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This chapter makes an attempt to examine, analyze and interpret the issue of loss of land correlates with loss/shift of human identity in Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath through ecocritical perspective. It explores how the loss of bonding with the land leads to a corresponding loss of human identity. It also tries to examine the causes and consequences of the introduction of mechanized industrial agribusiness The researcher claims that the loss of land makes the poor farmers, tenant farmers and sharecroppers shift from small landowners to landless, from complacent individuals in their land to traumatized mobile migrants in alien places, from home they are led to be homeless, from producers of the things that satisfy their vital needs to mere consumers, economically independent self-sustainable citizens to vulnerable proletarians, from the entertainers of freedom to helpless receivers of domination. The Grapes of Wrath focuses on an organic ecological concept in the biotic world and promotes need of implementing the notions of non-anthropocentrism and holism as part of an environmental philosophy.
As the plot of The Grapes of Wrath shows, the Joads as well as other tenant farmers and sharecroppers fail to grow crops in their land due to long drought. They are forced to borrow bank loans for survival. However, they become unable to pay off the loan. The banks snatch their land holdings and start tractoring the poor farmers’ land. In this way these people are robbed off their land as well as their dignity. As William Howarth views “As land is traded, people are degraded (81).”With the introduction of industrial technology, farming also changes as one man with a tractor can now cultivate the land previously maintained by a dozen or more. Most of the families are moving to California, on the rumour that work can be easily found there. Describing the poor farmers’ eviction from their land, Malcolm Cowley writes:
A hundred thousand rural households have been uprooted from the
soil, robbed of their possession . . . turned out on the highways.
Friendless, homeless and therefore voteless, with fewer rights than
medieval serfs, they have wandered in search of a few days’ work at a
miserable wages . . . among the vineyards and orchards of California.
The Oklahomans and other poor farmers, tenant farmers and sharecroppers get uprooted from their place and their identity shifted from small landowners to landless and placeless fragmented masses. Describing the importance of place attachment and, conversely, predicament of detachment from their place, Henderson argues, “Fixity translated into power, whereas uprooted was the best assurance of continued disenfranchisement” (214). Fixity guarantees enfranchisement whereas uprootedness makes people disenfranchised. While the Joads are about to leave their place, they feel pain. Picturing their feeling of pain at being forced out of their land, goods of the past and memories, Steinbeck writes:
How can we leave without our lives? How will we know it’s us without our past? . . . How’ll it be not to know what land’s outside the door? How if you wake up in the night and know – and know the willow tree’s not there? Can you live without the willow tree? . . . Suddenly they were nervous . . . and then frantically they loaded up the cars and drove away, drove in the dust. (92-93)
The Joads have had emotional attachment with their land. While leaving Oklahoma, the Joads’ feel pain in leaving their place, their history, their goods, and their surroundings, which have the stamp of their identity. They become nervous, sentimental and pain-stricken to be uprooted from their place and bereft of their belongings.
After being uprooted from their land, the farmers could not establish their rootedness with any place despite their honesty and hard work. They get insulted, harassed, abused and shoed away from place to place and hence become landless, homeless migrants. They lose their organic identity and become fragmented masses. The industrial farming makes the Joads and other small farm holders, tenant farmers and sharecroppers to be “tractered out” from their land. Acknowledging the pitiless rapacity for avarice of the large landholders, James L. Roark argues “Industrialization tends to aggregate people in towns and cities, and render them mere consumers, instead of dispersing them over territory, and tempting them to become the owners of land and the creators of wealth”(28). They are shifted from producers to mere consumers, stable, permanent dwellers on their place to mobile migrants. They do not let the poor peasants live in one place with their families, working for themselves on their own farms, depending neither on capital nor slaves. Roark further asserts “large landed estates are antithetical to both economic and political democracy” and he believes “Real political democracy depends on democratic land holdings” and “no one can be truly free as long as he had to till another man’s soil (28). Such people really love the organicity and biorhythm of land. They want to stay rooted in their place and work on the land preserving its integrity and intrinsic values to satisfy their vital needs. Roootedness guarantees enfranchisement whereas uprootedness disenfranchises people. Once people are disenfranchised, they become dispossessed. The dispossessed people do not have any connection with authority and hence have no voice. Consequently, they are dehumanized and forced to be mobile migrants.
