#15: The Grapes of Wrath (1939), by John Steinbeck

There is a crime here that goes beyond denunciation. There is a sorrow here that weeping cannot symbolize. There is a failure here that topples all our success.

JohnSteinbeck_TheGrapesOfWrath

Like most folks, I first encountered The Grapes of Wrath in high school. I loved it, but my appreciation was entirely surface-level, my 16-year-old antennae not yet tuned to the novel’s strident political implications.

Fast forward about 15 years, and I found myself quite nervous to re-visit it. How dated would this thing be?

John Steinbeck’s reputation, you see, has not aged that well. Unlike his contemporaries and fellow Nobel laureates Hemingway and Faulkner, Steinbeck did not leave behind a legacy of literary innovation. And when I see his books on my shelves, they just sort of sit there, never calling out for me as something I need to read next.

Academia’s resident happy face Harold Bloom doesn’t even think anything Steinbeck wrote after Grapes is worth reading, declaring the author “unoriginal,” “an inadequate stylist,” lacking “skill in plot,” and popular only with “liberal middlebrows.”*

Shots fired!

Others have criticized the book for failing to stay true to the historical record. English professor Floyd C. Watkins took Steinbeck to task for rampant hyperbole and a litany of factual errors, saying that these literary sins undermined the entire project: “Can a credible truth of the heart be embodied in cultural untruth? As The Grapes of Wrath is often false and vague, so the characters are false also.”**

Hence my apprehension. What if  Steinbeck’s most enduring work is really nothing but an over-stuffed, distorted, treacly piece of socialist propaganda?

I needn’t have worried: The Grapes of Wrath, I am glad to report, is as explosive and as vital as ever. It has lost none of its emotional impact (in fact, for a novel rooted in such a particular time in history, it feels amazingly current, as if the struggle the characters face is in some form still going on). The Joads remain some of the most memorable characters in literature. Steinbeck’s anger still boils at peak level.

When I decided to make Grapes my next list selection early in November, I thought reading it before Thanksgiving would be the perfect table-setter, just the thing to put me in the right frame of mind for a holiday known for bountiful food, communal gathering, and grateful reflection.

By the time I actually started reading, however, it was the morning after Black Friday, America’s new national holy day. The juxtaposition of the Joads’ ramshackle journey along Route 66 with the stories of employees being called into their consumer cathedrals at 6 p.m. on Thanksgiving Night was both emotional whiplash and an eerie parallel.

The basic story will be familiar to most readers (or film buffs), but I’d like to mention briefly the book’s structure. Grapes alternates chapters between the day-by-day travails of the Joads’ western migration, and the wide-angle view of the socio-economic conditions facing the country at the height of the Great Depression.

Steinbeck’s writing changes notably between these two kinds of chapters. The macro sections serve to prepare the reader for what the Joads will encounter in finer detail. Though there are characters in the general chapters, they are necessarily meant to be read as stand-ins for any number of other people, almost like you’re watching newsreels of the country.

Whether you fully embrace this novel may rely on what you make of these “interchapters,” as Steinbeck called them. They’re unabashedly, shockingly direct passages, told in an overcooked biblical style portending all kinds of apocalyptic doom. Without specific characters to subsume his voice and his anger, Steinbeck lets loose:

Three hundred thousand in California and more coming. And in California the roads full of frantic people running like ants to pull, to push, to lift, to work. For every manload to lift, five pairs to arms extended to lift it; for every stomachful of food available, five mouths open.

And the great owners, who must lose their land in an upheaval, the great owners with access to history, with eyes to read history and to know the great fact: when property accumulates in too few hands it is taken away. And that companion fact: when a majority of the people are hungry and cold they will take by force what they need. And the little screaming fact that sounds all through history: repression works only to strengthen and knit the repressed.

