Daniel Rey in New Statesman:
His book is a lie, a black, infernal creation of a twisted, distorted mind.” It was a Democratic representative from Oklahoma who gave this verdict of The Grapes of Wrath, John Steinbeck’s chronicle of migrants leaving the Dust Bowl for California. Disdained by the political elite and much of the literary set, it was nonetheless the best-selling book of 1939. Today’s parallels with the 1930s give Steinbeck’s work renewed urgency. He writes about farm labourers, shopkeepers and the denizens of village taverns – the kinds of people who, before the enormous political upheaval of 2016, the chattering classes barely remembered. In the age of Trump, mass-migration and the phenomenon of the ‘left behind’, Steinbeck’s work is just as relevant as when he wrote it. But more than that: reading Steinbeck fifty years after his death is the perfect antidote to the culture war that has gripped America.
As in the 1930s, machinery – today it’s automation – threaten traditional livelihoods and ways of life in the United States. The Rust Belt is today’s version of the Dust Bowl of the Depression. “One man on a tractor can take the place of twelve or fourteen families,” representatives of city-based corporations explain to the tenant families working the Oklahoma land in The Grapes of Wrath. Unconcerned by the fabric of local communities, the agents suggest the families abandon their homes. “Why don’t you go west to California? … You can reach out anywhere and pick an orange,” they advise, incentivising migration, like the local authorities today who pack homeless people on buses and send them to other American cities.