Saturday, November 20, 2010

"The Grapes of Wrath" Seventy Years Later

One of the best films of 1940 was The Grapes of Wrath, based on John Steinbeck’s novel by the same name. The book was published in 1939, and because of it Steinbeck (1902-68) was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for the Novel in 1940.

June and I recently watched The Grapes of Wrath again, and we were deeply moved by it as we were years ago when we first saw it. It is a great movie in many ways, as attested by the fact that is was nominated for seven Oscars, and at the 13th Academy Awards in February 1941 it won two. (The Oscar for best film was given that year to Alfred Hitchcock’s Rebecca rather than to The Grapes of Wrath.)

As most of you know, The Grapes of Wrath depicts the terrible conditions of the “Okies” who left the “Dust Bowl” in Oklahoma during the mid-1930s and sought better things in California. While writing the book, John Steinbeck visited Bakersfield, California, and based part of his book on Arvin Federal Government Camp which he portrayed as “Weedpatch Camp.” (Here is a link to an interesting website about that camp.)

Many critics of the Obama administration are saying that health care reform should not have been undertaken in the midst of the “Great Recession.” But consider this fact: Social Security was enacted by the U.S. Congress in 1935 when the unemployment rate was more than twice what it has been this year. The unemployment rate was a staggering 24.9% in 1933, 21.7% in 1934, and still at 20.1% in 1935.

In addition to seeking to create more jobs, the Roosevelt administration realized how important it was right away to help people in need. Social security soon provided much needed assistance for many people, and has continued to do so through all the years since.

And now millions of people need health care insurance as well as jobs, although the latter will be the major push of the new U.S. Republican Congresspersons. The number of people without health care benefits, however, has risen alarmingly in just the past year. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the number of uninsured rose by 4,334,000 since 2008 and in 2009 stood at more than 50,670,000, or one out of every six persons in the country!

The Associated Farmers of California were highly displeased with how The Grapes of Wrath depicted the California farmer’s attitudes and conduct toward the migrants. They denounced the book as a “pack of lies” and labeled it “communist propaganda.” Similarly, President Roosevelt was also often called a communist or a socialist. And now we are seeing that same phenomena again: President Obama is often called a socialist by his detractors and even a communist by some, most notably by Alan Keyes.

If you haven’t (recently) read Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath or seen John Ford’s film version of the novel, it would well be worth your time to read the book or at least to watch the movie, even though it was made seventy years ago. The situation today may not be as dire as it was then, but there are still a lot of suffering people who badly need help. And that needed help is more than families, churches, or even local communities are able to give.


  1. "Many critics of the Obama administration are saying that health care reform should not have been undertaken in the midst of the “Great Recession.”

    Oh! friend LeRoy, Way more critics of the "METHOD" of BO's Corrupted Administrations
    way of passing, (I should say cramming Health Care reform of BO's corrted ways)
    The matter of Health Care Reform (done correctly), would not have been as Criticized,
    BECAUSE, most people know it has to be done,
    But not by "Gangster style" Politics. BO can't help that I guess because that is all He Knows
    Do You buy that passing and then read, ANY
    C'mon lets keep some things a little Straight !!

  2. Thanks for your good post. Another book I would recommend is Thomas Frank’s _What's the Matter with Kansas?_ (2006), about the recent "backlash" movement to dismantle much of Roosevelt's New Deal.

    Here is a quote from it:

    "The movement's basic premise is that culture outweighs economics as a matter of public concern--that 'Values Matter Most,' as one backlash title has it. On those grounds it rallies citizens who would once have been reliable partisans of the New Deal to the standard of conservatism. Old fashioned values may count when conservatives appear on the stump, but once conservatives are in office the only old -fashioned situation they care to revive is an economic regimen of low wages and lax regulations. Over the last three decades they have smashed the welfare state, reduced the tax burden on corporations and the wealthy, and generally facilitated the country's return to a nineteenth-century pattern of wealth distribution. Thus the primary contradiction of the backlash: it is a working-class movement that has done incalculable, historic harm to working-class people. The leaders of the backlash may talk Christ, but they walk corporate . . . . Here is a movement whose response to the power structure is to make the rich even richer; whose answer to the inexorable degradation of working-class life is to lash out angrily at labor unions and liberal workplace-safety programs; whose solution to the rise of ignorance in America is to pull the rug out from under public education . . . . Like a French Revolution in reverse--one in which the sans-culottes pour down the streets demanding more power for the aristocracy--the backlash pushes the spectrum of the acceptable to the right, to the right, farther to the right" (6-8).

  3. When I read the book, I was reminded of my maternal grandmother who is still living. She grew up as a migrant farm worker, traveling the routes with her family while working at a young age.

    Having said this, the health-care issue is not just about adults, but also about those young children that are (were) affected by the system that is in place. I know my grandma has her stories of which I have heard some of...I just hope that children in this day don't share many of hers.

  4. One of my local Thinking Friends wrote (by e-mail), "Read your blog. I love Steinbeck. One question, able or willing?"

    Here is part of the response I sent him: "You raised an important issue, and I certainly think families, churches, and local communities are generally able to do far more than they are willing to do. For a town like Liberty, the needs of the poor could possibly be taken care if there was adequate willingness. But it you consider the local community of downtown Kansas City, say, or the underside of any major city, I think the problems and the needs go beyond the capacity of families, churches, and the local community. That is where the greater participation of the state or national government is needed for the 'general welfare.'"