1940: The Grapes of Wrath, by John Steinbeck

Side note: This is my 300th post at Following Pulitzer.  Whether you’re a newcomer, or have been on the journey with me since His Family in August of 2009, thanks for being here.

Literary Style:

This may be the Great American Novel.  It’s hard to grapple with that designation, I know, in part because it’s a bit too self-important a thing for even a weighty novel like this one to bear up under, and in part because nobody really knows what we mean by it.  But if it means anything, I think it means a story that captures the best and worst of America, from an authentically American perspective and written in the language that Americans genuinely speak.  A story that, long after the years have turned our civilization to dust and the words “United States” are as mysterious and exotic in the ears of schoolchildren as the words “Assyria” or “Çatalhöyük” are to us today, will speak enough of who we were and what we meant that we would feel fairly represented.  By these measures, only a few novels in my experience deserve to be mentioned in the conversation, and it’s hard for me to make a better case for anything I’ve ever read than I can right now for The Grapes of Wrath.  That doesn’t make it the perfect novel—though it is very, very good.  But it’s as good at being an American novel as I think can be achieved.

This is not to say that there are no slips in Steinbeck’s prose—the saga of the Joad family loses steam a bit in California, where a more aggressive editor’s hand might have sustained some energy that gets lost in their slow peregrinations across the landscape.  Some character arcs don’t quite feel finished enough, and other characters don’t step nearly out into three dimensions enough for my liking, particularly Rose of Sharon.  And the choice to end it exactly where and as he did is, well, daring is one word that comes to mind.  Baffling is another.  I’m not faulting the scene itself, which is definitely powerful and resonates with some themes he’s been working with (some themes I like and some I am impatient with), but as a finale it strikes me as ill-chosen.  It resolves a minor dissonance in the symphony, but not the leitmotif.

English: John Steinbeck

I doff my cap to you, John—this is one hell of a novel. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

But these are petty quibbles with a work that I think is incredibly powerful—Steinbeck manages a cast of characters who remain distinctive and generally very lifelike, including writing a number of women (both leads and supporting cast) who are far more complex and engaging than what I’d usually expect out of him (or, in fairness, out of most of the male novelists of the time period).  His unusual decision to swing the novel back and forth like a pendulum between the sweeping saga of Everyman in the Dust Bowl era and the fine details of one family’s path through those terrible, heart-breaking years works remarkably well, largely because he is so careful to make sure that the two tales harmonize with each other, sometimes reinforcing ideas and at other times revealing some of the diversity of human experience.  His narrative can sometimes step across the line into sentiment and sermonizing, but mostly I find that he strikes the just the right note—an elevated rhetoric that makes these simple lives of simple folk into a tapestry of epic and mythic struggle that deserves to be commemorated for centuries to come.  It takes daring, and a self-confidence bordering on arrogance, to write a really masterful novel, and Steinbeck puts himself in the right frame of mind to do it here.  There are risks associated with that kind of attitude, and it could have easily gone off the rails in any number of directions, so it’s to his lasting credit that he keeps it together and delivers one of the best novels of the 20th Century.

In addition to that grand and soaring tone Steinbeck pulls off, I think the other genius of the work comes in its beautiful little details—a hundred moments that stick in my mind’s ear and eye because they’re so keenly observed.  Little facial twitches that reveal something bubbling under the surface for a character, or the way the earth and sky look to a man who has been out working between them all day, or the grace that passes between families who do not know each other but who survive the same crisis together.  Independent of any of the content associated with the plot, there’s a skill to the delicate details throughout the book that make it a pleasure to read.  I argued in an earlier post that Chapter Twelve is about the greatest prose poem an American ever wrote, and I’ll stand by that.  Apart from the novel’s powerful ideas, it’s just a beauty to read (and read aloud).  I could keep this up for a while, but you’ve heard a lot of this praise in my posts about the novel: I’ll leave what praise I’ve already spoken to stand as a general indication of how well I think the entire thing works.

Historical Insight:

This is one of the things that is most powerful about Grapes—how vividly it brings to life an American reality that too many Americans were blind to in the 1930s.  Steinbeck writes it as propaganda, not in the pejorative “brain-washing” sense, but in the older sense of sharing news that will not otherwise spread…”propagating” it like seeds in a field.  I’ve only ever read one piece of fiction that was as good about capturing the fear and helplessness associated with farmers at the mercy of Nature and powerful business interests, and that’s another Pulitzer winner, Josephine Johnson’s quieter (and more confined) but no less important novel, Now in November.  Steinbeck captures, also, though, what Johnson does not—the soul-crushing scale of the misery of these people, the ways in which the system on a national scale sets them up in hope and then crushes them as though in spite.  An enormous portion of America in the 1930s is here—the transformation of lives by mechanization (principally the tractor and the truck), the deprivations of the Great Depression, the panic and the death associated with the last decade America would spend without any kind of safety net for the poor and the homeless, the angry radicalism slowly born in this desperation and despair.  This is a world that America had built, however unknowingly, and a reality with which it would have to contend.  In some ways those battles were settled even as Steinbeck was writing his book, and in other ways they are with us still.  Regardless, this element in the review asks how vividly the book conveys America in that time and place, and how well it connects me with 1940—this novel gets about the highest conceivable marks possible.  I can only think of one or two other Pulitzer winners that are as clearly of their moment in history, and perhaps none that make that history feel almost claustrophobically present around me as I read.

Rating:

By my unscientific scale, this matches the rating I once gave The Age of Innocence—I’m telling you that “you must own this book”.  You don’t want to go through life not having read it, or not being able to press it into the hands of a friend who hasn’t read it, or not being able to pick it up and just read a chapter or two aloud to yourself someday when you realize you want to hear it.  It is devastating in its depiction of poverty and helplessness, but it also inspires great hope, and if you want to encounter “America”, I can’t think of a better book to start with.

