The Grapes of Wrath: A Novel as Collective as Music

by Matt Goldberg

 “And now the group was welded to one thing, one unit, so that in the dark the eyes of people were inward, and their minds played in other times, and their sadness was like rest, like sleep” (Steinbeck 199).  If John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath contains one lasting theme, it’s one that stresses the importance of unity over individuality.  The novel begins with the Joad family seeing the world with the opposite approach.  Before the family gets to California, they view their condition as one of self-concern before progressing, with the novel, to a condition in which the family recognizes their spiritual bond with the rest of the human race. (Tear Guts)  When examining the bond the Joads ultimately share with the human race, it becomes clear that this bond is a dramatized version of any bond that occurs among humans, namely, the sense of community and collectivity that arises when people listen to and experience music.  This essay will examine the collective aspects of The Grapes of Wrath compared to those of the communal aspects that arise from listening to music.

Before beginning with the collectivity of music, it is imperative that this essay begins examining the collectivity of The Grapes of Wrath.  Given the novel’s major theme of community over individuality, it is obvious that Steinbeck wanted to express this theme in a way that made his main audience, American working class readers, feel like they could change the world if they gathered together.  In order to do so, Steinbeck went searching for a new genre inside of the preexisting, Proletarian Fiction, to find one that could combine the working class revolutionary aspects of Proletarian Fiction with aspects of affinity and community prevalent among popular music at the time.  What he found was the self-proclaimed, Collective Novel.  Although Proletarian Fiction already contains the unity and collectivity Steinbeck was going for “The Grapes of Wrath, however, differs from other collective novels because Steinbeck rejects the international focus of the proletarian works in order to develop his own distinct national critique of the United States” (Dyen 6).  This is done through the interchapters of The Grapes of Wrath where Steinbeck supplies the reader with fictions examples of very real situations occurring in America during the Great Depression.  During the interchapters the reader compares his or her own life experiences with those of the dramatized characters in the novel.  “The novel addresses the reader as citizens rather than international workers or regional citizens. (Dyen 6).  This is precisely what makes The Grapes of Wrath so interesting. Because of the cultural relevance of the time, the story reads more like historical or creative non-fiction rather than fiction; the reader forgets the work is fictitious and participates in an astounding process known as, the “imagined community.”

The Symbolic Construction of Community is defined as, “a matter of feeling, a matter in which resides in the minds of the members themselves and is based on sharing of particular symbols, such as ritual orders or musical performance” (SYCC).  What differs here between the Symbolic Construction of Community and an imagined community is that, a community is “imagined” because a member of a certain nation will never fully come to know every member of such nation, so the sense of community is created or imagined by the subject who assumes everyone in the nation is sharing the same experience as the subject.  What made The Grapes of Wrath such an inaugural novel was that it combined members of a community that didn’t know they were supposed to be combined; it taught the American working class migrant workers to diverge from self-concern to the concern of America, something that, during the time of the Great Depression turned out to be of crucial importance in regards to getting out of the economic crisis of the time.  The way the reader learns to understand the importance of community is precisely how the Joad family shifts perspectives of self-concern to communal-concern. For example, the most famous passage from the novel sees Tom Joad’s understanding and telling of this importance:

I’ll be ever’where—wherever you look.  Wherever they’s a fight so hungry people can eat, I’ll be there. Wherever they’s a cop beatin’ up a guy, I’ll be there. If Casy knowed, why, I’ll be in the way guys yell when they’re mad an’—I’ll be in the way kids laugh when they’re hungry an’ they know supper’s ready. An’ when our folks eat the stuff they raise an’ live in the houses they build—why, I’ll be there (Steinbeck 419).

In Tom Joad’s final speech, Tom describes a powerful durability; he describes hope for the future and symbolically offers himself to the people, the collective “we” (Tear Guts).  Tom’s presence in the novel is merely to be a provider or protector for the people, to (in the novel) carry out the preacher Casy’s ideals about the importance of we and to ultimately become a catalyst for Steinbeck to teach America about unity over individuality.  It is Tom’s final speech when Steinbeck and Tom, ironically, become one in the same as they argue for “collective responsibility rather than individual isolation.” 

But Steinbeck wasn’t the only artist at the time stressing the importance of collectivity.  In fact, the horrible economic state of the nation at the time turned out to be a major impulse for change.  Nowhere are the messages of collectivity more present than in the works of folk legend Woodie Guthrie.  Like Stienbeck, Guthrie specified his work around the state of the world around him—America during the nineteen thirties.  Guthrie wrote proletarian folk songs about the Great Depression, the Dust Bowl migration and commented on any and every aspect of prejudice during this time.  “Just like Tom Joad’s impassioned vow at the end of The Grapes of Wrath, as long as there is injustice and inequality, Woody Guthrie will be there” (Aloi 1).  Much like The Grapes of Wrath, Guthrie’s music remains culturally relevant nearly seventy years later and helped change diverge the American consciousness from bleak and despairing to one of social change and hope.  Steinbeck witnessed the change Guthrie’s music was causing on America during the time and that is why he chose adhere The Grapes of Wrath in a similar fashion, in hopes that his words could form a collectivity as powerful as the one created by music.

