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Having said a thing or two about Steinbeck and Thoreau’s similarities and differences, I want also to simply provide some resources and links that may enhance a reader’s encounter with either or both of these writers.

Part of what drew my mind from Thoreau to Steinbeck was the product of channel surfing. Luck had it that I came across Ken Burns’s new documentary The Dust Bowl. Typical of Burns, The Dust Bowl is a tightly constructed, educational, and entertaining film. If you’re reading Steinbeck, but also if you’re reading Thoreau, the narrative it pulls from facts about the Great Depression, especially those migrant workers derogatorily termed “Okies” (about whose struggle Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath depicts), is enlightening.

The film also features a segment on Woody Guthrie (1912-1967), the iconic American folk musician, whose songs live on as the anthems of Depression-era migrant workers and working-class experiences. It was Guthrie who said, “I ain’t a communist necessarily, but I’ve been in the red all my life,” pointing to the importance of community, especially in times of economic downs (and drown).

In relation, here’s the song “The Ghost Tom Joad,” inspired by the protagonist of The Grapes of Wrath.” It’s written and recorded by an artist for whom Guthrie is a great influence, Bruce Springsteen. In the second clip, the same song is performed by Rage Against the Machine.

It’s also helpful, I find, to be aware of the photography of Dorothea Lange when reading Steinbeck. During the Depression, Lange, a photojournalist, was commissioned by the Farm Security Administration to document the experience of migrant workers from Oklahoma and the surrounding states who flocked to California in search of employment. I expect that, even if you’ve never heard of Lange, you’ll recognize her photographs.

Lange’s work is part of an American tradition of documenting the life of the economically exploited working- and lower-classes. Around the turn of the 20th century, Jacob Riis produced “How the Other Half Lives,” a book of pictures and text about people suffering from extreme poverty in New York. In 1906, Hamilton Holt published a collection of stories about the lives of immigrants titled The Life Stories of Undistinguished Americans as Told by Themselves. In a past post, I mentioned Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle (also 1906), which initiated the formation of what is today the United States Food and Drug Administration.

(I can’t help but to quickly mention that the shanty towns formed by migrant workers during the Depression were referred to as “jungles.” And that, as you know, PT Anderson’s film There Will Be Blood is an adaptation of Upton Sinclair’s novel Oil!. Well, there’s a scene in Anderson’s latest film The Master (a triumph!) that recalls Steinbeck – the protagonist, Freddie Quell is, for a time, living and working on a cabbage farm in the Salinas Valley (Steinbeck!); his homemade hooch mistakenly poisons an elderly worker and Quell is chased from the camp. The frame follows him sprinting across fields of tilled soil. In that moment, we may as well be watching Of Mice and Men.)

Finally, and in relation to my attention to pastoral imagery in my last post, I’m reminded of a recent Italian film depicting the promise of a pastoral life in the United States. Nouvomondo (Emanuele Crielese, dir., 2006; called Golden Door in its English release) stars Charlotte Gainsbourg as a British immigrant to the United States at the turn of the 20th Century. The boat she crosses the Atlantic on is largely populated by Italian immigrants. The film depicts the crossing as well as the treatment of these new Americans when they arrive at Ellis Island. In the beginning of the film, when characters speak of the all that is promised in America, they imagine six-foot tall chickens and vegetables so big they fit one-per wheelbarrow. They find life in the Promised Land to be very different. But the image of rivers running over with milk and honey is ironically rehashed moments before the credits roll, when we witness a growing number of people wading through milk with a creeping sense of bewilderment. Nina Simone’s iconic song “Sinnerman” enhances the eeriness of such a promise. It’s a memorable image:

That’s all for now.

–          Joe

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