Sunday, February 05, 2017

The Grapes of Wrath (1939)

I think I can understand why a person might have a hard time with the deadly earnestness, not to mention the dialect and all the homespun trappings, of John Steinbeck's monumental greatest novel—it's the reason I put off even trying it for most of my life. When I finally got to it, just 10 or 15 years ago, I was surprised by what a beguiling narrative it is. Steinbeck manages this in a few ways. First, another disciple of John Dos Passos, he structured the novel with alternating chapters. The first and primary set is a closely observed story of the Joad family as they decide to leave Oklahoma for California, with incidents of what they find there and along the way. This is the main arc. The other chapters are much shorter, with heightened descriptive language, setting the historical and social context for the story. The Joad family is ignorant and poor, but also decent, perhaps even noble. The historical context of the Dust Bowl environmental disaster and the large-scale migration to California which followed provides a natural backdrop for a great American story. There are many Joads at the beginning, but death and other misadventures whittle down their numbers steadily. The precariousness of their situation is always felt. And there's no reason to think the disaster at the end is the end of their troubles—it's likely things get even worse beyond this novel. It's also an American story of capitalism, of course, critical of its excesses in the strongest terms. It was condemned as socialist, communist, and whatnot, and yes, it certainly illustrates in plainest terms how the wealthy few can control the impoverished many by any number of unscrupulous but legal dirty tricks. That's part of the great sadness of this book, which goes beyond the sad (if redemptive) elements of its story. Things are better now, but not by much. Not by nearly enough—indeed, with Republicans in complete control of the US federal government now, we appear in position to see every one of the hard-won economic victories that came of the Depression era erased, solely to benefit the wealthy. The problem of mistreating the people we need to grow and harvest food remains—these workers are not only not respected for doing the hard work most Americans prefer not to, but are vilified and ostracized as a matter of class. That part of this novel is still very much a heartache. I used the word "earnestness" before—what The Grapes of Wrath is earnest about is delivering the shock of understanding reality. It's more like searing in its effect. It ends on a profound image, one of the most powerful in all earnest literature. My issue might be that I'm uncomfortable with the honesty, integrity, and dignity of this book. I feel like a phony being reduced to such terms ("dignity") and I try to laugh off the effect this book has on me. Nice choice also to pick a lyric from "The Battle Hymn of the Republic." That puts it at the center of American literature where it belongs. The title was not actually Steinbeck's, by the way, but came from his first wife, Carol.

In case it's not at the library.

1 comment:

  1. I grew up near some families of Okies. Smart, tough, nice people. The racial caste system I saw in western agriculture in the '70s, though, was terrible. Mexican migrant workers living in one-room shacks w/out water or plumbing. In middle school there was always talk ab "rumbles" w/ "chains" after school betw the "whites" and, using one of several slurs popular at the time, Mexicans but they never happened, or as far as I know. But then they all seemed to quit school after 8th grade as their numbers by high school had dwindled to a few. I think this does have something to do w/ Trump, too. He's a revival, perhaps even an apotheosis, and hopefully a last gasp, of a kind of identity politics that held that world together.