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Common Sense Politics in The Grapes of Wrath

13/08/2014 21:28 BST | Updated 12/10/2014 10:59 BST

In the wake of the publication of The Grapes of Wrath, John Steinbeck was called a liar, a propagandist and a socialist. He was seen as a threat to American capitalism and a danger to the ostensibly wonderful ideals of the free market. Steinbeck was considered to be such a threat, in fact, that he was harassed by U.S. government officials. In 1942, three years after The Grapes of Wrath was published, Steinbeck wrote to the Attorney General: 'Do you suppose you could ask Edgar's boys to stop stepping on my heels? It's becoming tiresome.'

It's hard to imagine why Steinbeck was harassed. After all, he never directly advocates socialism or any other controversial political construct. Steinbeck's writing is informed not by some pervading ideology, but by common sense . Steinbeck believes that it is common sense, above all else, to support the rights of oppressed workers. In an interview with San Francisco News columnist John Barry, he said:

'Every effort I can bring to bear is and has been at the call of the common working people to the end that they may eat what they raise, use what they produce, and in every way and in completeness share in the works of their hands and their heads.'

The ideals of doctrinaire socialism, for Steinbeck, are too dogmatic and rhetorically grandiose to support those who work with their hands. At times, however, it's hard to deny that there is a certain overlap between Steinbeck's common sense politics and doctrinaire socialism.

In The Grapes of Wrath, Steinbeck supports collective ownership: 'If this tractor were ours it would be good - not mine, but ours. If our tractor turned the long furrows of our land, it would be good. Not my land, but ours.' Steinbeck isn't saying that the workers of all lands should unite, nor is he trying to create a dictatorship of the proletariat. He is simply arguing that workers should reap the rewards of their labour. For Steinbeck, this isn't some grand ideological cry for socialism, it's just common sense. Socialism is too complicated.

Similarly, Steinbeck condemns the ostensible ills of rampant capitalism with his usual sincerity: 'A million acres? What in the world can he do with a million acres?' Steinbeck isn't asserting that an individual shouldn't have the right to own property. He certainly isn't appealing for the expropriation of the expropriators. He is simply calling for a fairer distribution of land. This again, for Steinbeck, was common sense.

The Grapes of Wrath follows the oppressed men, women and children in the dust-bowls of California. Steinbeck's characters starve while rich men feast. He believed that this was a problem. For Steinbeck, this wasn't a problem that could be cured by complex doctrinaire socialism, but one that could be relieved if politics was merely governed by reason. I don't suppose we should find it surprising that Hoover and his friends at the F.B.I saw something threatening about Steinbeck. After all, he was a public figure crying out for common sense.