The destiny of human being is intimately attached with the land. When human beings realize their space in the place where they live and work, this realization makes human beings feel belonging and rooted to their place. Emphasizing the importance of space for happy survival, Edward Hall asserts “all animals, including birds, seem to have a place and built- in, inherited requirement to have a certain amount territory, space, to lead their lives in”(qtd in Tom Wolfe 55). This basic requirement of space in particular place is essential not only for humans but also all animals and birds. Such space in a particular place develops a deeper sense of placeness and identity in human beings. Rudolfo Anaya, in his 1995 essay “Sense of Place,” writes “sense of place does not merely mean . . . landscapes of the place as background. It means that the spirit of place affects and influences the characters by shaping their consciousness”(qtd in Anderson et al. 491). Anaya’s argument suggests that the physical setting, flora, fauna, climate, birds and the community where people live have direct impact in their psychological and physiological growth. When people live long time in a place meaningfully, they feel deep attachment with every nook and corner, flora and fauna, birds and insects, springs, streams and rivers and what is not.. The deep sense of belongingness and rootedness with their place is said to be spatial imagination. Dwight L. Smith states “a firm foundation of economic democracy . . . the only basis upon which a political democracy could be sustained”(93). When every citizen of a community has a meaningful space in the place only then economic democracy flourishes. So, it can be deduced that place attachment is the foundation for economic as well as political democracy. Human identity is reciprocal with their spatial imagination. Snapping off the reciprocity between spatial imagination and human identity leads to the exploitation of the land, and consequently, pain, penury and plight to human beings. When land is taken just as an object, people commodify the land and treat it only as a means of accumulating wealth. Due to such commoditization of the land, small land holders, tenant farmers and sharecroppers are uprooted from the land, and they become landless, homeless, and hence mobile vagrants.
Land, representation of nature, nurtures each and every member of its community. Regarding nature’s nature of organism, A. N. Whitehead argues “nature must concern . . . with . . . change, value, eternal objects, endurance, organism, interfusion . . .”(406). All things and objects of nature have these traits. They perceive each other and have pervasive feeling and unconscious prehension, which is natural feeling for the whole. Such pervasive feeling and unconscious prehension among all beings and things of the nature form earth community. The characteristics of everything are integrated to maintain the wholeness of the universe. Like Whitehead, Steinbeck in The Grapes of Wrath views land as “living organism” that can no longer be treated as in the “Lockean view of land as property,” or land as an object. Explicating Whitehead’s notion of “nature as organism,” Aldo Leopold states:
“Land . . . is not merely soil; it is a fountain of energy flowing through
a circuit of soils, plants, and animals. Food chains are the living
Channels which conduct energy upward; death and decay return it to
the soil. The circuit is not closed; some energy is dissipated in decay,
some is added by absorption from the air, some is stored in soils, peats,
and long-lived forest, but it is a sustained circuit, like a slowly
augmented revolving fund of life. (43)
Leopold’s statement above captures the ecological concept in Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath as it promotes notions of non- anthropocentrism and holism as part of an environmental philosophy. Elaborating Leopold’s notion of “land,”Arne Naess adds “Earth does not belong to humans. . . . Humans only inhabit the lands, using resources to satisfy vital needs. If their vital needs conflict the vital needs of nonhumans, humans might yield”(54). Naess is of the opinion that earth is the common home for all humans and nonhumans having equal rights to share with one other. Like Naess, Steinbeck believes in the equal right of all organisms to blossom and flourish in the land. The land and its complements, plants and animals, make up a biotic community and are equal, interdependent parts of a whole. Every being and thing of the biosphere, regardless of their shape, size and number, have or receive equal share and autonomous ontological value. Sueellen Campbell rightly argues, “Humans are neither better nor worse than other creatures . . . but simply equal to everything else in the natural world” (128). Human being is neither superior nor junior to others but just a member of the land community. Land or place is mother for all creatures of nature.
