Steinbeck and the Refugee Crisis

“No home no job no peace no rest”
— Bruce Springsteen, “The Ghost of Tom Joad”

As a British immigrant to the US, one key difference I notice between me and most Americans is that I did not read The Grapes of Wrath in high school. Actually, an informal survey reveals that some acquaintances settled for the Cliff Notes or the movie of John Steinbeck’s epic tale of Oklahoma farm families fleeing the Dust Bowl in the late 1930s for the false promise of work and plenty in California — rather than the 600-page text.

Having read it, I’m wondering why The Grapes of Wrath is probably the best-known novel of working-class life in the US, featuring on most top 100 lists of great American literature and earning Steinbeck a Pulitzer and eventually a Nobel Prize. What does it say about poverty, dispossession, migration, and survival in capitalism’s global hub that made it required reading for the nation’s youth?

A 1940 reviewer offers what has become the standard schoolroom answer: “It is the saga of an authentic U.S. farming family who lose their land. They wander, they suffer, but they endure. They are never quite defeated, and their survival is itself a triumph.” This is uplifting – and it has a basis in Ma Joad’s famous claim that “We ain’t gonna die out. People is goin’ on” – but it is less than half the story. And its implication that this is a uniquely American drama is at best anachronistic and at worst nativist: are the Joads “authentic” because they are white?

Since the novel is still on the curriculum, what are its assumed lessons for today? Might it speak to the global refugee crisis now unfolding, when masses of poor and working-class people are on the move, fleeing violence, famine, and environmental degradation in their homelands. Most of the migrants in the news are from war-torn Syria and North Africa. In the future most will be climate refugees (as many as 200 million by 2050, in some estimates) driven out by desertification, sea level rise, and “extreme weather events” like floods and typhoons — or the drought and dust storms that displaced the Okies.

In Reading the Grapes of Wrath (2014) Susan Shillinglaw draws the connection: “the Syrian picture seems not unlike the story of 1930s croppers in Dust Bowl Oklahoma at the mercy of California agribusiness.” Citing Thomas Friedman’s “Without Water, Revolution,” she notes the combination of anti-small-farmer politics and severe long-term drought as elements in the “lethal ecological mix” fueling that regional war.   The livelihoods of 800,000 farmers and herders were wiped out and the countryside evacuated. Assad’s tyranny and US military support for regime change have only made matters more desperate.

Europe is the current front-line of the escalating clash between relatively prosperous nations and those seeking refuge. On August 27 2015 — just one day in what has been a deadly summer for migrants worldwide — 71 people, mostly Syrians, including a family with four children, were found decomposing in a refrigerator truck abandoned by a highway in Austria. Another 200 refugees — from Bangladesh, Pakistan, Morocco, and sub-Saharan Africa, as well as Syria — drowned off a capsized fishing boat near the coast of Libya. The Mediterranean has claimed at least 2500 migrants’ lives so far this year.

A year ago, the US was the headline-grabbing locus of the refugee crisis, with 68,000 children, mostly from Honduras, Guatemala, El Salvador and Mexico, detained entering the US without their parents and without immigration papers. Donald Trump promises to build a steel fence along the 2000 miles of the US-Mexico border and deport 11 million undocumented immigrants now living in the US. Not to be outdone in nativist fantasy, rival candidate Scott Walker also calls for a wall between the US and Canada. These proposals are popular with self-described “white nationalist” voters, suggesting that, as Trump’s advisor Roger Stone likes to say, “Hate is a stronger motivator than love.”

Steinbeck thought otherwise. Preacher Casy, a lead character in Grapes, “love[s] people so much, I’m fit to bust.” The novelist invited readers along on the Joads’ exodus in part so that we too could come to love them, their human peculiarities, their togetherness, their will to survive. And this is the appeal typically celebrated in the novel, from the earliest reviews to the most recent commentary. As Shillinglaw puts it, this is “not a novel of social reform” but “a message to the human heart,” provoking “empathy for working people.” But is this all the novel offers, and is it enough?

Steinbeck had more in mind, as he later wrote: “these migrant people with their clear thrust are destined to be a large determining factor in the imminent social change. And I love them for it.”   Surely the “clear thrust” Steinbeck admired in his characters includes the “wrath” of his title: “In the souls of the people the grapes of wrath are filling and growing heavy.” This anger is directed at the people and the power structures responsible for the economic catastrophe which combined with “extreme weather” to make them refugees and keep them impoverished.

The Grapes of Wrath is profoundly critical book. It blasts the interlocking systems of land ownership, finance capital, and political cronyism that dispossess the farmers. It shames the isolating self-interest of the owners and bankers (“For the quality of owning freezes you forever into ‘I’, and cuts you off forever from the ‘we’”) and the violence of their associations. And it demonstrates the consequences in pillaged farmland, decimated families, stillborn babies, and starving parents.

