Gerald Haslam: Grapes of Wrath’s timeless messages, 75 years later

A librarian at the Oildale branch of the Kern County Library in 1952 would not allow me to check out John Steinbeck’s novel “The Grapes of Wrath.” I’d just seen the movie, and had heard from pals there was a book based on it, and that it was dirty.

At 15, “dirty” was an alluring literary term to me. As luck had it, I had cash to buy a paperback copy of the novel, since my father, an oil worker from Texas, believed “a boy needs to learn where money comes from.” I had by then been a seasonal farm laborer for four summers.

At first, as I read the forbidden pages, I didn’t realize it was about our neighbors and kin – from Arkansas, from Oklahoma, from Texas, from Missouri – and that much of Steinbeck’s story was set in my home area: Weedpatch, Lamont, Arvin, Edison. I should have, for there was still a “Hooverville” camp along the Kern River just a mile or so from our house; people there lived in cars or tents or even cardboard hovels.

I had long taken that economic situation for granted, but as I read Steinbeck’s story, I began to notice troubling realities. When I arrived for work in the fields, for instance, I wore boots and carried a bag lunch, but there were other kids with no shoes and no lunch, and I began to wonder why.

Steinbeck’s novel, first published 75 years ago next month, forced me to recognize the contrast between privation and wealth around me. Having been raised in an agricultural community, the author knew the economic pattern of agribusiness.

I soon identified the characters and the situations in “The Grapes of Wrath” with people I knew. Perhaps most startling, I also began to understand that serious, important literature could be set in the San Joaquin Valley. The “classic” texts assigned in my high-school English classes made that seem unlikely indeed.

As it turned out, Steinbeck’s novel had been for a time officially banned in Kern County, and red herrings were still being employed to justify prohibiting it – too obscene, too demeaning of the migrants, too unfair to California businesses.

Their purpose was to prevent people from reading a story that showed the local power structure in an unflattering light. W.B. Camp, an agribusiness spokesman at the time, claimed that “the Communist Party wrote the outline and Steinbeck filled in the rest of the crap.”

Yet the mistreatment of desperate Southwestern migrants by some growers was no secret. Before producer Darryl Zanuck shot his movie of the novel, he dispatched investigators into the fields to see if the story had exaggerated conditions. They reported that the situation was worse than Steinbeck had shown.

As I read “The Grapes of Wrath” a second time, I had deeper realizations. I sensed there was a story within the story as the Joad family traveled and changed and finally embraced all humanity.

I was then attending a Catholic secondary school in Bakersfield, so I recognized the plethora of biblical allusions employed by the agnostic Steinbeck; among the more obvious: Jim Casey (J.C.) becomes a version of the Savior and, before he is killed, his final words – “You fellas don’t know what you’re a-doin’ ” – paraphrase the words of Jesus.

Tom Joad (doubting Thomas) becomes Casey’s disciple; the “Joad” family and their hardships compare with those of Job. Perhaps most important, Rose of Sharon, whose name appears in Solomon’s “Song of Songs,” performs a saintly gesture at the novel’s conclusion, suggesting we should all help one another.

Something like a religious jolt occurred in me, and by the time I reached that scene in which where Rose of Sharon suckled a starving stranger, I understood that I was in over my head.

Critics, I later learned, complained that the novel had no real conclusion, but they were wrong. Steinbeck wrote of the reality of the time: In 1939, no end to the Depression was in sight.

But when the U.S. entered World War II in 1941, the novelist’s powerful image of human compassion and unity proved prescient indeed. Everyone had to symbolically nourish strangers in a united effort to save our country. Fifteen million people, including the Joads, got jobs during World War II and California was transformed.

So was I after reading and rereading Steinbeck’s masterpiece, and so were millions of readers all over the world, most of whom who wouldn’t know an Okie from an oak tree, but who have responded to the deeper message in “The Grapes of Wrath.”