[MUSIC PLAYING] LAURA BROWN: Welcome, everybody. Welcome to Cornell. I'm glad to see you all here today. Welcome to this year's convocation for the New Student Reading Project. I'm Laura Brown, Vice Provost for Undergraduate Education. And this is our chance for the full group of new Cornell students to join together at an event that encourages us to think about and then to talk about the wide range of issues and topics presented by our book for this year, John Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath.
Steinbeck's novel was published in 1939. That is before the United States was really out of the period of the Great Depression. As we've all read, it tell tells the story of the Joad family, a family of Oklahoma farmers, or Okies, who were caught up in the misery of the ecological catastrophe known as the Dust Bowl. The Joads joined other Okies on the trek west to California in search of work, and, they hope, a better way of life.
We've all seen how the story shows us the sufferings that they and the others they meet that encounter at the hands of the bankers, the exploitative businessmen, the growers, and the environment. In the course of the novel, we see the family members facing up to these challenges with different degrees of success and failure. And at the end, we're left with the question of whether the family can survive.
Today, we have four speakers, who represent a variety of different perspectives on this story and on its meaning. I'm going to introduce them all now at the outset and then ask them to address you in turn. First, Professor Jeremy Braddock, who is a member of the English department and whose research area is in American literature and culture, especially the art, culture, and society of the period of Steinbeck's writing. Second, Professor Natalie Mahowald, who is a professor of earth and atmospheric science and whose research is on climate and biogeochemistry. In particular, she's worked on human impact on desert dust over the last 20,000 years. Next, Professor Maureen O'Hara, Robert W. Purcell Professor of Management. Her area of expertise is banking, finance, law, and the economy. She's recently been studying the valuation of securities in an uncertain world. And finally, Professor Jeff Cowrie, who is Professor of Labor History, studying labor and working class history. His expertise is focused especially on workers and on the problem of social class in the postwar United States.
We chose these four panelists because they are distinguished in their field, of course, but also because we wanted to approach this book from multiple perspectives. The Grapes of Wrath, as we will see, has many different kinds of relevance to your interests and to the interests of the Cornell community. It bears in different ways on the kinds of studies that virtually all of you will be undertaking here over the next few years, not just as part of your general education, but within your majors as well.
So beyond being a work of literature, The Grapes of Wrath raises a range of social, economic, ecological, and historical issues. It gives us a perspective on an era of American history that we thought was long gone, but which turns out to have unpleasant analogies to our present situation.
It raises questions about the relationship between ordinary citizens and the powerful economic forces that impinge upon their and our lives. It brings into question the role of government. In Steinbeck's case, the New Deal, and in our case, the new Obama administration.
From a biological perspective, the novel confronts us with a major ecological disaster that produced astonishing human suffering. Again, though the Dust Bowl was historically localized, the ecological consciousness that has become increasingly relevant to contemporary society tells us that whatever the course of that particular problem, the general problem has only grown immensely since the 1930s.
And there is another disconcerting parallel, the flood that threatens the families with inundation at the end of The Grapes of Wrath seems eerily predictive of the fate of New Orleans with Hurricane Katrina just a few years ago. In addition, the farmer's hostility to the tractors which put them out of work, though it looks back to the early 19th century British Luddites who destroyed the machinery that was taking away their jobs in the early stages of the Industrial Revolution, also looks forward to a similar process today, most routinely evident for those of you who came to Ithaca by air in the plight of the airline's ticket agents, who have, I think, been desperately trying to figure out what their job is given the possibility that you can all check in online at the kiosks. Here, The Grapes of Wrath predicts the increasingly powerful role of technology in all walks of life today.
You'll find activities around The Grapes of Wrath all through the first few weeks of your experience here at Cornell. I want to point out the exhibition of 1930s photographs at the Johnson Museum that's ready for you to take a look at any time you like in the next few days. Your instructors, for your small group discussions that meet tomorrow Monday at 3:30, I know are all looking forward to hearing what you thought about the book and about these and other questions. They will be collecting the papers you've written, and they'll be sharing their thoughts about the novel with you.
Let's turn now to hear the views of our panelists. And I'd like to begin by welcoming Jeremy Braddock.
JEREMY BRADDOCK: Thanks. I'd like to begin by asking if it matters that The Grapes of Wrath is a work of fiction and not something else-- a documentary film or a piece of expose journalism for instance. To ask why Steinbeck wrote a novel is to ask what it is that a work of fiction can do that other forms of documentation might not be able to do. This is an important question, first of all, because Steinbeck did write journalism in addition to fiction. And he had, in fact, traveled to the California migrant camps with Horace Bristol-- Horace Bristol, a photographer from Life magazine, with the intention of collaborating on a nonfiction piece. Steinbeck later decided to write a very long work of fiction instead, The Grapes of Wrath.
But the question of the work as fiction is also important because of the way the novel was read, reviewed, advertised, and discussed after it was published in April 1939. What was unusual about the reception of this work of fiction was that one of the main points of contention about the novel hinged on the extent to which the book was true. An art historian named Samantha Baskins has recently pointed out that when Horace Bristol's photographs were finally printed in Life, they appeared under the title in, "These pictures by Life prove facts in Grapes of Wrath." And the article went on to declare that, "never before had the facts behind a great work of fiction been so carefully researched by the news camera."
On the other hand, an editorial that attacked Steinbeck's novel claimed that it, quote, "pictures Oklahoma with complete and absurd untruthfulness." I'm not bringing this up to adjudicate the claims, which on balance would side with Life magazine, but rather to point out how absolute they are. The photographs prove facts. Or the novel contains complete and absurd untruthfulness. These are very unusual things to say about a work of fiction. And while one obvious explanation for these responses would be simply to point out that Grapes of Wrath is about something that was urgent and real, this still leaves open a number of other questions.
The point that I want to make is that The Grapes of Wrath is an extreme example of the more general point that works of literature are never totally works of fiction, and also that The Grapes of Wrath is at the same time showing that the real world of facts is always penetrated in good ways and bad ways, and different ways and ambiguous ways with fictions. This is a preliminary answer to my first question. Why did Steinbeck choose to write a novel?
