In Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath, the Joad family is moving from Oklahoma to California. The fourteenth chapter marks an interesting transition between the death of Grandpa Joad and the start of Ma and Al’s story. It is a short, philosophical speech describing the great changes sweeping across America, and the great unnecessary panic it caused. Steinbeck is emphatic that mankind never takes more a half step back, which I largely disagree with. He argues, “this you may say of man – when theories change and crash, when schools, philosophies, when narrow dark alleys of thought, national, religious, economic, grow and disintegrate, man reaches, stumbles forward, painfully, mistakenly sometimes. Having stepped forward, he may slip back, but only half a step, never the full step back.” While civilization around them deteriorates, Steinbeck describes these incredible steps backward that these Oklahoman tenant farmer families face from pawnbrokers to used car salesman. It is apparent that Steinbeck, and most of white culture, never truly takes the time nor has the vehicle to analyze, criticize, mourn and take responsibility for the damage that they cause. Their “progress” was indeed several steps backward for humanity, it destroyed entire ecosystems and cultures without thought, and it spread plague, disease, violence and the same car salesman that are so inhuman in times of need. Steinbeck gets close when he describes, “the great owners… not knowing these things are results, not causes. The causes are a hunger in a stomach… hunger for joy and some security, muscles aching to work, minds aching to create…” on page 150, but he never finds fault with white man’s insatiable culture, a Protestant Christian society where greed became a virtue, for there is no better Christian than a sinner with a pocketful of coins.
The incredible proliferation of the church through the bible belt was built on these dollars. These landowners plowed their tenant farmers out of their land, their homes, with industrial tractors and left nothing but church houses and banks in its path. This vague concept of Mankind broke down when white men turned their backs on other white men. Funny enough, this is not the first time in history that the elites of a white society have conveniently sacrificed the needs and concerns of members of lower socioeconomic classes in the interest of maintaining their power, wealth and influence. However, white man has proven timelessly to follow a single book when times get tough, reverting to the same material for answers to the same problems that have surfaced time and time again. The hope, the manifest destiny, the promised land, all of these themes come out in every piece of literature. Do we realize that it was white man destroying white man this time, not the Pharaoh?
In his last major quote from the chapter, it ends with “For the quality of owning freezes you forever into “I”, and cuts you off forever from the “we”. The accumulation of wealth tends to isolate you. When you personally reap what you sow from the fields, the land YOU own, the land you care for, and you actually see your hard work bearing fruit, this direct contact gives meaning to your life. However, the farther you get from the process, the less you respect the work and the people who do it. You understand the whole process less and less. This is what allowed these landowners to thoughtlessly plow over their land and evicting their tenants. Instead of investing in the people that make your business grow, you grow to only care about the dollar sign attached to an asset’s value. This is the fundamental flaw of capitalism: asset value over human labor value. A machine, built by man to replace men, can still be viewed as less valuable than one man, if the right philosopher is asked.