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Critical Essay by Nicholas Visser
SOURCE: "Audience and Closure in The Grapes of Wrath," in Studies in American Fiction, Vol. 22, No. 1, Spring, 1994, pp. 19-36.
In the following essay, Visser discusses the historical context of The Grapes of Wrath, Steinbeck's persuasive depiction of social injustice, and narrative strategies employed to present a politically radical message to a large public audience.
Although The Grapes of Wrath continues to be regarded as Steinbeck's major achievement, changing critical fashions have ensured that the novel's status remains uncertain. The novel's standing came under pressure as early as the decades immediately following its publication, as literary studies with the onset of the Cold War intensified a longstanding tendency in modern poetics to strip literary texts of social and political implications. It was not difficult to decontextualize most of the literature of earlier times, but because the thirties were part of living memory, and because so much of the decade's literature was politically left-wing, the need to depoliticize it was particularly urgent. Where critics could not manage that task, if only because social content was too firmly in the foreground to be obscured, they simply declared such literary works unworthy of serious attention. So strong were these pressures that one of the first critics to write a full-length study of Steinbeck, Harry T. Moore, later wrote an epilogue to the second edition of his book recanting his earlier approval. Why he would have bothered to publish a second edition is unclear.
Recent criticism has done little to reverse the situation. Poststructuralist critics generally ignore, when they do not derogate, writers who presume to represent actual material conditions and social processes; accordingly a writer like Steinbeck, particularly the Steinbeck of In Dubious Battle or The Grapes of Wrath, has little to offer them. Even recent Marxist criticism has largely ignored Steinbeck. Eager to demonstrate its intellectual respectability, which apparently requires that in order to distance itself sufficiently from the Stalinist penchant for socialist realism it repudiate representation altogether, recent Marxist criticism, particularly that current which has responded to the powerful gravitational tug of poststructuralist theory, has generally shunned politically explicit literature. What all this has meant is that The Grapes of Wrath has been either ignored or disparaged.
Since what follows seeks to examine the interplay of politics and form in the novel and as a consequence of that endeavor points to certain unresolved or incompletely resolved formal problems raised by The Grapes of Wrath, I am concerned that my comments will seem to grant attention to the novel at the cost of issuing in yet another negative assessment. There are problems in The Grapes of Wrath, even large problems, but no more so than in any number of more politically conservative novels of the same period that have enjoyed critical esteem. Furthermore, David Craig and Michael Egan are surely correct in their view that Steinbeck is "incomparable at presenting [working people's] way of life, with an attention to people's manual skills and their self expression which is signally missing from nearly all literature to date," and that the "bulk of [The Grapes of Wrath] is unrivaled in Western literature for describing, dramatizing, and explaining a large socio-historical process." These are hardly insignificant achievements.
A substantial part of the novel's achievement lies in the way Steinbeck both renders such processes and simultaneously shields the novel from the abstraction and generalization such a description would seem to entail. Even in the interchapters, much of the purpose of which is to generalize the particular experiences of the Joads, the emphasis is on rendering process rather than abstractly describing it. And for the Joad family, socio-historical process is not something consciously perceived as trends and circumstances prevailing in the society in which they live—the Depression, the dustbowl in the southwest of the United States and the mass migration to California, the increasingly rapid transformation of American farming into the highly mechanized, capital-intensive agribusiness of today, and the like. Rather, such broader processes are experienced as daily pressures in their lives. The farm which they once owned but on which they have been reduced to labor tenancy is lost through events and means that remain largely mysterious to them. They undertake their exodus to the false promised land of California through decisions both deliberately (and therefore apparently freely) taken by the family and utterly constrained by their material and social conditions. And when they arrive in California, the extreme exploitation to which they are subjected baffles them and destroys them as a family. Indeed, lacking analytical categories like "socio-historical process," the Joads and others in their situation feel an urgent need for some way of making these pressures more immediately present, more concrete and personal, so that they can attempt to gain some sort of purchase on them.
For all that it passionately castigates the social and political conditions under which the Joads live, there may be reasons for questioning just how politically radical The Grapes of Wrath ultimately is. At the same time, however, the generative context for the novel is the international left-wing political culture of the 1930s, and Steinbeck's novel takes its place among the radical novels produced by that culture. In rendering the efforts of the Joads to cope with the collapse of their world, The Grapes of Wrath brings to the surface two problems that arise repeatedly in politically radical novels. First is the obvious, but usually overlooked, question of how radical novels manage to gain access to an audience. What formal or discursive strategies do they adopt to that end? Second is the question of how radical novels conclude, especially when, as in The Grapes of Wrath, the "large socio-historical process" of which Craig and Egan speak had not ended when the novel was published.
