From Tom Joad to Willy Loman
I don’t know what they are teaching today regarding literature in secondary education curriculum. I do know that a mainstay of such study back in the mid- to late-1970’s included John Steinbeck’s classic, The Grapes of Wrath. We read the book, and then watched John Ford’s cinematic rendition, starring Henry Fonda as Tom Joad.
As the hard-luck everyman hero of Steinbeck’s tale of the Great Depression, Fonda came to symbolize all that America—and Americans—would, could, and should aspire to be: a defender of the oppressed, a fighter for the human detritus abandoned by an uncaring and unfeeling societal elite whose very essence contradicted the ostensible values of a nation, where the rights of the individual outweighed the dictate of the majority.
Scott Ritter will discuss this article on Episode 120 of Ask the Inspector.
In 1995 Bruce Springsteen released an acoustic album, The Ghost of Tom Joad. The title track contained some of the most powerfully vivid lyrics ever written by a man known for his powerfully vivid lyrics. In 2008 Springsteen electrified the song, inviting Tom Morello, the lead guitarist for the American rock band Rage Against the Machine, to join him in performing The Ghost of Tom Joad live in concert.
The result was pure musical magic.
The lyrics of The Ghost of Tom Joad, always haunting, took on a new, angry urgency when backed by the guitar genius of Tom Morello, and from the moment I first heard the song performed in this manner, it became the theme song of my life.
While every lyric of the song resonates with meaning, the final two versus hit me the most.
It starts with Springsteen.
“And Tom said…Ma wherever there’s a cop, beating a guy.
Wherever a hungry new-born baby cries.
Wherever there’s a fight against the blood and anger in the air.
Look at me, Ma, and I’ll be there.”
Then Tom Morello takes over.
“Wherever somebody’s fighting for a place to stand.
For a decent job, or a helping hand.
Wherever somebody’s struggling to be free.
Look in their eyes, Ma, and you’ll see me.”
What Tom Morello proceeds to do with his guitar serves to sear these lyrics into the listener’s head for eternity.
“Look in their eyes, Ma, and you’ll see me.”
I have spent my life trying to be that guy—the one who comes to mind when it is time for good to fight evil. Whether as a Marine, a weapons inspector, a firefighter, or a citizen activist, the cry of those in fear and/or in need became my clarion call. I held myself to high standards, and as a result I applied those same standards to those who served alongside me, and—especially so—those elected officials who represented me in the halls of power and authority whose actions were done in my name and, as such, were a reflection on the collective enterprise known as the United States of America.
It is no simple task to try and emulate Tom Joad. Being a concerned citizen is a full-time job, and the challenges of just trying to get by in a world designed to compel one to spend every waking moment just getting by makes good citizenship damn hard, if not virtually impossible. We citizens are compelled by circumstance to pass the baton of civic duty and responsibility to our elected officials, thereby transferring the burden of being Tom Joad away from our shoulders, and onto theirs.
We may be fully cognizant of the failings of our elected officials and know in our heart of hearts that they are not up to the tasks we have saddled them with, and yet, as a means of salving our own conscience, we fool ourselves into believing the illusion that these officials conjure with their speeches and statements. For a moment, we believe we are listening to the real deal—a Springsteen/Morello moment, where we fool ourselves into believing that the reflection in “Ma’s” eyes is us—that we, and those we have anointed as our proxies, are Tom Joad.
But when the singing ends, there is no Morello magic—the guitar (aptly named “Arm the Homeless”) is silent, and the reflection fades away, with Henry Fonda’s smiling visage replaced with George C. Scott’s weary, craggy face.
In 1975, Arthur Miller’s classic tale, Death of a Salesman, was brought to life on Broadway, with the acclaimed actor, George C. Scott (perhaps best known for his portrayal of General George Patton in the 1970 film Patton, or General “Buck” Turgidson in Stanley Kubrick’s 1964 classic, Dr. Strangelove) playing the part of Willy Loman, the all-American loser. Many people have played the role of Willy Loman over time, including several standout actors, but it is Scott’s performance that came to define the character (none other than The New York Times, known for its scathing criticism of Broadway shows, said that Scott’s performance literally left “criticism speechless.”
The thing about George C. Scott is that, at the time of his Broadway performance, America knew him as a tough guy, a winner—a fighter. He was the consummate hero, the man we all secretly wished we could be. So to see him play a down-and-out loser like Willy Loman, to get into the character so deeply that the audience forgot they were watching Patton, and instead believed that Scott had become the loathsome and pathetic Willy Loman—well, that was great acting. As the Grey Lady’s critic acclaimed, “The kind you can never forget. The kind you tell your grandchildren about. The kind that leaves you in a state of grace, enables you to jump beyond yourself, to see something that perhaps even the playwright himself only dimly perceived.”
I never saw George C. Scott play Willy Loman. But I read about his performance, and the strength of the critic’s praise was enough to imprint the face of the man who brought Patton to life on the silver screen in my mind’s eye.
But lately, when I think of Willy Loman, Scott’s visage has faded, and instead replaced by that of Joe Biden, the President of the United States. Biden is the ultimate wannabe tough guy, a hero in his own mind, the self-described “working man’s president,” the modern-day incarnation of Tom Joad.
He sells this role hard, wrapping himself up in the mystique of the American dream, crafting a narrative which he tries very hard to portray as the living manifestation of how The Grapes of Wrath would have ended if Biden had starred in the role of Tom Joad.
The problem, however, is that Biden is not an actor, and the role he is portraying is not that of Tom Joad.
Biden is the living embodiment of Willy Loman.
He is the ultimate manifestation of a failed salesman, the fronting for a vision of the America Dream that no one is buying any more.
Whether speaking about foreign or domestic policy, Biden exposes himself as a snake oil salesman whose audience long ago realized he was peddling a placebo, not a cure.
America has an election in November 2024 that will define the fate of the nation, and the world.
We yearn for a leader, someone who will “fight against the blood and anger in the air.”
We look to the podium, and we are subjected to the sight of Willy Loman shuffling out of his home, to his car, and his date with destiny.
Only we don’t have an insurance policy that will restore us to where we want to be, to right the wrongs of this failed salesman who has betrayed everything we once believed we stood for.
We, the people of America, are left huddling around a campfire. “The highway is alive tonight,” Springsteen and Morello sing, “but nobody’s kidding nobody about where it goes.”
The only car on the American highway today is being driven by Joe Biden as Willy Loman, and we know how that ends.
“I’m sitting down here in the campfire light, with the ghost of old Tom Joad.”
Wake up, America. It’s time we find our own Tom Joad.
Or, better yet, assume the mantle of citizenship and transform ourselves into a person worthy of that name.