“How can we live without our lives? How will we know it’s us without our past?”

I’ve read up to the point where the Joads pile into their truck and head out on the road, and this is still such powerful, lovely stuff that, as widely praised as Steinbeck is, I still feel like no one ever talked him up to me enough.  I’ve waited too many years to get into his novels, although maybe in some ways they’re hitting me at the right ages and temperaments to strike a chord.  I liked the quotation I used as the post’s title, in part because it’s such an enormous idea packed into such a tight pair of phrases, and in part because it encapsulates so much about how these families appear to be affected by the events.  But there’s also so much wise tension in the phrases—juxtapose those two questions with Ma’s decision to burn the box of letters, clippings, and photos in the fire.  Does she believe in those phrases about the past?  Bring in Muley Graves—does he know himself any better for having stayed?  Is he living?  (I grant you, Muley has lost a lot despite not having left Oklahoma, which explains a lot about his state of mind, but it seems to me he is more fractured, more damaged than he would have been had he left—a speculation, but that’s all I can bring to the table.)  If Tom, or Jim Casy, had heard those words spoken aloud, what would they mean to them?  How would they react?  Steinbeck isn’t after easy answers, however plain the text may seem at times.

There’s a beauty in Steinbeck’s composition that feels almost like cinematography—whether or not he was consciously affected by the media of film, I think he writes some scenes almost as though they were playing out on screen.  The physical design of the Joad family discussion about leaving the farm is poetry on its own—who is where, how they position themselves.  How much is meant by a very simple shift to accommodate a specific person in a specific place.  Steinbeck sees more than most people do, and he’s great at using those details to heighten the realism of moments he wants to draw attention to.  There’s a moment I just loved, where Grandpa and Tom and Jim all lean up against the wall in the hot summer sun, and the scene ends with Steinbeck noting that “the shadow of the afternoon moved out from the house”—I’d never thought before about how a brightly lit wall can suddenly become a source of shade as the sun inches past the right angle, or how it feels to sit in one place and watch the shadow move slowly out, covering you, covering the ground in front of you.  And given all that the house means to them, the use of that very keen and simple observation says much more than Steinbeck could have said if he’d spent three paragraphs describing how these people feel in that time and place.

In my head, The Grapes of Wrath is to the American farmer what these posters were to the Soviet worker—not a distortion, but a description of all they are at their best. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I mentioned before that I want to deal on some level with Steinbeck’s exaggerated depiction of the impoverished farmers of the Dust Bowl era—I used the word “propaganda” in a previous post, though I know it’s a pretty loaded concept—and I think it does persist, but on another level it’s just not bothering me that much.  Sure, the Joads are almost too perfect in their embodiment of the humble, ethical, fair-minded American ideal—like the physical equivalent of some 1930s Soviet poster of the working man in gorgeously over-saturated red on stark black backgrounds.  You sense that this is the way a family might really behave, not every day, but on its better days—the quiet acceptance that they cannot turn away a traveler when there is food to share, that they cannot break their own moral codes even when the world around them breaks its promises to them.  And besides, they are not perfect people—Steinbeck does not shy away from showing their grit, their rough edges, especially Tom, whose misdeeds are pretty well known and who is frankly not all that penitent about any of it.  Grandpa is no saint, either, and frankly I might rather walk to California than ride in the truck with him, but even there, you can’t help but admire the sheer cussedness and determination of a man who would rather go down swinging.  The Joad family is large, and while I don’t know everyone yet, I get the feeling that I will.  Steinbeck doesn’t waste many words, and so I’m willing to believe he’s not wasting characters either—like Ma, he is measuring out exactly what he needs for the journey, and knows he has exactly what he needs to get there.  Ma is challenging at least some of my notions about how badly Steinbeck handles gender—she’s certainly not being objectified, and I don’t think she’s being beatified either, although he’s definitely closer to that approach.  He treats her sturdy competence and the burdens she bears with at least some respect, and he shows us how much the people around her trust her and draw strength from her.  I like, though, that she gets weary—that she is quick to notice a problem and at least a little slow to extend trust.  There’s enough humanity there that I feel like I can keep getting to know her: no one yet is a caricature, honestly, and I’m hoping it stays that way.

Lastly, I have to comment on the interstitial chapters, which focus not on the Joads but on the nameless masses of families just like them.  I can see why some readers would be frustrated by them—they do nothing for the plot as it affects the Joads, after all—and why they would be really impossible to translate to most other media.  But for me, in a novel, they provide such beautiful depth: because of them, I can never forget the universality of the Joads’ experiences.  They act almost as a backdrop, a stage against which the specific events of the Joads’ lives take place—they do a lot to establish tone and setting, and they are often really gorgeously written, since Steinbeck is free to operate at a more sweeping scale.  He plays a little between the viewpoint of the neutral observer and the very subjective thoughts inside the heads of the people we see.  It would be possible to erase them, of course, and not lose any information about the Joads….and yet we would lose so much of what makes the Joads important to me, and invests me in their journey.  I know folks have widely divergent reactions to this approach of Steinbeck’s, though, so in addition to any of the above, it would be really interesting for me to hear a little about how this kind of narrative works for you.  On to California!

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