Two Road Trips to California: The Grapes of Wrath vs. On The Road

It occurs to me that two of the books I’ve read so far this year, The Grapes of Wrath and On the Road, center on road trips to California.

To recap: In The Grapes of Wrath, the Dust Bowl Effect, crop failures, and unpaid bank loans drive the Joad family from their small farm in Oklahoma and onto California, which has been promised to be a place of plenty and work for everyone but that proves to be something else. It’s rife with Hoovervilles, people who mistreat the Okies, and capitalism exploiting the little guy.

In On The Road, a veteran travels repeatedly to California by various means and goes to San Francisco to listen to jazz music, mostly.

The two books appear only 18 years apart, though, but they seem to come from entirely different ages. The Grapes of Wrath seems to have been set in a past era, like the 19th century, whereas On the Road is a slightly less modern but still modern era book. What happened in the interim?

The Chinese revolution and forced redistribution of land. World War II would seem to be the facile answer; after all, the protagonist of On the Road was a veteran of World War II, and World War II changed everything, right?

No, rather: In the 1940s, we see the electrification of the United States and how it catches up to the urban areas. As Growing Up In The Bend reminds us, rural parts of Missouri did not get electricity until the 1940s and 1950s, and many farmers were still using draft animals on their small farms within living memory even while the cities were running street cars and televisions. So the divide between the books is more a matter of city versus country than anything else.

By the time The Grapes of Wrath hit the streets, the pulps and the presses already had detective fiction a la The Maltese Falcon (1939, film in 1941) and The Big Sleep (also 1939, with the Bogart film in 1946, seven years after The Grapes of Wrath). These books have a more modern sensibility to them because they deal with urban centers in California. The Grapes of Wrath, on the other hand, deals more with the rural areas of the country at the time. By the time On The Road rolls around, the rural areas are mostly electrified and have more of the conveniences we associate with modernity.

Funny: John Steinbeck’s heroes of the rural world elected Donald Trump. Do you suppose they’d be the heroes of The Grapes of Wrath 2017?

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