But here are some other questions to consider. Do we require works of fiction-- novels, movies, pop songs-- to be true? What do we mean when we say that? Are there some kinds of fiction that are more true than others? If we want to understand a work of fiction, are we obliged as readers to check these works against the facts of real life? I would argue that the answer to the last question is yes. But what do we do if the information that is necessary to make those judgments is a form of specialized knowledge or if it is difficult, unavailable, difficult to find, unavailable, or hidden from us?
This last set of questions is crucial for us as readers, but it is also a question for the Joads. And what I would like to do is to talk a bit about the role of reading and interpreting fiction in The Grapes of Wrath. There are, by my count, exactly two works of conventional literary fiction that are named in The Grapes of Wrath. The first is a Western romance novel called The Winning of Barbara Worth. This comes up when the Joads are discussing a passage from the Bible, and Tom says, quote, "I never could keep scripture straight since I read a book named The Winning of Barbara Worth." The second is a magazine of short fiction called Western Love Stories. Connie has torn an advertisement from the pages of the magazine that offers correspondence courses in fixing radios. "Says right on that clipping," Connie says, "they even get you a job when you take that course. Nice clean work and a future."
These two examples on one level seem very different. Connie finds information in the pages of Western Love Stories that appears to promise a better life, while Tom fears that reading a pulp Western novel has crowded out his knowledge of scripture. But it is maybe just as important to recognize what kinds of fiction these are. They are of the same genre, the romantic Western, whose depictions of the West, including California, clearly have an impact on the way the Joads imagine their journey. As Ma says, "I like to think how nice it's going to be, maybe, in California. Never cold, and fruit every place, and people just being in the nicest places, little white houses in among the orange trees." Ma's comments, like the fiction Connie and Tom read, is animated-- are animated-- by a powerful myth of California and the West, one that has some basis in fact as anyone who has driven west to California might tell you.
And we could say that one of Steinbeck's larger tasks is to write a new kind of Western. As he writes, "Here's a story you can hardly believe, but it's true, and it's funny, and it's beautiful. There was a family of 12, and they were forced off the land. They had no car. They build a trailer out of junk and loaded it with their possessions. They pulled it to the side of 66 and waited. And pretty soon, a sedan picked them up. Five of them rode in the sedan and seven on the trailer. They got to California in two jumps."
These lines I've just read come 1/3 of the way through the book as a kind of summary of the events so far. Rereading these lines, now that we've finished the book, we might complain that they seem far too optimistic and idealistic. But this I want to suggest is part of Steinbeck's point. What we believe we know is always subject to revision. By the end of the book, we could say that Steinbeck has written still another kind of Western, one that is even more bleak and more directly addressed to the experiences and causes of poverty.
But Steinbeck is not suggesting that the only sources of the myth of the West are works of conventional and recognizable fiction like those in The Winning of Barber Worth and Western Love Stories. Very shortly after, each of these examples is mentioned in the book. Steinbeck presents a discussion of another kind of document that also encourages a romantic notion of California-- the hand-bills that advertise employment in the California fields. The hand-bill were shown in the novel reads, "Pea pickers wanted in California. Good wages all season. 800 pickers wanted." As Ma tells Tom, "Your father got a hand bill on yellow paper tell him how they need folks to work. They wouldn't go to that trouble if there wasn't plenty work. Cost them good money to get them hand-bills out. What would they want to lie for and costing them money to lie?"
I would like to point out two things about Ma's response here. The first is that she does not yet have enough information to answer her explicit question. What would they want to lie for? But that the novel will eventually suggest an answer for that question-- more competition among laborers for jobs will decrease the farm's cost of production. And while it may seem contradictory, the second point I would make is that Ma's initial interpretation anticipates exactly the public debate that would surround The Grapes of Wrath itself. If the hand-bill does not represent the truth, according to Ma's logic, it is a lie.
In fact, what is powerful about the hand-bills is their possible relationship to fact. Pea pickers are wanted in California. While this may be reading more generously than Steinbeck intends for us to do, we can point out that at this point in the novel neither we as readers nor the Joads know who printed the hand-bill, when it was printed, or the actual conditions of the farm in question. It is impossible to judge the intentions of the hand-bill's author, which Ma Joad originally believed to be good intentions. Particularly when we are first shown the hand-bill, we cannot know the truth behind it any more than we can know the validity of the advertisement in Western Love Stories. And here, it's probably important to point out that we never find out what happens to Connie. He may go on to open his store, or he may meet a fate closer to that of the Joads.
It may be more accurate to say that the hand-bill represents a form of partial truth, which requires further experience, information, and discussion to interpret correctly. Whatever the original intentions of the document, the Joads' experience reveals the hand-bill not necessarily as a lie, but something that is perhaps worse, an insidious form of fiction. Steinbeck seems to be suggesting that our vulnerability to isolated documents or isolated facts is that they are inherently partial truths and particularly exploitable as fictions.
This seems to be the reason that the first instance of reading we're presented with the novel is such a negative one, when Tom is describing a lifer that he meets in prison, someone who, quote, "studies all the time. A bright guy who reads law and stuff like that. He says it don't do no good to read books. Says he's read everything about prisons now, and in the old times, and he says she makes less sense to him now than she did before he starts reading." This initially seems to be a pretty bleak thing for a book, The Grapes of Wrath, to say about reading, or at least about forms of specialized knowledge that would putatively help the inmate understand the conditions of his life.
But Steinbeck may also be suggesting that factual knowledge alone is not enough. What is required is a broad range of interactions and experiences to narrate and contextualize facts that would be unavailable to the inmate. This, in turn, could explain why it is Tom and the former teacher preacher, Casey, the two characters with the broadest range of experiences in the book who come closest to seeing the book's total system. And it could also explain why the novel does not simply narrate the Joads' progression across the country, but breaks up that story with idiosyncratic chapters that sometimes speak very broadly and generally.
But besides the importance of individual experience and knowledge, the book offers another model for guarding against and negotiating the dangers of disguised fictions and partial knowledge. And that is communal interaction and exchange. It is significantly before the Joads begin working in the California fields that Pa's assumptions are questioned about the veracity of the hand-bill. Quote, "This fellow wants 800 men, so he prints up 5,000 of them things, the hand-bills. And maybe 20,000 people sees them. And maybe 2,000 or 3,000 folks get moving on account of this here hand-bill, folks that's crazy with worry."
