the work. When the people lost the value on their homes, when the banks realized that the amount of money in the economy was based on a weak speculation and that there was actually a lot less money than there really was, when that caused credit to dry up, and when that caused smaller businesses to close up because they couldn’t run the businesses with no credit, which in turn caused people to lose their jobs, and that caused the economy to drag down deeper and created a vicious cycle that made it worse and worse – after all that, the people had nowhere to go because all the ‘poor jobs’, the type of work Steinbeck writes about in the novel had all been taken by the immigrants.
And that cussed more issues. The poor American middle-class blamed the Mexican’s and now militia patrol the borders to kick the Mexican’s out or do worse things in the desert at night when nobody is looking. A man like Casey in the novel is no different than a immigrant getting killed by some militia border patrol.
And that causes resentment on all sides and the center can’t hold.
And that’s just the economic similarity between the novel and today’s times. Politically it’s the same too. A conservative will say the poor just gotta work, but the conservative will also be on the side of the businessman and when everyone needs work, the businessman can keep wages down and in turn keep the poor really poor. But that’s supposed to be ok because the conservative will say the poor can take help from a charity or a church – but that’s easy to tell someone else when it’s not you having to beg and take charity, easy to tell another man to beg. But the conservative man is holding on by a thread as thin as can be too and he’s causing his own demise because soon the corporation will put him out of work too, his job will be lost and he’ll have to go begging and he won’t be so mean and conservative anymore. He’ll see the value of sticking by your fellow man instead of blaming him for his troubles.
And that’s what the book is about – about family, about sticking together, about helping, about not letting the fruit on the vine rot when others go in need. And that’s why it’s an even more radical novel today than when it was written because it ‘smells’ of Communism or of Socialism. And the conservative man doesn’t want to hear about that, he doesn’t want a union because union men are lazy and he doesn’t want socialism because the government will tell him what to do and he doesn’t want communism because he can take care of his own family.
That is until he can’t, then he’ll be singing a different tune or he’ll be turning on his own people like some of the people in the novel who turned against their own just to put food on the table; the great selfishness.
That’s the saddest thing about the book – how spot on Steinbeck was about human nature. And for as beautiful as the novel is, as well written as it is, nothing can compare to how true it is. And maybe that’s the thing that makes people still so angry about it – that it reveals a truth we don’t want to accept about ourselves, that deep down we know that they way we live, that the American dream is not working, that it never really worked and that we either side with the people who will toss us on the heap of irrelevance or we fight the powers that be. And maybe if we worried a little more about if their neighbor has enough in his bowl and a little less about if we have enough in our own then maybe things would be better.
The novel is a microcosm of American, then and now. And that’s quite an achievement because how many novels ring this true 75 years after they were written? And the novel is a damning indictment too, and that’s why it still scares people.
And that ending. What an ending too. It’s both hopeful and sad. It’s religious and it turns religion on it’s head too. It’s bleak and yet it’s also comforting.
Now I didn’t realize it at first, but this is the third in a series of books I’ve been reading that deal explicitly with society – ‘The Seven Pillars of Wisdom’ talked about a people fighting for their independence in the deserts of Arabia, ‘100 Years of Solitude’ about a village coping with modernity, and now this novel about a country having to find a new direction. And they are also about the poor, about people who have been taken advantage of by a government or an economy and have been cast aside. And that’s been a struggle since man understood ownership and it will continue to be a struggle as long as some men side with the very forces that could steamroll everyone in the end.
‘Don’t turn on your own kind’, Tom says. Well I hope Tom is still somewhere out there keeping an eye on everyone, helping where he can, beat up and bloody but still fighting. The world needs more Tom’s and more Ma’s. Someone’s gotta keep the family together.
Anyway, brilliant novel. Pure genius.