For 7 days, from October 5th to 12th, 1936, a series of articles appeared in The San Francisco News, documenting the struggles of migrant workers in California’s Central Valley. The author, John Steinbeck, documented the oppression and hardship faced by those who he dubbed the harvest gypsies, “that shifting group of nomadic, poverty-stricken harvesters driven by hunger and the threat of hunger from crop to crop, from harvest to harvest.” Steinbeck’s aim was clearly stated: “Every effort I can bring to bear is and has been at the call of the common working people to the end that they may eat what they raise, use what they produce, and in every way and in completeness share in the works of their hands and their heads.”
3 years later, building on the research he conducted for The Harvest Gypsies, Steinbeck published his magnum opus, The Grapes of Wrath. In this novel, Steinbeck tells the story of a family of Oklahoma farmers who must leave their land and travel to California looking for work because of the effects of the dust bowl and the mechanisation of agriculture in the Great Plains. But The Grapes of Wrath is about so much more than the lives of a single family, more even than just the story of the great exodus of farmers from the mid-western United States and their oppression as agricultural labourers in California. Rather, The Grapes of Wrath tells a universal story about the simultaneous degradation of the land and the dispossession and dislocation of the people who live by the land, resulting from the rise of landowning monopolies and the predatory commercialisation of farming.
This story is most clearly elaborated in chapter 5, one of the exposition chapters, which does not follow the main storyline, but instead deals with the general situation and provides the background for the exodus of the Joad family from their Oklahoma farm. In this chapter, Steinbeck tells the story of tenant farmers being evicted from their land to make way for an increasingly mechanised system of agriculture. The story itself unfolds through a series of conversations, between the tenant farmers and the representatives of the owners, and also between a tenant farmer being cleared off his land and the man driving the tractor doing the clearing.
The chapter begins with evictions, with the owners, or more often their spokesmen, coming down to the land to tell the farmers to clear off. The land is getting poorer, having been robbed and bled dry by the repeated growing of cotton, and the companies that own the land are no longer receiving sufficient profit under the current arrangements. The tenants claim that if they are only allowed to rotate their crops they could pump the blood back into the land and restore it to health, but it is too late, the decision has already been made. “One man on a tractor can take the place of twelve or fourteen families,” and the company will have more profit this way. “But you’ll kill the land with cotton,” cry out the tenants. “We know,” reply the owners. “We’ve got to take cotton quick before the land dies. Then we’ll sell the land.”
“But it’s our land,” cry the tenants. “We measured it and broke it up. We were born on it, and we got killed on it, died on it. Even if it’s no good, it’s still ours.” At this, the owners apologise, but insist that their hands are tied. For the owners are all “caught in something larger than themselves”, and they speak of how “the Bank—or the Company—needs—wants— insists—must have—as though the Bank or the Company were a monster, with thought and feeling, which had ensnared them.” And “the owner men explained the workings and the thinkings of the monster that was stronger than they were.” They insist that “those creatures don’t breathe air, don’t eat side-meat. They breathe profits; they eat the interest on money. If they don’t get it, they die the way you die without air, without sidemeat.” For “the bank—the monster has to have profits all the time. It can’t wait. It’ll die … When the monster stops growing, it dies.”
Of course, the tenants are not buying this. After all, “the bank is only made of men”, and men can decide not to do something if it is not right. But the owners insist that in fact the tenants are wrong, for “the bank is something else than men. It happens that every man in a bank hates what the bank does, and yet the bank does it. The bank is something more than men, I tell you. It’s the monster. Men made it, but they can’t control it.” Rather, the monster is the one with all the power, because “the monster isn’t men, but it can make men do what it wants,” and therefore the degradation of the land and the dislocation of the people will continue, irrespective of the wishes of those involved.
And then, all of a sudden, the scene changes, leaving the tenants bewildered and perplexed, trying to figure out where they will go and what they will do now that they are being evicted from the only land their families have ever known. Now, after a descriptive break, a tenant farmer confronts the driver of a tractor, a young lad from his community, and asks him how he could do this to his own people. The tractor driver replies that with the pay he is receiving he can feed his family and to him that’s all that matters, the fifteen or twenty families that can’t eat because of his work are none of his concern. The driver then warns the farmer that he needs to get out of his house soon, for he will be driving through the doorway with his tractor after dinner.
The exchange here between the driver and the farmer is particularly illuminating. The farmer begins by threatening to shoot the driver if he comes too close to his house. To which the driver replies:
“It’s not me. There’s nothing I can do. I’ll lose my job if I don’t do it. And look—suppose you kill me? They’ll just hang you, but long before you’re hung there’ll be another guy on the tractor, and he’ll bump the house down. You’re not killing the right guy.”
“That’s so,” the tenant said. “Who gave you orders? I’ll go after him. He’s the one to kill.”
“You’re wrong. He got his orders from the bank. The bank told him, ‘Clear those people out or it’s your job.”’
“Well, there’s a president of the bank. There’s a board of directors. I’ll fill up the magazine of the rifle and go into the bank.”
The driver said, “Fellow was telling me the bank gets orders from the East. The orders were, ‘Make the land show profit or we’ll close you up.”’
“But where does it stop? Who can we shoot? I don’t aim to starve to death before I kill the man that’s starving me.”
“I don’t know. Maybe there’s nobody to shoot. Maybe the thing isn’t men at all. Maybe, like you said, the property’s doing it. Anyway I told you my orders.”