This kind of interaction between Pa and people whom meets, is even more clearly modeled in a passage that describes the social life of the government camp. Here, the form of fiction in question is a movie. Steinbeck describes an unnamed man returning to camp from the movies with his memory crowded in a way that recalls Tom's reaction to the pulp novel, The Winning of Barbara Worth. He describes the movie. "There was this rich fella, and he makes like he's poor. And there's this rich girl, and she pretends like she's poor too. And they mean the hamburger stand. Why? I don't know why. That's how it was. Why'd they pretend like they's poor? Well, they're tired of being rich. Hogwash. You want to hear this or not?" Steinbeck's point is that the community at the camp turned out to be good readers of the film calling into question some of the implications of its fiction, for example the illusion that poverty would ever be a choice that one would make. It may also be important from Steinbeck's point of view that the people who ask the most penetrating questions about the film are those who have not seen it directly. But a more general point is that the interaction within the community provides the possibility of the richest and most demystified understanding of the film.
But Steinbeck also has a darker point to make in this scene. After the unnamed character finishes describing the film, he adds, almost as an afterthought, "And there was a newsreel with them German soldiers kicking up their feet. Funny as hell." What the novel is describing here, as many of you may know, is that in the 1930s, feature films were often preceded by short films newsreels that presented synopses of the major national and international events of the day, a form that preceded and anticipated television news. And the event that Steinbeck is describing, of course, is the rise to power of Hitler and the Nazi party in Germany. Steinbeck is writing just before the outbreak of the war. And the extent of Nazi atrocities are more known to us as readers in 2009 than they could have been to him in 1939. But he was nevertheless deeply concerned about the rise of fascism in Europe, and his choice of this image is not accidental.
If in The Grapes of Wrath the citizens of the camp are presented as being, collectively, excellent interpreters of the premises that underlies cinematic fiction, Steinbeck is more fearful of a situation in which the most important contemporary facts could be experienced as entertainment. German soldiers kicking up their feet, funny as hell. And as Steinbeck was no doubt aware, this combination of news and entertainment at the cinema also names the condition of The Grapes of Wrath itself, a work of fiction whose sources lie in documentary images. Never before had the facts behind a great work of fiction been so carefully researched by the news camera.
It is in this way that I would like to suggest that the novel speaks forcefully to us not only about the real conditions of the Dust Bowl and the Great Depression, but also about the way we are informed about such events. These are questions that are perhaps even more pressing today, and we might, therefore, think about The Grapes of Wrath as being one of the first novels of our own age of information. Thank you, and welcome to Cornell.
NATALIE MAHOWALD: Good afternoon. Welcome to Cornell. I'm going to switch gears a little bit from the way Jeremy talked about this book because I'm an environmental scientist. I work on earth and atmospheric sciences and specifically about desert dust and its role in climate and biogeochemistry. So when I read this book, I see something very different than what Jeremy sees.
The Dust Bowl in itself kind of sets the scene for this whole book. And the dust storms begin the book and set the stage for the exodus of the people from Oklahoma and the nearby states to California. And the book ends with a flood. These are natural disasters that are inflicted upon the characters in this book. So while a lot of human-human interactions in the book are what horrify us, the human-natural interactions play an extremely important part in this book.
The Dust Bowl itself is an extreme event, is how we would call it in meteorology. Probably most of us, myself included, have never experienced a dust storm. But it's something you would remember. And I've talked to people who've experienced them in North Africa, for example, and it's not something pleasant. The first thing is that you can see a dust storm coming from miles away because it's a huge mountain of brown coming towards you. And you can see these amazing pictures. I'm sure that they have them at the Johnson Museum showing you the movement of the dust storm towards you. And once it gets to where you are, you feel it. The dust is in the atmosphere, and it hits you. And you can't look into a dust storm. And dust storms occur in strong winds. That's when the soil particles are brought into the atmosphere. And so it's an extremely unpleasant experience during the time of the dust storm, and probably the people immediately went inside. You don't want to be outside in the middle of the dust storm.
But even on the inside of our house, you know you're in a dust storm. You hear the howling, and they talk about this in the book. You hear the howling of the wind against the frame of the house, and the windows get hit with those little sand particles. And in addition, the dust gets into the house, and you feel it everywhere. And it covers everything in the house. It's inside your ears. It's everywhere around you.
Afterwards, the dust doesn't just go away at the end of a dust storm, but it kind of stays in the atmosphere for a couple of days before it's blown downwind or settles out. So it's not just the one event thing. It's a long time event. It takes a little bit longer to get over. And the Dust Bowl-- there wasn't just one dust storm. And it didn't just happen in one place. Over the 1930s, there were many years where there were dust storms repeatedly in some locations, some locations worse than others. So it was more than one event that occurred that was like this.
And the dust storms that occurred were associated with drought in these regions. And that's part of what caused the dust storms. At the end, we see this flood. And we see it almost as the opposite, where the water is coming up, and there's water everywhere because it's raining. And the moisture is everywhere. And from my perspective, I look at desert dust on a global perspective. Dust is the opposite of precipitation. You get dust when there's not enough rainfall. And if there's rain close to when there's dust in the atmosphere, it removes all the dust from the atmosphere. You can almost think of dust and rain as the opposites in the world.
There's a supposition in the book and a description at the beginning of the book that the Dust Bowl is caused by the planting of cotton, for example, in this region. And they really make this statement that the humans caused it because the banks forced them to plant the wrong agriculture in this region. And you could argue, we don't have this supposition in the book, but that the floods that occur at the end of the book could have been mitigated by human activity. We know that you can make a flood worse by removing the vegetation, the natural vegetation. And it causes more runoff and more flooding.
So from a scientific perspective, both of these extreme events that are inflicted on the characters in the book are-- I mean, they're natural events, but they could well have been caused by humans. I thought it was interesting the way Jeremy presented fact in these cases, in the book. Does a work of fiction have to be based on fact? Well, when you're a scientist, you almost never use the word fact. What you have is evidence, and you have observations. But all your observations have uncertainty. And all your theories, while they may be really, really good, you don't necessarily know for sure what happens.
