Stop whatever else you are doing. Or, if you are about to leave the house, set aside the next free half-hour you can build a wall around. Get out your copy of The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck. If you do not own one, admit this to no one—go quickly to the nearest library or bookstore and remedy this most grievous situation. You will want a quiet place where you feel sure no one will overhear you (or else someone you love and trust). Pour yourself a small glass of water, and take one tantalizing sip. Let the rest lie untouched at a table by your side until the chapter is over.
Turn to Chapter 12, the chapter than begins “Highway 66 is the main migrant road…” and read it out loud. Don’t rush it—read it gently, read it with confidence, read it with care. Read it the way Garrison Keillor reads aloud, even though you sometimes think he overdoes it with his Midwestern vowels—he is right about this, and you are wrong. Tell yourself that you are reading one of the great American poems that found itself unexpectedly in the middle of a novel, the song of a people, the bare bones of a nation’s hope and fear and wrestling match with the frontier and the promise of Opportunity and the idea of the West. As the chapter progresses, there will be characters—try to give them voices. The poem is also a play, full of scenes and soliloquies but without stage directions, and your mind will have to be the stage. See them as you speak for them. When you get to the very end, give yourself a moment or two of absolute quiet, and then take a good long drink of the water Danny asks for. This is a chapter to savor, not only because it is beautifully written, but because it is so raw and honestly American. I have no idea what Joseph Pulitzer wanted out of his Pulitzer Prize, but this is what he should have wanted, and if Steinbeck’s novel from here on out is a shattering disappointment (an outcome I do not expect) the book is still a masterpiece for what it’s done so far.
I know I should write more, but I don’t want to impose my meaning on Chapter 12 just yet….I want to mull it over and live with it a while, and let some of you do the same (if you’re willing). I finished it and I knew I just had to set the book down and breathe for a bit. I got the notion to read it out loud about three sentences in, and the experience was something truly numinous. If Whitman and Frost had tried to collaborate, I think the prose poem they fashioned would have borne a close likeness to this chapter about the road west. Stunning. I do apologize, by the way, for a long absence—a trip home to the Northwest took me away from the blog (and I set the novel aside too, figuring I wanted to be able to blog reactions, rather than save them up throughout the trip….I came back to Steinbeck tonight for the first time in a couple of weeks, and he dropped me with one perfect punch). For the last time, folks, if you haven’t read Grapes, get it on your nightstand, and if you have read it, keep talking to me in the comments—this is a reading experience I want to share with as many people as possible.
P.S. Who are these people who criticize the non-Joad chapters as being “dull” or “boring” or “a waste of time”? If you’re lurking, speak up and make your case, because I don’t get it. It’s like saying that Beethoven’s Ninth is a pretty good symphony “except for all that singing toward the end”.