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The Grapes of Wrath: From “I” To “We”

The Grapes of Wrath is an incredible piece of art. And that’s exactly what it is…art.

But, make no mistake, this novel is essentially a pitch for socialism.

In the novel, Steinbeck paints an interesting picture of corporate landowners in the 1930s. They were the farming conglomerates who actively harassed and denied work to “Okies”–the hundreds of thousands of midwesterners who moved to California following the Dust Bowl drought.

If you can imagine moving to a new city and being told, “We don’t like your kind around here, boy,” then you can start to understand the plight of the “Okies.” Multiply that by about 10–where the locals attack you and burn down the tents you are dwelling in, then you get an even better picture.

Steinbeck explained his motivation for The Grapes of Wrath this way:

“I want to put a tag of shame on the greedy bastards who are responsible for this [the Great Depression and its effects].

And, this, from chapter 14 of the book:

This is the beginning—from “I” to “we”. If you who own the things people must have could understand this, you might preserve yourself. If you could separate causes from results, if you could know that Paine, Marx, Jefferson, Lenin were results, not causes, you might survive. But that you cannot know. For the quality of owning freezes you forever into “I”, and cuts you off forever from the “we”.

Make no mistake that The Grapes of Wrath is a political novel. In his time, Steinbeck was closely associated with communist and socialist organizations. On the heels of the recent Occupy protests across the country, this novel remains relevant.

I’m far from a socialist, but I believe everyone deserves a fair shake, a fair opportunity. The problems presented in The Grapes of Wrath deserve an answer, but is it socialism? Also keep in mind that The Great Depression is ten times worse than any recession we’ve experienced in our lifetimes.

Many of you have read this novel, so what’s your take?

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22 Comments Post a comment
  1. herminestrand #

    Central government control isn’t ideal any more than total lack of government control is. The former is partly why there are so many teenage suicides in Sweden, and the latter partly why the U.S. murder by gun rate is sky high. All nations need to strike a balance between protecting their vulnerable citizens and providing essential services, and preserving human liberty. And, as Aristotle pointed out, that balancing act cannot be permanently enshrined, because there is a new generation of adults every 20 years replacing a recently deceased one, so political solutions will always remain fluid. For these reasons and others, I favor realism and realistic expectations and, above all, earnest effort and goodwill among the governing and the governed.

    Like

    August 7, 2012
    • True. Everything seems to be a reaction against the beliefs of the previous generation.

      Like

      August 7, 2012
      • writersgastronomy #

        That would explain the entirety of the 1980s.

        Like

        August 7, 2012
        • And the 90s…my generation.

          Like

          August 7, 2012
          • writersgastronomy #

            Mine too.. probably less defined (for better or worse) than the eighties.

            Like

            August 7, 2012
  2. writersgastronomy #

    Man, I read this when I was about 11 years old. (Steinbeck was number one on my dad’s summer reading list for me.) I think he’s too light handed for his work to sound like a pitch per se, but it’s definitely there, making itself evident more than Steinbeck throwing it at you.

    There were also major repercussions to his politics – in the sixties, a family friend of ours tried to write his MA thesis on Steinbeck and was told that Steinbeck wasn’t a great American writer. (I’m guessing much of that was because of where he stood politically.)

    At least our respect for Steinbeck has changed in the past 40 or 50 years.

    Liked by 1 person

    August 7, 2012
  3. On the list to read very soon, thanks for your insights.

    Like

    August 7, 2012
  4. Excellent points you make here Robert, and I love the ‘I/We’ quote. It kind of cuts straight to the heart of the book. Might have to Pin it!
    Frankly, I’m not sure it matters whether socialism ‘is/was’ the answer, it’s really more a question of an author writing with passion and conviction. It was a terrible situation, and an abhorrent abuse of power. Perhaps it called for extreme solutions.

    Like

    August 7, 2012
    • Valid point. I can’t imagine being driven out of my home by men on tractors, with no form of appeal or someone to listen to me. Just awful stuff. Even sadder, it’s true.

      Like

      August 7, 2012
      • I know . There’s some sad moments in US history. No different from other countries I suppose. The UK (I’m British -American BTW), like to think the US were SO much worse than they were. Er…Raj,the B. Empire….

        Like

        August 8, 2012
  5. Jillian ♣ #

    You actually make me want to read this. I’ve been kinda dreading it. (Not sure why. Ghost dreads from high school, probably!)

    Like

    August 7, 2012
  6. Fascinating discussion topic. I personally think that Steinbeck is really just presenting the problem. There is a significant lack of the blatant socialism-will-save-us-all diatribe at the end of Sinclair’s The Jungle. Steinbeck does hint at a solution but I think his main goal with Grapes is to cause people to think. Given the comments section here… mission accomplished, Mr. Steinbeck. A testament to the power of his work that it can have people discussing it even this many years into his posthumous career.

    Like

    August 7, 2012
    • herminestrand #

      Just to knock things totally off the rails into thread creep, the phrase “posthumous career” makes me furious. There are few things more humiliating and exploitive than a creative artist dying in poverty and obscurity and then becoming famous after his death–and having others derive benefit from his life work when he can no longer derive any benefit from it whatsoever. If I ever get any kind of recognition, I want every word I ever wrote destroyed upon my death.