Land or place does not mean only soil, stone, rock and landscape but it also means, as Yi-Fu Tuan suggests “centre of felt value” (4). Every member of the biotic community gets their needs for food, water, rest and procreation satisfied. Place is warm and cozy home for all. Substantiating Tuan’s argument Eugene Victor Walter views “A place is seen, heard, smelled, imagined, loved, hated, feared, and revered” (142). People who are closely attached with the place they live and work can perceive it sensorily and feel themselves as stake in it like other beings and things. Those who feel a stake in their community think of it as their place. If our nature and quality of human environment is biocentric, we can feel openness, infinitude, spacious and of being attached with the place. The healthier the land community, the happier and more harmonious human survival is. The deterioration of land community endangers the existence of human beings along with the other beings and things which inhabit in the world. The existential or lived-space of human being in the place that is spatial imagination makes them realize their protection, security and surety for safety along with identity, dignity and sense of individuality in the place as Lawrence Buell adduces “place is associatively thick” (63). Human beings’ identity, nationality, culture and customs are intimately associated with the place they live and work. Because of this thick association with the place we say our city, our village, our region, our nation, and our globe. J. E. Malpas concurs with Buell and asserts that place is “that within and with respect to which subjectivity is itself established” (35). Human subjectivity is guided and shaped as per his/her association with his/her place. Supporting Malpas’s argument Christopher J. Preston views “places are part of the source of our rational capacities from the very beginning”(116). The horizon of human rationality is guided and shaped as per his/her place attachment from the very beginning of human life. Place, thus, is the basis for forming human identity. Place, for human beings, is present experience of past expression and events and hopes for the future.
Every human being to have had identity needs to be attached to places and have profound ties with them for a deep sense of belongingness and rootedness.S/he must be familiarized with each and every noke and corner. There should be close acquaintance with flora and fauna. S/he should participate in each and every social, cultural events, ceremonies, feasts and festivals. Simon Weil, in The Need for Roots, asserts:
To be rooted is perhaps the most important and least recognized need of the human soul. . . . A human being has roots by virtue of his real, active and natural participation in the life of the community, which preserves in living shape certain particular expectation for the future. This is a natural one in the sense that it is automatically brought about by place, condition of birth, profession and social surroundings. (53)
The need for roots, Weil suggests by implication, is at least equivalent to the need for order, liberty, responsibility, equality and security. To have roots in a place is necessary precondition for the other needs of an independent individual. Humans’ individual, rural, urban, regional, national identity is determined as per their place attachment.
A profound attachment to a place is as necessary and significant as close relationship with other people. Attachment to a place leads to a sense of insideness with their place. Edward Relph argues “to be inside a place is to belong to it and to identify with it, and more profoundly inside you are the stronger is this identity with place” (49). He further clarifies, “Being inside is knowing where you are. It is the difference between safety and danger, cosmos and chaos, enclosure and exposure, simply here and there” (49). The feeling of being inside makes people feel attached to the place and participate in each and every activity of the place as a part of it.
When people feel rootlessness and alienation from the people and the place around them, and they are not included in socio-cultural activities, they have had the feeling of outsideness with the place. Sense of outsideness gives birth to a sense of placelessness, alienation and rootlessness. As a result, such people lose rootedness with any place and hence are compelled to be unmoored, mobile migrants having no stable identity.
Stable human identity can be maintained in an environment where there is harmonious interdependence and connectedness among the members of the land community. Human beings, in such environment, lead a naturally fulfilling life as Bill Devall and George Sessions suggest “with minimal rather than maximal impact on other species and the earth in general . . . living life as simple in means, rich in ends”(qtd in Luke 6). Interdependence and connectedness between land and human beings can be experienced in sustainable agrarian farming whereas mechanized industrial farming commodify the land and the workers by which the fertile land turns into futile and the workers are detached from their rootedness with the place. Agrarian democracy- making guarantee to have had place attachment to all people- is substantiated by agrarian farming.
