PEN American Center 4: Fact/Fiction

This talk was presented, in slightly different form, at a PEN Twentieth-Century Masters Tribute.

Dorothy Allison reminds me of a woman I know in Chicago named Peggy Carey. Peggy came out of the Ozarks and during the tumultuous ’60s she became the voice of the mountain people in Chicago. Peggy had little education, but her eloquence was such that she set all hearts on fire. During one of those gatherings, a student gave her a tattered paperback copy, well-thumbed, of The Grapes of Wrath. And these are Peggy’s words, when she finished reading it:

When I was reading Grapes of Wrath it was like reliving my own life, particularly the part when they lived in a government camp. When we were picking fruit in Texas we lived in a government place like that. They showed us how to make mattresses. We didn’t know anything. And every Saturday night we’d have a dance. I think the worst thing our system does to people is take away their pride, prevent them from being human beings. I don’t think people were put on earth to suffer. I think that’s a lot of nonsense. I think we’re the highest development on earth, and put here to be happy and enjoy everything that’s here. I think it’s right for a handful of people to get ahold of a thing that makes life a joy instead of a sorrow, and takes your heart and squeezes it, and then it hits you, and like a big hand it just . . . you don’t know what the next day’s gonna bring—hunger, you don’t know. I was never so proud of poor people as I was after I read Grapes of Wrath.

It’s Steinbeck’s prophetic touch, that touch of clairvoyance, which makes his book so pertinent today. In 1989 I found myself on a farm in Iowa, twenty-three miles southeast of Des Moines. Carl Nearmeyer, fourth-generation farmer, was losing the farm.

Fifty years earlier, in 1939, Muley Graves, a stubborn little tenant farmer, will not go along Highway 66 to the land of milk and honey the way the Joads did; he’s gonna defend his piece of dirt. Here comes this huge caterpillar tractor about to bulldoze his shack, and the guy on the tractor pulls up his goggles and Muley says, “Why, you’re Jude Davis’s boy. You’re ours, how can you do it to your own people?” And the guy says, “I got a wife and two kids to feed, out of my way.” Carl Nearmeyer, in 1989: “Here comes the bailiff to take away our stuff. And I recognize him. I say, ‘You’re ours, how can you do this to your own people?’ He says, ‘I’ve got a family to feed. If I don’t do it, someone else will.’”

Grapes of Wrath: “‘Sure,’ cried the tenant farmer, ‘but it’s our land. We were born on it, got killed on it, we died on it. Even if it’s no good, it’s still ours. That’s what makes it ours, being born on it, working on it, dying on it. That makes ownership, not a piece of paper with numbers on it.’” Iowa, 1989: “There were several times I had a gun to my head. . . . and then I got damn mad. I got to thinking about it and I got madder. These people don’t have the right to do this to me. I’ve worked the land, I’ve sweated, and I’ve bled. I’ve tried to keep this place going, and they take it away from me.”

Grapes of Wrath, 1939: “The men were silent and they did not move often. Women came out of the homes to stand beside their men—to feel whether this time the men would break. The women studied the men’s faces secretly, because the corn could go as long as something else remained.” In Iowa, fifty years later, I heard: “The women were apt to talk to other farmwives about their problems rather than sit down and talk with their husbands. If I was to come up with a suggestion, he’d get very upset. It wasn’t that I didn’t know as much as he did, it was just that he was keeping it inside himself.”

Grapes of Wrath came out as a result of the New Deal, came out as a result of help from the Farm Security Administration under the aegis of Henry Wallace, Secretary of Agriculture. Those four years, 1936 to 1940, were the glory years of the New Deal. The Farm Security Administration gave us the photographs of Walker Evans and Dorothea Lange and Margaret Bourke-White and Gordon Parks, gave us great documentary films like The Plow That Broke the Plains. And it gave us The Grapes of Wrath, too. Calvin Benham Baldwin, deputy under Rex Tugwell, head of the Farm Security Administration, said this:

Almost everything we did became controversial. Harry Hopkins, then head of the WPA, had built a couple of migratory camps in California. They were transferred to us, the FSA. But Grapes of Wrath tells it better than we could. I got a call from John Steinbeck. He wanted some help. He planned to write this book about migrant workers. We were delighted. He said, “I’m writing people who have to live as they live.” He planned to work for seven or eight weeks as a pea picker or something like that. And then, he asked us to assign someone to go along with him, a migrant worker. We chose a little guy named Tom Collins, out of Virginia. I paid Collins’s salary, which was somewhat illegal. He and Steinbeck worked together for seven or eight weeks. Steinbeck insisted that Collins be technical director of the film and get credit, and he also co-dedicated the book to him. At these camps people ran their own affairs. We had our project manager there to help them. This picture was the most controversial thing we ever did. We built a camp, we held a public hearing, there were lots of oppositions, especially from the Associated Farmers, the big farmers.

In his journal Steinbeck wrote, “Detail, detail, detail. Looks, clothes, gestures, I need all the stuff, it’s got to be exact, because the big growers will use it against me if I’m wrong.” And of course they went crazy when the book came out. As a friendly deputy sheriff said to Steinbeck, “Don’t ever stay in a motel room alone, because a woman is gonna come in, tear her dress off, scratch her own face, and cry rape.” Well, they never got him that way, but they got the book. It was burned, I think, more than any other book in what is now called, ironically enough, Steinbeck Country. I have a hunch that the thing Steinbeck would delight in most of all is that his book gave people like Peggy Carey revelation, self-esteem, and pride. That’s what it was all about, and that’s what it still is.