At Mass yesterday, the closing hymn was “The Battle Hymn of the Republic.”
Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord
He is trampling out the vintage where the grapes of wrath are stored
That, in turn, got me thinking of The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck, which I’ll be teaching again this year. (Interesting bit of trivia: It was Steinbeck’s wife Carol who suggested that he use the song lyric as the title.)
And The Grapes of Wrath got me thinking about labor, and Labor Day.
Have you read the book? If not, I highly recommend it. It’s a book about the dignity of labor and the laborer, as well as a call to justice in the face of worker exploitation. Italo Calvino once said that “A classic is a book that has never finished saying what it has to say.” In a post-Citizens United world, The Grapes of Wrath speaks as powerfully now as it did during the Depression. (It also has one of the two best endings of any book I’ve ever read. It weirded me out as a high school student, but now, I’m in awe of what Steinbeck managed to do in one perfect scene.)
And as I sang along with the rest of the congregation and thought about the book, I found my mind wandering to labor in general. As much as we (or at least I) like to think of free time as being the real stuff of life, it’s work that makes this world run. That’s true whether it’s crews building the roads or migrants picking the crops or moms bathing the kids or teachers setting up their classrooms for the start of the school year.
Still, I think it’s fair to say that society as a whole seems to value some work more than others. I know women who are disparaged for being stay-at-home moms, and we’ve probably all heard people make dismissive comments about the people who work in fast-food restaurants or work as sanitation engineers. (And then there’s that saying about how those who can, do, and those who can’t, teach. That one makes me nuts.)
Looking at the two young boys on either side of me, I realized how much I care about counteracting those attitudes. I want my kids to grow up to respect all kinds of workers and all kinds of work (save, of course, something like dealing drugs). Whoever we are and however we earn a living, we can only do our jobs because other people do theirs. No one is an island; we’re all part of a complex web of interdependence, one that works best when we all recognize and respect its existence.
As the ex-preacher Jim Casy famously says in The Grapes of Wrath, “Maybe all men got one big soul and everybody’s a part of it.” (If you read the book in high school, I hope your teacher did the instructional equivalent of putting that line in neon lights.) And if the book teaches nothing else, it teaches that there is a life-giving power when people remember that. We all share a common humanity, no matter what kind of work we do, and that’s worth remembering all year long.