The problem of audience for politically radical fiction was succinctly identified by Engels in his famous letter to Minna Kautsky written in November 1885. After indicating that he is "not at all an opponent of tendentious writing as such," Engels nevertheless urges Kautsky to avoid revealing an overtly political stance in her novels on the entirely practical grounds that "the novel primarily finds readers in bourgeois circles, circles not directly related to our own." Accordingly, Engels suggests something quite different from the notion that radical literature should be directly insurrectionary. We may infer from what Engels says that in his view it is not properly the function of the "socialist tendentious novel" to mobilize the oppressed, since for practical reasons such as the lack of disposable leisure time, of the privacy and quiet needed to spend long periods reading, and in some cases even of the requisite levels of literacy, the oppressed are not realistically available as an audience. Instead, the project of the radical writer should be to act on the audience that is available for novels; more specifically, Engels writes, to shatter "the optimism of the bourgeois world," thereby "causing doubt about the eternal validity of the existing order." The argument is persuasive, but there is one important consideration it does not address. Why, especially given the glut of novels which endorse bourgeois optimism, would bourgeois readers bother to read radical novels? How, then—to put the problem another way—does the radical novelist gain access to that actually available audience?
A good part of the answer to these questions lies in the contexts of a work's production and initial reception. In times of social and political crisis, for instance, the readership for politicized literature typically expands, if only for the duration of the crisis. At the same time, the awareness that authors gain of prevailing material and social forces and constraints can prompt them to develop formal strategies designed to win over readers, or at least to allay their suspicion and resistance. The strategies of The Grapes of Wrath derive from Steinbeck's understanding of what audience he was addressing and in what relation to it he wished to stand.
Much of the early debate over the novel hinged on the question of address, the opposing positions revealing how intimately address is understood to be bound up with the political position the novel stakes out. Peter Lisca examines expressions of the two standard views, one from an early attack entitled The Truth about John Steinbeck and the Migrants and one from an established critic, Stanley Edgar Hyman. The author of the first says that he "can think of no other novel which advances the idea of class war and promotes hatred of class against class … more than does The Grapes of Wrath." Hyman disagrees: "Actually … the central message of The Grapes of Wrath is an appeal to the owning class to behave, to become enlightened, rather than to the working class to change its own conditions." Warren French sides with Hyman, arguing that Steinbeck does not advocate revolution; rather "he speaks as an observer, warning what may happen—what it regrettably appears will happen." He goes on to suggest that any apparently revolutionary passages in the novel
are not rabble-rousing speeches inciting an outraged proletariat to rise against its oppressors; rather they are warnings to a comfortable and negligent propertied class to awaken it to what is happening around it. The Grapes of Wrath in its treatment of contemporary events is a cautionary tale.
Both views misconstrue Steinbeck's handling of address in the novel. That the oppressed themselves are not the object of address—even accepting that Steinbeck could have made the mistake of assuming it was possible to address that audience directly—can be inferred from, among other things, the strongly "anthropological" mode of the novel, much of which is devoted to (re)presenting one social group to another. Hence the use of dialect and the explanations offered for details of daily life. Much of the novel's effect derives from giving the impression that it is engaged in revealing the hitherto unknown to an audience socially and culturally distant from the novel's characters.
The assertion that the "owning" or "propertied" class is the audience directly addressed is superficially more plausible but ultimately fails to account for much that goes on in the novel, especially the sustained and impassioned attack on "big business." Calling The Grapes of Wrath a "cautionary tale," as French does, links it with the long tradition of English-language reformist fiction in the manner of Dickens and Gaskell. Steinbeck shares much with the conventions of reformist or ameliorative fiction, but he differs sharply in one significant respect. Reformist fiction not only addresses the dominant class, it also depicts the dominated classes from a vantage point outside and above their own experience. That perspective is largely absent from The Grapes of Wrath. Instead, even though the anthropological mode of the narrative at times entails an exterior view, just as the occasional lapses into sentimentalism similarly establish a narrating position above the represented people, that discursive situation is never permitted to persist for long or to stray far from the textures of daily experience. For most of its course the novel, as Craig and Egan indicate, penetrates fully into the way of life, the everyday habits and skills and even the self-expression of the characters portrayed.
