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Films >> Grapes of Wrath (1940) >> Issue Essay >>

You Decide the Victim

By Ian Garsman

[1] In 1937, George Thomas Miron spent "several months . . . making a first-hand study of the agriculture-work problem" (19). His personal experiences as a worker "In the Field" (the title of his fourth chapter) vehemently contradict John Steinbeck's "inaccurate" personal experiences published the preceding year in a Sacramento newspaper and later collected in Their Blood is Strong. On the basis of what he saw, Miron exposes Steinbeck's false images of both the California agricultural labor system and the Dust Bowl refugees themselves, leading us to question who the real victim is. Miron's tone is angry and resentful, evidenced by the fact that besides offering specific examples from his personal experience, Miron's most obvious attack strategy is name-calling.

[2] Steinbeck portrays the Okies as victims of greedy farmers and employers. Miron sees precisely the reverse, that employers were victims of Okie unwillingness to work and inexperience. For instance, when leaving a job, Miron says that his employer "did everything but get down on his knees to beg me to remain; for he was having a difficult time of it finding enough workers" (21). This personal experience proves that employers direly needed workers and falsifies Steinbeck's generalization that farmers mistreated laborers. Who is the victim in this scene? Miron depicts the laborer in power and control, the complete opposite of Steinbeck's image of employer supremacy. The story of a migrant who agreed to work for food and shelter till harvest but, "with several dollars in his jeans," disappeared "two days later" yields the same conclusion (25).

[3] Steinbeck creates a depressed, tattered, and grimy image of migrant families who live in squatters' camps. Miron disagrees, describing the Okies as "remarkably clean and tidy" (26) and also "an intelligent, industrious, and clean people" (21). Miron acknowledges that some migrant families did live in difficult conditions, but he makes the crucial point that not all did. His contrasting personal experience forces readers to question the validity of Steinbeck's work, again raising the question of who the victim is. Miron states powerfully that "Steinbeck's characterizations of migratory-agricultural workers . . . are a libel against them, in fact, are a libel against all farm labor in the Golden State" (21). Steinbeck insults and embarrasses the migrant families with his generalized false portrayal, so Miron sticks up for the reputation of "the Golden State"!

[4] In another experience, Miron witnesses laborers drinking wine while they work: "by afternoon they were pretty high; by quitting time I would say they were pretty tight" (24). The California wine stands as a symbol for happiness and celebration. Miron is proving to the reader that contentment and satisfaction among migrant workers was not nonexistent in California. His description of the workers feeling "high" directly supports his counter-argument to Steinbeck's generalization of depressed Dust Bowl refugees. The audience is prey to Steinbeck's negative one-sided illustration, but with Miron's opposing factual eyewitness accounts the truth is revealed.

[5] Miron's final and most powerful strategy is name-calling. Steinbeck is always referred to in ruthless and unforgiving ways. For instance, Miron calls Steinbeck "raving mad" for unfairly indicting the whole California system of agriculture (20). In a second example, Miron defends the migrants from Steinbeck's political manipulation, claiming they should "no longer be the subjects for continual controversy, or guinea pigs for laboratory experiments of left-wing visionaries." Steinbeck the raving mad left-wing visionary! Through such derogatory labels we can see both Miron's anger and humiliation at the mistreatment of the California agricultural system and also his belief that Steinbeck's ultimate purpose was to gain political movement and power. Miron makes the very important point that Steinbeck wrote his novel not to gain social justice but to promote left-wing ideas.

[6] Through such examples of personal experience and name-calling, Miron successfully and powerfully delivers his counter-argument that both the farmer owners and the Okies are victims of Steinbeck's unfair and unjust portrayals. Unfortunately, the strength of his main points could not overpower Steinbeck's supreme literary talent. Sympathy for the humiliated comes second to the historically significant novel of depression and suffering.