For all the conundrums surrounding John Steinbeck’s intensely allegorical Grapes of Wrath—what does the sand turtle represent? Is the Pentecostal Jim Casy a stand-in for another martyred J.C.?—there has been little confusion over the essential nature of the novel’s heart and hearth, Ma Joad. She is Steinbeck’s great Depression-era heroine, his ür-matriarch, a primal centrifugal force holding her sharecropper kin together in a time of desperate crisis. Her maternal sacrifices and iron will elevate the character to the level of sublime archetype: she is Eve exiled from her Oklahoma Eden; she is Jochebed, hiding her prophet son in the riverine rushes; she is Miriam, not Moses, leading her oppressed people toward the fruitful land of milk and honey. She ranks right up there with Atticus Finch, Huck Finn and the bombardier Yossarian when it comes to the biggest hearts and purest souls in American fiction.
Ever since Steinbeck published his opus on the plight of the Dust Bowl migrants in 1939, 75 years ago this April, readers have warmed to Ma as a paragon of folksy integrity—“an unforgettably vigorous figure, like Mother Courage without the corruption or rapacity,” wrote one British critic—and, more recently, praised her as a feminist icon, perhaps modeled off of the author’s own formidable mother or his feisty first wife, Carol Henning, who “willed” the book into publication and pushed Steinbeck toward a more radical populism. These days, it’s become fashionable to see the plot of Grapes as a long march toward female leadership: as a recent Washington Post article, titled “We Need Ma Joad in the White House,” declares: “Ma is a feminist—feisty, strong, loving, resilient—and the kind of leader, then and now, who might guide the nation’s jalopy through difficult times … As her clan slips back, she leans in.”
Whether or not Steinbeck meant Ma Joad to stand in for the 11 million American women who went to work outside the home during the 1930s, he certainly thought her integral to the novel’s vision. “In the book, the key character is really Ma Joad,” the writer’s third and last wife, Elaine Steinbeck, told The New York Times in 1990 when Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theater mounted a stage adaptation. Still, it’s not entirely accurate to say that Ma Joad is a Lean In progenitor—she’s not motivated by ambition or assertiveness but by an elemental urge to tend the family’s flame. It’s an essentialized vision of feminine power—of nature as nurture—that might tweak the fish-without-a-bicycle crowd, but it’s fundamental to Ma’s life force. Happy to be the least of her clan, she becomes greatest among them. “I guess a loving woman is indestructible,” Steinbeck wrote in East of Eden, and in Ma Joad his conviction comes to beatific fruition. She is the Joad tribe’s mysterious interior, its holy of holies, its spirit incarnate:
She seemed to know, to accept, to welcome her position, the citadel of the family, the strong place that could not be taken. And since old Tom and the children could not know hurt or fear unless she acknowledged hurt and fear, she had practiced denying them in herself. And since, when a joyful thing happened, they looked to see whether joy was on her, it was her habit to build up laughter out of inadequate materials. But better than joy was calm. Imperturbability could be depended upon. And from her great and humble position in the family she had taken dignity and a clean calm beauty. From her position as healer, her hands had grown sure and cool and quiet; from her position as arbiter she had become as remote and faultless in judgment as a goddess. She seemed to know that if she swayed the family shook, and if she ever really deeply wavered or despaired the family would fall, the family will to function would be gone.
Hard times may come, the Malthusian forces of poverty and famine may threaten to tear the migrants apart, but the buck stops at Ma Joad. And so she fights, again and again, as they wander along Route 66’s wilderness, to keep the crew knitted close. “It ain’t good for folks to break up,” she chastises Rose of Sharon when the girl daydreams about settling in a big city and leaving the farming life behind. She hides the grandmother’s death from the others, sleeping with the corpse all the way across the Mojave, so the jalopy won’t get stopped by border guards. (“The family looked at Ma with a little terror at her strength. Tom said, ‘Jesus Christ! You layin’ there with her all night long!’ ‘The family hadda get acrost,’ Ma said miserably.”) And she memorably threatens her boys with a tire iron when they aim to strike out on their own. “‘On’y way you gonna get me to go is whup me.’ She moved the jack handle gently again. ‘An I’ll shame you, Pa. I won’t take no whuppin’, cryin’ an’ a-beggin’. I’ll light into you. An’ you ain’t so sure you can whup me anyways … ’ Pa looked helplessly about the group. ‘She sassy,’ he said. ‘I never seen her so sassy … ’ The whole group watched the revolt [and they] knew that Ma had won. And Ma knew it, too.”