So as a person who studies dust, I can't say for sure that the Dust Bowl is caused by humans or even that it was made worse by humans. We don't have a control. We will never know for sure. I mean you in your science classes know that the way you test a hypothesis is very rigorously repeating an experiment over and over again with and without whatever you're testing to see whether you see that cause. And in environmental sciences, we don't have a control. We don't have a drought in the Midwest in the 1930s when people hadn't changed crops. So it's very difficult to pull out the natural variability, which in precipitation we know, there's a lot of natural variability. There's a lot of natural variability in weather. It's very hard to predict weather. Much of the change in weather is caused by humans-- that's very, very difficult for us to know. And so facts in environmental sciences are hard to come by. And I guess from my perspective as a scientist, that's actually a really interesting question. And how in the world do we figure out how humans are perturbing this amazing natural system around us? And I find that intellectually very interesting.
I also want to talk about what happens with the Dust Bowl and not just right away, but in the long term. That dust that got in the atmosphere, that was soil. That was topsoil. And it was blown away downwind. And soil degradation is a huge issue in the Dust Bowl. It's not just the fact that the dust got in the atmosphere, and it hurt people and impacted people. But afterwards, the soil was degraded as well.
In the 1930s, they started the Soil Conservation Corps. And this happened at the same time, and it's not clear that it was just caused by the Dust Bowl events and the dust storms in the Midwest. But they started efforts throughout the United States as part of the Civilian Conservation Corps, as part of a response to the Depression to some extent. Soil Conservation Corps efforts really are about education and about teaching the farmers to think about the long term impacts of their actions on the soil, not just on wind erosion, which is what the Dust Bowl was caused by, but also water erosion, soil fertility issues.
There are simple things you can do to reduce the chances of another dust bowl. For example, I was raised in Nebraska close to the edge of the Dust Bowl. And you don't see a field that doesn't have a line of trees next to it. And these were all efforts the Soil Conservation Corps, for example, to put in windbreaks so that there was less chance for a repeat of the Dust Bowl. You also leave crops over the winter. You do pretty simple things that farmers can easily do to reduce the chance that you would have another Dust Bowl situation. These aren't high tech solutions, but they're very effective. And they have to be figured out for every different system that you have in the different agricultural systems.
The question of how to maintain soil fertility in the face of population growth is actually something that we face today in fact. There was a recent book that popularized the notion of environmental-human interactions caused the demise of many civilizations in Collapse, Jared Diamond's Collapse, and several other books like this. And they're nice popular books and not necessarily very scientifically rigorous, but they do bring up the question of how human-environment interactions can be sustainable or not.
And one of the big issues and talked about in that book is well is soil fertility. We have billions of people on this planet. We're only going to have more. And if we don't maintain our soil fertility, we're going to have problems eating everyone. And we want to do this on a 1,000 year time scale. And we know in the past that there have been civilizations that have had difficulty doing this. The Euphrates Valley anymore is not a fertile valley like it was thousands of years ago. Or the Mayans were thought to be partly brought down by a drought in their region. So soil fertility and agriculture has in the past played a role in civilizations, and it's possible that it'll play a role in the future as well.
I want to switch gears a little bit and think about the human-natural interactions we saw in the book and bring up a couple of points that it's often the case that the poor suffer the most when there is a natural disaster. We saw this in Katrina. The poor tend to be located in more vulnerable locations. The flood plain is a cheaper place to live than up higher in the hills. In addition, the poor and the disenfranchised have fewer resources. These resources are both information resources about what they should do in certain circumstances, as well as monetary resources. Some of the people in that were impacted by Katrina couldn't get out of New Orleans because they didn't have a car. They simply didn't have the resources to respond to the situation. And there's a whole area of research that talks about human-environment interactions and environmental justice. And it's an interesting part of The Grapes of I that we see these poor people suffering the most from these natural disasters.
The environmental concerns in The Grapes of Wrath resonate with us today. We have environmental concerns to think about in the future. Katrina is a great example even in the United States, where we should be able to do better. We could not respond well to the flooding situation brought on by Katrina. There's also climate change issues. These are the issues that I personally work on. And there's a lot of environmental concerns that we need to have about climate change. And as I talked about, the soil degradation issues, making sure that we're maintaining soil fertility.
For climate change questions, again, I come back to this idea of figuring out the facts in environmental science. It's really hard to figure out from the natural variability in the climate system what exactly is the human part of this. And, to me, this is intellectually a really interesting question and difficult question. It's very hard to pull out the anthropogenic part from the natural variability in the weather. The weather is variable. We know this. And so it is a challenging issue, and it's very difficult. And to me, it's a good question to come after, and it's also a very relevant question. The natural system is complicated, and beautiful, and wonderful. And how are we perturbing it as humans with our activities? And is there better ways to preserve or to deal with the environmental system? Can we do it in a more sustainable fashion, where there's fewer poor people, and yet we can move forward in the future so that our grandchildren have the same resources we have? And that's the whole question of sustainability. And that's a very relevant one today that we think about a lot.
Climate change is also interesting from an environmental justice perspective because we, the rich countries, are probably not the countries-- although we have emitted most of the CO2 that's causing climate change that we think. The poor countries are going to be the ones who suffer both because they may lie low, like Bangladesh, for example, and because they can't respond well to-- they don't have the resources to respond. Holland is at low sea level and is responding to sea level rise-- with a protected sea level rises as well as what has happened in the past by-- they've opened up more areas for flooding during the high flood season. So they removed farmers from this land. I mean, they're taking steps to make sure that it doesn't effect them economically. Bangladesh doesn't have the resources to do that kind of planning and doesn't have the resources to implement those kind of plans. And so they're going to be affected differently by climate change in the future.
Human-environmental interactions are not in any way done. And there's a lot of really interesting interactions that we're going to have to understand better and make projections for the future. And I'd argue Cornell is a great place to look at some of these issues.
