Free of place and duty

by / Filed under Thinking

The Grapes of Wrath is partly about homelessness (or landlessness). What happens to people when they lose the connection with the land they live and farm on, and when farming is industrialised and controlled by a handful of business men.

In this respect it’s a modern book as ideas such as growing your own and permaculture are popular once again, albeit appropriated and distorted by the fuzzily green right. I suspect Steinbeck views ownership of the land somewhat differently from Hugh Fearnley–Whittingstall.

But what’s odd is that many of the male characters resist the idea of home and family altogether and elect to live as hobos. Casey, Muley, Noah and Connie all choose to live rough rather than remain a part of a family unit.

I’m unsure what Steinbeck is telling us about this. On one hand it could be seen as a desperate consequence of capitalism; men are driven to live rootless lives because their homes and work are stolen from them. It could even represent a failure to perform a basic masculine duty.

But I get the sense there’s some admiration in there. Something of Walt Whitman: the American man’s right to live his life on his own terms, somehow free from all constraints and duties.

It’s spawned a literature of the roads and streets, of men living in cars and tents; in their own odd spaces. Most of Paul Auster’s solipsistic work, for example.