What I am Learning, Even Today, from Steinbeck

The Grapes of Wrath. I remember (though indistinctly, as if through a heavy fog) reading Steinbeck’s classic novel depicting the struggles of Depression-era Dust Bowl migrations. What I remember clearly about the story, though, is the intensity of Jim Casy’s and Tom Joad’s efforts to overcome the overwhelming avarice of the haves versus the have-nots. The theme of the struggle for “the greater good” permeates the story.

Now that I’m thinking of the book, I’ll have to find it and read it again; surely I must have a copy here at home, right? I would not have discarded it or sold it, would I? I hope not.

But back to this morning’s contemplation. Steinbeck’s novel is on my mind this morning because the struggles of the Joad family, and their compatriots, fighting for justice and survival, suggest another struggle, a struggle we may soon face. The particulars of the struggles are different, but the underlying theme of Steinbeck’s novel foreshadows an emerging theme today.

I think the safety and contentment and comfortable predictability of our lives already has begun to unravel. Whether that untangling is simply a short-lived inconvenience or a long-lasting and massively catastrophic upheaval remains to be seen. If the latter, I think the clear divide between today’s haves and have-nots has the potential of evolving into an undeclared war that could dwarf the class struggle depicted in The Grapes of Wrath.  The degree to which minor incidents of social unrest might blossom into unrelenting demands for the wealthiest of the wealthy to return their stolen largess to the commoners will depend on how much pain is inflicted on the common citizens and their tolerance and endurance.

If The Pestilence, AKA COVID-19, disrupts food supplies and/or leads to massive unemployment or under-employment, the pain inflicted will eventually become unbearable. People who today are conservative and self-interested may transform under the weight of those conditions to furiously demanding soldiers in the war for social justice. Or maybe not.

Perhaps, even if The Pestilence were to lead to apocalyptic societal disintegration, the common citizenry will have been so thoroughly trained to respond to orders that they will silently and obediently become willing slaves to the plutocracy.

I do not know why my attitude these past few days has vacillated so wildly between hopefulness and despondency. Yesterday, I felt certain we had the wherewithal to combine our efforts and defeat the scourge that’s confronting us. Today, I’m not sure we even recognize we have permitted economic disparity to rob us of our ability to think for ourselves and clearly understand what is happening and may happen.

Is it wishful thinking to envision a struggle like the one that took fictional root in The Grapes of Wrath might actually take hold today? If I remember correctly, the book ended in grief, but with a ray of hope even in despair. What am I doing, comparing a fictional response in a fictional environment to an unpredictable outcome in the real world? In spite of the obvious disparities between 80-year-old fiction and current reality, there may be lessons to be learned from re-reading an old book. Or perhaps I am engaging in lunacy, comparing apples to alligators.

It just occurred to me that I know very little about John Steinbeck, other than the fact he is among my favorite authors. There must be a well-researched and well-written biography of Steinbeck. I’ll have to try to find it and read it.

I remember, again very vaguely, reading Tortilla Flat when I was just a sixth-grader. I distinctly remember sharing a quote from the book with a school-mate during class one day, saying, “Sicilian bastards! Scum from the prison island!” My teacher—I think her name was Mrs. Peterson—got very upset with me and took my copy of the book away. She told me I was not to read such books because they contained foul language. I told my mother than afternoon about the incident, though I may not have mentioned the passage I read aloud. She instantly called my teacher and very firmly told her that she was to return my book to me and that she should never discourage me from reading any book because my mother encouraged me to read anything I wanted. I don’t recall anything else about the interaction or its aftermath. But I remember that incident as well as I remember anything from my childhood.

At some point today, I will do what is necessary to completely clear my mind. I’ll then see what thoughts and ideas return to fill that tiny little space.

About John Swinburn

"Love not what you are but what you may become."― Miguel de Cervantes
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2 Responses to What I am Learning, Even Today, from Steinbeck

  1. Hmmm. I’m afraid I’ve read very little by Camus; next to nothing. I’ve read about him, but only fragments of his writing. Are you suggesting a compare/contrast to The Grapes of Wrath or to the issues I’m grappling with? Or to what I call The Pestilence? Thanks for the comment and suggestion!

  2. Pat Newcomb says:

    Perhaps a compare/contrast to Albert Camus’s The Plague would be of value.

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