The Grapes of Wrath and Steinbeck's Political Beliefs
Steinbeck's relationship to the transcendentalists [Emerson, Thoreau, and Whitman] was pointed out soon after The Grapes of Wrath appeared by Frederick I. Carpenter, and as the thirties fade into history, Jim Casy with his idea of the holiness of all men and the unreality of sin seems less a product of his own narrowly doctrinaire age than a latter-day wanderer from the green village of Concord to the dry plains of the West.
Although Steinbeck argues for collective action to achieve specific goals, only the most unperceptive critics continue to argue that he is a collectivist in either philosophy or politics. Throughout his work he decries the mindless indoctrination of the totalitarians and maintains that only through reflection upon his bitter experience can learn the value of acting in concert with others for the relief of emergency conditions -- like the flood at the end of The Grapes of Wrath -- so that the individual may subsequently be free to realize his own potentialities. Nothing better illustrates Steinbeck's concept of social organization than the pictures in Chapter Seventeen of The Grapes of Wrath of the world that is created each night a people come together, and disappears the next morning when they separate.
In reference to the government camps in The Grapes of Wrath, Steinbeck never suggests that these camps should offer more than temporary relief during emergencies; he never suggests that the government should provide work for the people. We must recall, too, the camp manager's comment that the people in the camp had taken his job away from him by assuming responsibilities for self-government. Steinbeck's approval of organized government extended to nothing more complicated than that type represented by the eighteenth-century town meeting in New England. There are constant jibes at bureaucracy throughout The Grapes of Wrath. When Grandpa Joad dies, the family bitterly reflects that the government is more interested in dead men than in living ones. The deputy sheriffs, who are the agents of the government closest to the people, lead the harrassment of the migrants because their superiors either tacitly approve or are indifferent to the migrants' fate. Nowhere in the novel does Steinbeck suggest that government should play a continuing role in shaping people's lives; it should simply protect them so that they can work out their own destinies. Steinbeck -- like Tom Paine in Common Sense -- conceives of the government as nothing more than a police force, and he objects that corrupt police are functioning improperly by working against some people rather than with all people.
Steinbeck, we have seen, is as lyrically satisfied with the extremely primitive and personal form of government of the migrant camps that are set up each night and disbanded the next morning, as he is with the more durable Weedpatch Camp...