Lust for Stuff and John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath
By Christine Clark
Acres of food were left to rot. Livestock that crowded barns were killed and buried. Thousands of migrants to California from the Midwest’s Dust Bowl devastation in the 1930s were dying of starvation, but growers and landowners hired armed guards who shot on sight anyone daring an attempt at eating what those men wasted. I reread The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck last week and I am disheartened. At the same time, I am more awake and aware of the stuff around me after reading the story of the Joad family’s migration from Oklahoma to the lush California farmland. That lush land might just as well have been fallow as it felt the feet and absorbed the tears of those engaged in an often-futile search for a simple day of work and food for their families. The Joad family, although fictitious, was like thousands of real families during those years. The Joads displayed an almost-indomitable spirit and I admire them for that. They had so little, yet they never gave up. That spirit shames me and my focus on what I lack rather than what I have.
My kitchen right now probably has more food than the Joad family ate in an entire month. Clothing? I have a closet larger than some people’s kitchens. The Joad women had two dresses. Each family member had one pair of shoes that were so worn I would not consider such shoes worthy of another moment’s wear. If any of the Joads stepped out of the pages of the book and into my life, they would be stunned by my life of luxury—toilets, running hot and cold water, two bathtubs, showers, a washing machine and dryer, telephones, televisions, electric lights, stove, oven, refrigerator, separate rooms—my family members have their own bedrooms.
I do not want to live under the same circumstances as the Joads or any impoverished people, then or now. However, reading what they experienced gives me a new perspective on my life and any lack I perceive within it.
I yearn for better things in my life, but none of those “things” involve things or accumulating more stuff. One scene in the book describes stuff so well it could have been written last week. The Joad family, Tom (Pa), Ma, Uncle John, Albert, Ruthie, and Winfield worked an entire day picking cotton and earned $3.50—total. At day’s end, the family goes to the store to buy some meager supper supplies. They choose three pounds of pork chops at 30¢ a pound, a piece of beef to boil for supper the next day, and a bottle of milk for Rose of Sharon, the Joads’ pregnant daughter. Two boxes of Cracker Jacks at 5¢ each are purchased for the two youngest, Ruthie and Winfield, as a reward for picking cotton the entire day alongside the adults.
Pa sees Uncle John near the store’s liquor display and asks whether John’s cravings are getting too strong. He tells John he can get drunk as soon as the cotton picking is completed. John notes that he did not notice the liquor bottles; he was thinking about the canvas and leather gloves he had just tried on.
John says: “I didn’t hardly see ’em. Funny thing. I wanta buy stuff. Stuff I don’t need. Like to git one a them safety razors. Thought I’d like to have some a them gloves over there. Awful cheap.”
Pa tells Uncle John that the gloves can’t be used to pick cotton.
“I know that. An’ I don’t need no safety razor, neither. Stuff settin’ out there, you jus’ feel like buyin’ it whether you need it or not.”
In a few words spoken in a tiny store at a county crossroads, Uncle John Joad nailed the lure of consumer society. John Steinbeck, of course, wrote those words in the late 1930s and put them in Uncle John’s mouth. Steinbeck died in 1968, 43 years ago. During those 43 years, the mantra of America has become “Buy stuff, whether you need it or not.” Clever people throughout our country and indeed our world spend their lives convincing us we need stuff. In the process of buying and acquiring that stuff, in many ways our lives are more impoverished than the Joad family’s, who in the book’s final pages, walk from the flooding boxcar that was their last “home.”
I intend to explore what I really need in the coming months versus the stuff “I jus’ feel like buyin’” whether I “need it or not.” What value does stuff have in my life? Does it help or hinder me? How can I resist the lure of more stuff? How much of my “stuff” do I really need? Can I simplify my life and make it richer by ridding myself of so much stuff?