Agrarian farming respects interdependence and connectedness between land and humans. It is ecologically friendly and maintains balance between biotic and abiotic worlds. The land, plants, animals are treated equally as living organism, and essential members of land pyramid. The farmers do have close physical and emotional contact with the soil. George Henderson, emphasizing spatial proximity of people to their land, views that Steinbeck in The Grapes of Wrath “was very keen on establishing the notion that an emotional relationship to land depends on close physical contact with soil” (218). The farmers put their hearts and souls in the land and their products. The land and each product are treated as their family members. Agrarian cultures treat land as living organism not as commodity and means of production and accumulating property. They follow what Tao bids quest for “production without possession, action without assertion, development without domination”(qtd in Luke 5). Supporting Tao’s bidding, Marshall Hartranft, author of Grapes of Gladness, writes, “To grow crops to sell is to speculate like hell. . . . But to grow crops to eat keeps you standing on both feet” (qtd. in Wartzman 187). Each product is a melodious song that emerges from the heart of the producers. The farmers produce crops only for their sustenance and survival. Such farming makes people independent. Manipulating land for commercial purpose is beyond their imagination. Highlighting the feeling of oneness between land and human beings, Steinbeck posits himself as anthropo-bio-centric observer and states, “The man who is . . . walking in the earth, turning his plow point for a stone, dropping his handles to slide over an outcropping, kneeling in the earth to eat his lunch; that man who is more than his elements knows the land that is more than its analysis” (120).The ploughman, plough, stone, land , crop do have cyclic relation. Each and every elements of nature do have realization of being equal.
The farmers and the ploughmen feel oneness with the farming tools along with the soil. There is no high ambition of earning profit and accumulating property. They love self-sustaining agrarianism. In self-sustaining agrarianism, it is not only human beings but also animals feel oneness, lifelikeness, vitality and connectedness with the land. Working with the land they feel being energized, but not tired. Picturizing the physical and emotional state of a horse when it returns to its barn after a day-long ploughing the field, Steinbeck exemplifies the horse’s sense of oneness with the land and its vitality:
[W]hen a horse stops work and goes into the barn there is a life and a vitality left, there is a breathing and a warmth, and the feet shift on the straw, and the jaws champ on the hay, and the ears and the eyes are alive. There is warmth of life in the barn, and the heat and smell of life. (120)
The horse after accomplishing the day’s work returns to the barn where it feels life and vitality but not exhaustion and tiredness. Working with the land recharges the horse with more strength which makes it feel warmth of life. The bio-rhythm of the soil flows in its body and the horse feels the heat and smell of life in peaceful environment of the barn. It is the same with human beings. Agrarian farming treats land, animals, birds, tools for farming as organism as that of human beings equally for developing sustainable farming.
Sustainable farming respects land as the basis of the farmer’s survival. Better health of the land provides better production and better survival. For them, land is not only means of production but embodiment of their own beings and life. Seeing being in land helps them to understand as Palmer states “indeed, there are no “isolated” things but an interlocking web of relations in a constant state of flux. Individuals are “knots in a web” or “centers of interaction” constituted by their relationships” (30). The relationship between human and nature is holy and inviolable. Machines have no place in this sanctity of human’s relationship to the natural world. The land also undergoes a process of dehumanization when its link with the human is severed. Gerard Manley Hopkins’s in “God’s Grandeur “presents the consequence of the reckless and careless exploitation of the earth through machines and modern technology:
Generations have trod, have trod, have trod;
And all is seared with trade; bleared, smeared with toil;
And wears man’s smudge and shares man’s smell: the soil
Is bare now, nor can foot feel, being shod. (5-8)
The land becomes barren and mechanical when it is loaded with inorganic materials like insecticides, pesticides, fertilizers, detergents, plastics, synthetics and other chemicals in the soil. These substances dirtily blur and dry the organicity of the land community. As a result, the land has lost its fertility, beauty and integrity. Because of being isolated from the soil humans also could not feel the biorhythm of the soil. Machines and inorganic substances act as a barrier between human beings and land. Although the machines function with greater efficiency, they lack the emotional and spiritual proximity with the soil that make the land so valuable.
