Religious and Humanist Responses to the Great Depression in American Literature – by Octavia

The different ‘religious’ responses to the experiences of the American Great Depression can be characterised by three pieces of contemporary literature: Harriette Arnow’s The Dollmaker, John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath and Woody Guthrie’s autobiography Bound for Glory. These responses are filtered through the personal, religious convictions of the characters in each of the books, and the range from theism to pantheism to humanism is reflected in their individual reactions to political and social situations. There is also a connection between the religious convictions of the main characters and the use of natural imagery.

In Arnow’s The Dollmaker, the Nevels family travel from paradisiacal Kentucky to the inferno that is industrialised Detroit. The dual imagery that permeates the novel from Gertie’s dreams of home emphasises the duality that is present in other aspects of her character (specifically, her theism and her uncovering of the image within the cherry wood). In Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath, the Joad family is forced to travel from a past paradise in Oklahoma to the new, false paradise of California. The nature of this journey, combined with the pantheistic theme of the novel, leads to a political and social inclusiveness that is not universal but is nearly so. Bound for Glory is the exception in that there is no earthly paradise – the Guthrie family are not farmers, but small scale business people, living in a world that is increasingly focussed upon the oil boom. Guthrie doesn’t have a rural Garden of Eden to look back upon, and the mix of the industrial into his early life is reflected in his lack of disdain for the unnatural, and the correspondingly greater openness of his social, humanistic philosophy.

Gertie Nevels’ reaction to the unnatural environment of Detroit of The Dollmaker is almost total rejection. Her inability to “adjust” and to ensure the adjustment of all of her children – and her lack of desire to ensure the latter (336) – leads to tragedy. Gertie’s reaction is individualised, however. Her religious beliefs are personalised and not dogmatic (313), but they reflect a schism in her thinking which is profoundly conservative (for example her horror of credit). She tends to categorise things that are natural and beautiful as good and things that are unnatural and ugly as bad, and this is partly what leads to her rejection of the city of Detroit. For Gertie, it is unnatural to have so many people crowded together, unnatural to always be aware of the police, unnatural to work in shifts at factories, and unnatural to prioritise co-workers over the interests of the family.

This rejection extends to her responses to the social upheaval around her, and is expressed in her inability to find a face for her carving of Christ. Finally, in destroying the figure, she states that any one of her neighbours could have provided the face (600), and this illustrates two things. Firstly, it is her realisation that her distrustful reaction to her husband’s union activities (511) is no longer possible. Gertie is a distinctly apolitical creature: she does not grasp the changes that the new frontier of industrialism will bring to her life, and this conflicts with her previous understanding of neighbourly duties. In understanding that her neighbours may also be Christ, she realises her duty to them as well as to her family. Secondly, her destruction of the Christ shows her fundamental inability to finish it. When she begins to realise that she contains within her the role of Judas (keeping money from Clovis; betraying Reuben, Cassie, and herself by yielding to Detroit), Gertie begins to see the possibility that the figure may not be Christ after all; that it (like the individuals around her) contains the possibility of both good and evil. The novel ends on a note of transcendence but not reconciliation. Gertie’s world is expanded through instinct if not by intellect, and her reaction to the Depression and the Calvary of Detroit is one of pained endurance, and self-dissolution in the place of communal strength.

The primary reflection of the changing attitude to the Depression in The Grapes of Wrath is arguably not Tom Joad, but Preacher Casy. It is in Casy that the progress of consciousness that is seen to begin in The Dollmaker is continued. Casy has lost his faith in God – “the sperit ain’t in me no more” (24) – he has moved from the faithful and natural theism of The Dollmaker into an instinctual kind of pantheism – “maybe it’s all men an’ all women we love; maybe that’s the Holy Sperit – the human sperit – the whole shebang. Maybe all me got one big soul ever’body’s a part of.” (29)

This new perception allows Casy to cope with the trials and small inhumanities of the Depression much better than the Joads do. His innate compassion leads him to feel sympathy even for the people he fights – “Casy knelt beside the deputy and turned him over. The man groaned and fluttered his eyes, and he tried to see. Casy wiped the dust off his lips.” (340-341) He is able to do this because the world-soul he believes in also includes those who do wrong. In a sense Preacher Casy is the New World equivalent of Prince Myshkin, the hopelessly good and trusting hero of Dostoyevsky’s The Idiot. Both have a moral sense of sympathy and a belief in the potential goodness of every individual, and this separates them from their fellow men and women.

This moral separation between the Myshkin-like Casy and the Joads (especially Tom), and the eventual narrative and consciousness-raising separation of his death is reinforced by the physical separation of the other two innocent characters. Both Noah and Rose of Sharon’s baby are removed from the family’s suffering by water – traditionally the element of renewal and purification, where both running water and crossing water symbolise life and separation, crossing from one place to another (Cooper 188). Noah, the child-like, mentally retarded Joad brother, realises (in spirit if not intellectually) his baptism in the Colorado, and this separates him from the rest of his family: “It ain’t no use. I was in that there water. An’ I ain’t a-gonna leave her. I’m a-gonna go now, Tom – down the river. I’ll catch fish an stuff, but I can’t leave her. I can’t.” (266) Similarly, Rose of Sharon’s stillborn baby is floated away on the floodwaters by Uncle John, a mute statement of the unconscious suffering of innocence (569). These two separations foreshadow and emphasise the fate of Casy: it is no accident that he is killed under a bridge, and his body left in the stream (492). Like Myshkin, Casy’s belief in the innate decency of humanity is his undoing. He crosses over, leaving the Joads unconvinced of the integrity of his vision.

