Tom Joad and the Progressive Oklahoma Tradition

(Oklahoma should do much more to take care of the health insurance needs of its teachers, professors and their dependents in an effort to attract and retain quality educators. In addition, the state’s teacher retirement system needs more funding immediately. Read DocHoc’s commentary this week in The Oklahoma Gazette.)

(I'm republishing segments of my Okie Rebels With A Cause series as we approach the midterm elections.)

Okie Rebels With A Cause, Part Four

For most readers throughout the world, Oklahoma’s Tom Joad continues to serve as one of America’s most heroic fictional figures. He embodies Ulysses-like qualities in terms of a literary identity. Joad leaves the pages of John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath an enlightened moralist who has dedicated his life to the fight for truth and justice.
John Steinbeck photo
The 1939 novel is an American classic, and it will remain so for centuries to come.

Yet the right-wing in Oklahoma has always done everything it can do to distort its powerful legacy. Shortly after the publication of The Grapes of Wrath, a Daily Oklahoman editorial writer, who admitted he had not read the novel, accused Steinbeck of “complete and absurd” untruthfulness. “Goldfish swallowing critics know nothing about the region or people pictured in a novel accept at face value even the most inaccurate depiction (Berry Tramel, “April 1939 Steinbeck Paints State Image,” The Daily Oklahoman, April 18, 1999.).

This type of Oklahoma conservative attack on the novel has never stopped, creating a type of psychological warfare against ordinary Oklahomans, who, on the one hand, must deal with the novel as a huge cultural identifier, and, who, on the other hand, have endured more that sixty years of right-wing distortion about it. Consequently, the right wing has, intentionally or not, created a type of collective self-loathing among many Oklahoma citizens concerned consciously or even subconsciously about their own historical background.

Boiled down, it comes to this: The Okies depicted in the novel clearly possess the moral center; the right-wing tries to generate hateful feelings towards these moral characters. The right-wing extremists, when attacking The Grapes of Wrath, are actually attacking our state’s and country’s basic shared value system. All hyperbole aside, it is an attack on the moral fabric and identity of America.

It is no wonder that Sallisaw, Oklahoma, the hometown of the fictional Joads, just recently got around to celebrating Steinbeck’s achievement. In 2001, the small, eastern Oklahoma city held a month of festivities in honor of the novel.

(On a personal note, I am amazed at how many of my Oklahoma college students over the years I have had to tell, “The Oklahoma Joads were great people, morally superior to the filthy-rich Oklahoma and California landowners who treated them like animals. They are heroes.” Perhaps, one reason I must remind then is because most Oklahoma high schools, which have a standard curriculum, do not assign the novel, opting instead to assign shorter novels. In the past, the state textbook committee, appointed by the governor, has been comprised of the type of people who want to insert creationist disclaimers in all high science textbooks which address evolution. It is unlikely the committee would push to make The Grapes of Wrath standard reading, especially since the novel has been periodically banned throughout the country off and on since its publication.)

Yet The Grapes of Wrath was a commercial and literary triumph. This, during a time when the distinction between serious literature and commercial was still a debatable issue. Viking’s first print run of the novel was an astounding 420,000 copies. The movie, made just a year later and starring Henry Fonda, solidified the novel as a classic.

So as the country became familiar with the Dust Bowl specifics, and as the mythology and morality of the novel—small farmers and workers fighting the super wealthy who abused them to line their pockets with immoral money—seized the country’s imagination, the Oklahoma right-wing power structure chose to denigrate the novel.

The anti-Wrath forces, according to one writer, were located primarily in Oklahoma City, and, at the time of the book’s publication, included then Oklahoma Governor Leon Phillips, Oklahoma City Mayor Richard Hefner, Oklahoma City Chamber of Commerce President Stanley Draper, and The Daily Oklahoman editor Walter Harrison. (Berry Tramel, “April 1939 Steinbeck Paints State Image,” The Daily Oklahoman, April 18, 1999.)

The negative response to the novel has continued. Eighteen years after the book’s publication, then Governor Dewey Bartlett established an Oklahoma campaign to recast the state’s image. Bartlett’s program was directly aimed at the novel and the subsequent movie. (The movie was also critically acclaimed.)

One historian who grew up in Oklahoma explained it this way: “My mom would always grumble if the book was brought up. [She would say] Steinbeck smeared the state. It was a horrible book. To my knowledge, she never read it.” (Kelly Kurt, “Oklahomans Trying to Dust Off State’s Image,” The Daily Oklahoman, December 26, 1999.).

In a 1999 interview, a University of Oklahoma professor talked about the novel’s lingering image: “I hate to assign it in the fall semester. They take it home with them for Thanksgiving, and Grandma sees it and starts raising hell” (Berry Tramel, “April 1939 Steinbeck Paints State Image,” The Daily Oklahoman, April 18, 1999.).

Ironically, the right-wing manipulation of the novel’s reception has less to do with literature and politics than it does with money. The rich, powerful right-wingers in the state continue to be concerned with how the state’s lingering Joad-image will affect their pocketbooks through economic development. That means, for right-wing rhetorical purposes, The Grapes of Wrath is still a distortion and the Great Depression never happened.