The life of the land and human life at their best are inseparable. Human identity is integrally tied to the land. Attachment with the land makes people feel as authentic citizens of the land with human identity and dignity. They realize their space in the place where they live and work. Describing the right of sustainable agrarian ownership over the land and human dignity, David N. Cassuto argues, “Birthing and dying on the land created a blood right of succession that no financial transactions could negate . . . working the land formed the litmus test of possession . . . the laws of country conflict with the laws of land” (60-61). Laws of the country are mechanical and plutocratic guided by so called reason and rationality. They do not respect the emotional, spiritual and physical proximity of the farmers with the land but just mechanically produced non-sentient evidences. The sweat, blood, toil and moil with the soil are the real, natural and sentient evidences for allowing rights of possession over the land. Exemplifying Cassuto’s argument, Steinbeck writes:
Grampa took up the land, and he had to kill the Indians and drive them away. And Pa was born here, and he killed weeds and snakes. Then a bad year came and he had to borrow a little money. An’ we was born here . . . our children born here. An’ Pa had to borrow money. The bank owned the land then . . . Sure cried the tenant men, but it’s our land. We measured it and broke it up. We were even born on it, and we got killed on it, died on it. Even if it’s no good, it’s still ours. . . . That makes ownership, not a paper with number on it. (35)
The yeoman farmers worked on the land struggled against the hardships and obstacles, and in intense circumstances died for the land, again not for accumulating property but just for their survival, security, surety for safety and their identity. In the words of Cornel West, identity is:
[F]undamentally desire and death. How you construct your identity is predicted on how you construct desire, and how you conceive of death; desire for recognition; . . . a deep desire for assimilation . . . transact with an environment. . . . And then there is a profound desire for protection, for security, for safety for surety. (15-16)
The sharecroppers’ identity is closely assimilated with the identity of the land. For them land is vital part of their very existence, and everything to their life is tied to it, including birth, employment, protection, security, safety for surety and death. The tenants follow the idea of Jeffersonian agrarianism. Thomas Jefferson asserted in 1787 that “those who labor in the earth are the chosen people of God, if ever he had a chosen people, whose breasts he has made his peculiar deposit for substantial and genuine virtue” (qtd. in Smith 92). Agrarian farmers, according to Jefferson, are gifted with substantial and genuine virtues by the god. These chosen people have patience, justice, righteousness, humanism and wisdom. Jefferson believes that all people should have the opportunity to own land. He argues that even if people do not own land legally, they have a natural right to claim ownership if they live on it and cultivate it. Nobody can be free and independent citizen until and unless they have some acres of land to till. People having ownership over the land can be declared as enfranchised. Throughout long years of public service, Jefferson was motivated by the conviction that a firm foundation of agrarian democracy was the only basis upon which a political democracy could be sustained. In a political democracy, established on a firm foundation of agrarian democracy, people can enjoy freedom, independence and sovereignty holding their heads high without any fear. This harmonious and peaceful interdependence and connectedness between land communality and human beings including other beings and things gets violated after the introduction of mechanized industrial agribusiness.
With the onset of industrial farming and supremacy of corporate capitalism, the agrarian culture was displaced. The reciprocity between land dignity and human dignity was snapped. Land was no more considered as living organism but as commodity and means of multiplying property. The sharecroppers’ struggle to tame the wild land as cultivable land, and the traces of their sweat, blood, toil, and moil to the soil is ruthlessly denied. They are treated as inessential objects. They are judged not as an independent being or culture but as an illegitimate and refractory foil to the soil. Soil, plants , animals tend to be seen as all alike in their lack of consciousness. Land is conceived in terms of interchangeable and replaceable units. The organicity, vitality and marvelous diversity of the land community are heedlessly ignored. Industrial farming, as Trent Keough argues “is as assertion of individual corporate rights over those established by settled communities in the previous era” (40). The substantial and genuine virtues among human beings, animals, plants and things of the land community, which were developed in agrarian era, have been replaced by corporate business. Machines and technologies replace animal powers in farming.
