When I first read The Grapes of Wrath, I was sixteen or seventeen, and I only came to it because the book was assigned reading in a literature class I was taking in school.
At the time, my only knowledge of “Okies” lay in the few references I’d heard from my relatives about being Okies. There were jokes and comments about the word, but I recall there was an undercurrent of rejection in those references, scorn for those who had used the word to describe them. They weren’t laughing at themselves; they were laughing at the people who called them Okies, with no small measure of distain.
This leads me to wonder: What did my relatives, the ones who made the journey to California the way Steinbeck portrayed it, think about The Grapes of Wrath? And John Steinbeck?
Certainly, the novel led to a national and even international awareness of their plight. Maybe it changed things for them. Maybe not. Maybe they were tough enough on their own and didn’t appreciate a rich kid from Salinas sticking his nose in like it was his business. Could be they didn’t read the novel or care about it one way or the other. After all, who wants to read about his own murder in the Sunday paper?
Those relatives aren’t around anymore for me to ask. But I do have a story from my grandmother that makes the question interesting.
In the book and in the movie, the sharecroppers are confronted by representatives of the banks that are foreclosing on the land. The representatives pull up in big cars and do not even get out to speak face-to-face with the families they are evicting. They just lean out of the car window and say, “You gotta go. You have to get off the land.”
This means imminent displacement for the families, and they have nowhere to go. Moreover, their families have entire histories built upon the land. Their ancestors fought for it and to keep it. Their generations had lived and died on it. They don’t want to be pushed off of what is theirs without a fight.
So, they ask the banks’ representatives the obvious question: “Who do I have to shoot?”
The answer is that the banks are nameless, faceless entities – not men. So, there is no office door to knock on and no Snidely Whiplash sitting within to shoot in defense of their farms. The enemy is a force of commerce, not flesh and blood.
It is a confounding proposition: The enemy is at your doorstep, but he is invisible and can’t be fought against.
My Aunt Jetty faced a similar parallel, but the affront was to her dignity, and she was looking for the man to shoot.
The way my grandmother told the story to me, she and her sister Jetty had gone to the movies to see John Ford’s screen version of the novel starring Henry Fonda. I have no way of knowing what Grandma or Aunt Jetty thought they were going to see on the silver screen that day. The movie came out in 1940, not so long after the book itself was published, so both the book and the movie were still new. Maybe they just thought they were going to see a film with Henry Fonda in it and did not know more than that.
In any event, Grandma said Aunt Jetty didn’t make it to the end. Somewhere in the middle of the film, she’d had enough. She stormed out of her seat and into the lobby, filled with righteous fury. She did not perceive a film or a story sympathetic to her or her family. Grandma said Jetty was convinced the movie was making fun of them.
According to Grandma, Jetty thought the theater didn’t just show the movie. She thought the theater had made it, too, and so to her mind, the man to shoot was the theater manager. She believed he was personally responsible for her outrage.
Grandma said Jetty found that poor manager in the building and was about to attack the man when Grandma pulled her away. Somewhere during the struggle, Grandma managed to convince Jetty the man hadn’t made the movie and that she had the wrong guy.
The manager, for his part, had been scared as hell and was grateful to Grandma for saving him from a beating.
Jetty was confronted not with the faceless bank waging an assault on her dignity, but faceless Hollywood. She couldn’t find the right man to shoot.
But John Steinbeck might have fit the bill.
The story is amusing in its way, but it also raises a serious question: Had Steinbeck also exploited the people he wrote about, even if his intention had been otherwise? The movie is fairly faithful to the book, so Jetty would likely have found it just as offensive.
I suppose one way of looking at Steinbeck’s portrayal is this: Steinbeck took a people, stuck them under a microscope, and then proclaimed to the world their classification. That might have branded them like a thing determined – Okies – and nothing more.
I don’t know if Grandma ever saw the movie all the way through. I doubt she read the book because I don’t recall ever seeing her read anything longer than a menu or a recipe. I never asked her if she thought the movie was making fun of them, but I wish I would have.
I do know this. Grandma took offense at her family’s being called “croppers” or “sharecroppers.” After I’d read the book for the first time, I asked her if her family had been sharecroppers. She bristled as if I’d insulted her and said, “We weren’t sharecroppers. We were farmers.”