If oppressed social groups are not the prospective audience for the novel, they may nevertheless assert their presence not as a directly addressed group but as what Sartre called a virtual public, made up of dominated groups who lack access to "high" or official culture. Since awareness of this virtual public typically exerts a certain pressure on progressive writers, Sartre's notion can tell us something about an author's alignment if not something directly about the actual or intended audience. They are the group an author would wish to address if that were practicable, or on whose behalf an author writes. Responding to a virtual public would have been consonant with Steinbeck's developing feelings about the people he was depicting in his novel. His first effort to write The Grapes of Wrath resulted in a satire which he felt obliged to withdraw even though his publishers had already announced its impending release. He wrote to his publishers:
I know that a great many people would think they liked this book. I, myself, have built up a hole-proof argument on how and why I liked it. I can't beat the argument, but I don't like the book … My whole work drive has been aimed at making people understand each other and then I deliberately write this book, the aim of which is to cause hatred through partial understanding.
Useful though the concept of virtual public is in grasping the puzzling modes of address in radical fiction, it is necessarily silent about the social bloc whose attention and interest Steinbeck did wish to engage. His conception of his audience stemmed from his awareness that in a time of acute social and economic crisis, the bourgeois audience of which Engels writes is unusually fractured, so that a much larger than usual segment of it is, temporarily at least, susceptible to the appeal of politically progressive ideas. As Sartre puts it: "If the real public is broken up into hostile factions, everything changes." Steinbeck frames his novel neither, strictly speaking, for the oppressed groups, necessarily present only as a virtual public, nor for the owners. Instead he writes with a peculiarly modern notion of audience that comes into existence with the modern nation state and the forms of communication and cultural practice (including, centrally, the novel) that construct and sustain notions of national identity. He writes, in short, in the effort to influence "public opinion." The discursive situation Steinbeck imagines is not a bilateral relation between author and a readership but a triadic relation of author, audience, and owners. He seeks to influence public opinion to put pressure on a putatively beneficent national government to ameliorate the impossible conditions which big business and greedy landowners have imposed on the landless migrants in California. He is not, in other words, supposing that he is directly addressing the owners in the cautionary mode suggested by French, nor is he addressing the migrants: he may write for them as virtual public, but he does not, if only because he cannot, write to them.
The wish to influence public opinion makes it all the more urgent for Steinbeck to ensure that his project does not fail to reach its audience. Public opinion, after all, can equally be influenced to ignore or reject his message. One of the devices he employs to overcome the expected difficulties is attempting to gain control over the operative definitions of the words "Okies" and "reds." To reach his audience, Steinbeck had to find some way of bridging the social and cultural distance between them and his characters. An anthropological mode of discourse can create and even sustain interest in unknown social groups, but Steinbeck required more than interest. For his project to succeed he needed active sympathy: he needed his readers to wish so wholeheartedly for the amelioration of the conditions suffered by the migrants that public opinion would be swayed in their favor. One way of accomplishing that end was to neutralize the terms of contempt with which dominant groups label those they dominate.
The migrants are in one respect unusual as objects of prejudice: they lack a history of victimization. Because prejudice is not something they have grown up with, they actually have to be taught the meaning of the term used to vilify them.
"You gonna see in people's face how they hate you. What the hell! You never been called 'Okie' yet."
Tom said: "Okie? What's that?"
"Well, Okie use' ta mean you was from Oklahoma. Now it means you're a dirty son-of-a-bitch. Okie means you're scum. Don't mean nothing itself, it's the way they say it."
For those who use the word, "Okies" functions to establish the greatest possible distance between themselves and those to whom it is applied, to constitute the latter as utterly different, absolutely other. Our privileged position as readers enables us to see the inadequacy of such labels and the descriptions which accompany them, to see how self-serving they are, how they end up blaming the victims for their oppression, how they seek to dehumanize the migrants and wind up instead desensitizing and dehumanizing those who use them. By situating us within the ambit of the migrants' experience, the novel decisively separates us from those who would use such words, from the landowners and their retainers.
If constituting readers as people who would not use a word like "Okie" shows canny insight into ways of managing social prejudice, Steinbeck, with equal canniness, recognizes that access to an audience as abstract, impermanent, and vacillating as "public opinion" requires anticipating and neutralizing anything likely to prompt rejection of his project. All it would take would be for one of the customary charges of the period—"radical" or "communist sympathizer," in short, "red"—to be convincingly leveled, and even the more open-minded members of his audience would shun the novel. The Joads begin to hear about troublemakers and agitators and reds even before they arrive in California. A campsite owner who regularly swindles the migrants retaliates when Tom Joad jokes bitterly about the owner's money-grubbing:
The chair-legs hit the floor. "Don't you go a-sassin' me. I 'member you. You're one of these here trouble makers."
