Quoting Scripture to support organized labour

From the something-you-don’t-see-every-day files

Having recently read Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath and blogged about its images of corporate monstrosity, I have worked to identify some of the novel’s other related textual details and references. One reference has proven especially tricky to source – and especially rewarding. In the last scene in which Tom Joad appears, he talks with his Ma about his plans for the future. Tom hints at – but stops short of spelling out – his plans for organizing workers: “why we can’t do that all over. … All work together for our own thing – all farm our own lan’.” (536). Tom also reflects on the lapsed Reverend Casy, whose loss Tom laments, and from whose wisdom he works out his plans. Casy’s wisdom, throughout the novel, is consistently critical, and is crystallized in Tom’s recollection here, via a specific biblical allusion:

Tom went on, “He [Casy] spouted out some Scripture once, an’ it didn’ soun’ like no hell-fire Scripture. He tol’ it twicet, an’ I remember it. Says it’s from the Preacher.”
“How’s it go, Tom?”
“Goes, ‘Two are better than one, because they have a good reward for their labor. For if they fall, the one will lif’ up his fellow, but woe to him that is alone when he falleth, for he hath not another to help him up.’ That’s part of her.”
“Go on,” Ma said. “Go on, Tom.”
“Jus’ a little bit more. ‘Again, if two lie together, then they have heat: but how can one be warm alone? And if one prevail against him, two shall withstand him, and a three-fold cord is not quickly broken.'”
“An’ that’s Scripture?”
“Casy said it was. Called it the Preacher.” (535-36)

In this exchange, Steinbeck frames a resonant Biblical quotation in a curiously coded gesture: he doesn’t clearly cite the text’s source, he just alludes to it (who is “the Preacher”?); he also repeats this allusion, and has Ma doubt the veracity of the source: “An’ that’s Scripture?” The exchange invites – or provokes – the reader to identify the biblical excerpt in question, given here as if it were both common knowledge, via the folksy figure of “the Preacher,” and hidden wisdom: “that’s Scripture?”

It is Scripture, of course, quoted almost verbatim from the King James version of the Old Testament book of Ecclesiastes: chapter 4, verses 9 to 12. Chapter 4 is a short chapter of meditations on work and hubris, humility and cooperation – and it opens with this suggestive contextualization: “Again I saw all the oppressions that are practiced under the sun.” According to the way verses 4-9 are placed and discussed in the novel, Steinbeck makes it abundantly clear who the oppressors are.

Language: what's got you covered

Language: what’s got you covered

So in this passage we encounter one of the most popular and widely taught American novels quoting Scripture to support organized labour, thereby suggesting labour’s legitimacy in Christian teaching and theology. Perhaps symptomatically, a Google search for biblical allusions and quotations in The Grapes of Wrath nowhere includes this rather remarkable detail. (I don’t think it made it into the 1940 film adaptation, either.) I wouldn’t go so far as to call it a conspiracy – and there is no doubt an extensive research literature documenting the novel’s biblical intertexts – but the omission of this detail (which is important for the novel not only thematically but structurally) from readily available public Internet sources does seem a conspicuous absence.

I should add, too, that – as everybody knows – Scripture is promiscuously available to furnish quotations that support or condemn any number of social practices, as dramatized in a scene from the West Wing TV series that has gone viral. It may simply be valuable to recognize here a biblical passage that features significantly in a canonical American novel, and that lends organized labour some authoritative cultural support from an unexpected quarter, in the plain truth it speaks about the social and economic benefits of organizing, which economic studies confirm and which working people everywhere can recognize.

Works Cited
The New Oxford Annotated Bible. New Revised Standard Version. Ed. Bruce M. Metzger and Roland E. Murphy. New York: Oxford UP, 1991.
Steinbeck, John. The Grapes of Wrath (1939). New York: Penguin, 1976.

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