For all her chutzpah, Ma Joad makes it clear that her authority is a temporary stopgap—she’s only “takin’ over the fambly” until the menfolk can get back on their feet and reassume their place at the center of the huddle. But as the Joads venture deeper into California and work becomes ever more elusive, despair and hunger and violence start to stalk even the most able-bodied among them—like lobos, as Ma might say, circling the cowherd. At the book’s quiet end, it’s unclear whether the Joads, or any of the Okies, will survive through the stark winter. Yet Ma alone remains steadfast. When Pa assesses the dire material facts of the situation—“no work, no crops. What we gonna do then? How we gonna git stuff to eat? … Seems like our life’s over an’ done”—Ma utters a prophetic vision that rings with a primordial will to survive. “‘No, it ain’t,’ Ma smiled. ‘It ain’t, Pa. An’ that’s one more thing a woman knows … We ain’t gonna die out. People is goin’ on—changing’ a little, maybe, but goin’ right on.’”
Ma means her own family will keep on keepin’ on, of course, but she also means something bigger. She means the people—the common folk, the volkes, her fellow dispossessed, all those wanderers crushed by the dark side of the American dream. One thinks of Viktor Frankl here—“What is to give light must endure burning”—and his philosophy of human perseverance. “Rich fellas come up an’ they die, an’ their kids ain’t no good, an’ they die out. But, Tom, we keep a-comin’,” Ma tells her beloved eldest son at the novel’s end. “I can’t go on, I’ll go on. It’s Samuel Beckett’s theme before Samuel Beckett,” wrote William Kennedy in a 1989 review of a new edition of Grapes, with an intro by that famous champion of the Everyman, Studs Terkel.
It’s this elision from one’s own family to a broader community, from one’s own life to all lives, that Steinbeck revered as redemptive and he peppered the book with scenes illustrating Ma Joad’s generosity to strangers. It is Ma who refuses to abandon the down-and-out Wilson family even though their company may slow the journey west. It is Ma who suggests to Rose of Sharon that she suckle a starving man. It is Ma who proclaims, “I never heerd tell of no Joads … ever refusin’ food an’ shelter or a lift on the road to anybody that asked.” It is Ma who knows that “if you’re in trouble or hurt or need—go to poor people. They’re the only ones that’ll help.”
By extending her hand to those in need, Ma is not just being kind—she’s being “bolshevisky.” “Here is the node, you who hate change and fear revolution,” Steinbeck wrote in one of the novel’s inner chapters. “This is the zygote. For here ‘I lost my land’ is changed; a cell is split and from its splitting grows the thing you hate—‘We lost our land’ … this is the thing to bomb. This is the beginning—from ‘I’ to ‘we’.” Tom Joad takes up this populist flame, telling his mother his life is just “a little piece of a great big soul” and vowing, “I’ll be all aroun’ in the dark. I’ll be ever’where—wherever you look. Wherever they’s a fight so hungry people can eat, I’ll be there. Wherever they’s a cop beatin’ up a guy, I’ll be there.” We’re back at the barricades with Mother Courage—but instead of swindling the troops, Ma Joad is providing them with sustenance, inspiration and fellowship. If she’s the symbol of “an indestructible American mythology,” as Frank Rich once termed her, it’s a mythology that hinges on a sense of mothers—and particularly impoverished ones—as the most elementary building blocks in the drive toward sweeping social justice.