I was raised in Nebraska. And so, to me, farming is kind of the roots of this country. But I'd argue that agricultural, and again, human-land interactions are fundamental to our future as well. You can think of climate change. One of the solutions to the increase in CO2 is to actually switched to biofuels, to switch to agricultural bases instead of fossil fuels. Now, there's issues with that. It's not so easy to shift to a new fuel base. And some people don't think this current generation of biofuels is the right answer. But in any case, we need to be thinking about how to use agriculture better in the future. And the idea-- I guess to me, when I started looking at some of these issues, I thought more that farming was old fashioned and not really the way of the future. But agriculture is really so important for the whole future for the biofuels as well as for carbon management. And if we're trying to remove the carbon from the atmosphere, one of the best ways to do it is through the terrestrial biosphere. And that means carbon management.
And so these kind of old fashioned things, the places where we came from in terms of farming, are becoming more and more important as we look towards the future of sustainable development. We need to come back to our roots in farming and think about that. And Cornell is uniquely situated because of the large College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, and as a land grant institution in New York, as well as having the great humanities and social sciences, and natural sciences and engineering that we have here. We have all these different aspects to look at these problems that we face moving into the future. And I'd argue that you should take advantage of the opportunities you have at Cornell and don't just specialize in one area. Do specialize in one area, but don't just specialize in one area. Think about the broad picture, and I encourage you to take advantage of the environmental sciences here at Cornell and learn more about how they interact with the other parts of the Cornell as well as what we need to do to move into the future. Thank you.
NATALIE MAHOWALD: Good afternoon. Welcome to your studies at Cornell. We're going to change directions again, and we're going to talk about the economic environment of The Grapes of Wrath.
Real estate speculation leading to massive foreclosures and falling house prices. A stock market crash that wipes out the savings of millions. Short sellers and speculators blamed for causing market chaos. Banking system failures that lead to economic misery. A dramatic increase in unemployment. A large contraction in GDP. Falling prices for goods and services. Government loans to failing businesses. Calls for caps on executive compensation. A widespread anger for Wall Street from Main Street. Calls for government action to fix a broken financial system. Sound familiar? That actually isn't now. It's then. The backdrop of the Great Depression is a very, I think, exciting area for us to think about right now because of what it tells us not only about what happened to the Joads, but what happens to all of us in economic systems.
I'd like to focus in my talk on this economic conditions in the Depression and what life was like for people living at that time. I then want to turn to some of the general economic related themes that run through The Grapes of Wrath and how they shaped the economy going forward. And we're going to end with a more current focus. Are we facing a return to some of those same issues today?
So let's go back and talk about the Great Depression, obviously far removed from all of you, even far removed from me, but certainly very much in our minds today as we contemplate what the world is like now. And I'm going to argue what the world was like then. So for many of you today, if I were to ask, when did the Great Depression start? You might tell me that it started in October 1929 when the stock market crashed. But for the Joads, the timing would have actually been much earlier. Per capita of farm income in the US peaked in 1920. And then it began an inexorable slide all the way through the '20s and even got worse in the 1930s. When you look at 1929, things had really deteriorated. Farm prices in 1933 were less than half their value in 1920, and agricultural prices in 1933 stood at 40% of their 1929 values. Falling incomes, plummeting land values, and deflation in agricultural prices were the order of the day.
In the broader economy, things were different in the 1920s, where prosperity prevailed. The stock market, which had been at a level of 63 in 1921 had soared to 381 by 1929. Unfortunately, it then plunged to 41 by 1933. So when you think about the situation, 389 to 41 in four years' time, you get a sense of the terror of what began in that time. It would also occur with respect to unemployment. . The unemployment rate in 1927 for the country as a whole was 3%. By 1933, it would be 25%. Now, there's some debate about the actual levels. This is what keeps economists busy-- they argue. But even the most optimistic economist will tell you that unemployment in 1933 was 16% or 17%.
So the situation was really dire, and there was no escaping the general economic decline. From 1929 to 1933, real GDP fell 40%. And nominal prices went down an average of 6 and 1/2 percent a year. And that in turn led to wage deflation of 3% to 4% a year. So the situation that the Joads found themselves in was a terrifying one-- incomes falling every year, unemployment rampant, farm prices plummeting, land values seemingly never going to stop.
And add to that a banking system that was a disaster. In 1921, the number of banks in the US peaked, reached its all time high of 31,000. To put some perspective on it, give or take a few, we have about 7,000 banks now. But in the 1920s, all those problems in the agricultural sector were beginning to take their toll, and small agricultural banks were failing. Some of them were replaced by other banks, but the reality was that those evil banks that we see in The Grapes of Wrath were themselves in very great economic problem. And they were failing too. So much has the people in The Grapes of Wrath can't figure out who to blame. and so, of course, they blame the bankers. The banks themselves were struggling to stay afloat.
And this problem would get worse and worse. The real problems, by the 1930, were that the entire banking system now had become a problem. In 1930 and 1931, more than 1,700 banks failed each year. In 1934, 4,000 banks would fail. And those of you who are history fans, and hopefully you'll be taking courses here, will learn about Roosevelt closing every bank in the country in 1933 with his famous bank holiday.
So the struggles of the Joad family to get by in what are clearly desperate economic times are disturbing. This is not an easy book to read, but it's also informative about some of the general beliefs at that time. So let's consider three of those beliefs. One, financial system distrust was deeply ingrained in the American psyche. You may think people hate bankers now. They've always hated bankers and for good reason. The financial system collapsed with surprising regularity. If you look back, financial panics were commonplace. They occurred in 1837, 1857, 1873, 1893, 1907. They were sort of used to the idea that every 20 years or so, the financial system collapsed. They didn't like it, but they certainly knew it happened. And they hated the financial system. They always felt-- if you read history or any sort of the novels-- the financial system is tremendously distrusted.
The 1907 panic, for example, which of course, would have been very familiar to the Joads resulted in a National Bank run, not like the ones we have now that are sponsored by Chase, and you do the 5K or the 10K. But the entire country had a bank run. Everyone going to their bank to get their money out. In the aftermath of 1907, we have all kinds of new financial systems put in place. We get a Postal Savings system. We get a central bank. We get a land bank system. We try to come up with a solution to this financial system that constantly crashes and causes misery. But alas, we don't succeed.
