Weedpatch

Henry Fonda as Tom Joad, 1940

Whoever has seen the John Ford film of John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath will scarcely forget the episode of the federal government camp set up for Dust Bowl migrants. A fulcrum point in the saga of the wandering Joads, the camp is a respite, a haven of hope and decency, but also the place that sets in motion the tragedy and transcendence of Tom Joad, a fugitive and an outcast, of the tribe of Cain.

Tom Collins, photo by Dorothea Lange, 1936

The camp was modelled on the real-world Weedpatch Camp, whose administrator Tom Collins was consulted by Steinbeck for the book, and by the producers of the film. The “Tom” who shares the dedication of Grapes of Wrath with Steinbeck’s wife Carol, and who is sometimes thought to refer to the fictional hero of the novel, was in fact this Tom Collins.

It was Collins’s idea (perhaps even a Christian one; he had once considered entering the Catholic priesthood) that migrants, whatever the cause of their misery, should be treated with dignity, left to organise themselves as they might choose, free to go if they chose. He encouraged schools and nurseries, work parties and training programmes, and organised dances. All of which appears in the film, and made Darryl Zanuck nervous about opening in California, where so-called Okies had been met with violence at the border, and fear, resentment and bad faith were yet in the air.

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It is difficult to think of a parallel to Grapes of Wrath in American letters, unless it is Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Sprawling unruly works, the act of reading them is to retrace the steps of a moral self-education, and to encounter objects from some place where writing meets prophetic judgment and enters into collective consciousness as guilt, sacrifice and healing. Essentially religious experiences, of pilgrimage, of liturgical procession. What is a man. What is a woman. What are the proper ends of human existence.

It is not difficult to frame the subversive and dangerous questions that a certain reading of Grapes of Wrath invites:

Why borders? Or why these borders? Who put them there?

On what basis entitlement to protection and compassion? How does political persecution make a legitimate refugee and not, say, gang or domestic violence, or ecological disaster?

We may well ask, even as we will surely shy and skitter away from direct answers.

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A modest Steinbeckian vision.

Nursery, Weedpatch Camp, photo by Dorothea Lange, 1936

For a moment, suppose migrancy decriminalised and all the border apparatus, the walls, the arrests, the holding pens, the clogged courts, the caged children, the separation of families, all dismantled, and all that energy and imagination and capital invested in a chain of camps—call them Weedpatch camps—in an archipelago extending across the border, established by international cooperation and consent, on the model of Tom Collins’s vision, camps with schools and nurseries and training programmes, a reserve of workers and citizens and neighbours feeding two countries and beyond.