This theme—if Ma is good, the family survives; if she is bad or weak, the family dissolves—used to course throughout American literature and playwriting. Not always so happily as in Grapes of Wrath, to be sure—our libraries and stages are full of dysfunctional families who mirror a broader cultural malaise. Faulkner’s dying Addie Bundren is a bitter woman, as moribund as her vanishing Southern values; O’Neill’s Mary Tyrone, a high-strung morphine addict, presides over a clan whose dissolution is one of theater’s most breathtakingly vicious. Death of a Salesman’s Linda Loman is a sad figure, docile and helpless in the face of Willy’s slide into madness. And then there’s that mother who’s not really a mother at all, Edward Albee’s abusive tyrant-victim Martha in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? These women lack the impulse to bind their families together, to bring wayward kids in line, to forge consensus and to love unconditionally despite life’s disappointments—and so their husbands and children end up turning on each other and on their wives, cannibalizing their own kin as unwitting mercenaries of larger forces that would smash our characters into oblivion.
Compare these wretched souls to Neil Simon’s tough-as-nails Grandma Kurnitz—who’s a bit too tough at times, perhaps, but whose steeliness forms the family backbone through death, wars and migration. “She was no harder on us that she was on herself,” her son Louie tells his nephews after they are sent to live with Grandma in Yonkers. “When she was twelve years old, her old man takes her to a political rally in Berlin. The cops broke it up. With sticks, on horseback. Someone throws a rock, a cop bashes in her old man’s head, a horse goes down and crushes Ma’s foot. Nobody ever fixed it. It hurts every day of her life but I never once seen her take even an aspirin…She coulda had an operation but she used the money she saved to get to this country with her husband and six kids. That’s moxie, kid.”
Grandma Kurnitz is a “heller,” all right, to use Pa Joad’s term, though she may be a bit too mean to give Ma Joad a run for the title of best literary matriarch. Maybe the real competition comes from another work deeply concerned with the heroic survival of a discriminated group. Another work with grapes—of a sort—in its title. We’re talking about Raisin in the Sun, Lorraine Hansberry’s blockbuster 1959 play, which recently returned to Broadway in a Tony-winning revival with LaTanya Richardson Jackson as the indomitable African-American matron Mama Younger.
Lena Younger does not see herself as red or revolutionary—she skews conservative and church-going, lighting into her daughter, Beneatha, when the girl dares to question God’s existence under Mama’s roof. And yet like Ma Joad, she’s a protective force of nature that history, fate, The Man, the banks, and even God himself would be unwise to tangle with. “Her face is full of strength,” Hansberry wrote in the stage directions to Raisin, “being a woman who has adjusted to many things in life and overcome many more.” She is, of course, fiercely devoted to family. “Seems like God didn’t see fit to give the black man nothing but dreams—but He did give us children to make them dreams seem worth while,” she says, echoing her late husband, Big Walter. And Mama knows how to steer her tribe with a steady palm. “You just got strong-willed children and it takes a strong woman like you to keep ‘em in hand,” her daughter-in-law observes.
“Lena is a woman, black, poor, struggle-worn but proud and loving,” wrote the poet Amiri Baraka in an introduction to a 1987 edition of A Raisin in the Sun. “She was in the world before the rest of the family, before many of us viewing the play. She has seen and felt what we have not, or what we cannot yet identify. She is no quaint, folksy artifact; she is truth, history, love—and struggle—as they can be manifest only in real life.”
The arc of Raisin may hinge on the actions and decisions of Mama’s son, Walter Lee, but its moral center is Lena Younger. And she glows with the tremendous and enduring power of her love for her children. When Walter Lee wants to take some of Big Walter’s life insurance money and invest it in a harebrained scheme to open a liquor store, Mama lets him—because she knows it will confer dignity on her down-and-out boy. “What you ain’t never understood is that I ain’t got nothing, don’t own nothing, ain’t never really wanted nothing that wasn’t for you,” she tells him. “There ain’t nothing worth holding on to, money, dreams, nothing else—if it means—if it means it’s going to destroy my boy ... ”
“You trust me like that, Mama?” Walter Lee asks. “I ain’t never stop trusting you,” Mama replies. “Like I ain’t never stop loving you.”
