In Vino Veritas
by Andy Griffin
|Steinbeck would have been one hundred this year and his centennial
is being celebrated with great hoopla around the Monterey Peninsula. Steinbeck
must be smiling at all the attention. He was not always so warmly received
here when he was still kicking and writing. People are touchy about being
criticized, and even Steinbeck's artful characterizations of the foibles
of both his neighbors and agribusiness often hit too close to home. But
capitalism is as adaptable as the cockroach, and given enough time business
can learn to fatten itself even off the sharp words that are thrown at it.
A centennial is as good a reason as any to revisit Steinbeck's work and
reflect on his legacy. And the lack of attention paid to farming by most
literary figures since Steinbeck makes him somewhat of a landmark, even
when he points emphatically in the wrong direction. I grew up in Monterey
County and heard people talk about John Steinbeck all my life. To my school
teachers, who made his books required reading, Steinbeck was the great Nobel
Prize winner and a champion of the common man. To my neighbors, some of
whom had grown up with Steinbeck, worked with him, or had known the people
that served as the basis for characters in his stories, Steinbeck was at
best a famous drunk, and at worst a lazy drunk.
Twenty years after I first read his stories, some of his descriptions of these hills and valleys where I live are still so vivid that they compete with the actual horizon out my window. During these last two decades since my schooling I've worked as a farm laborer and as a farmer, I've negotiated with the Teamster's Union and driven trucks. I've learned Spanish and dealt with hundreds of migrant workers. Out of curiosity, and to honor his effort, I recently reread some of Steinbeck's books with an eye toward seeing them again through the lens of my own experience. The stories came to life for me in a way they never had before. But I could hear my old neighbors talking in the background.
Steinbeck's later work is infused with a boozy sentimentality. In Sweet Thursday, from 1954, he sketches a cartoon of a character, Patrón, a sleazy, hard-drinking merchant and labor contractor. Patrón's problems with the Mexican workers he's trying to profit from prompt bottle after bottle of introspective discussion about the vagaries of human nature with the scientist of the story, Doc. Through the dialogue, Steinbeck outlines the vastness of the Mexican migration into our nation. But when he probes the issue as a narrator, his understanding proves to be about as deep as a shot glass:
"There were millions of wetbacks in the country, hard-working ignorant men, content to bend their bodies over the demanding earth."
Content? The "colorful" laborers he chooses to focus on don't bend over for long but reach for guitars and are soon to be heard strumming and singing like minstrels through the cantinas of California as the ranchero group "Las Espaldas Mojadas." This is a literary fraud and I can only hope Steinbeck was drunk when he wrote it. Mexican Spanish is sharply ironic since irony is honed to its keenest edge when a hard pride is constantly rubbed up against abrasive circumstances. Even the most unlettered farmworker can speak to cut deeply if that is their intent. But in all my years in the fields I've never once heard anyone use the phrase "las espaldas mojadas." Ranchero groups know few inhibitions when naming themselves, but "wetback" is not a name likely to resonate with their audience, even in irony. I've heard guys calling each other "mojado" or "wet," but never "espalda mojada," never "wetback." Steinbeck's mistake is in taking an English colloquialism, "wetback," and translating it back into a proper Castilian that isn't heard in the fields. What he crafts to show his closeness to the subjects reveals his distance from them.
Only a person who thinks they're standing on some higher ground sees a wet back. The person doing the swimming across the muddy Rio Bravo Del Norte is simply soaked. The swimmer reaches the northern shore and scrambles onto the bank not thinking about their back. They're looking ahead, scanning the desert for a sign of migra's four-wheel drive vehicles, getting ready to run in wet pants if they have to. Steinbeck makes his joke about "wetbacks," but he misses the bigger story about our America becoming so dependent upon these Mexican laborers that it is blindness to treat them as exotics. Their labor holds us up. They have become our new underclass.
