Folks we are now travelling down Route 66, the Mother Road which connects Illinois with Missouri, Kansas, Oklahoma, Texas, New Mexico and Arizona to California. This highway was the site of a mass diaspora involving hundreds of families who lost their lands in the east and decided to move out west (usually to California) in search of jobs and a new and better life (sounds like Manifest Destiny a bit eh?). We’ve just about caught up with one such family–the Joad’s. I’d ask that while we are travelling down Route 66 you keep your eyes peeled on the side of the road for a broken down Hudson as it might just be them.
In this fantastic book I found entitled Road Frames: The American Highway Narrative, there are entire sections devoted to John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath and how influential it is as a travel narrative. The Grapes of Wrath is centered around the Joad family, a family from Oklahoma who are forced off their land by tractors and banks and travel to California in search of jobs and a new life. Unfortunately for the Joad’s, they are only one of hundreds of families heading to California in search of work. The Grapes of Wrath follows the Joad family as they travel along Route 66 in their re-made Hudson truck.
The family jalopy (a beaten-up old car) became the center of the family as it was where they ate, slept and some even died. Each family member had a limited amount of space to call their own, some sitting in the cab, while the rest settled under a tarp on top of the loaded “trunk” (reminds me of the cramped slave ships we saw earlier). The Grapes of Wrath is known, not just as a travel narrative but as one of the best-known road sagas where “the travelers are not vagabonds but refugees” (Lackey 83). It is a combination between The Virginian and Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl in that the family needs to travel to find work, similar to the Virginian who leaves his home in search of a job, however the Joad’s are not leaving of their own free will, but are forced out in search of a better life, just like Harriet Jacobs who fled captivity in search of her freedom. I am not saying that Steinbeck’s novel is similar to a slave narrative or a cowboy western, however I just wanted to note the similarities that can be found in different types of travel literature, whether it is a western, slave narrative or highway literature.
As I have mentioned already, one of the main points of focus for Steinbeck is the family car. While in the other novels I have examined, the modes of transportation have been present, they have not been a part of the forefront of the novel. In The Grapes of Wrath, almost the entire novel is centered around the car.
“The family met at the most important place, near the truck. The house was dead, the fields were dead; but this truck was the active thing, the living principle. The ancient Hudson, with bent and scarred radiator screen, with grease in dusty globules at the worn edges of every moving part, with hub caps gone and caps of red dust in their places–this was the new hearth, the living center of the family; half passenger car and half truck, high-sided and clumsy.” (Steinbeck 99)
Without the car the family would be stuck. They needed their car to get to California to find a new life. Steinbeck created imagery with this car, focusing on the many repairs it needed, the amount of money spent on gas, and the constant anxiety the car caused for Al and Tom–the mechanics and chauffeurs of the family. The Joad’s were lucky to have Al and Tom who were knowledgeable in driving and car repairs, as other families were not as lucky. The Wilson’s, for example, would have been left stranded at the side of the road had the Joad’s not offered to help fix their car. Gas station owners were getting frustrated too with the amount of cars passing by each day as fewer and fewer of them had the money to pay for the gas they took. One gas station owner told the Joad’s that “fifty-six cars a folks go by ever’ day, folks all movin’ west with kids an’ househol’ stuff” (Steinbeck 126). When this gas station owner asked why everyone was migrating, the only answer Tom had was “Doin’ the same as us…Goin’ someplace to live. Tryin’ to get along. That’s all” (Steinbeck 126). It is in these words that Tom explains that there is nothing left back in Oklahoma and the only way to survive is to keep moving forward, or in the words of Rodney Atkins, “if you’re going through hell keep on going.”
As this post has mentioned, the main source of transportation in The Grapes of Wrath was by automobile. Written during the Depression, cars were not the easiest item to buy. Many people had to sell their belongings just to buy a jalopy or used car. In The Grapes of Wrath there is an entire chapter dedicated to the buying and selling of cars (chapter 7) and all the tricks car salesmen used to sell their cars, such as turning back the odometer to make it seem as if the car had traveled less kilometers than it really did. In a time of such great migration where having a car was a necessity, the car salesmen could and would jack-up the prices of a car.
“I got to get jalopies. I don’t want nothing for more’n twenty-five, thirty bucks. Sell ’em for fifty, seventy-give. That’s a good profit…Get jalopies. I can sell ’em fast as I get ’em. Nothing over two hundred fifty.” (62)
The first documented road trip was by a woman named Berta Benz on August 12, 1888. Since that initial trip, road trips have quickly escalated as car models have adapted over time to become the vehicles we all rely on today. The first cars, beginning in the 1770’s, were originally steam-powered and by the 1880’s cars were being powered by steam, gasoline and electricity. Some of the earliest car manufacturers were Benz, Daimler and Panhard (in Europe) or Duryea, Haynes and Winton (in America). By the 1910, gasoline became the main source of power for cars as these cars could travel longer distances and hold more passengers.
Next Stop: Looking Backward
Division of the History of Technology, Transportation Collections, National Museum of American History. “Early Cars: Fact Sheet for Children.” Smithsonian. 25 November 2012. <http://www.si.edu/Encyclopedia_SI/nmah/earlycars.htm>.
Lackey, Kris. Road Frames: The American Highway Narrative. United States of America: The University of Nebraska Press. 1997.
Steinbeck, John. The Grapes of Wrath. United States of America: Penguin Books. 1967.
“U.S. Route 66.” Wikipedia: The Free Encyclopedia. 26 November 2012. <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/U.S._Route_66>.