restricted access "In Between a Past and Future Town": Home, The Unhomely, and The Grapes of Wrath
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"In Between a Past and Future Town":
Home, The Unhomely, and The Grapes of Wrath
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The Joads prepare to leave home in a movie still from John Ford's The Grapes of Wrath (1940). [End Page 52]

To be unhomed is not to be homeless. . . . The unhomely moment creeps upon you stealthily as your own shadow and suddenly you find yourself with Henry James's Isabel Archer "taking the measure of your dwelling" in a state of "incredulous terror." . . . In a feverish stillness, the intimate recesses of the domestic space become sites for history's most intricate invasions. In that displacement the border between home and world becomes confused; and, uncannily, the private and the public become part of each other, forcing upon us a vision that is as divided as it is disorienting.

In the stirrings of the unhomely, another world becomes visible. It has less to do with forcible eviction and more to do with the uncanny literary and social effects of enforced social accommodation, or historical migrations and cultural relocations.

As American studies scholar Michael Denning points out in The Cultural Front, the Depression era in the United States witnessed an increase in the production of so-called "social protest novels." According to Denning, the authors of these texts sought to memorialize various proletarian movements of the 1930s and to inform and engage a mainstream audience about the plight [End Page 53] of the laboring class. Denning also points out that while these myriad authors aspired to create enduring "mythic narratives" of the people from historical events, none succeeded in creating "enduring icons in popular culture" —none, perhaps, except John Steinbeck's 1939 text The Grapes of Wrath (263). While Denning only suggests that the "failure of [these other] events to become a myth, to create enduring icons in popular culture" is most "interesting," he also presents an important question: "Why did the story of the 'Okie exodus' have [such] mythic power" (262-3)? Denning's question leads to another: why did The Grapes of Wrath become myth, both as a Popular Front genre, but perhaps antly, as a literary text?1

Denning acknowledges that much of the "mythic resonance" of the Grapes of Wrath narrative—both as a Popular Front genre and as a novel—"lies in its story of migration" (264). While I agree with Denning, I also believe that traditional literary readings of The Grapes of Wrath have often tended to define the text in four reductively: 1) as a story of migration; 2) as a recasting of Christian themes and motifs into an American context; 3) as a work of social protest; 4) or, finally, as a powerful, sentimental epic. These definitions, however, do not produce a satisfactory answer to Denning's question, nor do they adequately explore the complexities of Steinbeck's literary production. This new reading of John Steinbeck's greatest novel, then, suggests that this work is ultimately concerned with what is best described as an "in-betweenness," as manifested in the novel's representations of home and the unhomely (to borrow a term from the postcolonial theorist Homi K. Bhabha).2 Steinbeck's treatment of these latter themes goes far in explaining why The Grapes of Wrath "succeeded" in becoming both myth and a lasting work of literary art.

For various reasons, including historical and methodological limitations, traditional readings of The Grapes of Wrath did not recognize Steinbeck's careful consideration of homelessness, the unhomely, and the impact of these forces on the text. From the tenant-farms of Oklahoma, to the boxcars of California's Central Valley, and all the "camps" in between, the novel's "geographies of home" (a term borrowed from Loida Maritza Pérez) provides a framework for re-reading The Grapes of Wrath which sheds light on the novel's emphasis on the unhomely and in-between experience, which Bhabha documents in his own postcolonial criticism. My re-reading of The Grapes of Wrath draws on three [End Page 54] more recent theoretical paradigms based on the work of Bhabha, Gloria Anzaldúa's formulation of the Borderlands (a...