“I got to figure,” the tenant said. “We all got to figure. There’s some way to stop this. It’s not like lightning or earthquakes. We’ve got a bad thing made by men, and by God that’s something we can change.”
In this exchange we can clearly see not only the lack of agency on the part of everyone involved. The tractor driver surely does not want to destroy his own community, but, since he has no land of his own and no way to feed himself and his family without work, he must do whatever it takes to remain in work and to get paid. The farmer, meanwhile, cannot simply defend his land by shooting whoever comes to take it away, for it is not people, but rather a system that controls people, that is coming to take his land away, and there is no-one he can shoot to make the evictions stop. In fact, both men are entirely powerless. One is the slave of the system of monopoly and money-making, acting on its behalf to dispossess the other of his independence and his freedom, that the other man will presently be a slave of the same system. And, of course, neither man is in control of his fate.
In fact, in this scenario no one is in control of their fate, even the owners and the bosses, who are themselves only doing as their position dictates. This point is clearly stated by Steinbeck:
The tenant pondered. “Funny thing how it is. If a man owns a little property, that property is him, it’s part of him, and it’s like him. If he owns property only so he can walk on it and handle it and be sad when it isn’t doing well, and feel fine when the rain falls on it, that property is him, and some way he’s bigger because he owns it. Even if he isn’t successful he’s big with his property. That is so.”
And the tenant pondered more. “But let a man get property he doesn’t see, or can’t take time to get his fingers in, or can’t be there to walk on it—why, then the property is the man. He can’t do what he wants, he can’t think what he wants. The property is the man, stronger than he is. And he is small, not big. Only his possessions are big—and he’s the servant of his property. That is so, too.”
Here, the power lies, not with any persons, but rather with the institutional imperatives of the company that owns the land, and of the wider system of which it is a part. This is the monster that Steinbeck repeatedly refers to, the systems that we have imagined, and we have created, but which have now come to tower over us and oppress us, to dictate our fates and control our lives. The exchange ends with the hint and hope that it might be possible for the characters, and therefore also ourselves, to reclaim their lost agency. But this sense of hope is drowned in the bewilderment and disorientation that plagues them, as they face up to a faceless monster that has ensnared their lives, but which they can neither see nor understand.
In the meantime, in between the two conversations, the narrative zooms out and the tractors come into focus, driving straight lines through the fields, ignoring the unique features of the landscape and trampling down everything in their path. They smash down houses and destroy waterways, erasing the differences between the fields, flattening and homogenising the landscape, while exterminating everything that lives there. And here, Steinbeck makes a crucial observation, that the degradation and destruction of the land follows on the heels of our disconnection from the land. And, moreover, our disconnection from the land is inscribed in our alienation and in our subservience to the power of the institutions that we have created, but which we now feel like we have lost control of:
The man sitting in the iron seat did not look like a man; gloved, goggled, rubber dust mask over nose and mouth, he was a part of the monster, a robot in the seat. The thunder of the cylinders sounded through the country, became one with the air and the earth, so that earth and air muttered in sympathetic vibration. The driver could not control it—straight across country it went, cutting through a dozen farms and straight back. A twitch at the controls could swerve the cat’, but the driver’s hands could not twitch because the monster that built the tractor, the monster that sent the tractor out, had somehow got into the driver’s hands, into his brain and muscle, had goggled him and muzzled him—goggled his mind, muzzled his speech, goggled his perception, muzzled his protest. He could not see the land as it was, he could not smell the land as it smelled; his feet did not stamp the clods or feel the warmth and power of the earth. He sat in an iron seat and stepped on iron pedals. He could not cheer or beat or curse or encourage the extension of his power, and because of this he could not cheer or whip or curse or encourage himself. He did not know or own or trust or beseech the land. If a seed dropped did not germinate, it was nothing. If the young thrusting plant withered in drought or drowned in a flood of rain, it was no more to the driver than to the tractor.
He loved the land no more than the bank loved the land. He could admire the tractor—its machined surfaces, its surge of power, the roar of its detonating cylinders; but it was not his tractor. Behind the tractor rolled the shining disks, cutting the earth with blades—not plowing but surgery, pushing the cut earth to the right where the second row of disks cut it and pushed it to the left; slicing blades shining, polished by the cut earth. And pulled behind the disks, the harrows combing with iron teeth so that the little clods broke up and the earth lay smooth. Behind the harrows, the long seeders—twelve curved iron penes erected in the foundry, orgasms set by gears, raping methodically, raping without passion. The driver sat in his iron seat and he was proud of the straight lines he did not will, proud of the tractor he did not own or love, proud of the power he could not control. And when that crop grew, and was harvested, no man had crumbled a hot clod in his fingers and let the earth sift past his fingertips. No man had touched the seed, or lusted for the growth. Men ate what they had not raised, had no connection with the bread. The land bore under iron, and under iron gradually died; for it was not loved or hated, it had no prayers or curses.
Here, in perfect prose, is the great story repeated through history. The rising up of great powers, growing out of the fertility of the land, coming to tower over the land and eventually to destroy it, then crumbling down to nothing, without a foundation to support them. For the institutions of great power that inhabit our minds and control our bodies are not part of the land, they do not love the land and they do not engage in a reciprocal relationship with it. Instead, they plunder it relentlessly in search of endless growth, expansion and domination. But we are still part of the land. And what we do to the land we do also to ourselves. The desolate land and the destitute labourer are therefore two sides of the same coin, just as our disconnection from the land relates to our estrangement from each other. And as the land gradually dies under iron, so too do we.