“There ain’t no sin and there ain’t no virtue. There’s just stuff people do.”

The Grapes of Wrath is turning out to be a really marvelous reading experience, full of great characters and great moments, but maybe the most interesting aspect of all at this point is the way Steinbeck and his characters play with morality.  The quotation that serves as this post’s title is from the (former) Reverend Casy, whose dialogues with Tom Joad explore faith and meaning and ethics in remarkably natural language.  He puts forward that thesis of moral relativism pretty early on in their conversation, but the nice thing about Grapes is its complexity—it’s not at all clear to me that Casy believes it himself, let alone Steinbeck.  The world inhabited by the characters is fraught with moral concerns, whether we’re considering the simple personal level (as when Muley Graves considers the problem of being asked by two hungry men for food, and his explanation of why he is compelled to share with them) or the much larger corporate level (as when the characters and the narrator explore how to make sense of right and wrong when the agent doing wrong is an impersonal company—how do you hold to account a person that isn’t a person?).  Casy and Joad and Graves aren’t moral relativists at all.  Sure, they make allowances for reality, as when Joad gives up the house and sprints into the cotton rather than stand his ground for his idea of what’s right.  But in the end it’s clear that all three of them understand that there are lines that should not be crossed.  One of the delights of the book, though, is that they don’t become particularly self-righteous, and they don’t have any immediate solutions to present.  They explore the landscape, both physically and through the sharing of stories, without drawing too many conclusions too quickly.  I’m loving it.

Another aspect of the book I’m enjoying is its richness, like an abundant harvest of lines and moments that I can’t quite hold in my arms.  I read on, realizing as I go that I’m letting great things spill past me on either side.  I just can’t pay rapt attention to everything I like or I’ll never get through.  And Steinbeck has a way of giving you scenes that work on enough levels that you can get something and move on—the (in?)famous turtle, who spawned so many high school English assignments, is a great example.  We can take it, if we like, as just the account of a turtle, just Steinbeck giving us another vision of how nature is being violated and damaged by human activity.  We can go just a little deeper, and read a few lines as symbolism—the turtle’s thrashing accidentally plants some seeds, for example, and it’s revealing and thought-provoking to spend a little time trying to tie a few elements of its experience allegorically to the small farmers of Oklahoma who are being driven off the land.  I got the feeling at that point that there was almost nothing about the chapter that I couldn’t continue to dig into and explore, but I wanted to keep moving, and so I did—whatever else there is to get out of the turtle (feel free to share in the comments any perspectives you have) will have to be saved for my next read of the novel, since I can already sense I’ll be returning to this novel again someday.  Anyway, that level of detail and interest is all over the book, and I keep pausing and then moving on all over the place, making little bits of meaning out of Joad’s childhood baptism and the blood of Muley Graves’s father in the soil and the ravenous hunger of the grey cat.  It makes me feel caught up in something huge, an emotion that I have only rarely felt in the Pulitzer journey…only Wharton and Age of Innocence really comes to mind as a comparison, and even that is not really right.  It’s like reading Melville, or Homer.  I hope the feeling lasts.

English: Buried machinery in barn lot in Dalla...

The Dust Bowl swallows a farmer’s livelihood, South Dakota, 1936 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Steinbeck’s attention to detail doesn’t just work on that momentary symbolic level, either—the structure of the novel is working beautifully so far.  I loved the transition from Chapter 5 to Chapter 6.  In 5, Steinbeck’s telling the broad general story of the Dust Bowl, and there are nameless families being cast off their land.  It works great to give a sense of the great big thing that’s happening in Oklahoma, but it’s admittedly just a little remote.  But then there’s this perfect pivoting image—5 ends with a generic corporate employee knocking a generic farmer’s house off its foundations, and then immediately 6 begins with Tom Joad and the Reverend Casy arriving at Joad’s family’s house, only to find that it’s been knocked off its foundations in exactly the same way.  The sudden leap from the general to the very specific is incredibly smart—it makes personal the events I’ve just read in parable form in Chapter 5, and it reminds me how impersonal the injustice suffered by the Joads really is.  Tom’s family isn’t the victim of some vendetta—it’s just one more bystander getting eaten up by a machine that will not be sated.  And then Muley shows up and Joad and Casy pump him for some information, and the story gets so incredibly rich.  I kept flagging paragraphs saying to myself, “oh, I have to quote that in my blog post,” until I realized I’d marked about half of Chapter 6 for inclusion.  Really I just want some of you (all of you!) to try reading this book, since I’m really taken by it so far, and I’d love to talk it over with some fellow travelers.

