The Joneses and the Joads

Rick Wartzman is director of the Drucker Institute at Claremont Graduate University and a senior fellow at the New America Foundation. His new book is "Obscene in the Extreme: The Burning and Banning of John Steinbeck's 'The Grapes of Wrath.' "

After storms ravaged Iowa last summer, devastation wasn’t the only thing that people found amid the flood waters. Scores of out-of-work electricians from Michigan, hard hit by auto industry cutbacks, spied opportunity.

Trekking hundreds of miles from home, where the unemployment rate of 8.5% is the highest in the U.S., they were eager to scoop up jobs rewiring Cedar Rapids -- even if it meant sleeping in a tent for weeks on end.

To some observers, the desperate scene evoked an unmistakable image. “The Joads leaving Oklahoma is exactly what we are seeing coming out of Detroit now,” UC Berkeley labor expert Harley Shaiken told reporters.


Nearly 70 years after it was published, John Steinbeck’s “The Grapes of Wrath” -- which tells of the dirt-poor Joad family’s epic migration from drought-plagued Oklahoma to fruitful (if unfriendly) Central California -- continues to resonate as few novels have. In fact, the book may well be more relevant today than at any time since it first appeared in April 1939.

“The Grapes of Wrath” has always been extraordinarily popular. More than 400,000 copies flew off the shelves its first year in print, making it the nation’s No. 1 seller. So powerful was Steinbeck’s portrayal of the Joads’ plight that people began referring to the fictional clan as if it were real. “Meet the Joad Family,” read one newspaper headline. “What’s Being Done About the Joads?” asked another. “The Joads on Strike,” declared a third.

Before long, thanks in part to Henry Fonda’s performance as Tom Joad on the big screen and Woody Guthrie crooning about the Joads in his “Dust Bowl Ballads,” Steinbeck’s characters had become permanently etched into popular culture. When Bruce Springsteen and Rage Against the Machine sang about “The Ghost of Tom Joad,” legions of fans were already tuned in to the generations-old reference.

Indeed, wherever people exhibit tremendous strength amid terrible anguish, the Joads are a potent symbol. “I suspect I met a few Ma Joads and Tom Joads in Kabul,” said Afghanistan-born author Khaled Hosseini as he described the process that led him to write “The Kite Runner.”

Yet these days, especially, it’s more than just the Joads’ strength in the face of adversity that makes “The Grapes of Wrath” so pertinent -- and poignant. Steinbeck’s story echoes particularly loudly because, just as in 1939, the deficiencies of an unfettered free market are so plainly on display.

Only a fool, of course, would suggest that America is in anywhere near as bad shape now as it was then. The U.S. jobless rate stood above 17% in 1939, and personal income and total economic output were no higher than they had been a decade before, at the start of the Great Depression. Misery was ubiquitous.


Nor is anybody seriously hinting at the kind of radical solution that some of the country’s leading intellects were openly advocating in the 1930s: a scuttling of the capitalist system in favor of some form of socialism. “There is little question in my mind that the principle of private ownership as a means of production is not long with us,” Steinbeck himself proclaimed -- the kind of thinking that led officials in Kern County (the very place the Joads settled in the novel) to ban “The Grapes of Wrath” from libraries and schools until 1941.

Nonetheless, there are some striking parallels between the Joads’ era and ours. Most notably, income inequality today is at its highest level since the late 1920s. Adjusted for inflation, median household income was actually lower last year than in 2000. Hunger is on the rise. Fueling a considerable amount of hardship is the mortgage industry crisis -- an episode that brings to mind Steinbeck’s depiction of banks as rapacious monsters.

As in the 1930s, the issue is what to do about all this. In “The Grapes of Wrath,” Steinbeck pointed to government intervention as an important piece of the answer; it was in a New Deal labor camp that the Joads found a needed measure of comfort and support.

Much of the New Deal -- both in substance and in spirit -- has long since been dismantled. But the notion that “government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem,” as Ronald Reagan so memorably put it, may also be running its course.

For many, polls show, it’s becoming increasingly clear that the public sector has a role -- and a responsibility -- to help lift up those who are being left behind, as well as to more tightly regulate the corporations that, if left unchecked, can inflict so much damage throughout the economy. Even the Bush administration has warmed up to the notion of more vigorous oversight of business.

After he read “The Grapes of Wrath,” President Franklin Delano Roosevelt remarked that “there are 500,000 Americans that live in the covers of that book.” They may not exactly live there anymore, but millions can surely relate to the uneasy question that lies at the heart of Steinbeck’s classic: How come so many are mired in poverty in a country blessed with so much prosperity?