Saturday, April 2, 2011
The Grapes of Wrath and the Green Light
I'm at first really hesitant to jump to the "compare then and now" idea because at face value, then and now seem so obscenely different that it seems unfair and almost blasphemous to try to draw similarities. People were literally starving to death, farms evicted and destroyed by the hundreds of thousands, and in the present day, we have a horde of college grads that are going back home to live in their parents' basements. Men jumped out of windows then; men have to take out loans now. Coming from a family that has certainly understood the effects of the recent economic climate, I certainly understand that it's bad. But is it that bad? One assumes, of course not.
But then I took a little step back and considered it all again. What makes me reconsider my attitude towards two so drastically different periods in the American economy is the difference that I see in Americans' opinions of the future. Take the above cartoon, for example. It's a clear parody of the Grapes of Wrath journey across America, done in reverse from Nevada to Oklahoma. The family is fleeing some sort of poverty and moving back in with the Grandparents. Perhaps it's a commentary on a trend of families consolidating across generations to save money; perhaps it's a jab at today's economy being so bad that we'd rather be back on the farm with Granma and Grampa. I'm not sure. What it made me consider, though, is how our hopes for the future have changed, from then to now. The Joad family chased the dream of California across the country with an almost humorously hopeless fervor; we, as the audience, saw the tragic, dramatic irony of Pa and his bulletin about the 800 workers needed for fruit picking and the way he clung to it from stop to stop. It was clear that California was no paradise, but with the stubborn insistence of the Joad family that they were headed for peaches and grapes straight off the vine, they pressed on despite all signs of disaster. They had in them such a singular, shared hope-- such a driving force that held them together and pushed them forward.
I think this is the biggest difference between then and now, and the difference that carries the heaviest implications. What are we striving for? What gets us out of bed in the morning to press onward, what makes us fight against the inevitable in spite of how impossible it may seem? I don't know, and I don't know if we know either. I'm not sure that present-day America has a really good feel for what it's working for, for that optimism that things do get better. Do we even feel that things can get better? Even though the American Dream was tragically foolish and futile at times, it was centered around an undying optimism that could outlast even the most profound poverty. I don't know if we have that any more, and that definitely makes me nervous about where we, as a country, stand now, and where we're headed. Anybody else have any ideas about all this?