"Damn right," said Tom. "I'm bolshevisky."
"They's too damn many of you kinda guys aroun'." Tom laughed as they went out the gate.
Laughter on the reader's part is exactly the desired effect. It comes partly from Tom's mangling of the word Bolshevik or Bolsheviksi: his ignorance is transparently his innocence. More important, the reader already knows Tom, and of course also knows the owner. The perspective of the narration ensures that accusations are subsumed under the valuings that have already been established for characters.
The same management of perspective shapes the reader's response to a later incident. The Joads leave a migrants' camp shortly before local vigilantes and hired goons violently destroy it. The newspaper story reporting the event reads:
Citizens, angered at red agitators, burn squatters' camp. Last night a band of citizens, infuriated at the agitation going on in a local squatters' camp, burned the tents to the ground and warned agitators to get out of the county.
Because we have vicariously experienced the camp in the company of the Joads, we reject the report as an outrageous distortion. We might be inclined to assume from such passages that Steinbeck's point is that the Joads are not reds. But more is at issue. The crucial insight is provided by Tom immediately after he reads the newspaper account: "I watched it a long time. There's always red agitators just before a pay cut. Always." The accusation is a deliberate effort to discredit the migrants through a word so powerfully charged that once deployed it can usually be counted on to issue in stock responses. Such attempts to discredit the characters are equivalent to and anticipations of attempts to discredit the novel through using the same epithets. In devising strategies to deflect the one, Steinbeck seeks to deflect the other.
The discussion of the newspaper story continues until finally the migrants themselves are able to grasp what is going on in the accusation. When Tom asks, "What the hell is these reds anyway?" he is told a story about another man who had asked his boss the same question. The boss replied:
"A red is any son-of-a-bitch that wants thirty cents an hour when we're payin' twenty-five!" Well, this young fella he thinks about her, an' he scratches his head, an' he says: "Well, Jesus, Mr. Hines. I ain't a son-of-a bitch, but if that's what a red is—why, I want thirty cents an hour. Ever' body does. Hell, Mr. Hines, we're all reds."
After hearing this, "Tom laughed. 'Me too, I guess.'" Once again, then, laughter, our own as well as Tom's, is the response, but behind Tom's laughter and that of the other migrants is a growing political consciousness, an increasingly developed realization of how the owners and their hirelings deploy all the resources at their disposal, including discursive resources, to entrench and expand their domination of the migrants.
The interrogation of the word "reds" leads finally to a roundabout but unmistakable association of the word with Christ. As Tom tells Ma of Casy's murder, he relates Casy's last words, which, in keeping with the Biblical parallels established in the novel, closely echo Christ's last words on the cross:
"Casy said: 'You got no right to starve people.' An' then this heavy fella called him a red son-of-a-bitch. An' Casy says: 'You don' know what you're a-doin'.' An' then this guy smashed 'im."
Ma looked down. She twisted her hands together.
"Tha's what he said—'You don't know what you're doin'?'"
In probing and contesting the meanings attached to "Okies" and "reds" Steinbeck seeks to disarm the discursive authority of the holders of social power, whose control over meanings is a powerful tool in maintaining social hegemony. To undermine the discursive practices of the dominant group is to steal their ideological magic, as it were. By prizing words out of their customary associations and valuings and laying bare the interests served by certain usages, thereby hampering efforts by the powerful to maintain control over meanings, Steinbeck makes it more difficult for public opinion to be turned against his project. It will not be enough to count on the social distance between audience and represented, nor will it be enough to dismiss the book as "red." Without those two weapons, the owners and those who labor for them in the management of public opinion are reduced to having to claim not that "Okies" are unworthy of sympathy—a tactic as likely to backfire as to succeed—or that Steinbeck is a "red," but that he gets his facts wrong, that he misrepresents the experience of the migrants in California. They are forced, in other words, to shift the terrain of dispute from a straightforward ideological plane to an empirical plane. And in the event empirical claims were easily dismissed.
