On the Cause of Poverty
From John Steinbeck: Grapes of Wrath
Tom Joad and his family have come to California.
And it came about that owners no longer worked on their farms. They farmed on paper; and they forgot the land, the smell, the feel of it, and remembered only that they owned it, remembered only what they gained and lost by it. And some of the farms grew so large that one man could not even conceive of them any more, so large that it took bookkeepers to keep track of interest and gain and loss …
And the owners not only did not work the farms any more, many of them had never seen the farm they owned.
And while the Californians wanted many things, accumulation, social success, amusements, luxury, and a curious banking security, the new barbarians wanted only two things – land and food; and to them the two were one. And whereas the wants of the Californians were nebulous and undefined, the wants of the Okies were beside the roads, lying there to be seen and coveted: the good fields with water to be dug for, the good green fields, earth to crumble experimentally in the hand, grass to smell, oaten stalks to chew, until the sharp sweetness was in the throat.
A man might look at a fallow field and know, and see in his mind that his own bending back and his own straining arms would bring the cabbages into the light, and the golden eating corn, the turnips and carrots.
And a homeless hungry man, driving the roads with his wife beside him and his thin children in the back seat, could look at fallow fields which might produce food but not profit, and that man could know that how a fallow field is a sin and the unused land a crime against the thin children.
And such a man drove along the roads and knew temptation to at every field, and knew the lust to take these fields and make them grow strength for his children and a little comfort for his wife.
In the evening the men gathered and talked together. Squatting on their harms they talked of the land they had seen.
There’s thirty thousan’ acres, out west of here. Layin’ there. Jesus, what I could do with that, with five acres of that! Why, hell, I’d have everything to eat.
In the camps the words would come whispering. There’s work at Shafter. And the cars would be loaded in the night, the highways crowded – a gold-rush for work. At Shafter the people would pile up, five times too many to do the work. A gold-rush for work. They stole away in the night, frantic for work. And along the roads lay the temptations, the fields that could bear food.
That’s owned. That ain’t our’n.
Well, maybe we could get a little piece of her. Maybe – a little piece. Right down there – a patch. Jimson weed now. Christ, I could git enough potatoes off’n that little patch to feed my whole family
It ain’t our’n. It got to have Jimson weeds.
Now and then a man tried; crept on the land and cleared a piece, trying like a thief to steal a little richness from the earth, Secret gardens hidden in the weeds. A package of carrot seeds and a few turnips. Planted potato skins, crept out in the evening secretly to hoe in the stolen earth.
Leave the weeds around the edge – then nobody can see what we’re a-doin’. Leave some weeds, big tall ones, in the middle. Secret gardening in the evenings, and water carried in a rusty can.
And then one day a deputy sheriff: Well, what you think you’re doin’?
I ain’t doin’ no harm.
I had my eyes on you. This ain’t your land. You’re trespassing.
The land ain’t ploughed., an’ I ain’t hurtin’ it none.
You goddamned squatters. Pretty soon you’d think you owned it. You’d be sore as hell. Think you owned it. Get off now.
From Pan Books edition 1975, Page 246 ff