In the Depression, we see again it rears its ugly head. And because there was no deposit insurance at this time on a national scale-- there were a few states that tried-- when the financial system collapses, people lose a lot. And you end up with tremendous misery. For farmers like the Joads, there's another reason they hate the financial system. And that's the currency question. One of the challenges the country deals with over this period and really starting 1880s, 1890s, on up to the time we're talking about, is should we have a hard currency or a soft currency? Should we have inflation or deflation? The farmers want inflation. The monied class wants deflation. And you may remember William Jennings Bryan, famous, I will not be crucified on a cross of gold. He wants he wants money that's looser and so did the farmers, but they don't get it. And so, again, the currency. You get deflation. It's a tough tough time. And consequently, the distrust of the monied powers that we see throughout this book.
A second economic theme in the book is that only government could save the common man from big business and big farming. It's not just the banks that people are worried about. Big business, big farming, our poor Joads get taken advantage of by almost everybody. The rise of populism leads to demands for new government programs and for income redistribution more generally. Then Governor Roosevelt spoke out against, quote, "the increasing concentration of wealth and power." Huey Long, newly elected populist senator from Louisiana, cast his first Senate vote in support of legislation barring government loans to companies whose presidents were paid more than the outrageous sum of $15,000 a year. Sounds familiar. The reach of the government is going to be vastly extended at this time with Social Security deposit insurance, securities regulation, government takeover of utilities, to name just a few of the many new programs.
But there some really interesting parallels as we think about then and now. For example, the country was strongly behind this new energized government moving into the world of everyday affairs. Speaking of President Roosevelt, Will Rogers noted, quote, "The whole country is behind him. If he burned down the capital, we would cheer and say, well, at least he got a fire started." Perhaps something to think about as we contemplate today.
Let me bring to a third theme the feeling that the economic system was permanently disabled, leading to a loss of hope. The Grapes of Wrath was written in 1938, a year in which unemployment was 19%, the stock market was at 98, and the economy continued to contract. No matter how you looked at it, this depression, whether it started in 1929 or in 1921, had gone on now for almost a decade or even longer. And there was a general feeling that the sheer length of the depression was taking its toll. The bread lines and the unemployment queues seemingly endless.
A poem by Florence Converse, which is quoted in a recent book on the Depression called The Forgotten Man captured this feeling. "What's the meaning of this queue trailing down the avenue, full of eyes that will not meet, the other eyes that throng the street? To see a line of living men, as long as round the block again, and then is long again. All lines end eventually except of course, in theory."
Well, we know that the Great Depression did end and prosperity returned. Can we feel confident for the same will be true for our economic circumstances? Well, certainly from the time this book was decided upon until now, things have begun to look a lot better. And let's put in perspective the numbers I've thrown about and what we have now. Our stock market fell from 14,000 to a low of 6,800. But we're not talking about 348 down to 41. It's not the same order of magnitude, where the stock market fell 80%. GDP fell more than 40% in the Depression, whereas today it decreased 0.8%, 0.8 of 1% in 2008. And it's projected to fall by 1.8% in 2009, a far cry from what happened in the Depression. Unemployment is now approaching 10%, but it was 25% in the Depression. And it stayed well above 10% for more than a decade.
But statistics can be misleading. As we think about these numbers, you can lull yourself into thinking that it's not so bad. But I think the power of Steinbeck's novel is not about the economy as a whole. It's the plight of the individual so grippingly told by John Steinbeck, and it's being played out today, maybe not in Oklahoma. Maybe it's in Detroit, or maybe it's in Ohio. But that, to me, is the power that Steinbeck captures-- of people caught in an economy, in an environment, in a time, where they feel powerless. And they try and deal with it the best they can. I think we see that played out everywhere today as well.
A commentator writing in the 1930s noted, "You know, the Depression wasn't so bad if you had a job." I think that same conclusion holds today. Thank you.
JEFF COWIE: Good afternoon, and thanks for your patience. I know it's hot, but I brought pictures so--
I want to take off from what Maureen just talked about and think about how in the Great Depression we crystallized a notion of what I'm going to call the working class hero. And specifically, I'm mean look at the Joads and Tom Joad and how that figure projects forward throughout the post-war period. I think that the image of the Okie provides a sort of evolving icon of class identity in American cultural history. And I want to start in the 1930s up to our present time.
Steinbeck's work is part of a larger process of what may be called the cultural franchise of working people. In politics, and culture, and communities, and workplaces, among union organizers and policy makers, questions of economic justice were thick in the air of the Depression decade. As the nation plunged into another of its panics, this one of the most severe in its history, between 1/4 and 1/3 of the nation remained officially unemployed, factories shuttered, and a combination of self-reliance and collective action folded uneasily into FDR's New Deal government.
But workers across the nation were on the march, as they used to say, from the great cotton strike in California to the sit down strikes in Michigan, writers, journalists, documentary, photographers, filmmakers, playwrights all join in what was called the Popular Front in order to support the rise of working people culturally, socially, and politically. As one critic wrote upon reading The Grapes of Wrath, "Steinbeck met the social crisis within the artistic sphere as successfully as Roosevelt did in the political sphere."
Tom Joad, like so many in here-- we have Henry Fonda's version of Tom Joad-- begins like so many heroes in American popular culture as an outlaw. He's ready to do battle. They're always ready to do battle, but he doesn't know what he's going to fight. Following his release from prison, he and his family are pushed off the land. And as they trek to California in search of work, the family unit begins to crumble as people leave, people die. And throughout this ongoing tragedy of the family unit, there's all these incredible acts of humanity that help sort of buoy one's faith in the Joads' ability to survive. I'm thinking of Casey grappling with the Scriptures. Ma lying next to the dead body of grandma's as they cross into California. Casey taking the blame for tripping the deputy in order to get Tom off the hook. The way the Weed Patch Camp provides a certain oasis and a type of hope that people might, if given the right resources, given the right freedoms, could actually define their own lives.
But Steinbeck doesn't give us simple answers. He's not ideological. He leaves us to grapple the confusion between the spiritual and the political, between socialism and reformism, between the independence of the Jeffersonian yeoman and the collective power of the modern wage earner. But it's Tom wrestling with Casey's preachings, or musings rather, that suggest the rising consciousness away from the individualism and toward a larger collective vision, an almost spiritual vision. This sort of thing builds throughout the book and obviously culminates in the end of the book where Rosasharn offers her breast to the starving man.