There are things to deal with, of course—Steinbeck is very blunt and honest about sexuality (and how men like these men would talk about it), and the characters clearly feel on some level emasculated by what’s happening to them.  At one point they use pretty clear (although not very graphic) language to employ a rape metaphor in the context of the companies taking over the land—this is problematic, of course, although it’s still a fair question what is accurate character depiction and what is Steinbeck’s insensitivity.  I’m keenly aware of having no real female characters yet, and I’m anxious to meet some and see if Steinbeck can handle them better than he did in Of Mice and Men.  And at some point I should probably tackle the question of whether this novel is propaganda, given that it was so radical for its era that Steinbeck was denounced on the floor of Congress as a dangerous man.  I think it’s telling important and hard truths about what it’s like for one man, or one family, to try to take on and beat the pitiless progress demanded by a beast that lives on nothing but profits.  In this way, it’s talking about people’s connection to the land in a way that Pearl S. Buck only kidded herself she was doing, and it’s confronting the political causes of the suffering in the Great Depression that Josephine Johnson’s novel couldn’t (although there the decision was a conscious one, and I don’t blame her for it).  But it is also fair to ask the novel some hard questions, since the Dust Bowl and the migration west of the Okies and the Great Depression are not merely the fault of a few soulless banks—not only that, at least.  I don’t know what I really expect of Steinbeck on that front, but it’s something I’ll be thinking about, and I expect to post about it sooner or later.  For now, the energy of the book is pulling me forward, and hopefully I’ve shared enough that it’s pulling a few of you, as well.

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11 comments on ““There ain’t no sin and there ain’t no virtue. There’s just stuff people do.”

  1. Josh Adams says:

    Well since you asked for comments and for once you happen to be reading not only the only Pulitzer prize winning book I’ve ever read, but also my favorite book here I am.

    I first read, The Grapes Of Wrath while driving on one of my numerous road trips between Seattle and the various places I ended up. I wish I could recall exactly what trip it was on or where I traveled through while I listened to the audio book, but I’m afraid those details have been lost over the last ten years. I believe I enjoyed it so much that I actually listened to it again on another trip.

    My experience with the book was a very positive one. Listening to Steinbeck’s story of a displaced family crossing the American west while I found myself roaming that same land, a thousand miles from anyone I knew really made an impact on me.

    My sister went to collage only an hour away from Sallisaw, Oklahoma where the first part of the story takes place and I actually purposely drove through the town the next time I came through. One of the things that really surprised me was that the city, at least the portion I saw, was not rolling plains like the book described, but was actually quite wooded. I’m not sure if this is was just a product of Steinbeck picking a place he’d never been or if the decline of farming had resulted in the re-forestation of much of the land in the area.

    I’ll leave most of the analysis of some of the broader themes to you, but one interesting thing that stands out to me upon reflecting upon the book is the poor treatment the Okie families receive in California. I’ve always felt that the discrimination demonstrated in modern America has a lot more to do with cultural differences and perceived social level then the more obvious attributes such as skin color, country of origin, religion, etc. We tend to focus our attention on eliminating and demonizing the later when it’s not actually the real problem. At the same time, I’ve had many conversations where people who would certainly think of themselves as enlightened and modern have described people from the very areas the Okies come from in disturbingly negative ways. In fact, as much controversy as the influx of Hispanic has caused over much of the nation in recent years, I can’t imagine the reaction would be much better if a couple hundred thousand poor Okies showed up in much the same way.

