restricted access Steinbeck, Music, Memory, and Mistakes: In Memory of John Ditsky
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Steinbeck, Music, Memory, and Mistakes:
In Memory of John Ditsky

In Steinbeck Studies, volume 16, numbers 1 & 2 combined, John Ditsky raised interesting questions about Steinbeck's use of they song "Thanks for the Memory," as sung by Bing Crosby, in The Grapes of Wrath. He speculated whether or not Steinbeck was correct in assigning this tune to Crosby since this song is not usually associated with the crooner. A strong point in his argument is the lack of evidence that Crosby ever recorded "Thanks for the Memory."

A quick internet search reveals, however, that Crosby sang "Thanks for the Memory," a song now appearing on at least two modern CD collections. One is a boxed set, Bing: His Legendary Years 1931-1957, MCA Records, released in 1993; and Academy Award Winners & Nominees: 1934-1960, MCA Records, released in 2000. Crosby originally recorded the song with Jack Pleis and His Orchestra on April 18, 1956, for the Decca LP album, Songs I Wish I Had Sung the First Time Around, twenty years too to have influenced Steinbeck in his writing. However, I do not believe that Steinbeck's inclusion of "Thanks for the Memory" was an error or simply a random choice of a song popular at the time.

The thread of memory runs throughout The Grapes of Wrath. Tom Joad establishes the identity of the members of his family by sharing his memories of the eccentricities of Uncle John, Pa, and Ma with Jim Casy in the opening chapters. Later, the poignancy of what the migrant people are leaving behind in their trek California is driven home by memories. [End Page 103]

The anonymous share-cropper in Chapter 9 momentarily warms to the memory of his daughter and her love for their team of horses, "plaiting the forelocks, taking off her hair ribbon to make bows, standing back, head cocked, rubbing soft noses with her cheek" (112). He relates this memory while in the process of being cheated by the buyer of the team. Steinbeck stresses that the exploiters, who have moved in to buy up the displaced persons' worldly goods, are not just buying property, but memories as well.

An old stationery box contains Ma Joad's memories of a lifetime. Lack of room on the Hudson Super-six, and the uncertainties of the family's new life, do not allow her the luxury of bringing this small item with them. After biting her lower lip thinking, and remembering, she keeps a gold signet ring, a watch chain braided of hair and tipped with gold swivels, a pair of earrings, and one gold cuff link. She commits the rest—the box letters, clippings, and photographs to the coals of the stove (139-40). It is not just sentimentality that drives Ma to keep the jewelry and destroy the paper goods. Most of the pieces she keeps contain gold and, by implication, may be used as currency somewhere down the road. [End Page 104]

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Thomas Hart Benton's Portrayal of Ma Joad.

Later, Ma and Pa's shared memories chronicle the family's recent losses—the deaths of Grandpa and Grandma and the desertions of Noah and Connie. Their observations of ducks, "wedgin' on down to the southward" sparks a memory of what this flight indicated back home and provides an ominous portent: "Winter's a comin' early" (414-16).

Muley Gravess remembers his first sexual experience, seeing his father die after being gored by a bull, and witnessing the birth of a baby in his home. Muley, a "graveyard ghost," revisits and haunts the scenes of these events, trying to reconnect to the memory of each (65-66).

Compare these visceral, hard-edged memories with the vapid, silly ones of "Thanks for the Memory," a song portraying the lazy, languorous, rich, who suffer minor inconveniences when set alongside the trials of the Joads, and other westward migrants, scrambling for their uncertain dinner every day. Whereas the Joads battle adversity in every scene, the biggest worry of the singer of "Thanks for the Memory" is that the object of his affection "might have been a headache." His greatest...