Efforts to resolve disputes over a novel by attempting to verify or falsify what it depicts may seem odd—even, in light of the way notions of reference are called into question by current literary theory, frivolous. Yet such efforts not only makes sense in relation to The Grapes of Wrath, they disclose a significant dimension of the novel's relation to its audience. Central to the reading experience of The Grapes of Wrath is the acceptance that what the narrative relates actually occurs in the life-world. In the absence of a tacit but absolutely binding contract between author and reader that the reader can rely on the novel's general veracity, the novel would be almost entirely lacking in meaning. Moreover, if it could be established that Steinbeck had distorted the truth, the novel would be felt to lose a substantial component of its value, and not just its value as social documentation (a function I would not wish to disparage) but its value as a novel, for who would read it today, when its documentary value alone could not count for much, if it had been successfully exposed as a fraud? At stake here, then, is not a question of the putative lifelikeness or verisimilitude of the realistic novel. We may not ordinarily feel compelled to ask of novelists if the events they depict can be matched to events of the real world; in the case of The Grapes of Wrath, however, the relationship between reader and text depends on the reader's conviction that people in the dustbowl actually lost their land when banks foreclosed on their loans, migrant camps really were raided and burned out, goons and vigilantes really were used to harass migrants and stymie efforts to organize labor unions, owners and their organizations genuinely colluded to drive down wages, and so on. Steinbeck revealed his sensitivity to the demands of the tacit contract with his readers in a letter: "There's one other difficulty too. I'm trying to write history while it is happening and I don't want to be wrong." Being discovered to be wrong, especially deliberately wrong, would have proved fatal to the success of the book.
Even leaving aside whether it is theoretically possible for a novel (or any other discursive form) to give the reader access to the real, it is at least a challenge to the adequacy of such theorizing about reference to note that certain literary works, for all their fictiveness, depend for their import as well as their impact on successfully securing the reader's acceptance that reference is being actively accomplished. There should not be anything particularly surprising about such a conclusion. To cite just one example, Solzhenitsyn's One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich absolutely requires that its readers grant a referential axis of meaning, for in the absence of certain beliefs about Stalinist labor camps, not to mention the belief that the author experienced those camps at first hand, the novel could have no meaning. Similarly, the relationship which The Grapes of Wrath continues to establish with its audience, even long after the circumstances it depicts have been transformed, depends on readers accepting that those circumstances once actually existed.
Steinbeck's handling of his relation with his audience is one of the most interesting and successful features of The Grapes of Wrath. Somewhat less successfully handled is the other major formal challenge of the novel: how to end the narrative. Radical novels regularly encounter difficulties with closure. Although it is obviously not part of the project of radical novels to promote defeatism, they nevertheless repeatedly end either inconclusively or in failure. To cite just a few representative cases from among the many radical novels written in the same period as The Grapes of Wrath, Richard Wright's Native Son ends with the death of Bigger Thomas, while the insurrectionary movements of Andre Malraux's Man's Fate and Ignazio Silone's Fontamara end in crushing defeat. The list could be expanded to cover practically the entirety of radical fiction. Part of the problem stems from the customary attachment of radical fiction to the external world, to history. Since in most cases the material conditions and social iniquities portrayed in radical novels have not been resolved in the external world, or where they have been resolved they have issued in the defeat of progressive forces rather than in their victory, and since the success of the political project undertaken in a political novel hinges on persuading the reader that these conditions and iniquities actually exist or have existed, closure becomes a significant problem at a juncture where the formal properties of the novel and the political project undertaken in radical fiction converge.
Many things could be said about Steinbeck's ending, and it has probably as many defenders as detractors. But whether we find the moment when Rose of Sharon offers her breast to the starving stranger genuinely moving in the way it enacts the compassion the novel has promoted throughout, or painfully mawkish in the way it entraps the reader in a position tantamount to voyeurism, it remains the case that closure is operating on an entirely personal level. The intensely intimate moment is obviously not generalizable in any literal sense, and even if it is given a more abstract form, the form, say, of "Do unto others," it shifts the arena of values from the social and economic and political to the personal and private and ethical, and does so without indicating how the one may be actively linked to the other. In short, the final moments end up telling the oppressed and exploited the old story: social justice can emerge only when there is a universal change of heart, only when people decide to be kinder to each other—a message which has always consoled those who gain advantage from the status quo more than it has those who bear the costs of social inequity.