In contrast, Tom Joad represents the rest of creation in his response to the political and social changes the Depression has brought about. Like Preacher Casy, he sympathises with the underdog, but he initially doesn’t have the intellectual or moral capability to translate that into appropriate actions. Tom’s stock response to frustrations is violence and individualism, and although Casy eventually inspires him towards the pantheist view, but Tom doesn’t get all the way there.

“I been thinkin’ how it was in that gov’ment camp, how our folks took care a theirselves, an’ if they was a fight they fixed it theirself; an’ they wasn’t no cops wagglin’ their guns, but they was better order than them cops ever give. I been a-wonderin’ why we can’t do that all over. Throw out the cops that ain’t our people. All work together for our own thing…” (533)

Tom’s changing moral perceptions express themselves in social solidarity and his growing involvement with the unions as a practical means of social and political change. He is still not at the spiritual level of Casy, however. As can be seen above, he prefers to throw out the cops rather than convert them – they are not a part of his understanding of the universal soul. But as he continues to feel out his new convictions, there are signs of this changing, and again it is Casy who points the way:

“Then it don’ matter. Then I’ll be all aroun’ in the dark. I’ll be ever’where – wherever you look. Wherever they’s a fight so hungry people can eat, I’ll be there. Wherever they’s a cop beatin’ up a guy, I’ll be there. If Casy knowed, why, I’ll be in the way guys yell when they’re mad an’ – I’ll be in the way kids laugh when they’re hungry an’ they know supper’s ready. An’ when our folks eat the stuff they raise an’ live in the houses they build – why, I’ll be there. See? God, I’m talkin’ like Casy. Come of thinkin’ about him so much. Seems like I can see him sometimes.” (534)

The Grapes of Wrath ends with Tom joining a political underground, one that is inspired by a pantheist social and moral outlook but is still characterised by the “us versus them” of deism, as seen in The Dollmaker.

In contrast, Woody Guthrie’s Bound for Glory extends the religious argument into humanism. Like Tom Joad, Guthrie’s experience with policemen and other unsympathetic characters – for example Father Francisco (210) and the railroad workers outside Yuma (215-16) – point to an experience of otherness which would cause bemusement in Gertie Nevels and anger in Tom Joad. Guthrie, however, almost treats the whole thing as a game, sneaking back into places behind the backs of the local officers (“The House on the Hill”, pp 231-244), and running away from the social restrictions of his bourgeois Aunt Laura (244) and the hideously tacky New York hotel owners (294).

Nevertheless, Guthrie also exhibits the social and political interest that characterises Casy and Tom Joad in The Grapes of Wrath. His interest comes from a more intellectual and social angle than religious, however:

“Men! Hey! Listen! I know we all see this same thing – like news reels in our mind. Alla th’ work that needs to be done – better highways, better buildin’s, better houses. Ever’thing need ta be fixed up better! but, Goddamit, I ain’t no master mind. All I know is we gotta git together an’ stick together! This country won’t ever git much better as long as it’s dog eat dog, ever’ man fer his own self, an’ ta hell with th’ rest of th’ world.” (189-190)

Guthrie is arguing for the same thing as Casy – he does not exclude groups of people as Tom Joad does – even when they mistreat him. His rejection of the “dog eat dog” principle of necessity applies to groups as well as individuals. This is partly a result of the nature of his profession – songs spread and belong to all. They are not confined to the group that they were written for. The argument that Guthrie makes doesn’t seem to be religiously inclined, however. He is more concerned with people than with ideology, and his actions tend to come from a humanist rather than a theist or pantheist outlook. Guthrie never portrays his adult self as an innocent victim (of course he has less of a motive for thematic contrast than the other two authors, who are dealing with novels rather than autobiographies), and it is this self-knowledge that allows him to sympathise with the downtrodden without demonising the powerful in a way that would inhibit social justice.

This is the transcendent element in Bound for Glory: the amalgamation of the police into the people. In these three Depression narratives, the police are typically portrayed as the other: a malign, anti-social force working on behalf of the strong. They are used as representatives of all the social groups unsympathetic to migrants, and run the gamut from parasitical to mercenary to outright vicious. The emergence of the pantheism trend, however, foresees the inclusion of the police into the myth of “the people”, rather than an outside, excluded and exclusionary force.

This is illustrated in the near-riot caused by persecution of Japanese citizens by a group of thugs – “We come ta git ‘em, an’ dam me, we’re gonna git ‘em! Japs is Japs!” (265). These thugs are put down by a group of sympathetic soldiers and civilians, who threaten them with the police. When the police arrive, however, they find the mob singing one of Guthrie’s songs, and

“All of the cops stood around smiling and swinging their clubs. They patted their feet and hands. They watched and hummed and they listened.
“Okay! Dat’s all!” the head officer told them. “Back on da wagon, men! Back on!”
And when it drove off down the street-car tracks to fade away into the night rain, that old patrol car was singing…” (269)

This episode is possibly the most joyous in Guthrie’s autobiography, and appears to give the author great satisfaction. It reinforces the belief that social and political solidarity can be achieved by methods other than violence (Tom Joad’s purview), and what is more, achieved more effectively.

These three narratives are interesting to compare to one another, as they show changing social and political reactions due to personal, religious belief. This change is reflected in the environment spotlighted in each narrative. The differences of experience in theism, pantheism, and humanism is nicely contrasted with the dual progression in which personal integration with the unnatural as well as the natural works hand in hand with a greater understanding of social cohesion to give a new way of transcending the Great Depression experience.

Works Cited.

Arnow, Harriette. The Dollmaker. New York: Perennial, 2003.

Cooper, J.C. An Illustrated Encyclopaedia of Traditional Symbols. London: Thames and Hudson, 1978.

Guthrie, Woody. Bound for Glory. New York: Penguin, 1983.

Steinbeck, John. The Grapes of Wrath. London: David Campbell Publishers, 2000.


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