Today, I attended the last class in Public Administration, a part in the training course in propaganda for those who work in the public sector, before the summer vacation comes.
I have been reading The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck. It is among one of the best books I have ever read. It is an essential book. His writing is so realistic and powerful. A lifetime has passed since the book was first published in 1939. World War II broke out and ended. The Cold War came and went too. Yet his characters and his themes are still contemporary, more than ever perhaps. The very first lines and paragraphs caught me:
To the red country and part of the gray country of Oklahoma, the last rains came gently, and they did not cut the scarred earth. The plows crossed and recrossed the rivulet marks. The last rains lifted the corn quickly and scattered weed colonies and grass along the sides of the roads so that the gray country and the dark red country began to disappear under a green cover. In the last part of May the sky grew pale and the clouds that had hung in high puffs for so long in the spring were dissipated. The sun flared down on the growing corn day after day until a line of brown spread along the edge of each green bayonet. The clouds appeared, and went away, and in a while they did not try any more. The weeds grew darker green to protect themselves, and they did not spread any more. The surface of the earth crusted, a thin hard crust, and as the sky became pale, so the earth became pale, pink in the red country and white in the gray country.
In the water-cut gullies the earth dusted down in dry little streams. Gophers and ant lions started small avalanches. And as the sharp sun struck day after day, the leaves of the young corn became less stiff and erect; they bent in a curve at first, and then, as the central ribs of strength grew weak, each leaf tilted downward. Then it was June, and the sun shone more fiercely. The brown lines on the corn leaves widened and moved in on the central ribs. The weeds frayed and edged back toward their roots. The air was thin and the sky more pale; and every day the earth paled.
In the roads where the teams moved, where the wheels milled the ground and the hooves of the horses beat the ground, the dirt crust broke and the dust formed. Every moving thing lifted the dust into the air: a walking man lifted a thin layer as high as his waist, and a wagon lifted the dust as high as the fence tops, and an automobile boiled a cloud behind it. The dust was long in settling back again.
When June was half gone, the big clouds moved up out of Texas and the Gulf, high heavy clouds, rain-heads. The men in the fields looked up at the clouds and sniffed at them and held wet fingers up to sense the wind. And the horses were nervous while the clouds were up. The rain-heads dropped a little spattering and hurried on to some other country. Behind them the sky was pale again and the sun flared. In the dust there were drop craters where the rain had fallen, and there were clean splashes on the corn, and that was all.
A gentle wind followed the rain clouds, driving them on northward, a wind that softly clashed the drying corn. A day went by and the wind increased, steady, unbroken by gusts. The dust from the roads fluffed up and spread out and fell on the weeds beside the fields, and fell into the fields a little way. Now the wind grew strong and hard and it worked at the rain crust in the corn fields. Little by little he sky was darkened by the mixing dust, and the wind felt over the earth, loosened the dust, and carried it away.
The wind grew stronger. The rain crust broke and the dust lifted up out of the fields and drove gray plumes into the air like sluggish smoke. The corn threshed the wind and made a dry, rushing sound. The finest dust did not settle back to earth now, but disappeared into the darkening sky. The wind grew stronger, whisked under stones, carried up straws and old leaves, and even little clods, marking its course as it sailed across the fields. The air and the sky darkened and through them the sun shone redly, and there was a raw sting in the air. During a night the wind raced faster over the land, dug cunningly among the rootlets of the corn, and the corn fought the wind with its weakened leaves until the roots were freed by the prying wind and then each stalk settled wearily sideways toward the earth and pointed the direction of the wind.
The dawn came, but no day. In the gray sky a red sun appeared, a dim red circle that gave a little light, like dusk; and as that day advanced, the dusk slipped back toward darkness, and the wind cried and whimpered over the fallen corn.
I would passionately agree with the review on The Guardian that: “Steinbeck’s writing form a photograph album of America.” Along with Willa Cather’s, that of Steinbeck has triggered in me a great, sometimes inexplicable, sensation about the American soil, and given me the understanding of what those farmers feel about their lands. It seems like I have lived with them, talked to them and eaten with them.
And along the journey of the Joads from Oklahoma to find a new life with new chances in prosperous California, we come to learn more about the plight of poor, desperate farmers in the aftermath of the Great Depression, when they wake up and find they cannot live and work on their own anymore. They have to leave, without a knowledge of what they are going to do next. The have-nots became refugees in their own country, displaced from the land they used to work on. They are estranged by their own people of the same skin colour.
And then the dispossessed were drawn west–from Kansas, Oklahoma, Texas, New Mexico; from Nevada and Arkansas families, tribes, dusted out, tractored out. Carloads, caravans, homeless and hungry; twenty thousand and fifty thousand and a hundred thousand and two hundred thousand. They streamed over the mountains, hungry and restless–restless as ants, scurrying to find work to do–to lift, to push, to pull, to pick, to cut anything, any burden to bear, for food. The kids are hungry. We got no place to live. Like ants scurrying for work, for food, and most of all for land.
We ain’t foreign. Seven generations back Americans, and beyond that Irish, Scotch, English German. One of our folk in the Revolution an’ they was lots of our folks in the Civil War–both sides. Americans.
twenty thousand and fifty thousand and a hundred thousand and two hundred thousand, they all become statistical lives, not identified lives that we can know about and sympathise with. They are among cold numerical chains.
And I think it is the way working-class men in this world are perceived and treated. All those grassroots with little tertiary education and experience abroad, those with very few opportunities and means to change their life for the better are suffering like the Joads and thousands of families who were going to the West.
It is more than certain that America has changed so much ever since. Just imagine Mr. Steinbeck attended Stanford when it charged no tuition fees and he was awarded Nobel Prize in Literature in the same year my mother was born. Things change, of course. And I hope that one day I could have hands-on experience of America, of the harsh storms in Oklahoma and see with my own eyes the lively orchards in California.
June was gone.