    In conclusion, I am very glad to hear you’re enjoying the book. I will confess that I think it loses something towards the end and really wanders until it reaches an odd conclusion, but I still find it very enjoyable. I’m not sure you’ll find the well developed female characters you’re looking for, but I’m curious to find out what you think. I was saddened to go look at the Pulitzer list of books and not find East of Eden. I know you have at least 70 more books to read before you complete the series, but I’d highly recommend checking it out. It manages to make the grand tale of the Joad’s look small in comparison. Additionally, Cannery Row and it’s sequel Sweet Thursday are are both great, albeit completely different and in many ways humorous.

    • jwrosenzweig says:

      Josh, thanks so much for these thoughts—I really appreciate your willingness to dig into the book as a whole, and what it means to you. I think that my read of it is affected by my two great cross-country journeys (by train through North Dakota from Wisconsin to Washington, and by car through South Dakota from Washington to Illinois), and the sense of the land I got in both trips. In neither one did I have any real opportunity to stop and experience life in the prairies, other than a very brief lunch in small town Minnesota where we happened to have friends. Still, I think this changed the way I see the country, in a good way, and in a way I’m still understanding.

      I agree and disagree with you about the cultural stuff you bring up, though I think I agree a lot more than I disagree. In the social circles you and I grew up in (and to some extent still travel in), I definitely agree that jokes and condescension to “rednecks” or “hicks” or any of the other terms used to talk about this social group is way more socially acceptable than racism or other kinds of bigotry, and that one of the major issues I often have with people who are allegedly “tolerant” is that they have a blind spot about this. To some degree I think this is because Americans don’t think about class well at all—we aren’t given a vocabulary about it, and because we aren’t very conscious of it, I think we are far too easygoing about classism, where people who live among the relatively educated elites get a really nasty (and inaccurate) idea about their fellow countrymen. I do want to note a couple of things, though—first of all, I think this goes both ways, at least to some extent. I’ve heard plenty of scorn heaped on “know-it-all academics who don’t know jack about the real world”, sometimes from people who are friends of mine (and I guess have forgotten I’m a university professor? Or else they really do look down on me and want me to know?). Anti-intellectualism is a force in American discourse, just as anti-rural feelings (or however we want to define it) are. There’s a large problem there, and not an easy one to solve. And I do want to push back just a little bit about race and country of origin (and other minority statuses), just because I can see so many ways that our society works against minorities still—it’s definitely true that there’s cultural discrimination against poor or working-class rural people, but to take one example, there isn’t a state in the country where you can legally be fired for being white or being Oklahoman, but there are plenty of states in the country where it’s still perfectly legal to fire someone for being gay, or transgender. I definitely think we need to address the social condescension that gets aimed at someone who identifies themselves as being from Alabama, or eastern Tennessee, but I’m just as concerned (honestly, probably more concerned) about the fact that we incarcerate a disproportionately large number of African-American men and Latino men for offenses that are treated a bit more leniently when white men commit them. That’s why I said I “agree and disagree”. But I think the basic point you’re making—that when people get on camera and talk about tolerance and respect and anti-bigotry, often those concepts are aimed at every group in the country but lower-class rural whites—is a fair one, and one that deserves more attention than it gets. I’ve read some fascinating books about this by liberals and progressives who really think that the political left in this country is badly off-base in the way it thinks about and talks about small town life, and I think some of those charges are totally fair. And I did a lot with labor history when I worked at the UW, enough that I really became aware of the hurdles faced by loggers and fishermen and other laborers who are so often stereotyped even now. I hope Grapes opens my eyes even more about this than has happened already—and I’m glad to be as open to it as I already am.

      I’m definitely interested in how the tale develops, and love it or hate it, I’m definitely going to talk about the ending! I hope you’ll comment along the way if what I’m saying resonates with you (or if you feel I’m skipping past something I ought to pay attention to!). At this point, I’ve had good enough experiences with Steinbeck that I know I’ll go on and read more eventually—I appreciate your recommendations!

  2. Donna says:

    I love your reviews of Pulitzers. It’s been so long since I read this, but I feel as though I’m right back in the story.