And finally, when Tom has to leave the security of the family unit that Ma's big arms have protected and guided for so long, he delivers Steinbeck's most passionate expression of the collective spirit. "A fella ain't got a soul of his own," Tom concludes, "but only a piece of a big one. I'll be around in the dark. I'll be everywhere, wherever you look. Wherever there's a fight so hungry people can eat, I'll be there. Wherever there's a cop beating up a guy, I'll be there. Why I'll be in the way guys yell when they're mad, and I'll be in the way kids laugh when they're hungry and they know supper's ready. And when our folks eat the stuff they raise and live in the houses they build, why I'll be there." So then Tom heads off into the occupational wilderness to be a sort of organizing spirit-- one who bears witness to the struggle, one who will be present in his fellow worker's moments of need.
And workers throughout the nation did a much tamer version of the same. They join together in a sort of motley assemblage that historians like to call the New Deal Coalition. Liberals, urban industrial workers, skilled workers and unskilled workers, immigrants from Southern and Eastern Europe, Catholics, Protestants, Jews, African-Americans, Southerners and Northerners join together to form what is arguably the political backbone of the post-war period. And I know the light is not perfect here, but maybe you can see on this car the ragged sticker for Roosevelt, which was sort of an iconic aspect of working class life in the 1930s.
So the main purpose of my talk today is this sort of see what happens to this idea, this figure of Tom Joad infused with Casey's passions and vision of us having one small piece of a large soul. What happens to him? Well, here comes the cops.
First, he gets out of the Depression. And the way he gets out of the Depression is through the massive public spending of World War II. And here we have what we're called the Defense Okies. These are the ones who came to California or moved out of the cotton fields-- of the agricultural fields of California-- to work in the defense plants in Los Angeles, and Oakland, and other areas. And here we have a different vision. They're cleaned up. They're prosperous. They're grinning. But we still see echoes of that old iconography that the Depression Era, Farm Security Administration documentary tradition.
And although the strikes to organize in California failed, workers in basic industry went from nominal representation before the New Deal to having 35% of non-agricultural workers in unions by the end of the war. The new high wages funneled money from the company to the family then to the community, and in the process, fostered a relatively affluent industrial working class. The weekly earnings of non-supervisory workers in the post-war era increased 62% between 1947 and 1972. It's an astronomical figure. Unfortunately, they've pretty much stagnated for most working people since 1972. The system provided constant improvement in the material well-being of workers as inequality went down and wages went up. And here, again, in this photograph, you see hovering over this worker's shoulder the figure of Roosevelt.
The next image we see two similar porch settings. The first is the pre-war adaptation of Grapes of Wrath in John Ford's wonderful film. And I urge you all to see it. It is a fantastic film. And in the background here, you see the workers reading those handbills that we just heard about that are attempting to inflate the workers going out to pick peas. And they're finding out that they're in trouble, that there are a lot more flyers and a lot more workers than there are jobs. In the foreground, just probably four or five years later, we see the same type of imagery, the same style of photography, this time used as an ad to sell RC Cola. We have a returning vet, or perhaps somebody is about to ship out, sitting on a very similar porch, but in a much more leisurely fashion. And we're beginning to see the shift of our Okie hero from poverty to what would be regarded then as affluence. From desperate workers to relaxed consumers.
Nowhere was this shift more prominent than one of the most successful, and I would say peculiar, television shows in history-- The Beverly Hillbillies. Though the show first aired in 1962 and kept going until the early '70s, the name comes from a 1930s Los Angeles radio show that featured all these sort of regional folksy music that Okies enjoy, and the regional humor, and the sort of a show that appealed really to rural folks who are in the city. But the premise of the show, of the 1960s Beverly Hillbillies, is that Jed Clampett, of course, is out hunting, shoots his gun, and lo and behold becomes a millionaire as oil starts bleeding from his property. And here you suddenly have a group of people who don't have to uproot from Arkansas because they are so poor. But this group has to go to California because they have got so much money they don't know what to do with it all.
And the thing that ties these groups so explicitly, besides what the creators of the show themselves have said, that it's a combination of Grapes of Wrath and Li'l Abner, is the car. And here we have another one of those documentary photographs in the background here and The Beverly Hillbillies vehicle on the front, which is of course so similar to these laden old jalopies, heavily laden with the family supplies, including Granny sitting up there on top rocking away.
So throughout the show, the naive Clampetts whose honesty is beyond reproach, right? They find themselves surrounded by these plodding and conniving figures, who are out to get their money. And it was always their honesty and their folksy ways that thwarted the efforts of the city slickers to get their money. And for a generation experiencing the biggest and best shared boom in world history, The Beverly Hillbillies offered viewers a sense of safety and certainty that they would be able to negotiate a new world of affluence. Like the Joads, they had to figure out how to use indoor plumbing, what to do with their cement pond, and how to deal with a banker like Mr. Drysdale whose blood pressure went up every time Jed Clampett tried to take some money out of the bank.
If The Beverly Hillbillies reassured viewers they'll be able to deal with the strange new world, it also erased from the public imagination the sole sources of post-war prosperity and the politics that led to it from the New Deal to organized labor. And this absurd caricature of working people made it seem that whatever money these neo-Joads had was largely a product of luck and mystery.
Now, at the same time that the fictional Clampetts are trying to figure out how to deal with more money than they can possibly imagine, a real embodiment, I would argue, of preacher Casey's vision, Cesar Chavez, was at work organizing California's agricultural workers. And here he is pictured having broken a 42 day fast with Senator Kennedy. Now, thinking about Cesar Chavez and the United Farm Workers raises a fundamental problem with the novel. And that is the question of race. The book scarcely mentions the Mexican and Filipino workers who dominated the California fields and orchards in the 1930s. Instead, it implies that white Protestants were really the only subject worthy of treatment. Historically, however, the vast majority of California agricultural labor had been Chinese, Japanese, Filipino, and Mexican. And in the 1930s, white migrants from the southwest replaced the Mexicans and the Filipinos, who had been repatriated and deported, sometimes quite viciously, especially after the strike wave of '33 and '34.
