‘That’s so,’ the tenant said. ‘Who gave you orders? I’ll go after him. He’s the one to kill.’
‘You’re wrong. He got his orders from the bank. The bank told him, “Clear those people out or it’s your job.”‘
‘Well, there’s a president of the bank. There’s a board of directors. I’ll fill up the magazine of the rifle and go into the bank.’
The driver said, ‘Fellow was telling me the bank gets orders from the East. The orders were, ‘Make the land show profit or we’ll close you up.’
‘But where does it stop? Who can we shoot? I don’t aim to starve to death before I kill the man that’s starving me.’
‘I don’t know. Maybe there’s nobody to shoot. Maybe the thing isn’t men at all. Maybe, like you said, the property’s doing it. Anyway I told you my orders.’
I still remember the first time I read this chapter.
I was waiting for a train at the Ludlow stop on the Metro-North line, on the line between Yonkers and the Bronx. It was a cold night, and I was in one of those dirty little enclosures, huddled to try to keep warm. I had just moved to New York City, or as close to NYC as I could get at the time. I’d never read The Grapes of Wrath before then. Maybe that’s because the book is still a little touchy, and if it’s going to be taught, it must often be taught a very specific and limiting way to avoid its true voice from coming out (and provoking some angry PTA conversations, no doubt.)
Mention the book to, say, a high school English teacher, and you’re likely to be told what a work of American realism this book is, a spin on The Iliad or the Book of Exodus, the story of a people and a document of the Great Depression. As if it were no more than a travelogue, a historical newsreel.
But that’s all just sheen. This book is a bomb.
In this chapter, Chapter 5, the bomb’s fuse is lit. And the rest of the story will be the epic unraveling of that fuse until it blows, much later one, in another of the “B” chapters that provides the book’s title. John Steinbeck isn’t just telling a story (although he’s doing that wonderfully) – he’s diving headfirst into the most dangerous waters of addressing injustice. The ones that get you called socialist, communist, pinko, anarchist, terrorist, traitor. The ones that say if the bank is taking your home, if they’re leeching off hard-working people, exploiting and oppressing you and your family and your land and your friends, you take the bank and you take them down and you destroy them. And you change the world so they can never do it again. This is the angry voice behind Occupy Wall Street, this is a Molotov cocktail, manifest in a “Great American novel” that’s supposed to be stuffy and boring and unthreatening.
In this chapter, a farmer watches as his land, the land he raised his family on and loved and treated with such attention and care, is pulled out from under him and decimated. It was taken from him by The Bank, the ultimate evil and monster of the industrial age. When the owner men tell him The Bank is coming to claim its debt, they refuse to accept any responsibility:
‘It’s not us, it’s the bank. A bank isn’t like a man. Or an owner with fifty thousand acres, he isn’t like a man. That’s the monster … It’s not us. It’s the monster. The bank isn’t like a man.’
‘Yes, but the bank is only made of men.’
‘No, you’re wrong there – quite wrong there. The bank is something else than men. It happens that every man in a bank hates what the bank does, and yet the bank does it. The bank is something more than men, I tell you. It’s the monster. Men made it, but they can’t control it.
In the worst insult, a local boy shows up with a tractor to tear down his house, leaving him homeless. He recognizes the boy:
‘Why, you’re Joe Davis’s boy!’
‘Sure,’ the driver said.
‘Well, what you doing this kind of work for – against your own people?’
‘Three dollars a day. I got damn sick of creeping for my dinner – and not getting it.’
The farmer, contemplating this mindless, subservient selfishness, becomes a socialist on the spot.
‘Let a man get property he doesn’t see, or can’t take the time to get his fingers in, or can’t be there to walk on it – why, then the property is the man. He can’t do what he wants, he can’t think what he wants. The property is the man, stronger than he is. And he is small, not big. Only his possessions are big – and he’s the servant of his property.’
And Joe Davis’s boy’s voice responds in the dull, robotic voice of a malicious Wal-Mart greeter. It is, to Steinbeck, the horrible voice of American capitalism. Note, also, the libertarian undertones.
‘Times are changed, don’t you know? Thinking about stuff like that don’t feed the kids. Get your three dollars a day, feed your kids. You got no call to worry about anybody’s kids but your own. You get a reputation for talking like that, and you’ll never get three dollars a day. Big shots won’t give you three dollars a day if you worry about anything but your three dollars a day.’
The Bank is banks, it’s true – when Bank of America forecloses on a house, this chapter repeats itself, over and over. But The Bank is more than that. It is the monster of corporatism – it is Tyson Foods, Monsanto, McDonalds, Wal-Mart. When you drive through the Sprawl, you are driving through land eaten up and spit out by The Bank.
Take a look at that interaction at the top. The farmer continues speaking, and so offers one of the most powerful rallying cries in literature. Here’s the fuse being lit:
‘I got to figure,’ the tenant said. ‘We all got to figure. There’s some way to stop this. It’s not like lightning or earthquakes. We’ve got a bad thing made by men, and by God that’s something we can change.’
There are passages of writing that resonate so fiercely and deeply throughout our society – that express the truth so clearly and poetically, so perfectly – that to read them is to understand, instantly. They are the clearest images we can draw of our grand narrative. This chapter is one of those.
Nothing has improved since Steinbeck warned us. The Bank has gotten stronger, gotten out of control by all conceivable measures. Joe Davis’s dead-eyed boys, more than ever, shuffle off to work for it every day, for the 2012 equivalent of three dollars a day. What they do is called a McJob, or sometimes Rick Perry’s Texas Miracle. It is an evil system, Steinbeck tells us. But as last fall, and the Occupy movement, taught us, it is not invincible. It is oppressive but fallible. It is efficient but heartless. It is destructive but unsustainable.
And by God, that’s something we can change.