Later, when one of Walter’s no-good pals has run off with the cash and the family teeters on economic and spiritual annihilation, Mama refuses to let Beneatha shame her brother. “I thought I taught you to love him,” she admonishes her daughter. “Love him. There is nothing left to love,” Beneatha spits out. Mama replies: “There is always something left to love. And if you ain’t learned that, you ain’t learned nothing. Have you cried for that boy today? I don’t mean for yourself and for the family ’cause we lost the money. I mean for him: what he been through and what it done to him.”
Mama Younger knows what Beneatha and Walter Lee initially fail to understand—that all the money in the world can’t buy self-respect or emotional resilience. That’s not to say prosperity doesn’t matter at all—they’re all sick of living in their roach-infested apartment on Chicago’s South Side and constantly fret about employment and stymied opportunities. But Lena is smart enough to not completely buy into the system that keeps her children marginalized.
Walter Lee, on the other hand, is not. “‘I got me a dream,’ says Walter early in the play. But his dream is not to be confused with Dr. King’s,” writes Frank Rich about a 1983 adaptation of Raisin. “What he wants is ‘things,’ and, as he tells his horrified mother, Lena, he no longer regards money merely as a passport to freedom but as the essence of life. In this sense, Walter is not just a black victim of white racism but also a victim of a materialistic American dream that can enslave men or women of any race.” Walter worships objects and cash, believing they will magically confer upon him the social status he so desperately craves. “Son—how come you talk so much ’bout money?” Mama asks. “Because it is life, Mama!” Walter cries.
Here Walter is in the throes of what some might call commodity fetishism, where the trappings of life are understood only in terms of their monetary value and have no intrinsic worth of their own. That’s when you start to believe that something like your pride can have a price tag affixed to it. “On one level, Walter Lee is merely aspiring to full and acknowledged humanity,” writes Amiri Baraka. “But Hansberry takes it even further to show us that on still another level Walter Lee, worker though he be, has the ‘realizable’ dream of the black petty bourgeoisie. ‘There he is! Monsieur le petit bourgeois noir—himself!,’ cries Beneatha … ‘There he is—Symbol of a Rising Class! Entrepreneur! Titan of the system!’ The deepness of this is that Hansberry can see that the conflict of dreams is not just that of individuals but, more importantly, of classes.”
But as Jim Casy tells Tom Joad, “If [a man] needs a million acres to make him feel rich, seems to me he needs it ’cause he feels awful poor inside hisself.” And Walter Lee does feel poor inside, indeed. “I’m thirty-five years old,” Walter says at the outset of the play. “I got a boy who sleeps in the living room—and all I got to give him is stories about how rich white people live.” This, heartbreakingly, is the real motivation behind Walter Lee’s money-worship—a desire not only to be rich and powerful but also to be able to hand his son the world. “Your daddy’s gonna make …a business transaction that’s going to change our lives,” he tells his little boy. “That’s how come one day when you ’bout seventeen years old I’ll come home …and I’ll come up the steps to the house and the gardener will be clipping away at the hedges…and we’ll go to your room to see you sitting on the floor with the catalogues of all the great schools in America around you…just tell me where you want to go to school and you’ll go. Just tell me, what it is you want to be—and you’ll be it.”
As it turns out, Walter Lee is not so different from his mother after all. His child’s happiness is paramount. And so he bears within him the potential to rise above his skewed materialistic values and tap into a true sense of dignity. All he needs is for his Mama to show him the way—which she does during the play’s apotheosis, when Walter Lee is about to let a bigot buy the family out of the house Lena scraped and saved to purchase. “That white man is going to walk in that door able to write checks for more money than we ever had,” Walter Lee declares. “Son—I come from five generations of people who was slaves and sharecroppers—but ain’t nobody in my family never let nobody pay ’em no money that was a way of telling us we weren’t fit to walk the earth,” Mama replies. “We ain’t never been that poor. We ain’t never been that dead inside.” Then she sits her grandchild on her knee, to show him how his father would trade the family in. “You make him understand what you doing, Walter Lee. You teach him good… Go ahead, son.”
Walter Lee, to his credit, cannot go ahead and instead tells the bigot to take his money and stuff it. He’s had an epiphany, of the kind Ma Joad preaches to Tom: “The money we’d make wouldn’t do no good,” she says. “All we got is the family unbroken.”
