John Steinbeck's bitter fruit



I read The Grapes of Wrath in that fierce span of adolescence when reading was a frenzy. I was all but drowned in the pity and anger John Steinbeck evoked for these people, fleeing Oklahoma to seek work but finding nothing save cruelty, violence, the enmity of immoral banks and businesses, and the neglect by the state of its own people in the Land of the Free. The novel was published in 1939 and delivered a shock to the English reading world.

But for years I did not read him. Earlier this year, when asked to make a film about Steinbeck for the BBC, I went back with apprehension. The peaks of one's adolescent reading can prove troughs in late middle age. Life moves on; not all books do. But 50 years later, The Grapes of Wrath seems as savage as ever, and richer for my greater awareness of what Steinbeck did with the Oklahoma dialect and with his characters. It is just as alive, with its fine anger against the banks: "The bank – the monster – has to have profit all the time. It can't wait … It'll die when the monster stops growing. It can't stay in one place."

We started filming with a small crew in Oklahoma, near the spot where the novel begins. This summer there was another drought, as there had been in the 1930s. They farm land better now, but even so, many farmers are going bust. The resonances with contemporary America were powerful: the working and middle classes have once again been holed by the big banks. Once again, the protests have started up, as Americans scan their continent for work. As in the 1930s, there is a powerful feeling that the promised land promises nothing, not even hope.

In Steinbeck's day, this was part of the American dust bowl. "Every moving thing lifted the dust into the air," he wrote in The Grapes of Wrath. "A walking man lifted a thin layer as high as his waist. An automobile boiled a cloud behind it." Archive footage of the time shows dust storms swirling across the flat lands like tornadoes.

In the novel, the Joad family are driven off their farm by the banks. They pile, all 12 of them, into a truck which takes aim for the west coast, more than 1,000 miles of desert and a mountain range away. Although Steinbeck was not a Christian, he plundered the King James Bible for stories (Cain and Abel became East of Eden) and for the pulse of his prose. The family of 12 on that truck are as the 12 tribes of Israel seeking liberation. The truck itself is an ark; there is even a man named Noah on board. It was this journey that my camera crew and I followed, often down Highway 66, "the main immigrant road … the path of people in flight, refugees from dust and the shrinking land, from the thunder of tractors and shrinking ownership". Upwards of half a million Americans migrated west in the space of two or three years in the 30s, the biggest internal migration in US history. ...

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