In 1991, the state’s Tourism Director, appointed by Republican Governor Frank Keating, spent $3.5 million on television advertising Oklahoma’s man-made lakes—some of which were built to the drought years of the 1930s—not its rich and vibrant historical past. A conservative economist for Southwestern Bell summed up the effort this way:” A new generation of Oklahomans plans to leave the old images to the history books” (Kelly Kurt, “Oklahomans Trying to Dust Off State’s Image,” The Daily Oklahoman, December 26, 1999.).

Meanwhile, many leftists, populists, and progressives have abandoned Oklahoma and The Great Plains for the coasts, and do little to counter the historical distortions. This creates a significant brain drain in the state that threatens the state’s economic prosperity.

Even given all that, it still remains an enigma, just like with Woody Guthrie, that Oklahomans do not embrace the Joads, especially Tom Joad, the novel’s moral centerpiece who become intellectually enlightened about the world around him. Contrary to the stereotypical image of an Okie as disheveled, smelly, illiterate hick, Joad embodies the American dream of creating a destiny based on enlightenment, learning, and morality.

Joad represents one side of the duality of the American myth, the side in which “we the people” represent all people, all ethnicities, not just a privileged landed gentry who came together to write the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution.

Joad is a representative fictional character reflected in writer and scholar Michael Kazin's definition of populism:

“That is the most basic and telling definition of populism: a language whose speakers conceive of ordinary people as a noble assemblage not bounded narrowly by class, view their elite opponents as self-serving and undemocratic, and see to mobilize the former against the latter” (Michael Kazin, The Populist Persuasion, New York: Harper Collins, 1995.).

In an earlier academic article, I have argued that Tom Joad is Thomas Paine’s quintessential American man, the trope of the American who emerged from his pamphlet, Common Sense. This is because Joad displays all the intuitiveness, opened-mindedness, and moral outrage that Paine advocated for Americans. This is what critic and scholar Martin Roth has called Paine’s “new version of the true and good man, henceforth to be known as the American.” (Kurt Hochenauer, "The Rhetoric of American Protest: Thomas Paine and the Education of Tom Joad," The Midwest Quarterly, Vol. 25, 1995.)

As he leaves the novel’s pages, Joad tells his mother she will recognize his spirit “wherever they’s a fight so hungry people can eat” or "wherever they’s a cop beating up a guy” or “in the ways guys yell when they’re mad.” He has now turned his American individual identity into a force that benefits all of the disenfranchised people during the depression. He becomes revolutionary with all the force of an American mythology behind him. He speaks through the “souls” of Paine and Thomas Jefferson.

Although Steinbeck was certainly caught up in the Marxist rhetoric in the 1930s, it is apparent, as we read the novel today, that Joad's transition from a private, libertarian American to an activist ready to unite his people is rooted in American mythology and history rather than European socialism and communism.

Yet, as one local Oklahoman wrote, the right-wing power structure lambasted the novel. “Generally, they denied heavy migration, accused California of creating the problem and blamed Steinbeck for maligning the state. Their criticism laid the groundwork for the anti-Steinbeck feelings that eventually swept the state” (Berry Tramel, “April 1939 Steinbeck Paints State Image,” The Daily Oklahoman, April 18, 1999.).

Unfortunately for Oklahoma, those feelings still persists. In a 1999 interview, University of Oklahoma history professor William Savage talks about the problem of teaching the novel, a state that has become increasingly conservative in its politics, a state once called a “conservative bastion” by a right-wing editorial writer for the state’s largest newspaper.

Savage said, “Beside the fact that [Steinbeck’s] talking about people who are barefoot and illiterate, what’s bad about them? They weren’t hypocrites; they’re noble as hell. If the Joads were worthless, why did they keep trying to help everybody they saw. Why did they bother to get our and better themselves” (Berry Tramel, “April 1939 Steinbeck Paints State Image,” The Daily Oklahoman, April 18, 1999.).

This is an argument completely obscured by the state’s right-wing distortion of the novel, and it will continue to be obscured until more academics, critics and journalists take an interest in correcting the conservative rhetorical manipulation about it.

Overall, Oklahoma’s citizens can never advance the state in terms of education and economic opportunities until they embrace their own heroic identity, one filled with the diversity and plurality of leftist populism. If you want to diversify the seemingly always-struggling Oklahoma economy, you need to embrace diversity. That’s pretty simple.

Is there a better place to begin than by first celebrating the state’s rich, populist history? Is there a better place to begin than to embrace Oklahoma’s great moral mythology and legacy?

Long after the conservative juggernaut falls to pieces because of greed, hubris, and lies, John Steinbeck’s The Grape of Wrath will live on in the canon of great American literature. The novel’s moral message— Okie Tom Joad’s enlightened view of the world around him—makes it enduring and significant. Its ideas are universal and connect us from one generation to the next.



We moved to Oklahoma just as I was starting HS in 1971. I don't remember Steinbeck on any reading list. It was in 1976 when I went to Germany on an exchange program that I picked up Grapes of Wrath at a bookstore and devoured it. The Grapes of Wrath should be required reading for every Oklahoma high school student.