Why does a novel which has required the destruction of the bonds of family and neighborliness so that a broader collectivity can take their place suddenly, at the very last moment, provide resolution only at the most intimate, most personal level? Even Ma, the normative center of familial values in the novel, comes finally to comprehend that the family must give way to broader affiliations if the conditions confronted by the migrants are ever to be overcome: "Use' ta be the fambly was fust. It ain't so now. It's anybody. Worse off we get, the more we got to do." Rose of Sharon's moment of exemplary humanity in feeding the stranger, especially since it is the first generous action of a hitherto utterly self-absorbed person, may at first appear to enact that "more"; however, up to this point the novel has intimated that the social lesson being proffered is not the parable of the good Samaritan but the Aesopean fable of the bundle of sticks or the three-fold cord of Ecclesiastes, exempla rarely invoked by those in positions of religious or secular authority as models for social conduct precisely because, unlike the more frequently cited "golden rule," they disclose the potential strength of the group acting in concert and on its own behalf.
The move towards collective political action promises, ultimately falsely, to be the central trajectory of the novel's meanings. The destruction of the family, the developing political consciousness, the beginnings of an organized labor movement, the instilling of cooperative values in the Joad children during their stay at the government camp—all these and more in the novel ascribe preeminent value to collective social action. Such action would seem the logical culmination of the prophetic threats and warnings strewn throughout the novel. Whether they are "rabble-rousing speeches inciting an outraged proletariat to rise against its oppressors," the prophetic passages are explicit, pointed, and sustained. Not just obscurely phrased dire warnings to the powerful that if they do not act promptly to regain legitimacy something terrible may happen (terrible in the narrator's view as well in the view of the owners), the passages declare apocalyptically that, unless there is rapid, radical social change, this is what is coming. That at least seems to be the force of passages like the following:
Here is the node, you who hate change and fear revolution. Keep these two squatting men apart; make them hate, fear, suspect each other. Here is the anlage of the thing you fear. This is the zygote. For here "I lost my land" is changed; a cell is split and from the splitting grows the thing you hate—"we lost our land." The danger is here, for two men are not as lonely and perplexed as one. And from this first "we" there grows a still more dangerous thing: "I have a little food" plus "I have none." If from this problem the sum is "We have a little food," the thing is on its way, the movement has direction. Only a little multiplication now, and this land, this tractor are ours…. This is the thing to bomb. This is the beginning—from "I" to "we."
A later passage in a similar vein adds, "if they ever know themselves, the land will be theirs."
Eventually the warnings of what will eventuate when isolated individuals and families join together in mass political action connect with the novel's title, a device which endows them with immense centrality, particularly since the title derives from a patriotic song ("Battle Hymn of the Republic") which in turn draws on the Bible. As the migrants approach the limit of what can be humanly endured, we read: "In the souls of the people the grapes of wrath are filling and growing heavy, growing heavy for the vintage."
These rumblings of ancestral voices prophesy revolution repeatedly in the novel (though much more in the interchapters than in the main narrative), but pointed and sustained as they are, they do not converge in or project any particular insurrectionary endeavor. They are prophecies without outcomes (even outcomes projected into the future)—portentous, apocalyptic, stirring, but finally never more than rhetorical. The gap they leave between prophecy and praxis is particularly clear in one feature of the narrative language of the passages: throughout, the reference is to what "they" will do; the threatened course of action is never unambiguously endorsed, never transformed into a "we" that includes the narrating voice. Of course, the anthropological mode of the novel presumes that Steinbeck's social locus is closer to his audience than to the social group he depicts. Nevertheless, not even optatively does the novel ever fully identify itself with any revolutionary action that might be undertaken by the oppressed; there is always a sense of holding back at the last moment, of taking fright at the very possibilities for widespread uprising which the novel discloses. What is promised in the interchapters is withdrawn in the main narrative, and particularly at its conclusion. What prevents Steinbeck from carrying prophecy through to action is not only that "history"—the material and social circumstances both within which and about which he writes—had not yet provided a solution to the problems he investigates. He is incapable of imagining a resolution. He is confident enough at a purely oratorical level, but the level of actual social initiative is another matter. The source of his difficulty in the analysis he provides of existing American society and the vision he projects of an alternative to it.