Before beginning with how music is a communal entity, it may help to understand and possibly rethink the idea of a community. Oxford English Dictionary defines community as, “a group of people who share the same interests, pursuits, or occupations, especially when distinct from those of the society in which they live.”  If this is the case, then music is only a community if those who experience it do so in a way that bonds them to the society in which they live.  And that music can only be communal for the listeners involved in the society in which the music was made.  This of course, is untrue.  With the advent of the Internet music of all cultures and areas is now widely accessible to any and everyone inclined to listen.  This sense of community is known as affinity.  An affinity community “actively seeks its own dispersal across boundaries as well as engagement by large groups” (Shelemay 356).  Almost all music is viewed as an affinity community because it (now) has the capability of achieving the so-called dispersal across boundaries.  The community in The Grapes of Wrath can be view as affinity because it too has the ability to reach and be comprehended across boundaries.  Although someone who is not a United States native may not fully understand the historical context in which the novel was written, any reader has the ability to recognize the important themes and compare them to a context that the reader does understand.  Much like in the way someone from say, the American northwest listening to music from South Africa would not fully be able to understand all the concepts or contexts behind the artwork, but the listener would be able to compare what he or she hears with a context that they are familiar with.  For example, a person from the American northwest might not understand the concept of isicathamiya singing, but they would be able to compare it to a concept they do understand, for instance a’capella, and then ultimately be able to understand the concept of isicathamiya, even if they haven’t been previously exposed to it. 

The aim of The Grapes of Wrath is similar to that of music, in that, “music can generate a sense of shared identity that may be transitory or that may be part of a process that reinforces belonging to a collectivity of longer duration” (Shelemay 358).  This is done simply by music’s ability to communicate to listeners.  It carries emotional meaning, imaginations of longing, belonging and exclusion, and establishes what have been termed “audible entanglements.” The term was coined by Jocelyn Guilbault in order to “highlight the multiple musical practices and surroundings assembled in a music such as calypso and the affective resonances these create for individuals and communities” (Guilbault 285).  The so-called “affective resonances” that these audible entanglements create for a community lies is the ideological affects of music—its ability to catalyze musical groups (genres, subcultures etc.) and to redraw social boundaries.  For instance, “music and its performance serve to catalyze and subsequently define groups of people in different ways, whether to bring groups together or to reaffirm the boundaries that divide them” (Shelemay 355).  Nowhere is this idea more prevalent than in the live aspect of music—live performance.  People attend concerts for two reasons.  One, to see a specific musical act that they enjoy and possibly see how the music they’ve heard prior in a song or album is made, and two, to be involved in a shared experience.  Whether that shared experience is just enjoying music with another or witnessing something spectacular with several other people or to meet people with similar interests, the reality is, people attend concerts to be a part of something. Whatever that “something” may be, “music, dance, festivals and other public expressive cultural practices are a primary way that people articulate the collective identities that are fundamental to forming and sustaining social groups, which are, in turn, basic to survival” (Shelemay 356).

It’s this collective identity that made The Grapes of Wrath such an important novel for the time.  Not only because the novel puts the reader right into the back of the Joad truck and along with the ride, but it aloud readers who were sharing the imagined community of Steinbeck’s America to come together and form a collectivity of their own. One that saw a collectivity of people whom now knew and understood the importance of survival in hardship—the importance of “we”. As Thomas Carlyle once said, “a mystic bond of brotherhood makes all men one.”



Works Cited

Aloi, Dan. "Woody Guthrie, Contemporary Songwriter." The Grapes of Wrath: Music. Cornell University, 25 Aug. 2009. Web. 05 May 2012. <>.

Guilbault, Jocelyne. Governing Sound: The Cultural Politics of Trinidad's Carnival Musics. Chicago: University of Chicago, 2007. PDF.

Guthrie, Woodie. "Do Re Mi." Dust Bowl Ballads. Woodie Guthrie. RCA Victor, 1940. MP3.

Shelemay, Kay Kaufman. "Musical Communities: Rethinking the Collective in Music." Journal of the American Musicological Society 1.1 (1948). Print.

Simpson, J. A., and E. S. C. Weiner. "Community." The Oxford English Dictionary. Oxford: Clarendon, 1989. Oxford University Press. Web. 4 May 2012. <>.

Steinbeck, John. The Grapes of Wrath. New York: Viking, 1939. Print.