The Battle Hymn of the Great Depression

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.
Dorothea Lange / Library of Congress

The Grapes of Wrath, John Steinbeck’s Pulitzer-Prize-winning novel, was published on this day in 1939. Steinbeck’s story, which follows the struggling Joad family out of the Dust Bowl to California, took its title from Julia Ward Howe’s “Battle Hymn of the Republic”—which begins, as Jeff Goldberg noted in 2012, with “the most famous 12 words ever published in the pages of The Atlantic”:

Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord:
He is trampling out the vintage where the grapes of wrath are stored;
He hath loosed the fateful lightning of his terrible swift sword:
His truth is marching on.

Published in November 1862, the poem was an abolitionist battle cry, summing up the best causes that spurred the Union to civil war. As Jeff wrote, the line about the grapes of wrath “promises vengeance against the enemies of freedom”:

Vengeance is effective motivation. But a different sort of motivation is also found in the lesser-known fifth stanza: the draw of transfiguring martyrdom. As Christ died “to make men holy,” Howe wrote, “let us die to make men free.”

To Howe, wrath is a force not just of vengeance but of purity and certainty. It propels “His truth” and “righteous sentence”: “a fiery gospel writ in burnished rows of steel,” and proclaimed by “the trumpet that shall never call retreat.” What’s more, that moral certainty comes with “a glory … that transfigures you and me.”

But the transformations of wrath in Steinbeck’s novel are darker, and more ambivalent.

The novel is deeply concerned with fertility, what the earth and people can produce, which makes the grapes of wrath an apt metaphor for an anger that’s fed and cultivated by hardship and hurt. Here is how Steinbeck describes the cultivation of grapes:

Grape blossoms shed their tiny petals and the hard little beads become green buttons, and the buttons grow heavy. … The year is heavy with produce. And men are proud, for of their knowledge they can make the year heavy. They have transformed the world with their knowledge.

All growth is transformation, but for the farmers of The Grapes of Wrath, sharecroppers and landowners alike, the power to grow is closely coupled with their sense of self. Which makes it doubly painful when the abundant fruits of their labor are destroyed in order to drive prices up:

The people come with nets to fish for potatoes in the river, and the guards hold them back; they come in rattling cars to get the dumped oranges, but the kerosene is sprayed. And they stand still and watch the potatoes float by, listen to the screaming pigs being killed in a ditch and covered with quicklime, watch the mountains of oranges slop down to a putrefying ooze; and in the eyes of the people there is a failure; and in the eyes of the hungry there is a growing wrath. In the souls of the people the grapes of wrath are filling and growing heavy, growing heavy for the vintage.

Here the grapes of wrath become part of a system of perversion, an agriculture that produces violence and decay instead of fruit. There’s death where life should have been: the corn choked by dust; the soil stripped of nitrogen; and the stillborn baby of Rosasharn, the Joads’ eldest daughter, dead in the womb from malnutrition. When the family can’t bear to bury it, they send the body downriver in an apple box, to “go down in the street an’ rot an’ tell ’em that way” what great human wrong has been done.

Meanwhile, wrath works its own transformations on the people, bringing deep divisions between the hungry migrant workers and people in the towns:

They splashed out … to beg for food, to cringe and beg for food, to beg for relief, to try to steal, to lie. And under the begging, and under the cringing, a hopeless anger began to smolder. And in the little towns pity for the sodden men changed to anger, and anger at the hungry people changed to fear of them. ...

The women watched the men, watched to see whether the break had come at last. … And where a number of men gathered together, the fear went from their faces, and anger took its place. And the women sighed with relief, for they knew it was all right—the break had not yet come; and the break would never come as long as fear could turn to wrath.

Wrath is a symptom of fear and a symbol of endurance, but it isn’t always righteous; it’s simply all that’s left. After all, decay and death are difficult to kill.

I’m rereading The Grapes of Wrath for the first time in several years. It strikes home in this U.S. election cycle, when wrath is animating both ends of the political spectrum. This country is angry at banks and at government, at insiders and immigrants, at entitled young people and complacent old people and people on both ends of a policeman’s gun. Bernie delivers his fiery gospel, Trump sounds forth his unretreating trumpet, and both are celebrated for their ability to “tell it like it is,” which in practice is the ability to feel wrath and show it.

It’s hard to say whether the Joads and their cohort, if voting today, would rally behind the Democratic outsider or the Republican one. On the one hand, the Okies and Arkies of Steinbeck’s novel support a socialist vision of shared resources, of all folks helping other folks; they have deep, tragic, tangible grievances with big business, and they’re getting ready to unionize. But on the other hand, they share traditions connected to Trump’s rise: the tendency “to stress sharply differentiated gender roles, to prize aggressiveness, and to disdain weakness,” as my colleague Yoni puts it, and to match “strong familial loyalty … with a clannish suspicion of outsiders.”

Most of all, they are men who have lost what’s theirs and want it back. Ma Joad’s cry—“They was the time when we was on the lan.’ We had a boundary then”—has parallels to Trump’s wall and his righteous slogan, “Make America Great Again.”

But even that is a call for transformation, similar to Bernie’s call for political revolution, and the call to make men free. Wrath can be, and is, a force behind change, and that may be the task ahead: to make our wrath bear wholesome fruit.