Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Tom Joad Lives

Although John Steinbeck never achieved the stylistic heights of Fitzgerald, Faulkner, or Hemingway, when he wrote The Grapes Of Wrath, he wrote one of the genuinely great American novels of the 20th Century. The epic of the Joad family resonates profoundly: Literally swept away by the Dust Bowl, the battered clan migrates west to the promised land of California only to find that themselves reviled and rejected by those who came before them. Fleeing the law, Tom Joad goes underground and by doing so transforms himself into an icon of the dispossessed. Henry Fonda as Tom famously captured this moment in the classic John Ford film. Tom attempts to assuage the fears of his worried, only half-understanding mother by assuring her that "Wherever there's a fight so hungry people can eat, I'll be there." He leaves his disintegrating family to merge with the larger family that lives "wherever you can look." He disappears into the night to reemerge as a solitary figure questing hopefully into the dawn:

Woody Guthrie captured the novel's Depression-era spirit of solidarity in his protest ballad "Tom Joad." Where the film's monologue stressed middle-class aspirations of "people...eatin' the stuff they raise, and livin' in the houses they build," Guthrie turned his attention to a class army of the hungry, the weeping, and the disenfranchised. It's telling that in Ford's film, children laugh when they were hungry; in Guthrie's song, they cry. Where Ford's view is ultimately and unsurprisingly romantic, Guthrie -- an Okie himself -- retains a hard edge.

Post-war prosperity seemed to bear out Ford's vision, at least in part. But as Reaganomics and globalization began to suffocate the middle class like as boa constrictor, Tom Joad suddenly seemed as relevant as ever. In 1995, Bruce Springsteen updated the famous monologue in "The Ghost of Tom Joad." Here, the homeless huddle under a bridge, denied even the community of a migrant camp. A teeming road leads to poverty and exploitation. And yet, the singer won't surrender his anger even if it does depend on the fading hope of his belief in a ghost. Three years later, Rage Against The Machine released their own fiery take, keeping the ghost alive for a new generation.

For it seems that Tom Joad won't go away, even as the middle class dreams of the Ford film fade for millions. Recently, Rage guitarist Tom Morello joined Bruce Springsteen on stage for what must be the definitive performance of "The Ghost Of Tom Joad." Morello's soft voice combines with Springsteen's defiance and remarkable empathy to form an anthem culminating in a Morello guitar solo that captures all of the frustration and rage conveyed by the lyrics in a literal attempt to summon forth old Tom's ghost. A video of the performance made its way to YouTube, spreading Tom Joad's words in a way that Steinbeck or Ford of Guthrie could never have imagined:

You just can't keep a good man down...

The New York Times reports that tainted blood thinner manufactured in China has shown up in eleven countries. The Food and Drug Administration requires a budget of $56,000,000 to adequately inspect overseas drug manufacturers. While the Bush Administration hasn't budgeted for this, it does promise improvements. One place they could find the money is Iraq, where the money spent on two days of war would guarantee medication safety. Don't look to John McCain to solve the problem: His "intellectually dishonest" budget would slash discretionary spending to reduce the corporate tax rate and to extend the Bush tax cuts for the wealthy.

Citizen K. read:
Christine Falls, Benjamin Black
One Man's Place, John F. Deane


Renegade Eye said...

Didn't Steinbeck become reactionary in his old age?

Don't forget the movie with Henry Fonda.

K. said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
K. said...

Steinbeck supported the Vietnam War. I don't believe that he became reactionary in the same sense as John Dos Passos. Late in life, Dos Passos actually wrote a trilogy (Washington, D.C., I think) as a repudiation of USA, his magnum opus

stupid and contagious said...

Great post Killian!

I hope you don't mind, but I've stuck it up here ... with full and proper kudos given, of course!


Keep up the great work mate!