John Steinbeck’s novel The Grapes of Wrath (1939) has one of the great depictions of masculinity in 20th century literature. The novel highlights the plight of migrant farmers during the Dust Bowl of the 1930s. It follows the wanderings of a family of farmers called the Joads driven west from their home in rural Oklahoma by desperate economic conditions and the ecological catastrophes of the “dirty thirties.”
Steinbeck’s depictions of masculinity and femininity are refreshingly free of the ideology that shapes gender characterizations in the literature of the last forty years. The men of the Joad clan are uneducated; the women are hard; and the children are perpetually barefooted. But they’re all as tough as shoe leather and weathered by long suffering.
In chapter one, Steinbeck describes the waxing threat of a Dustbowl storm as it gradually sweeps into Oklahoma out of Texas and the Gulf. The imagery turns again and again to the cornfields, a symbol of the vulnerability of the lives of thousands of poor families.
Rain clouds slink in from the south and a gentle wind blows up, softly rustling the drying stalks of corn. The sky darkens and the wind grows stronger. The cornstalks begin to bend. The storm drives plumes of dust into the air “like sluggish smoke” until the sky is almost a solid mass of gray. The next two paragraphs are Steinbeck’s:
During a night the wind raced faster over the land, dug cunningly among the rootlets of the corn, and the corn fought the wind with its weakened leaves until the roots were freed by the prying wind and then each stalk settled wearily sideways toward the earth and pointed the direction of the wind… When the night came again it was black night, for the stars could not pierce the dust to get down… Now the dust was evenly mixed with the air, an emulsion of dust and air. Houses were shut tight, and cloth wedged around doors and windows, but the dust came in so thinly that it could not be seen in the air, and it settled like pollen on the chairs and tables, on the dishes. The people brushed it from their shoulders…
The people, lying in their beds, heard the wind stop… They lay quietly and listened deep into the stillness. Then the roosters crowed, and their voices were muffled, and the people stirred restlessly in their beds and wanted the morning… In the morning the dust hung like fog, and the sun was as red as ripe new blood. All day the dust sifted down from the sky, and the next day it sifted down. An even blanket covered the earth. It settled on the corn, piled up on the tops of the fence posts, piled up on the wires; it settled on roofs, blanketed the weeds and trees.
The people then emerge from their homes and smell the hot stinging air. They cover their noses and turn to the battered landscape to assess the damage. Everyone feels numb and perplexed.
Steinbeck then describes the men:
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. The women studied the men’s faces secretly, for the corn could go, as long as something else remained. The children stood near by drawing figures in the dust with bare toes, and the children sent exploring senses out to see whether men and women would break… Horses came to the watering troughs and nuzzled the water to clear the surface dust. After a while the faces of the watching men lost their bemused perplexity and became hard and angry and resistant. Then the women knew that they were safe and that there was no break. Then they asked, What’ll we do? And the men replied, I don’t know. But it was all right. The women knew it was all right, and the watching children knew it was all right. Women and children knew deep in themselves that no misfortune was too great to bear if their men were whole. The women went into the houses to their work, and the children began to play, but cautiously at first. As the day went forward the sun became less red. It flared down on the dust-blanketed land. The men sat in the doorways of their houses; their hands were busy with sticks and little rocks. The men sat still–thinking—figuring.
The image of wellbeing and safety is extraordinary. What do the adjectives hard, angry and resistant refer to here? Outward resolve. The opposite of self-centeredness. The men turn outward, not inward. They face their foe—the misfortune of catastrophic loss—with steely resistance. And in that resolve, the community takes comfort.
If this scene were adapted today for sitcom television, the men’s perplexity would increase while the women became hard, angry and resistant. The men would struggle with their emotions by telling dirty jokes. The women would roll their eyes and then roll up their sleeves and bring comfort to the community. Canned laughter would reinforce the comic message that men are stupid and weak, but that’s better than being sexists and abusers. Unfortunately, Hollywood often gets what it wants.
Do women still know that no misfortune is too great to bear if their men are whole? Some do. For others it’s merely an intuition. For still others, with bitter experience of the men in their lives, the statement may read like a platitude. But it’s true. Children more than anyone know it.
A generation of men has been trained at school, on television and by the courts to be passive, because the only other alternative, they’re told, is to be aggressive; and that’s intolerable.
They should be told to be manly, masculine, call it what you will. They should be told to be men: neither passive, nor aggressive; neither unemotional, nor overemotional; but rather patient, resolute, long-suffering, and self-sacrificing, seeking (as after a priceless treasure) to acquire virtues such as those summarized in the Beatitudes (Matt. 5), the virtues of Christ, the pattern of masculine identity.
Reading The Grapes of Wrath can be instructive to a generation bent low by the emasculating effects of a half-century of social engineering.