In Sweet Thursday, a novel, the characters are drunk. But, in Travels with Charley - a narrative about a trip across our continent with a poodle, Charley - it is Steinbeck who is drunk. A chance encounter with a group of migrant French-Canadian potato harvesters directs Steinbeck's gaze at migrant farm labor once again, this time through the bottom of a cognac bottle. The tantalizing aroma of the workers' soup pot bubbling over an open fire moves him to invite them to his camper for drinks and a discussion about life. In Vino Veritas seems to be Steinbeck's motto. And it is here that Steinbeck disappoints me the most; it's not just that Steinbeck treats these "French" migrant workers to a sympathetic interpretation, while giving the Mexican workers a two dimensional caricature. Steinbeck seizes on the "Frenchness" of these potato diggers to contrast the richness of their food to the poverty of our own and in doing so he entirely misses the point, like a Columbus who sets sail from Spain only to "discover" Paris. In his journey across the U.S., Steinbeck misses one of the most prominent features of modern America because he takes an off-ramp to a nostalgic mood about the Old World. Those "French" Canadians cooking soup were North Americans, just as the Mexicans are. If so much of the food in our America is "plastic" and "antiseptic," as Steinbeck says it is, not rich and earthy like the "French" farmworkers' soup, maybe it's because we have become alienated from our land. As a nation we walked away from the fields after World War II and never looked back. Our portions may be supersized but the food itself is spiced with the safety, sprawl, and blandness of suburbia. We continue to devalue farm labor and - surprise - by some karmic equation our food ends up poor. Steinbeck is frustrating to me because he gets sloppy and sentimental just when he's almost on target.
By contrast, the Steinbeck of the Thirties was shooting to kill. In 1937's Of Mice and Men Steinbeck writes of America's soft-focus fantasy of small farm life with the precision and violence of an author skilled at butchering sacred cows. Lennie, a half-wit migrant farmworker, is given the opportunity to conjure up our dream of living off "the fatta the lan'." "Go on George," he prompts his smarter companion and guardian. "Tell me about what we're gonna have in the garden and about the rabbits in the cages…and how thick the cream is on the milk." But Lennie dies. We can see that Steinbeck recognizes that Lennie's bucolic delusion of a rural America where we can all collect eggs still warm from the hen is dying with him. In '37 Steinbeck knew who was really drinking the cream of America. The Jeffersonian vision of small stakeholders husbanding a fertile earth had already been ruined by absentee landlords, publicly traded corporations, and greed.
The Harvest Gypsies from 1936 came across to me with the force of revelation. I had never read this book before, which is a compilation of news reports Steinbeck wrote about migrant labor and the crisis of the dustbowl diaspora. The writing is expository in nature, impassioned but sober. Steinbeck ventures beyond description to suggest solutions to the disaster that was then overtaking California. At last I understood clearly why so many native Californians viewed Steinbeck with suspicion. In the series of brief articles that make up The Harvest Gypsies, Steinbeck questions the future of a "democratic society" that is based on the exploitation of an underclass. To a citizenry complacent in the face of the migrants' misery, or content to profit from it, Steinbeck's proposals were most easily dismissed as drunken ravings.
To house the homeless farmworkers, Steinbeck proposed that state and federal lands be set aside in regions that require an abundance of harvest labor, so little subsistence farms could be established where the laborers would live and work. The laborers' subsistence crops, he argued, could be arranged to not conflict with demand for migrant labor during the harvest season. While the men were gone to work in the fields of other farmers, their little farms could be managed by women, children, unemployables, and the old and crippled. Farm workers would be encouraged to organize into labor unions, and an Agricultural Labor Relations Board could be established at the state level to oversee their interests.
To date, the only of these measures to be enacted has been the establishment of an A.L.R.B. The "state and federal lands" that Steinbeck alludes to don't exist. The National forests can barely sustain occasional logging and the Bureau of Land Management's millions of acres of desert support only crows, scrappy cows, flies, lizards, and snakes. I can almost smell the implied threat of Stalinist-style land expropriation and redistribution. As a farmer, I'm beyond dubious about government's capacity to "arrange" harvests. The proposal to allow women, children, and the aged and crippled to manage small farms wouldn't follow the politically correct code these days either. But as wrongheaded as some of Steinbeck's politics were, some of his writing in The Harvest Gypsies is prophetic.
"If…our agriculture requires the creation and maintenance at any cost of a peon class, then it is submitted that California's agriculture is economically unsound under a democracy."
I'll drink to that. How can we have a democracy if a huge percentage of the people whose daily task it is to put our food on the table don't even have the right to be here, to say nothing of voting. Steinbeck was wrong about the future of agriculture being white and American because he couldn't see the war coming. The poor whites that bounced from ranch to ranch were drafted into the army, hired into the munitions plants, and accepted into the offices. After the war these Americans never returned to the land. The Mexicans moved in to fill the void. Steinbeck himself moved to New York and, like most Americans, rarely looked back. This distance shows itself later, when he writes from memory and fails to see the new migrants for who they are. We shouldn't criticize Steinbeck too much. His writings still instruct. Steinbeck was a student of humanity, and if he didn't see the Mexican farm laborers clearly it serves to remind us that many among us can barely bring ourselves to see them at all.
Copyright 2002 Andy Griffin
Copyright 2002 Andy Griffin