In the US industrial farming techniques coupled with drought and debt displace thousands of small tenant farmers from their land in the 1930s. The exodus have been underway for nearly a decade, with as many as four hundred thousand folks from Oklahoma, Texas, Missouri, and other states flocking to California in search of better life. An army made up of penniless, unemployed migrants march into California desperately seeking utopia. Rick Wartzman picturizes the then grotesque reality created by agribusiness of California as follows:
The state’s giant landowners had made a travesty of the Jeffersonian ideal of 160 acres, assembling dominions that ballooned to one thousand times or more that size ‘we no longer raise wheat here’, said one grower, ‘we manufacture it’. This wasn’t family farming; it was agribusiness. And with it came a caste system in which relatively few got rich while many remained mired in the worst sort of property . . . big farmers regarded their hands as expendable – ‘beasts of the field. (5)
The Californian large growers make a false representation of Jeffersonian homesteading. They snatch land from the poor farmers, tenant farmers and share croppers by using their cartelling and state mechanism. After holding ownership over thousand acres of land, they commodify the land. They do not grow crops but manufacture them by using machines, technologies and chemicals. The large growers exploit both the land and poor farmers. A very few large growers enjoy vast ocean of property whereas a large number of people are tractored out from their land as beasts and compelled to flutter in the lonely island of pain and penury. They do not allow these dispossessed real children of the soil to be rooted in one place.
Steinbeck takes on the Californian leviathan landholders, who cunningly commodify the land and exploit the migrant labors ruthlessly. He acknowledges the large growers raping the land and writes, “Behind the harrows, the long seeders- twelve curved iron penes erected in the foundry orgasm set by gears, raping methodically, raping without passion”(38). The terms “harrows,” “long seeders,” “twelve penes erected,” “foundry orgasm,””raping” etc connote the large growers’ masochistic treatment to the land. In The Grapes of Wrath, Steinbeck’s story of the Joad family offers a moving depiction of the plight of the US’s Dust Bowl refugees due to the masochistic treatment to the land by the large growers. Tim Kappel argues, “Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath was not merely a sympathetic rendering of one family’s trials but a conscious portrayal of the harsh daily conditions experienced by migrant laborers” (211). The fertile soil of California seems to be available for unrestricted large growers’ use. The then US first lady Eleanor Roosevelt had called her reading of The Grapes of Wrath “an unforgettable experience” (qtd. in Wartzman 5). After reading the Joads’ journey from the bone-dry plains of Oklahoma to the bountiful lands of California, where they and others toil away for a pittance and found themselves wishing “them big farmers wouldn’ plague us so”, “There are 500,000 Americans” the President said, “ that live in the covers of that book” (ibid.6). Brent Bellamy views “in The Grapes of Wrath, California is depicted as a land of potential hopes, and dreams but, instead, offers only exploitative work and an alienated way of life” (225). Thus, the remarks made by Keough about The Grapes of Wrath precisely present Steinbeck’s vision of writing this novel. Keough argues, “John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath (1939) . . . documents the spiritual disintegration and ideological failure of industrial societies driven by Jeremy Bentham’s Utilitarianism and Adam Smith’s Laissez faire economics” (38). Industrial farming which encourages corporate capitalist consumerist culture that helps snap the reciprocal relationship between land and human identity for their headlong thirst for ownership and profit. They are free to do anything for their betterment. The state and police authority seem to be for managing their agribusiness.
Corporate agribusiness coupled with drought and debt compels the share croppers to be detached from their land. Once they are detached from the land, they become dispossessed, mobile vagabonds. They lose sense of placeness, belongingness and shelter, stability, and comfort. Describing the compulsion and plight of the evicted farmers, Henderson explains:
Oklahoma banks extended their domain to foreclose on small or mid-
size farms, while California towns resisted the onslaught of the
displaced migrants. Migrant families were thus pushed from two
directions: away from their homelands and away from the small-town
sanctuary of farmers and merchants. (214).
The sharecroppers neither can earn their survival in their homelands nor in California. After being dissociated from their homeland, they feel to neither here nor there, unable to indulge in sentiments of belonging to either place. They do have pain of loss and of not being firmly rooted in a secure place.