After Raisin in the Sun premiered, to instant success, its creator sat down in a radio interview with Studs Terkel to discuss the play’s meta-themes. “I think now of Mrs. Younger, big Mrs. Younger, that is, Walter Lee’s mother,” Terkel said to Hansberry. “In many cultures, the mother, the woman, is very strong. Now Steinbeck used it with Mrs. Joad in Grapes of Wrath.”
Hansberry: “Yes, that’s a wonderful analogy.”
Terkel: “In Negro families, through the years, the mother has always been a pillar of strength, hasn’t she?”
Hansberry: “Yes, yes…these women have become the backbone of our people in a very necessary way…The Irish reflect this [too], I think. There’s a relationship between Mother Younger in this play and [Sean O’Casey’s] Juno, which is very strong and obvious. And I think there’s always a relationship—I don’t know that much about Irish history, but there was probably a necessity, why among oppressed peoples the mother will assume a certain kind of role.”
Terkel: “The way she’s almost a front…but the guy, the guy of any people under pressure is the prime target to begin with, maybe. I don’t know.”
Hansberry: “Obviously, people who are sophisticated enough to know it say that the most oppressed group of any oppressed group will be its women, obviously. Since women, period, are oppressed in society. And if you’ve got an oppressed group, they’re twice oppressed. So I should imagine that they react accordingly, as oppression makes people more militant. Then twice militant, since twice oppressed. So that there’s an assumption of leadership, historically.”
What are we to glean from this exchange? That while Lena Younger may not have seen herself as revolutionary, Lorraine Hansberry certainly did.
Ma Joad and Mama Younger embody values that are very different from—and oftentimes superior to—the ideologies of the white, capitalist ruling class. The government and the banks implicitly tell them that their children are replaceable cogs in a system that privileges other, richer people; they both happen to disagree. While neither woman sets out to be an agitator, they possess a certain causa sui class consciousness, an identification with and compassion for the alienated poor that their sons must work much harder to achieve. And though neither Grapes nor Raisin can be said to be a classically feminist work—the women look to their sons to be the agents of change, after all, not their daughters—in the end, Ma Joad and Lena Younger turn out to be pretty disobedient in their own quiet, civil way.
As an artist, Lorraine Hansberry did not hail from the blue-collar classes, but it was in them that she placed her greatest hopes for radical change. “I have to believe that whatever we ultimately achieve, however we ultimately transform our lives, will come from the kind of people that I chose to portray,” she told Studs Terkel in their 1959 interview. “That therefore they are more pertinent, more relevant, more significant, and most important, more decisive in our political history and in our political future.” Amiri Baraka echoed this sentiment 17 years after Raisin premiered—post-Birmingham, post-Medgar, post-Malcolm. “We thought her play ‘middle class’ in that its focus seemed to be on ‘moving into white folks’ neighborhoods,’ when most blacks were just trying to pay their rent in ghetto shacks,” he wrote. “We missed the essence of the work—that Hansberry had created a family on the cutting edge of the same class and ideological struggles as existed in the movement itself and among the people.”
When Hansberry wrote A Raisin in the Sun, America was shimmering with the stirrings of social agitation. The play was staged a year before African-American students began their sit-ins in North Carolina. By the end of 1960, close to 100,000 disobedients had taken up the Civil Rights torch. Hansberry sensed this cultural shift, even though she would not live to see its full florescence (she died in 1965 from pancreatic cancer at the age of 34). It wasn’t just the overturning of old racial paradigms that Hansberry anticipated—she expected that America would soon have to reckon with the problems of capitalism, as well. “I suppose thematically what [Walter Lee] represents is my own feeling that sooner or later, we’re going to have to make principled decisions in America about a lot of things. And any number of these decisions are going to seem contrary to things that we think we want,” Hansberry told Terkel. “We’ve set up some very materialistic and overtly limited concepts of how the world should go. Sooner or later, I think we’re going to have to decide on them … it isn’t just rebellion, because rebellion barely knows what it wants to do when it gets through rebelling. It’s a little revolutionary.”