My favorite of these inter-chapters occurs early in the book, and it clearly went over my head back in 1998. It’s an exchange between a man whose house and farm is about to be bulldozed and a local guy, taking any work he can find, doing the bulldozing:

It’s our land. We measured it and broke it up. We were born on it, and we got killed on it, died on it. Even if it’s no good, it’s still ours. That’s what makes it ours — being born on it, working it, dying on it. That makes ownership, not a paper with numbers on it.

We’re sorry. It’s not us. It’s the monster. The bank isn’t like a man.

Yes, but the bank is only made of men.

No, you’re wrong there — quite wrong there. The bank is something else than men. It happens that every man in a bank hates what the bank does, and yet the bank does it.

….

I built it with my hands. Straightened old nails to put the sheathing on. Rafters are wired to the stringers with baling wire. It’s mine. I built it. You bump it down — I’ll be in the window with a rifle. You even come too close and I’ll pot you like a rabbit.

It’s not me. There’s nothing I can do. I’ll lose my job if I don’t do it. And look — suppose you kill me? They’ll hang you, but long before you’re hung there’ll be another guy on the tractor, and he’ll bump the house down. You’re not killing the right way.

That’s so, the tenant said. Who gave you orders? I’ll go after him. He’s the one to kill.

You’re wrong. He got his orders from the bank. The bank told him, Clear those people out or it’s your job.

Well, there’s a president of the bank. There’s a board of directors. I’ll fill up the magazine of the rifle and go into the bank.

The driver said, Fellow was telling me the bank gets orders from the East. The orders were, Make the land show profit or we’ll close you up.

But where does it stop? Who can we shoot? I don’t aim to starve to death before I kill the man that’s starving me.

I don’t know. Maybe there’s nobody to shoot. Maybe the thing isn’t men at all. Maybe, like you said, the property’s doing it.

Is it possible to read that passage in 2013, 2 years after Occupy Wall Street, and not see our Great Recession, the foreclosure crisis, and the complete lack of accountability all wrapped up in it?

Work: the word might be mentioned on half the pages in this novel. I can think of few books that so effectively spell out the importance of a day’s work, not just the financial importance but the spiritual as well. What happens when work is taken away. When what work there is gets consolidated into a handful of faceless organizations. What it means to accept a substandard rate just to be able to afford scraps because if the first guy doesn’t take it, the next guy hungrily will. How dignity, identity, and manhood are what’s at stake if you deprive him of work.

I don’t discount any of the criticisms lodged against this novel. It is didactic. It lacks any measure of subtlety. Steinbeck’s writing is what the adjective workmanlike was invented for. The suffering is almost perverse.

But dammit, it’s a necessary book. It’s nourishing. I don’t want to live in a country where this novel isn’t proudly included in its national canon. Clearly Steinbeck thought the time had passed for subtlety, and who could argue? I don’t care that it’s not slavishly accurate to historical details; it meets the Tim O’Brien standard of truth***, and that’s enough for me.

And besides, if major politicians and financial figures can worship at the altar of Ayn fucking Rand, surely we can find someone who will hold The Grapes of Wrath up as their guiding document, can’t we? What the novel is advocating surely isn’t that revolutionary, is it?****

So this holiday season, I can add one more thing I’m grateful for: that The Grapes of Wrath is still a great book that every American should read. Not only is it my favorite of the 15 books I’ve read from this list so far, I can say with two weeks left in the year, that it’s my favorite read of 2013 as well.

———-

*Taken from the introduction to this novel’s edition of Modern Critical Interpretations, a series edited by Mr. Bloom, who, to be fair, still believes Grapes deserves its place in the canon.

**Watkins’ essay, “Flat Wine from The Grapes of Wrath” is taken from the same book as above. Watkins does point out that Steinbeck gets some things right, mostly from nature, but coming after several pages of withering fact-checking, the praise is almost certainly backhanded.

***”A thing may happen and be a total lie; another thing may not happen and be truer than the truth.” — The Things They Carried

****Then again, a year after “You didn’t build that” and the accompanying hissy-fits, I can’t put anything past people.

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