A good way for a non-American to comprehend this essentially “American” novel was to juxtapose scenes from movies. The premise of the Grapes of Wrath reminded me a lot of the documentary film about the American food industry I saw years ago. There was simply nothing in my world that unveil the stark truth about Corporate America other than the scenes of the weary-looking farmers who have been completely stripped of their dignity and control over the fruits they produce. To see them reduced as mere ‘clerks’ to giant companies was striking for my childlike respect for the farmers as a dignified occupation.
My official disdain of Corporatism that help me appreciate John Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath has been probably spawned right at that moment. My disillusionment of the positivism, heroism, individualism and materialism–what have been known as the traditional “American values”–that have been prolifically promoted in my favourite Hollywood cinema is not a strange thing, as I drifted into the middle of my twenties that coincided with the decline of neoliberalism. Ironically, the more I read the great American novels, the more I grow distant with the essential principles of that culture… That’s probably why I, along with the rest of the world, read American literature.
I was thankful for Steinbeck for representing unspoken contemplations of religion and justice I used to entertain in my head. Why would God matter if we fail to look after ourselves? How could I be completely happy if someone in this world is suffering for my happiness? Steinbeck’s version of ‘righteousness’ evident in many parts of the novel–especially in the character of Casy–was strikingly resembling my personal crises with God and the orthodox ideals of success in my generation. I couldn’t articulate my own criticism of such values in one of my political Science Tutorial or Bible Study sessions as well as Steinbeck did in this novel. The only difference between the author and me might be the ability to translate it into a literary masterpiece… Casy was literally speaking my doubtful mind when he confided why he gave up his ministry.
“I ain’t gonna preach… I ain’t gonna baptize. I’m gonna work in the fiel’s, in the green fiel’s, and I’m gonna be near to folks. I ain’t gonna try to teach ’em nothing. I’m gonna try to learn. Gonna learn why the folks walks in the grass, gonna hear ’em talking, gonna hear ’em sing. Gonna listen to kids eatin’ mush. Gonna hear husban’ an’ wife a-poundin’ the mattress in the night. Gonna eat with ’em an’ learn.” (128)
Many people interpret the Grapes of Wrath as a call for socialism or collectivism. I cannot bring myself to relate it to any political discussions, as I don’t have to label my own morality with such a name. I don’t want to call it socialist when I pray for those in other parts of the world a little more than my own family. The Grapes of Wrath is an epic representation of Steinbeck’s own assertion of morality that has to stand firm even during the most difficult time in history.
Steinbeck, John. The Grapes of Wrath. New York: Penguin Books. 1992.