Sep 1, 2009
The Grapes of Wrath

One method of rhetorical appeal is to appeal to the emotions, or pathos. The Grapes of Wrath from its very opening makes this kind of appeal. When Muley says that a piece of paper can’t take away the fact that people lived, and were born and died on that land, he makes an appeal to the emotions. The big, bad landowners are grinding down the little man. Yet, by appealing to the emotions against that piece of paper he removes the possibility of the rule of law. Property then becomes a matter not of established rights preserved through law, but a matter of occupation, and of blood. I got her, I farmed this land, and you’ve got no right to use your law to force me off of it, or alternatively, I want this land, and I plan to run you and your men off of it.

Not to play the blame the victim game, but the Okies who were forced into migration were the victims of bad agricultural practices that promoted soil erosion, and that helped create the conditions for the dust bowl of the ‘30s. Land was left without cover during the winter months, cotton stubble was burned off, there was no crop rotation, these and other factors created the conditions in which the Okies, who had no legal claim to the land they worked, were displaced. This displacement was not because of the evil landowners, but because the landowners could no longer work the land profitably, so longstanding relationships, assuming there were any, were inevitably dissolved.

When the Joad’s are displaced, they set out along Highway 66, and we get a bit of a slice of the American west as it was in the ‘30s. Upon reaching California, the Joads manage to find employment as farm workers, but at meager piecework rates. Their housing conditions are bad, and degrading. It is not until they get to a government facility that they are treated humanely. They also get running water, and decent housing. The government facility will not let the state cops on without a warrant. This section acts as a propaganda vehicle for the Department of Agriculture and the federal government.

When Tom Joad is involved in a second murder, we’re supposed to feel that he was acting honorably, and be horrified at the brutality with which the strikers are treated. I’m afraid though, that hard-hearted person that I am, I felt that Tom should have walked away, and not gotten involved in the fight. Tom has already been in prison for killing another man, and somehow two righteous, justified murders seems a bit much to ask us to accept.

At the film’s conclusion Tom gives a noble speech about how he’ll keep on fighting injustice wherever he sees it. Since I haven’t been persuaded by the justice of Tom’s cause, I’m afraid that I’m unmoved by the speech.

The film is visually stunning, but I’m afraid that it functions as propaganda for Big Government, and that it skips over too many things that argue against its message

Update January 8, 2010 I’ve been reading The Forgotten Man by Amity Shlaes. In contrast to the opening of Grapes, which implies that the tenant farmers, the sharecroppers, are being forced out by the evil landlords she makes this observation regarding farm subsidies:

“And it was not even helping all the farmers. To larger farmers, the new AAA [Agricultural Adjustment Administration] payments were welcome. Food and cash from another New Deal agency, the Federal Emergency Relief Administration, reached many of the poorest farmers. Small-farm owners, however, found the AAA regimen challenging. And tenant farmers were stunned. Landowners had historically hired sharecroppers because they themselves made profits from their share of the crop that the tenants planted and harvested. That relationship had become more tenuous as crop prices came down, and there was less for landlord and tenant to share. The tractor, a new arrival, was already obviating the need for the sharecropper—and now the AAA was paying the landowners not to farm that land. Removing the tenants began to make sense, especially when prices for crops were still not high” (167-8).

This may or may not be relevant in thinking about the problems of the Okies, and the migration caused by the Dust Bowl, but it needs to be kept in mind that the great, good, beneficent government that Steinbeck glamorized is also the cause of many of the problems that it later seeks to correct.