  3. Paul Hamann says:

    You’re nailing this, James–I think you’re explaining the richness and density of the reading in a particularly strong way. I’m intrigued by the religious nature of the novel: no doubt you’re already picking up on the Casy/Christ parallels, and yet Casy is hardly a traditional Christian (as the title of your post demonstrates). What ought we to value in Casy’s world? In Tom’s? How about Ma’s? Are any of these people more right than others? Surely we aren’t 100% relativistic, as Steinbeck and his characters wouldn’t want us just to say live-and-let-live for any decision anybody can make. (Surely we can’t accept that tractor driver’s decision to knock down homes, can we? Surely, once he’s been dressed down, he must barely be able to choke down those sandwiches?)

    Your reviews are making me like this book even more. I think that’s your talent as much as mine. And, since I’m reading -The Age of Innocence- right now, I may post some comments over there as I go forward.

    • jwrosenzweig says:

      Thanks for the compliments, Paul—I’ve been wrestling a little with how to get across my thoughts about the novel, and I’m really pleased it’s working. I am interested in Casy as a “Christ figure”—certainly he sees himself in some ways as an intercessor for the outcasts—and I haven’t yet met Ma, who will complicate the novel in some ways, I am sure. The tractor driver is an excellent example of a very simple morality—he has kids to feed, no one else will care for them if he doesn’t, so whatever he needs to do to feed them is right. It’s a hugely exaggerated example of the sort of “rugged individualism” that often is praised on the frontier, and of course it can’t really be justified unless we allow that it’s moral to use every other human being on Earth as a means to an end, as long as you get your kids fed. I agree with you that we can’t accept it, and neither can he (in all likelihood)—which is why Casy’s toying with moral relativism can’t be serious. It’s a stage he’s going through as he sets down the notions of middle-class propriety, but I’m positive he’s headed for a moral code again that acknowledges there really are sins, sins that poison your soul, and there really are virtues to cling to in spite of the sinful world. What those things are….well, I’m looking forward to finding out.

      I’m glad I’m making the book work even better for you, though I’ll happily give most of the credit to Steinbeck. I’m very curious about your reactions to Wharton’s novel, and look forward to any comments you care to post! I loved it, but I know that on some levels I like things about her writing for the same reasons that I like Jane Austen, and certainly you and I have different opinions about the worth of Austen’s creative output. 🙂 For a few reasons I’ll keep quiet for now, I suspect you’ll take to Wharton much more than you did to Austen, but I’m not at all sure, and will be excited to get your take on the book.

  4. Paul Hamann says:

    (er “I think that’s your talent as much as Steinbeck’s.” My talents do not appear to lie in proofreading my comments on blogs.)

  5. Hello, James.
    I wonder if you know that Lois Phillips Hudson’s book, The Bones of Plenty, was actually considered by some to be superior to Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath? If you get a chance to read The Bones of Plenty, I would be very interested in hearing your thoughts on both works.

    • jwrosenzweig says:

      Cynthia—thanks for the comment! I didn’t know that…honestly, before you mentioned her to me, I’d never heard of Hudson before. It looks to me as though the book she wrote about the Dust Bowl was published in the 1960s, so I’m interested in it, but I also wonder how heavily she was influenced by Steinbeck, whose work dominates so many American impressions of the event (not that this is a bad thing, in my opinion). If a free spot appears on my lengthy list of “books in progress”, I’ll keep her book in mind—it appears that I can interlibrary loan it with relative ease from a nearby institution. I’ll let you know what I think, when I do!

      • James – I take your point about possible influence. However, The Bones of Plenty is a rather autobiographical novel. Lois actually lived that story to large extent. She would be the first to remind us that there can be a fine line between fact and fiction, and yet, so much of TBOP can be directly traced to her early years. I think that when a writer draws from within their own experience in their writing, an altogether different sort of work is produced. Taking nothing away from Steinbeck, he and Hudson wrote from vastly different personal places and with different goals and outcomes. Where Steinbeck strove mightily to incite a sense of outrage, Hudson simply (but eloquently) says “here is how it was, and that alone should be enough to give you pause.” When you are ready to take a look at Hudson, let me know and I’ll send you the book.

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