Steinbeck on Why the Rich Are Unhappy

John Ford’s “Grapes of Wrath”

Today is the last day to download How Beowulf Can Save America for free to Kindle, so if you have one I hope you will take advantage of the opportunity. (Amazon only allows its authors five free days or I would offer a free download for a longer period of time. After today it will cost $5.)

The central thesis of the book is that America has a “greedy kings” problem. I argue that most of the anger that we see roiling both 9th century Anglo-Saxon society and American society today traces back to perceived unfairness in wealth distribution. In today’s post I examine how John Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath handles the issue. Kurt Vonnegut and Joseph Heller weigh in as well.

Regarding our own greedy kings, I guess we shouldn’t be surprised that, after having screwed up so badly and getting bailed out by the federal government, Wall Street would respond with ingratitude. Some financiers who backed Barack Obama in the 2008 election have now turned against him. Here’s Paul Krugman of The New York Times this past July explaining why:

It’s no secret that, at this point, many of America’s richest men — including some former Obama supporters — hate, just hate, President Obama. Why? Well, according to them, it’s because he “demonizes” business — or as Mitt Romney put it earlier this week, he “attacks success.” Listening to them, you’d think that the president was the second coming of Huey Long, preaching class hatred and the need to soak the rich.

Needless to say, this is crazy. In fact, Mr. Obama always bends over backward to declare his support for free enterprise and his belief that getting rich is perfectly fine. All that he has done is to suggest that sometimes businesses behave badly, and that this is one reason we need things like financial regulation. No matter: even this hint that sometimes the rich aren’t completely praiseworthy has been enough to drive plutocrats wild. For two years or more, Wall Street in particular has been crying: “Ma! He’s looking at me funny!”

I wonder if those wealthy Americans who believe they are not properly appreciated feel  a sense of guilt at being so much more privileged than the rest of America. Or maybe, because they have more, they are more worried about losing it. Or maybe they are restless and dissatisfied because they are discovering that money isn’t providing the fulfillment they thought it would.

In support of this third theory, I turn to a Vonnegut poem that appeared in The New Yorker following the death of Joseph Heller. Vonnegut assures us that it is “a true story—word of honor”:

Joseph Heller, an important and funny writer
now dead,
and I were at a party given by a billionaire
on Shelter Island.
I said, “Joe, how does it make you feel
To know that our host only yesterday
may have made more money
than your novel Catch-22
has earned in its entire history?”
And Joe said, “I’ve got something he can never have.”
And I said, “What on earth could that be, Joe?”
And Joe said, “The knowledge that I’ve got enough.”
Not bad! Rest in peace.

True fulfillment, as the Beowulf poet also makes clear through his unhappy kings, lies in working with others, not in separating oneself off. These financiers engage in the exciting work of joining with the rest of America to create a vibrant nation. They could start, for instance, by agreeing to contribute to more of the general welfare through higher taxes. Instead, they do everything they can to protect all they have.

John Steinbeck calls them out in Grapes of Wrath. In a past post I compared Mitt Romney to Citizen Kane, and Steinbeck looks at the man upon whom Kane is based, the newspaper mogul William Randolph Hearst. The passage occurs when the Joad family is starting to learn unpleasant facts about California:

Pa asked slowly, “Ain’t it nice out there at all?”

“Sure, nice to look at, but you can’t have none of it. They’s a grove of yella oranges—an’ a guy with a gun that got the right to kill you if you touch one. They’s a fella, newspaper fella near the coast, got a million acres—”

Casy looked up quickly, “Million acres? What in the worl’ can he do with a million acres?”
“I dunno. He jus’ got it. Runs a few cattle. Got guards ever’ place to keep folks out. Rides aroun’ in a bullet-proof car. I seen pitchers of him. Fat, sof’’ fella with little mean eyes an’ a mouth like a ass-hole. Scairt he’s gonna die. Got a million acres an’ scairt of dyin’.”

Casy demanded, “What in hell can he do with a million acres? What’s he want a million acres for?”

And a little later:

Pa asked, “What he disappointed about if he got a million acres?”

The preacher smiled, and he looked puzzled. He splashed a floating water bug away with his hand. “If he needs a million acres to make him feel rich, seems to me he needs it ‘cause he feels awful poor inside hisself, and if he’s poor in hisself, there ain’t no million acres gonna make him feel rich, an’ maybe he’s disappointed that nothin’ he can do’ll make him feel rich—not rich like Mis’ Wilson was when she gave her tent when Grampa died. I ain’t tryin’ to preach no sermon, but I never seen nobody that’s busy as a prairie dog collectin’ stuff that wasn’t disappointed.” He grinned. “Does kinda soun’ like a sermon, don’t it?”

The Wilsons, incidentally, are a couple that, despite having very little themselves, reach out to the Joads when the Joads are in trouble. Later when the families are forced to separate, Ma Joad gives them money that she can ill afford to part with. That is the true source of happiness.

Against this vision of Americans helping each other, there is a Romney-Ryan approach that argues that the country will be revitalized if we dismantle social safety nets and shrink the size of government and lower taxes on the wealthy and reduce regulations on business. It didn’t work during the Bush II years, but the GOP at the moment is operating on faith-based economics. The very sharp Jonathan Chait of New York Magazine points out that the result will be just the opposite of what they say: our growing income discrepancies will be exacerbated and the middle class (as has been the case since the Ronald Reagan years) will continue to stagnate. If you want to see more about the coming assault on the poor that we can expect under a Romney presidency, check out Charles Blow’s column today in The New York Times.

Furthermore, as Beowulf poet, Vonnegut, Heller, and Steinbeck all testify, such measures won’t make wealthy Americans any happier.

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  • Literature is as vital to our lives as food and shelter. Stories and poems help us work through the challenges we face, from everyday irritations to loneliness, heartache, and death. Literature is meant to mix it up with life. This website explores how it does so.

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