Forever has to end sometime and it (not forever but the book) had sat on my floor forever. My fingers would from time to time flick through its pages, eyes scanning the words, heart quickening at the one-sure-day prospect of starting this new book. I do this often to all the unread books on my weary floor or at least to the ones that I can reach easy. Today I finally came round to reading John Steinbeck’s “The Grapes of Wrath”; its turn had come; the bell had tolled; its number had come up. Ah, but first the painful thirty pages of Introduction. Who writes these long pro-prologues?
I always read Introductions because from experience they add context that’s more often than not inestimable. For Steinbeck’s book I was moved by the background accounts of dust bowl 1930s California; starving migrants on the quest for a home, to “eat what they raise, use what they produce … and share in the works of their hands and their heads.” The feudal landlords who ran California would hear none of this. Despite the Federal Government’s efforts to provide humane living conditions for the migrants, conservatives in Congress worked to wreck the Government’s plan by slashing the budget (sound familiar?). It’s a sure bet these conservatives were all church-going christians. Helping the poor is just not the American way.
“There are about five thousand families starving to death …, not just hungry but actually starving. The government is trying to feed them and get medical attention to them with the fascist group of utilities and banks and huge growers sabotaging the thing all along the line.” – from a letter Steinbeck wrote to his agent, Elizabeth Otis.
I’m reminded of the famous Gracchi brothers, Tiberius and Gaius; social reformers in Rome almost a century before the great Julius, that dictator for life who has come to define the Roman epoch. The famous brothers planned land reforms to tackle the plight of the peasants who worked the lands of the rich landowners. Not surprisingly these plans were stoutly opposed. In the end both brothers were assassinated by their political opponents and by vested interests. But the thread they unravelled wound its infernal way down the ages until Augustus wound the last metre around the throat of the established order and snuffed out the Republic. After that, the vested interests (that is, those who hadn’t been killed off) adjusted to the new regime of Empire and the poor continued being destitute. Jesus said we will always have the poor (Mark 14:7) and he was damn right. But does he have to be right forever and ever?
After Steinbeck’s book came out the conservative Right went into overdrive. They called the book “communist”, “immoral”, “warped”, “a lie, a black, infernal creation of a twisted, distorted mind.” And there’s the tactic of calling a hated work “an embodiment of Marxist Soviet propaganda.” [Admittedly, this coming in the shadow of Stalin’s show trials must have been particularly damning]. Even in a democracy standing up to entrenched power is often a dangerous adventure.
PS The edition I have is the Penguin one introduced by Robert DeMott