Friday, March 11, 2016
Inch One Hundred Eight: Hard Times
I just finished rereading The Grapes of Wrath, John Steinbeck's powerful Great American Novel. I have read it cover to cover four or five times since I was a teenager. This was my first complete reading in many years.
What hit me hardest this time around was how little has changed. Or, more accurately, how far backwards we have slid in this country.
The Grapes of Wrath is half the story of the Joad family, sharecroppers whose lives are upended and broken by the Dust Bowl and the Great Depression, and half Steinbeck's pointed commentary on the times in which he wrote. The novel came out in 1938. America had not yet climbed out of the Great Depression. Hunger, homelessness, poverty, lack of medical care, xenophobia, discrimination: Steinbeck saw and captured it all.
An evening into the book, I cried out to Warren, "Steinbeck could be writing this for our times!"
Just before beginning Grapes, I read Eviction: Poverty and Profit in the American City by Matthew Desmond. It is a searing look at the private housing industry operating in the poorest parts of a city (in this case, Milwaukee, Wisconsin), at the landlords who make money off of the poorest of the poor, at the tenants who scrounge by (or not) in that market. There are no heroes, there are not necessarily villains in the sense of Evil Grasping Landlord. But regardless of your political leanings and your personal views about poverty, it is a book that will leave you shaken.
Steinbeck and Desmond would have much to talk about.
In my community, I continue to see the effects of the Great Recession, which six years later is still doing damage. Our local food banks have grown, the free medical and legal clinics stay busy. The safety net that politicians and administrations on both sides of the aisle hacked to bits only contains the slimmest of strands. More and more juveniles coming through our courts and more and more families in our schools have been homeless at some time in the last twelve to eighteen months. Like Steinbeck, I defy anyone to blame it solely on the individuals without shelter. As he so clearly captured in Grapes, while individuals are responsible for the choices, good and bad, they make, there are factors beyond their control, the economy and the political climate, among them, in which individuals, especially the poor, the marginalized, and the disenfranchised, have no say and over which they have no control.
The Grapes of Wrath come out 78 years ago. John Steinbeck died in 1968. Here it is 2016, and the book still rings true, still reads hard, and still burns the conscience.
Our country today would make Steinbeck weep. And then he would pick up his pen with even greater urgency and anger and write a new book.