Steinbeck, too, seemed to think that a sort of economic reckoning was close at hand when he invented the Joads in late 1938. Throughout the previous decade, he had been growing more radical in his politics, due in no small part to his marriage to Henning. She introduced him to leftist rallies in San Francisco and persuaded him to visit the Soviet Union in 1937 (the year, incidentally, that marked the start of Stalin’s Great Purge). At the same time, the writer had grown increasingly appalled by the miserable conditions in California’s squatters’ camps. In 1936, he published a muckraking series on starving migrants in the San Francisco News and in 1938, wrote a pamphlet exposing the anger boiling over among the Okies. Entitled “Their Blood is Strong,” the article made references to “vigilante terrorism” against the workers by “fascistic groups” and slammed the Associated Farmers cooperative for slashing wages.
While Steinbeck preferred New Deal government assistance as a solution to the migrants’ misery rather than bloody class warfare, he also expressed a belief that—left to fester—the exploitation and misery of these men and women would eventually explode. “Some day, the armies of bitterness will all be going the same way,” he wrote in Grapes. “The great owners ignored the three cries of history … and the companies, the banks worked at their own doom and they did not know it.” History, Jim Casy says, always moves forward—“she never slips clear back”—and she is marching toward the day when “in the souls of the people the grapes of wrath are filling and growing heavy, growing heavy for the vintage.” It’s the fall of the bourgeoisie and the Proletarier aller Länder vereinigt Euch! and all that teleological jazz.
Neither Steinbeck nor Hansberry seemed particularly concerned that their own comfortable backgrounds—or commercial successes—might exclude them from chronicling and championing the coming victory of the proles. After all, hadn’t Marx himself identified a certain sector within the ruling class—which included artists and intellectuals—who, “when class struggle nears its decisive hour … cuts itself adrift, and joins the revolutionary class, the class that holds the future in its hands”? Someone needed to write the “protest plays,” as Hansberry described Raisin. And to those who might complain that overt political messages didn’t belong in works of art, Hansberry had one thing to say: “I’ve been obliged to remind people that for 200 years, the only writers in English literature we’ve had to boast about have been the Irish, who come from an oppressed culture. Shaw, O’Casey, Jonathan Swift, James Joyce … which I don’t think is an accident—even though they aren’t protest writers in the sense we think of in the United States.”
Artists, then, appeared perfectly poised to expose the injustices in the system and reflect the revolutionary hopes and the dreams deferred of the laboring class. “I stood there and watched. I watched the people, who loved Lorraine for what she had brought to them,” James Baldwin wrote in memoriam to his friend after her untimely death. “It was not, for her, a matter of being admired. She was being corroborated and confirmed.” Similarly, Steinbeck’s vision was corroborated and confirmed when his novel became an overnight hit with the American public. Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt praised Grapes of Wrath and called for congressional hearings into conditions at the migrant camps. Associated Farmers attacked the novel as “communist propaganda,” but the co-op was eventually exposed by a federal commission for its acts of violence, corruption of local officials, and violation of workers’ rights across California. Vindication, and the end of entfremdung, was in the air.
Ultimately, though, what saved the Okies was not proletariat revolution but another world war. By the mid-1940s, California’s labor surplus had eased and the state’s (white) field workers assimilated into their new homeland. Steinbeck, for his part, forever struggled to recapture the vitality of Grapes and in his later years suffered the slings and arrows of the far left, who accused him of “insufficient ideological commitment” to the cause. He eventually came to describe socialism as “just another form of religion and thus delusional.” Elsewhere in America, the Civil Rights movement surged ahead—sadly, without Hansberry—with the politics of Black Marxism going militant and then flaming out. The Great American Novel became more concerned with sexual shenanigans and suburban ennui, or rehashing World War II. By the time Reaganomics rolled around, audiences were still flocking to see reproductions of A Raisin in the Sun and Grapes of Wrath continued to sell 100,000 copies a year—but the struggles of the Joads and the Youngers almost appeared to be period pieces. Ma Joad and Mama Younger were comforting in their homey wisdom, though neither one seemed particularly relevant for a country in the grip of a yuppie boom. The nation’s wealth was destined to trickle down, and if there were any unfortunates left at society’s bottom, they’d be lifted by the rising tide of prosperity. Meanwhile, the Soviet Union and communist Eastern Europe were collapsing in flames. It was the end of history, all right—just not the one Marx and his mid-century champions had expected.
