The Grapes of Wrath Lends Wisdom To Today

December 8, 2018

The Grapes of Wrath Lends Wisdom To Today

By Stephanie Scavelli

While consumerism and stuff accumulation, fanfare politics and television programs, dominate my mind space, The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck draws me out of the haze of the matrix and reminds me that American history is a people’s history.

In the new order of industrialization, landless people are in a constant struggle against the land owners for a better life. Understanding that American history is a people’s history maybe I can better appreciate the freedoms and the quality of life I am able to enjoy today. Maybe I can complain less and be thankful more. Maybe I could even feel a greater sense of patriotism just by better knowing what life was like for working families in America during my great-grandparents time.

In just a few years during the Dust Bowl period the homesteaders of the American South and Midwest were forced off their land due to agricultural mismanagement, dead soils and bank debt.

The book The Grapes of Wrath bears truth to the plight of American farmers: how the banks dispossessed farmers and replaced people with machines; why today we call a thousand acre monocrop a “farm”; and the slave wages of the hundreds of thousands of families drove west to California to pick cotton, peaches, lettuce and grapes. Today’s news reports reel about humanitarian crisis in other countries and their dictatorial, corrupt leadership. American history tells a story of its own in the same genre.

The small farm movement of today idealizes homesteading and land holding. Back-to-the-land rhetoric paints a picture of grass covered pastures, healthy farm animals, squawking chickens, fragrant soils freshly tilled and rows and rows of harvesting to be done; hands strong from honest labor, and families bonded to the land and each other. We idealize it today. We dream about it. We yearn for it. 

But how much in our yearning and our want for a farming style that promotes environmental stewardship do we forget about, even are entirely ignorant too, the plight of the farming people that came before us?

In just a few years during the Dust Bowl period the homesteaders of the American South and Midwest were forced off their land due to agricultural mismanagement, dead soils and bank debt. It was the banks that ultimately took the land. For many, these lands represented the original forty acres their grandparents received to colonize the country scape and steal it from the native tribes people. Now that the banks owned the land the diesel fueled tractors rolled in.

This was a turning point in American history. People - farmers - no longer managed lands. The banks did. The JP Morgans of the time. Midwest and Southern Farmers became migrant workers wandering California desperate for a few weeks work during the changing harvest seasons. Pay was driven down to pennies a bunch. Entire families labored from dawn to dusk and brought home only a buck.

The 1940 film rendition of The Grapes of Wrath portrays the displaced Joad Family and their first glance at California.

The 1940 film rendition of The Grapes of Wrath portrays the displaced Joad Family and their first glance at California.

Even the California farmers, whose lands were lush and plump with fruit and not demised by the great dust winds of the West, were usurped into the great land holding companies that owned the land and the canneries and set the price for picking. The farm associations forced California farmers to pay slave wages. Any farmer paying fair wages would soon be bought out by the great holdings.  Fair wages meant labor costs were too high and it wouldn’t be a profitable crop. Another farmer that sweat over his own land would be pushed out by the banks.

Waves of new deputies were saluted in and the cops were there to terrorize, de-humanize and disorganize the landless farm families searching for a crop to pick for less than a dollar a day. The locals feared the landless and the employers feared the Federal Government would step in and disapprove of the treatment of these migrant Americans if they were to organize and make demands. The “Reds” - anyone with the energy to demand the landless people be treated fairly - were clubbed by the authorities and thrown in jail for vagrancy. The “Reds” were parents of starved children and starved young men and women. 

The California crops of fruit grew by intensive effort - monitored heavily by scientists and sprayed with novel chemicals. The work paid off in the sense that crops were fruitful. But the selling price set by the banks, the farm associations, and the great holdings were too low for a profitable picking. Fruits were left to rot. While children died of starvation perfectly good food was left to rot. And not only rot but destroyed - flamed, poisoned, dumped - so the starving parents didn’t steal their way for their children to live another day. 

It pains my soul to read such tragedy. I can’t help to think, what if they were me? What if my beloveds starved in front of me, would I have the courage to protest on their behalf? Would I? Could I? I have deep admiration and humble respect for those who stood in protest; for the “Reds” who gave their lives and their childrens’ lives so living standards could be raised for future Americans; for the Machine to slow its wealth accumulation and share just a little with the masses upon which its wealth stood in the first place.

As the legacy of the Banks continue throughout the twentieth century this crime against humanity - wealth accumulates and children starve to death - repeats itself throughout the world by the cold calculations of the World Bank and rules of Free Trade. My fretting over things to buy, wear and do, seem trivial to the strife of Americans from history past who very well could have been me. And in my heart of hearts I know they were me and I am them for we are all just pieces of one big Soul, a theme Steinbeck strings throughout this book. American History has themes we ought to learn from - the Banks, the plight of people, and the spoiling of the Earth. We have overcome none thus far and as the planet warms we may be heading into the worst story yet. 

About the Author

Certified Yoga Instructor Stephanie Scavelli practices a plant-based diet and traditional herbal medicine. She laughs endlessly at the adventurous whit of the animation series Rick & Morty. She wears minimalist, barefoot-inspired shoes and her favorite dessert is her sister's Oatmeal Crusted Vegan Pumpkin Pie. Stephanie lives in Westchester County, NY with her daughter Juniper. Visit for yoga classes and workshops near you.