Equally clear in the narrative is the migrants’ “thrust” to do more than survive: the determination to push back against those systems and push forward into making a life of dignity in a place of their choosing. This is the essence of Tom Joad’s parting pledge to Ma as he goes on the lam near the novel’s end. If, as Casy told him, “a fella ain’t got a soul of his own, but only a piece of a big one,” then dead or alive, Tom says “I’ll be everywhere – wherever you look. Whenever they’s a fight so hungry people can eat, I’ll be there. Whenever they’s a cop beatin’ up a guy, I’ll be there. . . An’ when our folks eat the stuff they raise and live in the houses they build – why, I’ll be there.”

Tom speaks versions of these words – with their obvious resonance for our era of extreme inequality and police killings — in the coda of John Ford’s 1940 movie of the novel, and in the final stanzas of Woody Guthrie’s “Ballad of Tom Joad” and Bruce Springsteen’s “The Ghost of Tom Joad.” Perhaps the enduring thrust of the story is the call to “be there,” to supply the missing response to the “imminent social change.”

We see one answer today in the groundswell of support by ordinary people across Europe for welcoming and hosting the migrants, while their governments discuss quotas and border enforcement, and some build razor-wire fences.  In this crisis, food, shelter, safety, and a human greeting are great gifts, as were the resettlement camps that welcomed a lucky few Okies in 1930s California. But Steinbeck’s novel also provokes other responses: a clear understanding of the forces driving out the refugees, as well as a vivid grasp of the meanings of home and homeland — and the trauma of being uprooted from them.

Nick Coles

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9 Responses to Steinbeck and the Refugee Crisis

  1. Virtualelliot says:

    The many references to the violence of police and local citizens throughout the novel also call attention to police violence against black communities. While the novel seems to focus on white migrants only, parallels with today’s alarming police tactics across the USA are clear to me.


  2. Jack Labusch says:

    Nick, thanks. Paul Wood, an English ex-pat now living in Romania, says a well-off Syrian refugee told him the panicky migration was caused by enterprising people-smugglers suddenly dropping their prices for transport from US$10,000 to US$2,000 a head. Journalists need to ask what’s really going on, and how that will affect government policies in Europe and America.


    • peacenick11 says:

      Right, Jack. A big difference between the Joads and many of the refugees is that the Joads are abject from the start, dirt poor. I’m sure the poorest are left behind in Syria and Iraq, lacking airfare to Turkey or the price for people smugglers. The migrants coming out of Libya, from sub-Saharan Africa, though, they’re paying kidnappers, then smugglers who leave them out to die in open fighting boats. The NYT Sunday Magazine had a photo-story on this Sept 6.


  3. peacenick11 says:

    Thanks for the comments! The response of people in Europe has been amazing. When the govt of Iceland, for instance, agreed to take 50 Syrian refugees, 10,000 Icelanders offered through a Facebook campaign to open their homes (this in a country of 350,000). Britain (my homeland) under David Cameron’s Conservative leadership has legally welcomed precisely 227 — he has now been shamed by mass street demonstrations and people offering housing, into taking 1000s more; Germany has registered about 45,000 already, and Sweden has offered permanent residence to Syrians feeling the war since 2013. According to today’s Guardian, in the US presidential race only O’Malley and Kasic would accept more refugees. Clinton and Sanders had no response. But Chafee got it right when he pointed out that, the US “unfortunately bears a great deal of responsibility for the refugee crisis because of our invasion of Iraq and the spread of chaos in the region as a result”.


  4. steeltownusa says:

    This is a great Working-Class Studies blog that weaves literature, history, and the present together in a thoughtful and coherent manner.


  5. pjwmia says:

    I do not know if Steinbeck is still required reading in schools in the U.S. If not it should be. Apparently the people in Europe understand the Joads without knowing them. Their actions in the past couple of days is who we all should hope to be and I believe we once were in this country. When any of us endorse and support the position on immigration and refugees such as those espoused by Mr. Trump or Mr. Walker, it diminishes us all. We need to re-read the Grapes of Wrath. Perhaps we them can begin to reclaim the moral beacon we need to be. Thank you for reminding us.


  6. Larry Smith says:

    Always glad to see literature integrated into the culture history. I want to advise that Bottom Dog Press and its Working Lives Series is releasing a new book: VOICES FROM THE APPALACHIAN COALFIELDS by Mike and Ruth Yarrow with photographs by Doug Yarrow. The book is a compilation of 100 interviews with coal miners and families from 1977-1978 with the results arranged as poems but true to the words and voices. Doug’s photos document the times including the strikes around that period. It is such a working-class book, it deserves recognition and close reading. It will be released Sept. 16th…


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