Seventy-eight years ago, John Steinbeck published The Grapes of Wrath. It’s since become a staple in high-school curricula, offering a glimpse into our nation’s troubled history. But its lessons are just as applicable today in our hyper-polarized climate, in which empathy is often found lacking.
There is a moment in John Steinbeck’s classic, East of Eden, when readers witness the transformation of a stereotype into a human being.
Set in Salinas Valley, Calif., around the turn of the 20th century, Samuel Hamilton picks up Lee, his friend's Chinese servant. Lee wears a queue and speaks Pidgin English. Moments after meeting him, Hamilton learns that Lee was born in the U.S. and asks why he still can’t speak English.
Lee’s face and eyes soften and he speaks perfect English, explaining that he speaks Pidgin for the whites in town to understand him. Lee says, “You see what is, where most people see what they expect.”
Did you catch that? Lee plays the role of the foreigner in order to be seen and understood.
I’m not offering this as consolation to those who have lost someone they love, but as a warning. What’s true of those we love may be just as true of those whom we hate and fear: we become like what we worship, and we worship what we cherish in our hearts.
When people commit monstrous deeds, it is hard not to turn and stare in horror. Think about how hard it is to pull your eyes from the television even when none of the news is new, just the same breathless commentary about what we don’t yet know, what we still don’t understand about the latest act of terror.
When the monsters and their violence become our focus, they grow and become our gods. We’ve become very good at hurting one another, so of course we need to be vigilant. But it’s possible to take our fear too far, to let our natural reaction to sudden violence become a permanent policy of suspicion and terror. Then we are in danger of worshiping our would-be enemies. We don’t worship them joyfully, but we worship them anyway, the way we might worship any vengeful, unstable, wrathful gods: looking over our shoulders and fearing their power. If the best we can come up with is invective against immigrants, suspicion of people unlike us, and perpetually heightened security measures, it starts to look like our hearts are full of fear.
When John Steinbeck's classic novel The Grapes of Wrath was published in 1939, it caused a sensation. It won the Pulitzer Prize and was the best-selling novel of the year. Just months later, in 1940, the book was turned into a film by John Ford, which was nominated for seven Academy Awards.
For readers today, Steinbeck's migration saga remains relevant as a piece of (dramatized) social analysis. It's essentially a road novel about the Joads, a poor Midwestern migrant farming family. Throughout the novel, the Joads fight to keep their family intact while fleeing the 1930s Oklahoma Dustbowl for the hope of farm work in California.