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Steinbeck and Stirge: Cultural Dialogue Through The Great Depression

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Though operating in vastly different mediums, novelist John Steinbeck and filmmaker Preston Sturges were among the first American artists to explore philosophical solutions to the economic travesty that gripped the national psyche from 1929 to 1941. Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath (1939) and Sturges’ “Sullivan’s Travels” (1941) emerged in the cultural dialogue far enough into the Depression years that each work was able to synthesize trends of the era into broad, overarching social theories about the relationship between individuals in society. Steinbeck rooted his “law” in secular humanism and advocated a shift from acquisitive individualism to a more communitarian ideal. Using the Joad family as a representative case for the conversion from “I” to “we,” Steinbeck expands the definition of family from strictly biological sense to a much broader notion of the human family. In this vein, the individual enters the human family through empathy. On the contrary, Sullivan’s theory argues such a conversion from “I” to “we” can never be complete. Empathy with regards to the plight of disparate social classes can never be achieved. Further, the individual who attempts to experience a life not his own is, ultimately, a phony. Sullivan’s “law” is therefore a reversion to one’s true self, a self that holds the powerful capacity of expression. Thus, the expression of self through art creates a primal human bond, and thereby placates the plight of the downtrodden.

The Grapes of Wrath was Steinbeck’s populist and revolutionary tale about the plight of the migrant farm laborers dispossessed of their land during the Dust Bowl years of the Great Depression. Stigmatized as “Okies,” the migrants packed their lives in rusty old cars and headed west, many times on Route 61, toward the Promised Land. Steinbeck’s novel centers on one representative family, the Joads, whose journey was one of spiritual conversion. Much to the horror of Ma Joad, who fights to keep the family together throughout the voyage, the Joads’ exodus from their home leads to a nearly complete dissolution of their biological family unit. Granpa and Granma Joad pass away; Noah Joad wanders off mysteriously into the countryside, never to return; Al Joad chooses Agnes Wainwright over his own flesh and blood; and finally, Tom Joad absconds to avoid the legal consequences of his murderous acts.

Ma Joad’s complete loss of control with respect to the unity of her family is indicative of the larger socioeconomic forces at work. She believes “it ain’t good for folks to break up,” but can do nothing to stop her family’s disbandment (Steinbeck 225). Steinbeck sees the forces as inexplicably nebulous and intertwined as part of a monolithic and ever-growing “monster” (43). The Joads and other Okies forced off their land were “caught in something larger than themselves,” something profit-seeking men made but can no longer control (51). Steinbeck’s language reverberates James Agee in his social documentary Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, also published in 1939. “How were we caught?” wonders one of his subjects (Agee & Evans 81). Steinbeck seems just as perplexed as his characters when it comes to assigning blame for this socioeconomic entrapment spurred by the Depression. He has no answers for the tenant who asks where it all stops—“Who can we shoot?”—because he seems more concerned with changing the national mentality at the core of the problem (Steinbeck 52). In line with the proposed conversion from biological to transcendental family, Steinbeck also suggests a movement from “I” to “we,” from acquisitive individualism to collective individualism. Writes Steinbeck: “For the quality of owning freezes you forever into ‘I,’ and cuts you off forever from the ‘we,’” (206). This dichotomy has both spiritual and political components in the novel. Ma Joad, Rose of Sharon and Jim Casy embody the theoretical-spiritual union of “I” and “we”; Tom Joad represents the practical-political side with his involvement in the labor unions. Both components rely on empathy to bridge the gap between “I” and “we”—“Wherever they’s a fight so hungry people can eat, I’ll be there,” declares Tom before leaving the family. (Steinbeck 572).

Sturges’ “Sullivan’s Travels” treats Steinbeck’s “I” to “we” ethic as inauthentic and incredulous. The film centers on accomplished Hollywood filmmaker John L. Sullivan (Joel McCrea) and his quest to escape the excess and superficiality of his own social condition to experience the plight of the suffering classes. “I want to hold a mirror up to life,” he proclaims. “I want this to be a picture of dignity—a true canvas of the suffering of humanity!” Throughout the film Sturges reiterates that Sully’s project, though mostly sincere, is entirely inauthentic and phony. He tries five times to escape the golden shackles of his socioeconomic status, to “find trouble,” and succeeds only once. Sully’s last effort seems authentic given the hopelessness of his situation as part of the chain gang; however, an argument could easily be made to refute this claim. After all, Sully’s “escape” from jail is quite easy: he simply has to affirm his true identity to return to a life of comfort in the arms of a beautiful woman (Veronica Lake). Sully sets out to manifest Steinbeck’s “I” to “we” conversion through empathy and, ultimately, fails at this endeavor. In the end, Sully’s journey is a reversion from “we” to “I.”

By the film’s conclusion, Sully no longer entertains the notion that sincere empathy can bridge social distances. Perhaps each individual has his own studio tag sewn in his boot. Perhaps for this reason he can never truly “walk in another man’s shoes.” Contrary to Tom Joad’s assurance that “[he’ll] be there,” Sully resolves to remove himself from the “I” to “we” project entirely, instead finding answers in the most rudimentary definition of what it is to be human. He sees promise in the primal quality of laughter: “There’s a lot to be said for making people laugh. Did you know that that’s all some people have? It isn’t much, but it’s better than nothing in this cockeyed caravan.” Sully sees raw human emotion as a great equalizer, since individuals of all social strata possess the same emotional capacities. Thus, Sullivan’s “law” holds that individuals should be true to themselves and create worthwhile works of human expression—such as art, literature and film—that will in turn bring about human emotion. It is in this common experience of raw emotion that individuals are truly united.

Steinbeck concludes his novel with the powerful image of Rose of Sharon nursing a starving old man in an abandoned barn somewhere in California. Steinbeck uses nursing because such an act almost always implies a mother-child, and thus biological, relationship. By offering her milk to the dying man, Rose of Sharon validates her conversion from biological to transcendental, from “I” to “we.” For Steinbeck, empathy is both possible and necessary as part of his proposed communitarian ideal. On the other hand, Sturges concludes “Sullivan’s Travels” with the admitted failure of Steinbeck’s law. Sully realizes that he can never truly empathize with “the other” and that his repeated efforts to “find trouble” were in vain. He realizes that placating the struggles of the suffering requires that he first be himself. When operating within the parameters of his given identity, Sully can then express himself through art and bring about real human emotion that unifies all people. Steinbeck and Sturges both sought to unite the staggered social classes in the late Depression years, though they approached the challenge in vastly different ways and with largely converse conclusions.


  1. Agee, James and Evans, Walker. Let Us Now Praise Famous Men. Houghton Mifflin: Boston, 1988 (1939).
  2. Steinbeck, John. The Grapes of Wrath. Penguin Books: New York, 1992 (1939).
  3. Sturges, Preston. Sullivan’s Travels [film]. Paramount Pictures, 1941.

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