From both the novel itself and statements he made at the time concerning his growing compassion for the migrants in California, we might reasonably infer that Steinbeck saw his role in writing The Grapes of Wrath as contributing to an effort to change their immediate conditions rather than providing in addition a critique of the social and economic structures and relations that create and maintain such conditions. At the same time, the novel has to account for the situation in which the migrants find themselves. The prolonged drought in the southwest accounts in part for why the migrants undertake their exodus, but it cannot on its own explain how they lose their land or make sense of what they experience once they arrive in California. For their suffering to be more than adventitious, the narrative has to provide some sort of explanation. The furthest Steinbeck is able to go to satisfy this narrative demand is to place blame on impersonal business and financial institutions and greedy landowners.
What he is unable to account for is how such institutions and individuals are able not only to act the way they do, but to persist in their actions. Where are the laws that could constrain them? How are they able to use the police to assist their efforts? Why is there no speedy political resolution to the growing conflict? Steinbeck makes it all but impossible to confront such issues once he carefully dissociates the state from the injustices he depicts. Throughout the novel, the state is assumed to be outside and above the causes of the migrants' suffering. Responsibility for all injustices falls to business corporations and avaricious individuals. The state is not only deemed separate from capitalism, the defining and enabling context of these institutions and individuals; it is seen (in a distinctively American strain of political populism) as positively antithetical to capitalism and the social relations it produces. Nowhere is this made clearer than in the government camp in which the Joads find temporary refuge. Discussing the actions of the owners and the police, one inhabitant of the camp says: "An' that's why they hate this here camp. No cops can get in. This here's United States, not California."
This view of the state is entirely consistent with, and might even be entailed in, the way Steinbeck defined his project. Only a neutral state, available for the role of impartial social arbiter, or a benevolent state, eager to remedy social ills once they are identified (Steinbeck hovers between the two views), can be envisaged as open to the influence of an awakened public opinion. Conceiving the state in these terms, however, thoroughly mystifies the deeply complicit relation between the state and capital, which in turn means that the narrative can provide no coherent account for the oppression and exploitation depicted. At no point does Steinbeck raise the obvious question: if the federal government is as well disposed towards the migrants as the government camps would suggest, why has it not already intervened to end oppression and relieve the migrants of their suffering? Such a government would not require a novel designed to outrage public opinion to be written before it responded. Paradoxically, then, the very act of writing The Grapes of Wrath refutes the analysis of American society on which the novel is based.
From the opening moments of the novel, when the issue of how Tom could have been so unjustly imprisoned is almost but never quite made explicit, to the conclusion, when the inaction of the state permits the wholesale destruction of migrant families, questions like these continually threaten to rise to the surface of the narrative, only to be pushed back out of sight. So consistently does Steinbeck decline to engage with the questions his narrative provokes that the question of bad faith eventually arises, for it is difficult to imagine any other way of accounting for how the novel ultimately issues in the familiar message: "The fundamental institutions of society are not bad, just certain individuals and isolated practices. Once these are corrected, things will be just fine." A novelist who gives every appearance of writing from a social and political perspective somewhere on an axis of left-liberal to radical socialist nevertheless produces a narrative which ultimately endorses the existing scheme of things (barring a few unfortunate anomalies) and declines to contemplate the possibility that the scheme itself needs overthrowing. Instead of seeing the novel as an expression of bad faith, however, we might more fruitfully think of it, with its radical impulses and less than radical projections, as a "fellow-traveling" novel, bearing in mind Trotsky's important insight:
As regards a "fellow-traveler," the question always comes up—how far will he go? This question cannot be answered in advance, not even approximately. The solution of it depends not so much on the personal qualities of this or that "fellow-traveler," but mainly on the objective trends of things.
Steinbeck's inability to confront the most profound implications of his own narrative leaves him no way to end the novel, since the social horrors he has been depicting with such compassion require at the very least giving serious thought to a form of redress he is incapable of imagining except, as in the prophetic passages, in the most abstract and oratorical way. Unable to resolve the novel at the level of the social, economic, and political iniquities he renders in such compelling detail, he withdraws at the conclusion of the narrative to the merely interpersonal.
So reluctant is Steinbeck to confront the depredations of capitalism analytically rather than emotionally that he undermines still another dimension of his project. Implicitly or explicitly, the kind of novel Steinbeck has written, for which Craig and Egan have proposed the suggestive term "social tragedy," projects an alternative to the depicted social order, a social and political "possible other case." That projection is a vital part of the utopian impulse of social tragedy as it gestures towards a realm beyond necessity. Deducing Steinbeck's projected alternative, at least in its broad features, seems at first glance a simple task. Most of the novel would seem to imply that a new social order would have to be built on collective principles and would have to exclude economic practices which depend on exploitation. Property would no longer be presumed as an absolute right, since accumulation would have to be regulated to ensure that land did not again fall into the hands of a few. Profit would have to give way to or at least be modified by notions of social benefit, so that people would no longer have their homes confiscated. No one would be permitted to have wealth beyond a certain level, and the gap between the richest and poorest in society would be kept fairly narrow. The rights of workers to a living wage, to organize in labor unions, and to strike would be placed above the claims of owners. Or so the novel implies.
