Rereading “The Grapes of Wrath”: Chapter 4

One of my favorite characters in a Steinbeck book (okay, that’s a little predictable) shows up in Chapter 4 and makes everything a little more tragicomic. It’s the preacher, Jim Casy, he of the lost faith (or is it? Probably), memorably played in the film by John Carradine.

(Carradine was one of those great acting patriarchs. You know him as the father of David Carradine, who played Quentin Tarantino’s Bill – the one who got Killed – as well as the protagonist of “Kung Fu” and, appropriately for this blog, Woody Guthrie in Bound for Glory.)

A few words on the film: I haven’t seen it in about a year, around the time I started writing this blog (I took some time off to produce a radio / web series about literature in Missouri.) But I’ve always loved that movie since I first watched it as a kid. I’ve always loved Jane Darwell’s super-emotive Ma Joad. I loved the way John Ford shot all the scenes with so much contrast and shadow. And John Carradine was one of the best parts of that film.

My dad was a preacher. He’s mostly retired now, but he still has a small congregation in a tiny town in the Bootheel of Missouri called Senath. The Bootheel is a desolate, empty, barren, flat patch of what used to be something close to farmland. These days they still grow crops there, but all the people are gone – all the farm families have been replaced by Con-Agra, Tyson Chicken and Monsanto. These companies are not humans, and I have never seen any evidence that they are run by humans. They remind me of the banks – more on that in the glorious Chapter 5, coming soon.

My dad once worked for Tyson Chicken. The company is known to us animal-rights activists as one of the most horrifyingly inhumane, cruel, hellish and abusive factory farms in the world – “torture mill” is an understatement, and watch this video if you don’t believe me: 

The employees there, often illiterate migrant farm workers (again, hold that thought as we move through the book), doubtless require some kind of moral and spiritual reassurance after committing the kind of atrocities they commit on a daily basis against living beings. This, as is my understanding, was my dad’s job.

So in one sense, he was a particularly disturbing cog in this machine. But he grew up a migrant farm worker himself. He picked cotton. One of seven brothers and sisters living in a tiny shack in the middle of a flat, barren Arkansas landscape, he traveled as far as Michigan and Florida every year. This was in the 1950s and 1960s, a time when migrant farm workers rarely graduated from high school.

More on that soon. What does Preacher Casy have to say in his introductory scene, and why do I so closely tie together him with my father, my images of that bleak landscape, and a sense of oppression, exploitation, and – ultimately – guilt?

We see him (Casy, not my father) sitting under a tree when we first meet him:

whistling solemnly the tune of “Yes Sir, That’s My Baby.” His extended foot swung slowly up and down in the tempo. It was not dance tempo. He stopping whistling and sang in an easy thin tenor: “Yes, sir, that’s my Saviour, / Je–sus is my Saviour, / Je–sus is my Saviour now. / On the level / ‘S not the devil, / Jesus is my Saviour now.”

The first thing we might notice is that Casy mixes the sacred with the profane; or rather, lets one drift into the other in a way that could be blasphemous or at least a little heretical. That’s definitely a big part of his character, but it’s right there on the surface. It’s his most obvious face to the world. Look at his first little speech, in which he reminisces about “ministering” to Joad years before:

You was always too busy pullin’ little girls’ pigtails when I give you the Holy Sperit. You was all wropped up in yankin’ that pigtail out by the roots. You maybe don’t recollect, but I do. The two of you come to Jesus at once ’cause of that pigtail yankin’. Baptized both of you in the irrigation ditch at once. Fightin’ and yellin’ like a couple a cats.

But Preacher Casy has more or less retired. Now and then he’ll still preach, “when the spirit moves him.” But it’s a different set of spirits that move him these days. While he’s undeniably a drunk, this is not the tale of a once-holy man who has fallen from grace, which we realize as he looks back wistfully on his professional days.

I use ta get the people jumpin’ an’ talkin’ in tongues, an’ glory-shoutin’ till they just fell down an’ passed out. An’ some I’d baptize to bring ’em to. An’ then — you know what I’d do? I’d take one of them girls out in the grass, an’ I’d lay with her. Done it ever’ time. Then I’d feel bad, an’ I’d pray an’ pray, but it didn’t do no good. Come the nex’ time, them an’ me was full of the sperit, I’d do it again. I figgered there just wasn’t no hope for me, an’ I was a damned ol’ hypocrite. But I didn’t mean to be.

Oh, the guilt. Preacher Casy thinks he must be the first person to ever experience a temptation-related spiritual crisis. These days, tropes for men of God tend to focus on their ability to sin (for example, look at TV Tropes’ Religion section), as if it’s still shocking in 2012 that a human being who holds a leadership role within a church or religious sect could be fallible. Seeing as most people I know within my generation either 1) can only speak of religion with contempt, or 2) are those Facebook friends I never talk to who still live in the Bible Belt and have 16 kids and belong to some weird evangelical branch of Christianity I can’t even begin to understand, I think we may have a bit of a problem. But Preacher Casy is a lot more complicated than a series of cliches and tropes, no matter how you try to fit him into them.

In the end, though, here’s what I take out of this chapter. This speech is the introduction to what I will call Casyian theology: the populist, heretical idea that all people are sinners, and all people are holy.

I figgered about the Holy Sperit and the Jesus road. I figgered, ‘Why do we got to hang it on God or Jesus? Maybe,’ I figgered, ‘maybe it’s all men an’ all women we love; maybe that’s the Holy Sperit — the human sperit — the whole shebang. Maybe all men got one big soul ever’body’s a part of.’ Now I sat there thinkin’ it, an’ all of a suddent — I knew it. I knew it so deep down that it was true, and I still know it.”

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