In 2008, as Bear Stearns and Lehman imploded over subprime, the Los Angeles Times ran a piece headlined “The Joneses and the Joads,” examining the dire effects of the nation’s skyrocketing unemployment rate and ending with a call for FDR-style public intervention into the national crisis. (The Miami Herald reprinted it with the title, “The Ghost of Tom Joad Roams All Over America.”) The Washington Post followed up with an op-ed on the “Recession Only Steinbeck Could Love.” Papers sent reporters along the old Route 66 in search of the deflated American dream. Meanwhile, New York Magazine ran a jauntily satirical article—“Bro, Can You Spare, Like, Five Bills?”—imagining the “tremendous works of art” that “Great Depression 2.0” would spawn: “Chuck Close’s enormous canvases portraying New York’s homeless are praised, but critics call Andres Serrano’s photos of farmer’s shit and Jeff Koons’s balloon-animal hobos ‘reductive’…Salman Rushdie sets out to create a modern-day Grapes of Wrath. Rushdie succeeds beyond his wildest dreams—his Steinbeckian chronicle of an Ohio clan’s search for work, which ends on a bittersweet note of hope in a Bangalore call center, is hailed as a masterpiece … Rushdie accepts [the Pulitzer] via satellite phone while dining with Marc Jacobs at the Waverly Inn.”
And yet, in actuality, the latest boom and bust produced few works of art that took any interest in the deficiencies of late capitalism. Those that bothered to address Wall Street malfeasance have been, by and large, ambivalent about the lifestyles of the rich and exploitative. Take The Wolf of Wall Street, which The New York Times described as a “three-hour bacchanal of sex, drugs and conspicuous consumption.” It’s hard to say whether Scorsese was lambasting our greed-glutted brokers or offering up their excesses for our voyeurism. “Does it offer a sustained and compelling diagnosis of the terminal pathology that afflicts us, or is it an especially florid symptom of the disease,” wondered A.O. Scott in his Times review. “These may be, in the present phase of American civilization, distinctions without a meaningful difference behind them … it may be unfair to demand from the director a clarity of judgment that virtually nobody else—in business, politics, journalism or art—seems able or willing to articulate.” Baz Luhrmann’s orgiastic adaptation of The Great Gatsby also comes to mind—it made Jazz Age overconsumption look so fanciful and fun, it was hard to feel any lingering disgust toward the Buchanans and their wasteful ilk.
In fact, a good number of our cultish cultural artifacts these days are more than a little obsessed with the affluent—from Girls’ shabby-chic Brooklynites and Mad Men’s bored alcoholic execs to the Machiavellian powerbrokers of House of Cards and Scandal. (Perhaps of note—when mothers make an appearance in these shows, they tend to be bitchy ice queens, drunk schemers, borderline narcissists, and debauched murderesses.) No one wants to watch the Joads eke out a miserable existence any more—we want highballs and navel-gazing hipsters and Olivia Pope’s Armani suits. As Steinbeck once wryly noted, “Socialism never took root in America because the poor see themselves not as an exploited proletariat but as temporarily embarrassed millionaires.”
When our artwork does examine the hard knocks hitting the working class, it tends to take the lumpenproletariat route—delivering up go-it-alone sociopaths (Walter White), criminal racketeers (Boardwalk Empire) and charming con artists (those American Hustlers) out to screw the system that’s screwing them. (Tom Joad and Walter Lee Younger both could have broken bad, but they decided to think in more collective terms, instead.) Or we displace our concern for the victims of the globalized economy onto the developing world, just as we displace our industrial labor—onto India’s slumdog millionaires and Africa’s blood-diamond miners and Afghanistan’s kite runners (“I suspect I met a few Ma Joads and Tom Joads in Kabul,” noted author Khaled Hosseini after he published his best-seller.)
