John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath and John Dos Passos’ The 42nd Parallel both discuss the economic and social plights of Americans during the Great Depression. They both express contempt for the Capitalist institution and its subjection of Americans, rich and poor, to the uncontrollable mechanism that engulfs their lives and is larger than any one man. “And all of them were caught in something larger than themselves…as though the Bank or the Company were a monster, with thought and feeling, which had ensnared them” (Steinbeck, 31).
In exploring these anti-capitalist assertions, both novels offer multiple viewpoints from both sides of the capitalist machine; essentially giving perspectives from those negatively subjected to the system of Capitalism, and those thriving under the Capitalist system. However, the contrast that is offered by these novels lies chiefly in their differing focuses on the type of worker discussed in each novel. Steinbeck’s focus is involved in the plight felt by tenant farmers due to their displacement from their farms/homes by Banks and wealthy landowners in wake of a combination of the Depression and the Dustbowl. Dos Passos’ focus is more involved in the plight of the urban worker at the hands of the structure of Capitalism itself. It is in this distinction that Steinbeck more effectively illustrates the devastating effects of the Great Depression on American workers and more effectively shows the harsh reality of the inescapability from the system of Capitalism establishing people into two classes, those who are taken advantage of, and those who take advantage.
In The 42nd Parallel, the fictional narratives of Dos Passos’ characters offer the most applicable viewpoints of Capitalism and the effects of the Great Depression on urban workers. The narrative for Fainy “Mac” McCreary specifically embodies the experiences, attitudes, and circumstances of the Marxist “disenfranchised proletariat”. It is through this narrative that Dos Passos simultaneously attempts to convey the effects of the Depression on workers while also discussing the inescapability of the Capitalist structure.
Mac from a young age was subjected to the Capitalist machine, forced to move from his hometown inMiddletown,ConnecticuttoChicagoafter his mother dies and his father loses his job due to a workers strike. As a result, Mac was exposed to anti-Capitalist sentiments from a young age from his father and uncle, both of whom believe “it ain’t your fault and it ain’t my fault…it’s the fault of poverty, and poverty’s the fault of the system…the only man that gets anything out of capitalism is a crook, an’ he gets to be a millionaire in short order” (Passos, 10). As a result, Mac builds on these sentiments since his experiences in the workforce have not shown him otherwise. “The Revolution oughter start righter here inAmerica…All we have to do is get out from under the interests” (Passos, 49). His participation in young labor movements, like the IWW (Industrial Workers if the World), further fuels his sentiments of anti-capitalism. After years of living between his Socialistic revolutionary lifestyle and supporting his family, his wife Maisie and two children, Mac himself is, like his own father, caught up in the Capitalist system and chooses to leave his family to live his life as a revolutionary in Mexico.
In Dos Passos’ discussion of Mac’s character and his life, he is illustrating his belief that no one can escape the dreadful circumstances of Capitalistic society without escapingAmericaentirely. Though he attempts to be a part of the worker’s revolution and change the system, just by living in society, the system overtook him regardless further showing that the system is greater than any one man. Through this specific narrative, Dos Passos vocalizes his Marxist views in that he demonizes Capitalism through the circumstances of Mac’s life and similarly, Mac’s actions as a labor movement revolutionary.
. In The Grapes of Wrath, Steinbeck discusses the difficulties experienced by farmers from two points of view. One is through the Joad family’s journey out west in search for work resulting from their being “tractored out” of their small family farm. The other is through the perspective of an omniscient narrator describing the resulting effects of the displacement and from the Dustbowl; their effects on farmers, the land, and society. Though Steinbeck’s main focus is on the Joad family and their story, it works in conjunction with his narrative commentary. Their combination not only describes the hardships felt by farmers like the Joads, but also discusses the harsh realities of Capitalism and the inequalities associated with its system.
The effects of the Dustbowl and the displacement are readily noticeable in the Joad family narrative. In initially starting their journey, “the men in the seat were tired and angry and sad, for they got $18 for every movable thing from the farm…” (Steinbeck, 97). Despite Tom’s efforts to keep his family together as best as possible throughout their journey West toCalifornia, the Joad family slowly diminishes beginning with the deaths of Grampa and Granma Joad following with Noah and Connie abandoning the family. The Joads are met with further hardships when they, upon arriving inCalifornia, find out from other migrants that “We come from there. Goin’ back home. We can’t make no livin’ out there” (Steinbeck 204). Though they move from camp to camp looking for decent wages and salvation from their hardships, the Joad family, even in the end, does not truly achieve their goal of making themselves better off inCalifornia.
Steinbeck’s omniscient narrative voice provides a broader range of issues stemming from the displacement and depression. In chapter 5, Steinbeck describes the capitalist machine personified by the corporate tractors plowing the land. “He loved the land no more than the bank loved the land…twelve curved iron penes erected in the foundry, orgasms set by gears, raping methodically” (Steinbeck 36). It is in this image that Steinbeck characterizes the effect of the capitalist system on the land, people, and society. In the tractors plowing the land they rape the land, having no connection to their work and methodically taking all that the earth has to offer. The bank has no love or connection to the land that they own or to the people that they associate with. Like the grain being cut and trampled by the tractors, the honest hardworking tenant farmers are now being mowed down by the corporate agricultural machine in search of larger profits at the expense of smaller farmers’ livelihoods. In a way this image resonates throughout the book characterizing society as it results from the Capitalist machine taking over; the cheating car salesmen, the violent California locals, the overcrowded migrant camps, all stemming from the inescapable structure and circumstance of capitalism.
Steinbeck’s story of the Joads works as a means of telling the story of farmers’ experiences during the time despite it being a fictional narrative. Their journey and eventual demise as a family is solely attributable to the inescapable circumstances of the Capitalist system which, as the Joad family learns, is inescapable in American society. The Joad story, in conjunction with his powerful and authoritative narratives, remarkably characterizes the true plights felt by tenant farmers in the wake of the Dustbowl and Depression.
In looking at Dos Passos’ and Steinbeck’s separate focuses, it can be seen that Steinbeck more effectively describes the hardships faced by tenant farmers during the Depression than Dos Passos in his description of the disenfranchised proletariat worker. Though they do focus on differing workforces during the time, during the Depression all workers were faced with difficulties regardless of what sector they worked in. Though Dos Passos does discuss the issues of the Capitalist system and its inescapable inequality, he does not adequately enough show the difficulties of being in the class of those who are taken advantage of as compared to Steinbeck.