Yet surprisingly, whatever the society ultimately prefigured in the novel, it is certainly not any form of socialist or even social-welfare society. Tom's farewell to his mother—one of the few times the portentous tone of the prophetic passages, for the most part restricted to the interchapters, enters the main narrative—reveals in its closing sentence the boundaries of Steinbeck's vision of an alternative America: "An' when our folks eat the stuff they raise an' live in the houses they build—why, I'll be there." This is Steinbeck's alternative social order, a reiteration of Jefferson's vision of a society made up of independent small farmers eating the food they grow and living in the houses they build. Where in this is collective social life? How, if it was necessary for the family to be destroyed in order for people to discover their collective destiny, do the nuclear families return who will presumably inhabit these houses and grow the food? Where in the reconstituted household economy of small farms will be the space for what is ostensibly projected as a new status for women, achieved at such cost? All such considerations are overwhelmed by the "ache of ownership" which, far from rejecting in favor of collective ownership, Steinbeck gladly ratifies.
A second strand to Steinbeck's vision of an alternative order emerges earlier in the same conversation, at the point where Tom remembers something Casy had once related to him: "Says one time he went out in the wilderness to find his own soul, an' he foun' he didn't have no soul that was his'n. Says he foun' he jus' got a little piece of a great big soul." Here, as collectivity gets absorbed into the ideas of yet another seminal American thinker with the barely veiled reference to Emerson's conception of the oversoul, Tom's memory takes on a regressive quality, for at this point the novel doubles back on its own development in character and action. Tom recalls not Casy the labor organizer, who late in the novel, just before he becomes the victim of violent reaction, speaks eloquently and lucidly of revolution and counter-revolution, but the Casy of their first encounter, who at the outset of the action was the prophet of the oversoul.
Tom's final conversation with Ma reveals the strains and confusions of the proffered resolutions of the novel's conflicts as the concluding chapters work to contain and defuse the revolutionary implications of the depiction of mounting class conflict. For all that Steinbeck may be linking his narrative to notions deeply embedded in American hegemonic cultural traditions, Jeffersonian and Emersonian ideas are inadequate to the weight placed upon them. The oversoul suggests something entirely different from revolutionary action; indeed it suggests no action at all, only some state of being exempt from the immediacies of the social and historical. Similarly, collective life is negated by the Jeffersonian ideal, a negation which can be felt in the contradictory quality of statements like "All work together for our own thing—all farm our own lan'." To further complicate matters, by the time of the conversation between Tom and Ma near the end of the novel, the appeal of the Jeffersonian ideal has long since been diminished by repeated suggestions of the guilty secret behind the land the farmers till—the violent dispossession of the Indians whose land it once was.
The difficulties Steinbeck had with closure in The Grapes of Wrath may stem in part from the very success he had in gaining access to his audience. Appealing to public opinion entails granting a measure of legitimacy to the social order the presumptive audience inhabits. Appealing to specifically American cultural tradition further confirms legitimacy. Once legitimacy is granted, any revolutionary implications arising from the narrative must be curtailed, even if that means skirting some of the narrative's most profound insights into how the social order is actually constructed and in whose benefit it operates. What is involved here is not a question merely of an author's intention, even broadening that notion to include how authors of radical novels define for themselves the political projects in which they are engaged. At issue here is the very possibility of writing a novel that both reaches a wide audience and remains politically radical. Victor Serge's Birth of Our Power, a major radical novel of the 1930s, is remarkable among other things for the way it succeeded in keeping its leftist politics intact, but it did so perhaps at the cost of remaining all but unknown for many years. From its original publication to today it has probably not sold as many copies as The Grapes of Wrath sells in an average year. One conclusion we can draw from Steinbeck's example is that the advice Engels gave Minna Kautsky about eschewing overtly "tendentious writing" in order to reach the "bourgeois circles" who are the only available audience may understate the consequences of the techniques novelists may have to use to accomplish that task. Reaching that audience might entail the simultaneous (and intimately related) dilution of the novel's politics and distortion of its form.
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