And yet, it’s not as if there’s a lack of poverty, anguish, and alienation to critique closer to home. We live in a land of millions of undocumented immigrants, low-wage Walmart employees, bankrupt mom-and-pop farmers, urban homeless and inner-city jobless, Madoff victims, and rural working-class families who, by and large, supply the Army with their children to fight our wars. Weedpatch, the New Deal labor camp in the San Joaquin Valley where the Joads found respite, is now almost entirely occupied by Latino farm workers. The Midwest is facing an outward migration crisis again—though not from its agricultural areas, as in Steinbeck’s day, but from cities like Detroit. Not to mention the untold number of families who hover just one medical crisis or job loss away from financial ruin. As one correspondent to The Washington Post wrote in response to “Ma Joad For President”: “It’s a challenge for many in our great nation to ‘git upright’ when they are constantly pushed down.”
There are probably lots of valid speculations as to why so many of our critically-acclaimed movies and dramas and novels take so little notice of the have-not’s and pay so much attention to the have’s. Maybe we’re just caught up in typical, frothy bourgeois escapism. Maybe it’s because the solutions we kick around to address the terrible imbalances between rich and poor—a global wealth tax, Obamacare—are hardly as sexy as proletariat revolution (which no believes in any more, anyways). Maybe it’s because, with the exception of a few Frenchmen, we can be kind of shallow when it comes to deep economic thinking, from the Millennial Marxists to those who still toe the old trickle-down line on inherited wealth—so of course our art would end up being shallow about inequality, too. Perhaps it’s because of some postmodern Jamesonian paradigm shift that no one outside of academia understands. Or perhaps it’s because our cultural producers have grown too divorced from the realities of capitalism’s rejects. Steinbeck saw migrant misery up close and personal in the course of his journalism, while Hansberry lived side-by-side with families like the Youngers. “I come from an extremely comfortable background, materially speaking,” she told Terkel, “[but] I’ve also tried to explain we live in a ghetto. Which automatically means intimacy with all classes and all kinds of experiences.” But strange things can happen when artists grow aloof, as James Baldwin noted: “This country’s concept of art and artists has the effect, scarcely worth mentioning by now, of isolating the artist from the people … To continue to grow, to remain in touch with himself, he needs the support of that community from which, however, all of the pressures of American life incessantly conspire to remove him. And when he is effectively removed, he falls silent—and the people have lost another hope.”
Or maybe we just feel pessimistic that anything can or will be done to bridge the yawning gulf between the one percent and the rest of us. So if you can’t beat ’em—well, it’s unlikely that you or I, or our children, will ever be able to join the super-rich, but at least we can totemize them, our ever more remote and golden gods.
And yet surely there is some space in our artistic imagination for rebels and revolutionaries who buck the current injustices—be it champagne tranarchists or soup-kitchen priests saving kids on the border, anti-Big Box bad-boys or veterans who won’t stay silent about getting shut out of the American Dream. Several exquisite exceptions to the inequality omerta stand out—David Simon’s The Wire, of course, and, more recently, Orange Is the New Black, which is both deliciously irreverent and deadly serious about our rotten prison system. Each of these shows features a strong, intimidating maternal figure—Brianna Barksdale and Red, respectively—who are dead-set on making sure their adopted clan survives. And if both women are more amoral and avaricious than Ma Joad and Mama Younger, well, so are we.
There’s also the curious trend of half-orphans popping up as protagonists in some very fine pieces of work about oppressed peoples—from Katniss Everdeen in The Hunger Games and little Hushpuppy in Beasts of the Southern Wild to Esch in Jesmyn Ward’s Salvage the Bones. Perhaps these girls reflect our sense that America, too, now feels like a motherless child—with no Ma Joad to steer us, no Mama Younger to set us on the straight path to respect, no shielding and self-sacrificing spirit to champion our struggles with her mighty conscience and her expansive heart. But just because we lack a moral conscience in our politics and our banks doesn’t necessarily mean we must lack one in our fiction. Maybe one day, we’ll finally get a Ma Joad for the Piketty Age.