The Holy Ghost of Tom Joad

Author’s note: I would like to dedicate this post to Stephen George, a great teacher and Steinbeck scholar at BYU-Idaho. I co-taught an Ethics course with Stephen at BYU-I. It was the first class I taught in Rexburg. It was his last. His cancer had returned after going into remission. He passed away in November 2006.

I love The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck. When I taught American Heritage at BYU and BYU-Idaho, I enjoyed showing the movie version along with A More Perfect Union and Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.

The Grapes of Wrath is a very important work of literature within the American social justice tradition. The film strongly portrays the devastating impact of poverty on the family. It also masterfully depicts the concepts of alienation and exploitation.

Near the end of the film, Tom Joad gives a famous speech as he bids farewell to his mother.

I’ll be all around in the dark – I’ll be everywhere. Wherever you can look – wherever there’s a fight, so hungry people can eat, I’ll be there. Wherever there’s a cop beatin’ up a guy, I’ll be there. I’ll be in the way guys yell when they’re mad. I’ll be in the way kids laugh when they’re hungry and they know supper’s ready, and when the people are eatin’ the stuff they raise and livin’ in the houses they build – I’ll be there, too.

This message inspired Bruce Springsteen to invoke the image of Tom Joad in a song about the struggle for social justice.

While Springsteen’s folk hymn provides a reflective tone, Rage Against The Machine reworked his song into a battle cry.

We often talk about the prompting s of the “still small voice” when it comes to the Holy Ghost. I think the Holy Ghost of Tom Joad comes in many forms. Sometimes it is the reverent tones of Bruce Springsteen. Other times, it is the screams of RATM. Either way, let us follow those promptings by looking out for the hungry and the oppressed.

12 Replies to “The Holy Ghost of Tom Joad”

  1. I went to High School with Stephen George. He was a great guy who always treated everyone with kindness and consideration, even at that time in his life.

  2. The screenwriter got awfully close to the original Steinbeck (and why not?–there’s not much improving to be done):

    Then I’ll be all aroun’ in the dark. I’ll be ever’where–wherever you look. Wherever they’s a fight so hungry people can eat, I’ll be there. Wherever they’s a cop beatin’ up a guy, I’ll be there. If Casy knowed, why, I’ll be in the way guys yell when they’re mad an’–I’ll be in the way kids laugh when they’re hungry an’ they know supper’s ready. An’ when our folks eat the stuff they raise an’ live in the houses they build–why, I’ll be there. See?

    Great stuff!

    In the book it comes right after Tom tells Ma about Casy’s idea, that “a fella ain’t got a soul of his own, but on’y a piece of a big one”.

    So, it’s not just Tom’s Holy Ghost. Once he’s gone, he is the Holy Ghost.

  3. I read The Grapes of Wrath as a freshman at BYU and it was formative in my development of what I thought “it is all about.” As cliche as it may sound, it was a major contributing factor in my budding liberalism. As I recall, after I read TGoW, I then picked up A Movable Feast, The Sun Also Rises, For Whom the Bell Tolls, and then topped it off with A Farewell to Arms. One Steinbeck simply cannot counterbalance 4 Hemingway soul crushers–not only did I not get any studying done for a couple of weeks, I was left feeling pretty depressed and hopeless about life. My undergrad GPA never recovered, but my psyche eventually did. Memorable times.

  4. As a BYU-Idaho alum, and the spouse of an English major, I must put in the normal shout out for BYU-Idaho. We’ve got a lot of great great people there, and Stephen George was just an example of that.

    I’ve always felt that the Springsteen version grasped the desperate nature of the social structure, almost remorseful, whereas the RATM felt much more gritty. A battle cry, sure, but a grass-roots type song. When I hear the Springsteen song, I think of the TGoW movie. When I hear the RATM version, I think more of “The Road,” where humanity is judged more about your basic struggle to survive.

    I would love to see the administration at BYU-Idaho’s reaction if the RATM song was every played! HA!

  5. Just wanted to chime in as a member of that Ethics class that while I didn’t know Brother George very well, he struck me as an incredibly kind and thoughtful man, and I enjoyed the little time I had to learn from him. Also, as I’ve expressed elsewhere, I enjoyed your half of the semester as well. Even if I did get frustrated from time to time. I was young and headstrong 😛

    I’m not so much a believer in the Holy Ghost anymore. But I’m a believer in my sense of social justice and equity. And yes, sometimes it sounds like Bruce Springsteen’s rendition, and sometimes it sounds like RATM’s rendition.

    What I’m still trying to work out is how to take action on those feelings/promptings/intuitions, whichever way you want to phrase it. Sometimes, I feel utterly powerless.

  6. “I feel utterly powerless.”

    I know what you mean. We have to do what we can. Talk to the outcast. Give to the beggar. Talk to the beggar. We also need to support and join organizations that give our voice more power.

    Lessie, I hope that you legal training will give you additional skills and know-how that will allow you to feel less powerless…as you fight the power.

    Thanks for stopping by FPR!

  7. Brandt,

    “I would love to see the administration at BYU-Idaho’s reaction if the RATM song was every played!”

    What they didn’t know…didn’t hurt them.

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