As white workers filling jobs historically done by whites, Okies were often racialized, victimized, and objectified, referred to in terms that were often used only to describe non-white people in American history. For instance, one Californian describes them, the Okies, as "They ain't human. A human being wouldn't live like they do. A human being couldn't stand to be so dirty and miserable. They ain't a whole lot better than gorillas."
Now, the treatment of white people as outsiders in their own country bothered Steinbeck quite deeply. But by eliminating Asians, Mexicans, Filipinos, and Blacks from the story, he created a certain myth of racial innocence. The Okies were temporarily an oppressed minority, but we cannot understand their position in the novel by whitewashing the complexity of working class identity. So even though Chavez embodies Preacher Casey's dream of organizing with a combination of spiritual uplift and brilliant economic tactics, there is no obvious place for this Mexican-American, either in Steinbeck's novel nor the iconography of the post-war working class hero Steinbeck helped to generate even when Chavez's own campaign was called the Wrath of Grapes.
While Chavez was uniting the farm workers, the Okie image was moving quickly to the right politically. Many writers and directors in the late '60s and early '70s appeared ready to punish and humiliate the white working class for their perceived political failures. In essence, workers' reticence to mobilize against the Vietnam War and their mixed, at best, record on civil rights and black power made them the enemy to many makers of popular culture in the 1960s. The alliance of workers in the cultural left that had animated the Depression Era's Popular Front seemed to be suffering an irreparable rupture.
At times, the level of condescension was astonishing. One of the most innovative films of the era, Easy Rider, two chopper driving hippies embark on a discovery ride across America. The promotional materials for the film proclaimed a man went looking for America and couldn't find it anywhere. But what they found was a fate at the wrathful hands of the southern working class. As they steer their choppers down the highway, along comes a pickup truck with two surly looking rednecks in it. Three decades earlier, this truck might have symbolized a hopeful vision of the people. Instead, in Easy Rider, one of the neo-Okies pulls a shotgun off the rack and blast them off their motorcycles. The film ends with a camera panning from the air motorbikes in flame and the dream road trip come to an end, killed if you believe the filmmakers, by the cultural vendetta of the new Tom Joad.
"In my mind," explained one of the screenwriters in incredibly tortured logic, "the ending was to be an indictment blue collar America, the people I thought were responsible for the Vietnam War." And here, if you see this photograph, you see both a Farm Security Administration photograph in the background and a still from John Ford's Grapes of Wrath film, and I think they tied together rather neatly.
But the cultural indictment went both ways. The same year Easy Rider was made, the number one hit on the country charts was a song called "Okie from Muskogee." Merle Haggard, who was actually born in a box car, whose parents had left Oklahoma as Okies, was very much of that Okie tradition, was often hailed as the new Woody Guthrie until he wrote "Okie from Muskogee," which is a place, and I'll quote a few of the song lyrics, "where we don't smoke marijuana. We don't take our trips on LSD. We don't make a party out of loving. We don't burn our draft cards down on Main Street because we like living right and being free."
This kind of backlash populism propelled Haggard into stardom and made him into a hot commodity among Republican strategists. Governor Ronald Reagan pardoned Haggard for the crimes that had sent him to San Quentin prison. Richard Nixon had him up to the White House to put on a show. And his flag waving slams at hippies, and draft dodgers, and campus radicals allowed the press to name him the poet laureate of the hardhat.
By the 1970s, the figure of the Okie had grown from sort of a special group of downtrodden migrants to a conglomerate of American patriotic identity. Fast forward to 1995. Bruce Springsteen records an album called The Ghost of Tom Joad. Adopting Woody Guthrie's role as troubadour of California's downtrodden, , Springsteen agonizes over his inability to find traces of Steinbeck's missing hero. If the 1930s were about the franchisement of the working class hero, Springsteen is discussing the disenfranchisement of the working class hero. The title cut The Ghost of Tom Joad is drained of the political faith that inspired the early Tom Joad of John Steinbeck, John Ford, and Woody Guthrie. The vagrant in Springsteen's song lives under a bridge and bathes in the city aqueduct. The highway patrol choppers are hovering in the air. There's a fatalism and an emptiness in the highway in this new world order, where he sings, "You have a hole in your belly and a gun in your hand."
In the songs, Springsteen recites Tom's famous speech to Ma that I opened this talk with. But he frames it in the third person repeating the distant lore, the faint historical memory of what someone else said a long time ago. As Springsteen concludes, "The highway is alive tonight, but nobody's kidding nobody about where it goes. I'm sitting down here in the campfire light searching for the ghost of old Tom Joad." Springsteen's absent haunting [AUDIO OUT] Tom Joad invokes the return of pre-New Deal levels of inequality, which wages for working people have stagnated, immigrants lack economic rights, massive fortunes have been built by the few, the unions are on their back, and Gilded Age levels of inequality have returned. The problem of working class prosperity faced by the Clampetts is long gone, and the politics continue to cleave on terms of cultural resentment that I think Merle Haggard and the makers of Easy Rider would still be able to understand. I think Steinbeck would be disappointed.
More than anything else, more than even the strikebreakers, Steinbeck feared the waning of hope. As he wrote in Grapes, and I will conclude with this quote, "fear the time when the strikes stop, while the great owners live, for every little beaten strike is proof that the step is being taken. Fear the time when man's self will not suffer and die for a concept, for this one quality is the foundation of manself distinctive in the universe." Thank you.
LAURA BROWN: Thanks to all our panelists for a very stimulating discussion, and I hope you all enjoy your own discussions tomorrow afternoon at 3:30 with your instructors in your small groups. Thanks for coming. Welcome to Cornell.
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As part of Cornell's New Student Reading Project, this year's incoming undergraduate class and much of the Cornell community are reading John Steinbeck's Pulitzer Prize-winning 1939 novel, "The Grapes of Wrath."
Faculty panelists for the Aug. 23 discussion in Barton Hall:
Jeremy Braddock, Assistant Professor of English Jeff Cowie, Associate Professor, ILR Maureen O'Hara, Professor of Management, JGSM Natalie Mahowald, Earth and Atmospheric Sciences