      Like

      August 7, 2012
  7. emily #

    i was reading that when the book was published, a lot of people thought steinbeck was exaggerating the conditions, but in reality, they were even worse than what was portrayed in the novel.
    i think any idea pushed to the limit ends up being ridiculous – socialism turns into a bunch of people who won’t work, communism into 1984, capitalism yields monopolies or something dickensian, democracy to the trial of socrates and persecution for minorities, and the pursuit of happiness gives us a brave new world. i feel like you just have to strike a balance and not overdo anything

    Like

    August 7, 2012
  8. I just loved the novel when I read it. Didn’t worry about the politics. Then again, every time I read Call of the Wild I see only a wonderful story about a dog. Check out my blog for some real socialism, because I’ve talked and sung several times about Woody Guthrie and the dustbowl ballads he wrote, and I reference the Steinbeck classic several times. To me it’s just a glorious book, a story about adversity and courage.

    Like

    August 8, 2012
  9. I think most of us incorporate our politics into anything we write. How can we not? However, I think that having a socialist perspective on this book tends to make more sense. He’s obviously trying to portray the issues associated with greed.

    Like

    August 8, 2012
  10. Melissa @ Swamp of Boredom #

    I think The Grapes of Wrath is less a promotion of socialism and more a screed against capitalism. He is definitely not promoting the welfare state, or what we not think of as a welfare state – the government supporting lazy citizens that do not want to work. (I am not saying that is my definition of the welfare state, just the definition that has become pretty generally accepted, especially in politics.) Steinbeck is clear that the Oakies don’t want handouts, they want jobs. They want to earn their way, work hard and achieve their dream of having a little bit of land. Unfortunately, big business rigged the system against them and even against the small landowners so they can maximize their profits. I found The Grapes of Wrath inspiring and depressing, but mostly depressing. The issues that Steinbeck addressed are the exact same issues we as a country are dealing with today. The implied promise of a social revolution never came.

    Like

    August 10, 2012
  11. Moist #

    I’m completely okay with socialism. And communism. And a tyranny. Just so long that the person running it all isn’t corrupt. Ideally, we could have Jesus be the tyrant and everything would be awesome. But since that isn’t possible, and people are corrupt, communism doesn’t work and I’ll have to settle for democracy.

    Like

    October 28, 2012
  12. This is the third blog post, of your blog I personally went through.
    And yet I really enjoy this specific 1, “The Grapes of Wrath: From I To We | 101 Books” the most.

    Regards ,Troy

    Like

    February 6, 2013
  13. Richard H. #

    I think we need to “evolve” in two areas: Marx and socialism. First, Marx has been the most maligned, censored, misquoted,,and demonized man in history. And most of his critics today never even read him. He is, in fact, very readable – and “human.” But for those needing a good (and fair) translation/interpretation I recommend Terry Eagleton’s books, Dr. Richard Wolff’s books/lectures, and Erich Fromm’s earlier books. They do fair justice to this man.
    Secondly, I don’t understand how this nation has been able to successfully connect the word “godless” with “socialism.” First, they have nothing to do with each other, and secondly, the nation (if it will ever learn its own history) had ALWAYS been one-half socialist. Every institution prefaced as “public” is socialistic — public highways, public hospitals, public libraries, public schools, including the postal service and the military. Which is why the corporate world wants to privatize everything (it has yet to figure out how to deal with the military question, though “privatization” has been considered – can you imagine that?!). – There’s NOTHING evil or alien about socialism.
    Market capitalism is the modern “ouroboros” – the serpent eating its tail, and it’s suffocating under its own weight. The “one-percenters,” the fact that (by definition) we’re now a “3rd world nation” with a 1st world military (like the former Soviet Union), workers enslaved to slave wages/no benefits/workplace dehumanization, the worst healthcare in the industrialized world, homelessness, the White House occupied by the wealthiest corporatists ever, etc, etc., IS Marxist prophesy unfolding.
    Is Steinbeck’s novel a “pitch for socialism?” You bet it is. “The problems presented… deserve an answer, but is it socialism?”
    In my (humble) opinion: It was during the Great Depression (thank you FDR), and it is now. “Democratic socialism” is happening and it’s a GOOD thing. It’s about time. This is NOT Stalinism or Leninism or post-war (godless) communism which was a deliberate corruption of Marx and turning it into oppressive state-capitalism. It’s about the natural right to be free, the right to equal opportunity, the right to “free” universal healthcare and equal access to “goods.” (Medicare is the one part of ObamaCare everyone is holding on to for dear life). It’s also about the right to be rich (Marx had no problems with wealth as long as it was not earned at the expense of others). It was about the commonwealth (not the pocketbook), and quoting Engels (at Marx’s funeral) “the man who is rich because he has the need of his fellow man.”
    Sorry for the sermonette. But this is one sore spot in my life – been silent about it too long. Marx had no patience for false equivalencies, rationalizations, and outright lies in defense of personal and corporate greed, and he called them out. It’s time we did too. Steinbeck should be instructive in that regard.
    We’re not “unpatriotic, “un-American,” and “un-Christian” if we do. Read Marx (or the above authors) and you’ll find a man who was closer to Christ than most Christians, certainly most capitalists. He was not the “cold, calculating, alienated, lonely fanatic” most “western” academicians (are tenured to) say he was. He was a compassionate, caring, spiritual, honest, and unselfish man and loving father. – I urge you to also read about Jenny, his wife, and his three children and how they survived. It’s time we “humanized” Marx. – Then let’s go back and reread the novel. .

    Like

    August 16, 2017

Trackbacks & Pingbacks

  1. Book #46: The Grapes Of Wrath | 101 Books
  2. The Grapes of Wrath | Writing Fiction Blog

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