When truculent Tom Joad hitchhiking home after a stint in prison for homicide, the truck driver gives him some hints of the hardship of poor sharecroppers in Oklahoma. The truck driver says to Tom Joad, “A forty-acre cropper and he ain’t been dusted out he ain’t been tractored out? . . . Croppers going fast now. . . . One cat takes and shoves ten families out. Cat’s all over hell now. Tear in and shove the croppers out. How’s your old man hold on?” (10-11) The truck driver’s astonishment clarifies the compulsion of eviction and the imposition of mechanical farming for sheer profit. Machinery has separated sharecroppers from land owners; it has robbed the sharecroppers’ the sustaining delights. Work has become less and less pleasant to do and leads to the loss of the organic community. The loss of the organic community is the root cause of the loss of rootedness of human beings with their place. When people lose the fixity with the place, they have no place to live in. The plight of placelessness makes them dispossessed, dehumanized and disenfranchised mobile migrants.
Industrial farming not only destroys the natural fertility of the land but also displaces animals and introduces machines in farming. Tractors have been used to plough the land. Regarding tractor farming as one of the root causes for the small farmers’ fall, George Henderson states “tractor farming became the small landholder’s nemesis. The small farmer could no longer make the land support a crop. Under a system of modernized production extensive monocropping engulfed the Joads’ farm” (218). Industrial farming, represented by images of machine technology, provides the counterforce of the archetype of the pastoral design. This mechanical farming is associated with fire, speed, iron and harsh noise. It destroys the harmonious, nonhierarchical primitive dwelling, in which as F.R. Leavis and Denys Thompson mention:
[V]illagers express their human nature, they satisfied their human needs, in terms of the natural environment; and the things they made – cottages, barns, ricks and waggons – together with their relations with one another constituted a human environment, and a subtlety of adjustment and adaptation . . . their ways of life reflected the rhythm of the seasons, and they were in close touch with the sources of their sustenance in the neighbouring soil. (74)
In non-hierarchical agrarian dwelling villagers express their nature and try to satisfy their human needs without damaging natural environment. Their products maintain reciprocity between human and nonhuman worlds. Their ways of life follow the rhythms of season and soil for their simple, natural sustenance without having headlong thirst of satisfying materialistic greed.
Tom Joad, after being released from the Oklahoma State penitentiary, where he has served four years of a seven-year sentence for homicide, coming home with Jim Casy, stands on the hill and looks down on the Joads place. The following passage presents Tom Joad’s observation of the destruction of agrarianism and ecological harmony of his native place by tractor farming:
The small unpainted house was mashed at one corner, and it had been pushed off its foundation so that it slumped at an angle, its blind front windows pointing at a spot of sky well above the horizon. The fences were gone and cotton grew in the door yard and up against the house, and the cotton grew close against it. . . . They walked toward the concrete well-cap, walked through cotton plants to get to it, and the bolls were farming on the cotton, and the land was cultivated. (42)
The mechanized industrial farming “tractored out” the sharecroppers’ homes, gardens and farms. The new large cotton farm annihilate all former distinctions between the various micro places of the Joads farm: no more fences, no door yard, no clear path to shed, out house, or trough. There are no places even for proper weeds that should grow under a trough.
