So begins John Steinbeck‘s The Grapes of Wrath, the winner of the Pulitzer Prize for the Novel in 1940. With Grapes, I take on what is probably the most well-regarded novel in Pulitzer’s pantheon—the book that, more than any other recipient of the honor (with apologies to Edith Wharton and Harper Lee), has the status of “classic American novel” across almost every demographic. Well-regarded by critics and lay readers, praised by grad students and by 11th graders (at least on occasion), its title is instantly recognizable to most of the reading public, and if Americans were asked to list novels they know are supposed to be “great” or “important”, I have no trouble believing that Grapes would make the top ten. Its popularity is not universal, of course, but no book can make that claim. Still, its public esteem towers above most of its Pulitzer brothers and sisters—forgotten novels that survive now only on dusty library shelves and in the hands of well-intentioned if mediocre bloggers—as a name that does the prize credit. Like Babe Ruth or Nadia Comenici, we can argue about whether it remains the very best of its peers, but we are sure that no list of the “greatest” would be accurate if it is excluded. This is pretty lofty praise, I know, but I think it’s worth acknowledging that I’m approaching a book with a daunting reputation—one of the few books on the list where I feel as though, if I review it negatively, my comments will reflect more badly on me than they will on the book, whose fame will more than defend it. This is not to say I won’t be honest about it! But it does give pause.
My history with Steinbeck is limited to having taught Of Mice and Men once (and loving it), and having done a little reading of excerpts here and there—otherwise I know him more by his reputation than by anything else. I’ve never even tried to read The Grapes of Wrath, nor have I seen the film (though I’ve seen still photographs of a young Henry Fonda often enough that, like it or not, he’s Tom Joad for me). The closest I’ve ever come to reading it was during a project I worked on at the University of Washington—when combing through the letters of Anna Louise Strong, a famous socialist/communist writer, I found, read, and scanned her letters to Eleanor Roosevelt (who, it must be said, seemed to enjoy sparring with Strong, but wasn’t terribly receptive to her more radical leanings). In a letter written in April of 1939, she talks about her travels with John Steinbeck in California, and implores Eleanor to read his “tremendous novel,” The Grapes of Wrath, which has just come out. Roosevelt read the book, called it “an unforgettable experience”, and became one of Steinbeck’s staunchest defenders against public criticism about the political implications of his work. I was intrigued by this exchange—and by Strong, a fascinating woman whose memoirs are well worth the read…not many people were close with both Trotsky and Mao, and her stories about traveling in the Soviet Union right after the Revolution are really spell-binding—but never got as far as picking up a copy. I don’t know what slowed me down…maybe I just got distracted?
Anyway, I’ve read the first two chapters, and so far I’m loving it. Steinbeck has an incredible eye for detail—most of the time, when I read, the opening chapters irritate me as authors stumble again and again over little errors. Trains disappear behind hills that couldn’t possibly be there if the landscape was accurately described; trees in the wind suddenly behave like cartoon caricatures rather than looking like trees actually do in a storm; etc. But Steinbeck has really beautiful command of almost every detail, capturing the little gestures and tics that make humans real, and describing them with economy and skill. Joad’s character is really well-formed from almost the moment he speaks: the interactions with the truck driver ring almost perfectly true, and the language captures the feel and sound of Oklahoma farmers and truck drivers without resorting to the sloppy, slangy dialect that most other American novelists of the period seemed to think was de rigeur. Obviously at this early stage I can’t anticipate much of where the story’s going, but I like how fully he immerses me in the world from the beginning. As much as I loved Now in November, and I truly did love that book, the maturity of Steinbeck’s prose is signalling to me already that this book will depict the grim reality of the Dust Bowl and the Great Depression in a way that Josephine Johnson’s novel couldn’t do as well. If I’m right, this is going to be a really wonderful reading experience, and I’m looking forward to a book for the first time in a little while, which is nice.
This isn’t to say that it’ll be all roses for Steinbeck. I’m a little concerned about the pacing of the story, and whether or not he’ll try too hard to take in the big epic generalities that he does in the first chapter (which is often great reading, but feels a little remote—I’d rather stick with the Joads, I think, if it’s all the same to him). And I know that I’ll have to talk about gender—a criticism I’ve levied against Mice and Men (a book I otherwise really dig) and which I can already tell will be at least partly applicable to Grapes. I’ve started well and then faded fast before, too, so I’ll keep an eye out for that…for now, it’s onward into Oklahoma in the 1930s, and one of the book’s most celebrated moments, involving a reptile of the order Testudines.