The Grapes of Wrath (1939) is one of the classics of American and World literature, THE great novel of the Depression, and of course a great Road story, of impoverished farming family the Joads, and their journey from Oklahoma to California. It was made into a movie, one of the great movies according to Wikipedia, the following year. The image above, of the Joads’ ‘truck’, a 1926 Hudson Super Six cut down from a sedan and given a home-made truck body, is from the movie.
When I was a boy scout if we went on a troop camp – say 15 or 20 boys – our scout leader would take us in his farm truck with a cattle crate 16 ft long by 8 ft wide with 6 ft high slat sides, and we boys would sit on tents or on our bags with our backs against the slats, smoking Alpines, Camels, Viscounts, Marlboros, and it is this sort of roomy feeling I got reading (listening to) the book once again last week, but in fact the body on the Hudson wouldn’t have been much larger than the tray on my Hi-Lux ute – 8 ft long by 6 ft wide – and there were 13 Joads, counting the preacher and the son-in-law, some of them lying on mattresses (and at one stage Connie talks Rose of Sharon into having sex!). That’s awful crowded.
Don’t you think Rose of Sharon is a great name? Luckily I’m past the age of giving names to daughters or I’d have been tempted. It’s from the Bible, though apparently no-one is sure what flower it describes.
Everyone has read and seen TGoW I’m sure, but what struck me this time round was the number of trucks and the time Steinbeck takes to describe them. First up is a new diesel truck. Tom Joad, just of jail for killing a man, hitches a lift home.
For a moment the driver stared after him, and then he called “Luck!” Joad waved his hand without looking around, then the motor roared up and the gears clicked and the great red truck rolled heavily away.
I had thought most US trucks were petrol engined but I discover GM introduced the 71 series two-stroke diesel engines which I was driving in the 1970s, in 1938. And Mack too had diesel powered trucks back then.
Not much later Steinbeck introduces a roadside cafe by describing two drivers – a long distance two-up team – chatting to the woman behind the counter. Their truck has a sleeper berth “high up, behind the driver”. I can’t imagine what their truck was (maybe Melanie/GTL’s father can tell me), but they did exist, as these images show.
I’m sitting in a roadhouse (Wingfield, Adelaide today) waiting for work and using Google Books to look up quotes. It’s hard to know what phrases to search on but the scene in the cafe brings up this, which resonates:
He’d go nuts just settin’ here and the road sneakin’ under the wheels. Fella said once that truck skinners eats all the time – eats all the time in hamburger joints along the road.
I owned and drove old trucks (20 or 30 years newer than these in build if not in design), Inters, Atkinsons, AECs, Leylands on long distance and Austins and Bedfords on local, so a lot of what Tom and Allan put up with is familiar. I never cranked a truck though I think we could crank our old Prefect and Granddad used a blowtorch to heat up his single cylinder Lanz Bulldog tractor, then a big flywheel to turn it over, with a deep bop-bop-bop that would send me running out of the machinery shed and down the track to the house.
When a big end bearing fails on the road the boys drop the sump (oil pan) and swap out the piston. I’ve done the same more than once, though not with secondhand parts from the wreckers as they did. I’m fascinated that they were able to get the replacement piston up past the crankshaft and into the cylinder, holding the piston ring tight with bronze wire which melted when the engine fired up. I’ve always had to remove the head – which means a new head gasket – and put the new piston in from above.
Enough trucks? The Grapes of Wrath is a Realist novel, following in the tradition of Zola and Jack London, not just describing the poor but explaining how they are cheated by the rich, the banks and the big landowners. ‘Conservative’ governments again and again allow the banks to create credit on the back of low quality paper, and again and again the paper – often junk mortgages – fails, the banks fail or at least withdraw credit, and so businesses relying on credit fail. Here the businesses are small farms, 40 acres – tiny by comparison with Australia where my grandparents’ selection in the Mallee was a square mile, 640 acres – many of the farmers already reduced from owners to tenants by years of drought, and with the coming of mechanized ploughing the banks force the people off the land causing a great wave of migration from Oklahoma and surrounding states to the land of milk and honey, California. Only there, the banks and land owners are squeezing the little guys too, using their ownership of canneries to force down prices and ruthlessly underpaying the great influx of farm workers.
So the migrants are hated. Even workers in employment can’t afford to spend. Big business profits skyrocket while the economy stagnates. If it all sounds familiar that’s because it is. While the middle class is prosperous Capitalism seems benevolent. But it never lasts. Does it?
Interestingly Steinbeck alternates the Joad’s story with chapters of general description, economic theory, or illustrative stories with unnamed characters. And it works. Do you think the novel has a central protagonist? Sometimes I think it is Tom and sometimes I think Ma.
Ma is certainly the most interesting character. She says to Tom senior (her husband), you can give me a few whacks when you’re doing your job, supporting the family, but now we’re down and out, I’ve got to step up, assert control, and if you try and give me a few whacks now you’ll find I’ll be whacking back.
The Joads never get on their feet in California, the old people die, Noah, Connie, the preacher leave. Eventually Tom is forced to leave. But the novel ends with a flicker of hope, or at least of life-goes-on. Al settles down with his girl, and Rose of Sharon, her baby still-born, brings a near-dead man back to life.
John Steinbeck, The Grapes of Wrath, first pub. 1939. Audiobook: Hachette, read by John Chancer