The mechanization of farming damages the organicity of the land. The tractor crushes the soft land mercilessly. The Grapes of Wrath is rich with examples. Consider, for example, this passage on human exploitation of the land and, the destruction of prairie sod by mechanized plowing:
Behind the tractor rolled the shining disks, cutting the earth with blades – not plowing but surgery, pushing the cut earth to the right where the second row of disks cut it and pushed it to the left; slicing blades shining, polished by the cut earth. And pulled behind the disks, the harrows combing with iron teeth so that the little clods broke up and the earth lay smooth. (38)
The instrumental knowledge and mechanization “surgery”, “slicing blades” and metonymical representation of “tractor”, “shining disks”, “cutting blades” etc. represent the machine driver like a senseless and lifeless machine man. He is carelessly tractoring to smear, sear and blear the land. Because of sitting on the iron seat and working with iron he has also become like iron. This makes the Dust Bowl dwellers be displaced from their homeland. They see the destruction of their habitat, and smell the hot smoke of the tractor. They eye all these destructive scenes with their heavy hearts. Steinbeck presents the horrible scene as follows:
The people came out of their houses and smelled the hot stinging
air and covered their noses from it. And the children came out of the houses, but they did not run or shout as they would have done after a rain. Men stood by their fences and looked at the ruined corn, drying fast now, only a little green showing through the film of dust. The men were silent and they did not move often. And the women came out of the houses to stand beside their men – to feel whether this time the men would break. (5)
The poor, innocent Oklahomans eye the destruction of their dwelling places and small land holdings with much pain and agonies. Even the children stop playing and keep on eying the tractoring of their land. The women are standing by their men with heavy hearts. There is dead silence except the sound of the tractor.
The new kind of mechanical farming destroys the sense of oneness between land and human beings. The new kind is technically easy and efficient, but, in the words of Steinbeck, it lacks emotional and physical proximity with the land and vanishes wonders of working with the land: “So easy is that the wonder goes out of work, so efficient that the wonder goes out of land and the working of it, and with the wonder the deep understanding and the relation” (120). There is spatial disjunction of people to the land in mechanized farming. There is no spiritual and emotional bond between the driver and the land in working with the machines..The bio-rhythm of the soil cannot be perceived by the machine man. Steinbeck seems very critical of the corporate capitalist mechanized farming which imposes the disjunction between land and farmers. He takes on bank and capitalist portraying them as “monstrous” and exploitative”. He expresses “the monster that built the tractor, the monster that sent the tractor out, had somehow got into the driver’s hands, into his brain and muscle, had goggled him and muzzled him – goggled his mind, muzzled his speech, goggled his perception, muzzled his protest” (37). The tractor functions as a symbol of technological age, and the unfeeling tractor driver, like a robot, has lost contact with the earth. The tractor is indifferent to the weather and unaffected by drought or rainfall. Under its mechanical precision, crops can be grown without spending human labour.
The tractor driver after sitting in his iron seat feels proud of the tractor. He cannot see the land as it is, he cannot smell the land as it smells. His feet do not stamp the clods or feel the warmth and power of the earth. He becomes slave to the tractor. He is just concerned with the assigned work and the wages he receives for his labour. He neither has fellow feeling with his class nor with the land. The dehumanization of the driver is externalized in the form of a rubber dust- mask and goggles which hide his features. He has also lost his human will and the capacity to think and act independently. He mechanically fulfills the role of carrying out the orders of the machine and the capitalist economy. He has been conditioned to merely act without thinking.
For the leviathan landlords, land is simply a means of earning sizable profit. Land is nothing more to them than a financial investment. The bank, representative of corporate finance made up of capitalists, becomes the owners of thousands of acres of land. It hires tractor and senseless machine man to evict the sharecroppers and destroys the organicity of the land. Steinbeck calls the bank a monster and writes:
The Bank – or the company – needs – wants – insists – must have – as though the Bank or company were a monster . . . machines and masters all at the same time . . . a bank or company . . . don’t breathe air, don’t eat side-meat. They breathe profits, they eat interest on money. If they don’t get it, they die the way you die, without air, without side meat. . . . (33-34)
The industrial farming and the accompanying supremacy of corporate capitalism was only for profit not for maintaining connection and interdependence between land and human beings. The bank physically is not human being but it can make them do what it wants. Reverence for the reciprocity between land community and human beings becomes obsolete with the ascension of corporate agribusiness. Timothy W. Luke rightly says “corporate reckless consumption has transformed organic order of nature into the inorganic anarchy of capital” (130). This leads to the reckless consumption of the land and ruthless exploitation of the migrant labors and hence irreversible effects of environmental degradations and loss of human identity. The organic natural order and relationship of land with human beings has transformed into inorganic. There is anarchy of capital everywhere. Humans and land have become like cogs of a machine.
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