Footnote to “Frankenstein as a figure of globalization”: corporate monstrosity in The Grapes of Wrath

In my latest article on Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, I write that “the Depression prompted … Frankensteinian representations of corporate business” that resonate today, amidst an economic crisis that has prompted references to the Depression. To identify scenes and tropes as Frankensteinian, I rely on Chris Baldick’s theory of Frankenstein’s “skeleton story” as the core of the story’s innumerable popular adaptations, of its status as what Baldick calls a paradoxically “modern myth” (tk). The “skeleton story” consists essentially of just two complementary plot points: 1) a man makes a creature; 2) the creature revolts and runs amok. For evidence of Frankensteinian representations of corporate business in the Depression era, I cited one example, a 1930 piece of journalism called “Frankenstein, Inc.” But I have more recently found a highly significant literary example – one I wished I had known about before the article went to press (hence this footnote) – it’s none other than John Steinbeck’s 1939 novel The Grapes of Wrath, the major literary statement on the Depression, a novel I’m only now reading for the first time.

20120812-162645.jpgThe novel tells the Depression-era story of the Joad family’s forced exodus from Oklahoma to California, and tells this story in a pointedly dialectical form, alternating between chapters about the Joads’ specific scenes and doings, and chapters about the general contexts and crises that condition the Joads’ particular story. The fifth chapter – a general chapter – describes the manouevres, manipulations, and machinations used by the “owner men” to get the “tenant men” off their lands in the process of mechanizing and automating agriculture – turning it into agribusiness. Steinbeck describes the owner men talking about the eviction of the tenants, and the reclamation of the land, with reference to figures of monstrosity that mystify the relations of corporate production and absolve the owner men of responsibility:

If a bank or a finance company owned the land, the owner man said, the Bank – or the Company – needs – wants – insists – must have – as though the Bank or the Company were a monster, with thought and feeling, which had ensnared them. … And the owner men explained the workings and the thinkings of the monster that was stronger than they were. … these creatures don’t breathe air, don’t eat side-meat. They breathe profits; they eat the interest on money. (41)

When the tenant men counter that “the bank is only made of men,” the owner men tell them they’re wrong: “No, you’re wrong there – quite wrong there. The bank is something else than men. … The bank is something more than men, I tell you. It’s the monster. Men made it, but they can’t control it” (43, my emphasis).

Following this scene of the owner men rationalizing (and reifying) corporate business – relieving them of responsibility for its cruel externalities – Steinbeck describes an encounter between a soon-to-be-evicted tenant and the driver of a company tractor that is the specific instrument of the “monstrous” corporate reclamation of the farmlands from the tenants: “The man sitting in the iron seat did not look like a man; gloved, goggled, rubber dust mask over nose and mouth, he was part of the monster, a robot in the seat. … The driver could not control it” (45). The tenant who talks to this driver fails to persuade him of his inhuman betrayal of the families he’s mechanically displaced, but ultimately vows, “There’s some way to stop this. It’s not like lightning or earthquakes. We’ve got a bad thing made by men, and by God that’s something we can change” (50, my emphasis).

The chapter thus adapts the “skeleton story” of Frankenstein as one of the premises for Steinbeck’s novel: in both the unsuccessfully reassuring words of the owner men and the horrified reactions of the tenant men, the corporate business model is a destructive, superhuman monster – made by humans, but now beyond humans’ control, running amok and wreaking havoc, economic and environmental. This certainly isn’t the only cultural or intertextual premise of Steinbeck’s stern and sweeping saga, but it is a conspicuous and telling one, eatablished very early in the plot of one of America’s definitive critical accounts of the corporate-dominated market society, the robber barons accountable for it, and the multitudes of workers exploited and abandoned by by it.

Works Cited
Baldick, Chris. In Frankenstein’s Shadow: Myth, Monstrosity, and Nineteenth-Century Writing. Oxford: Clarendon, 1987.
McCutcheon, Mark A. “Frankenstein as a figure of globalization in Canada’s popular culture.” Continuum 25.5 (2011): 731-42.
Steinbeck, John. The Grapes of Wrath (1939). New York: Penguin, 1976.

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One response to “Footnote to “Frankenstein as a figure of globalization”: corporate monstrosity in The Grapes of Wrath

  1. Pingback: Quoting Scripture to support organized labour | Academicalism

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