Last Word:

I know this passage may seem a bit too well-known, but I can’t help it—it’s a beautiful moment late in the story, and I think it’s one of the better moments for Steinbeck to make his case to you about what this story is really about and why it matters.  Put yourself into the right mind-set: Tom Joad and his mother are talking to each other in a little natural hideout in the woods.  It’s late at night, and the two cannot see each other.  He is about to leave this place, and it’s not clear when or if he will come back—two of Ma’s six children have already left the family behind, and another of her sons has threatened all day to go off and be with his fiancée.  Tom has been talking with her about ideas he’s picked up from the preacher, Jim Casy, and while he hasn’t come out and told her what he plans to do, he’s been talking about getting people together and doing something about injustice, and she knows what that means, in this place and in this time.

They sat silent in the coal-black cave of vines.  Ma said, ‘How’m I gonna know ’bout you?  They might kill ya an’ I wouldn’t know.  They might hurt ya.  How’m I gonna know?’

Tom laughed uneasily, ‘Well, maybe like Casy says, a fella ain’t got a soul of his own, but on’y a piece of a big one—an’ then—‘

‘Then what, Tom?’

‘Then it don’ matter.  Then I’ll be all aroun’ in the dark.  I’ll be ever’where—wherever you look.  Wherever they’s a fight so hungry people can eat, I’ll be there.  Wherever they’s a cop beatin’ up a guy, I’ll be there.  If Casy knowed, why, I’ll be in the way guys tell when they’re mad an’—I’ll be in the way kids laugh when they’re hungry an’ they know supper’s ready.  An’ when our folks eat the stuff they raise an’ live in the houses they build—why, I’ll be there.  See?  God, I’m talkin’ like Casy.  Comes of thinkin’ about him so much.  Seems like I can see him sometimes.’

‘I don’ un’erstan’,’ Ma said.  ‘I don’ really know.’

‘Me neither,’ said Tom.  ‘It’s jus’ stuff I been thinkin’ about.  Get thinkin’ a lot when you ain’t movin’ aroun’.'”

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8 comments on “1940: The Grapes of Wrath, by John Steinbeck

  1. Paul Hamann says:

    SPOILERS FOLLOW.

    I agree with the spirit and the praise. I quibble with your quibbles (or, rather, my quibbles differ from your quibble).

    I cannot come up with any more appropriate ending to this novel. Nor can I come up with a novel with an ending I like more.

    To riff off of your music metaphor–did you really want the leitmotif to be resolved? Is this possible in the world Steinbeck lived and (re-)created? No chance. The oppressiveness of what was ugly in America–in Oklahoma, on the road, in California–what possibly could resolve that, especially in 1940? What would resolution look like? An admission of defeat on one end, or a Nahum-Tate like addendum on the other?

    Nope. Steinbeck NAILS it. Stephen Dobyns, one of my favorite poets, says that a poem must end in a place that one could never anticipate going but where there is no other possible place it could have gone. This is exactly that. It’s not a musical resolution: the cacophony that Steinbeck decries lives on. The family is broken, The baby has died. The river has flooded, and there is no certainty as to anyone’s survival. There is cacophony. The trumpets and the oboes are playing loudly in different keys and different time signatures. The timpanist is doing whatever the hell he wants.

    But listen. Can you hear that? Two violas are playing a graceful, elegant tune. It’s there. I have to listen for it, but it’s there. It might not last–they might get tired and quit, the strings may break, the conductor may get up and leave–but listen! It’s there. A perfect minor third. I just needed to listen for it.

    It’s my favorite ending in American literature, and that is saying something. So I feel the need to fight for it.

    (On a related note, it’s why I can’t flippin’ stand the ending of the Henry Fonda movie. Or much else in it, for that matter.)

    • jwrosenzweig says:

      Paul, thanks for the thoughtful (and well-argued) response—you make an excellent case. I’ll have to mull over your thesis, since I think it’s a good one…to me, I think the one piece of the ending that doesn’t sit right (SPOILERS CONTINUE, PEOPLE) with me is the continuing use of women as some kind of magical force that sustains the men—it’s the one element in Steinbeck’s web of gender in this novel that I think he overplays (and, in so doing, diminishes the power of his female characters). The idea that Rosasharn would, wordlessly, immediately know what to do, and that the final image is of a man reduced to symbolic infancy while a patient long-suffering woman acts as sustenance….I don’t know, on the initial read, it felt just a bit exploitative to me. But I’m clear, obviously, that you don’t read it that way at all, and I’m going to have to take time to consider whether I judged it wrongly—I have the benefit/disadvantage of writing these posts a few hours after I finish the book, and before reflection has the chance to alter my opinion (for good or ill). I don’t know that I can get to “best ending in American literature” (Moby-Dick and Gatsby are hard to top, for me), but I know I’m open to moving much closer to “good ending” than I currently am. Doesn’t it strike you as an obviously futile gesture, though? It’s not a glimmer of hope so much as it is one final coming up for air. What’s the message of Rosasharn’s action—that the people will endure somehow? How does it “end” the book for you, is I guess what I’m asking—if that’s not asking for something too complicated to be put into words.

      As far as what ending I wanted? I don’t know….and the idea Dobyns puts forward is certainly worthwhile. I think I wanted the piece to end, not with the Joads, but with the larger picture—one more chapter to tie in the great saga of the People. But maybe you’re right that no resolution is really possible. I’ll mull this over—like I said earlier in this comment, my reviews are (and probably always will be) first drafts, and especially so in whatever they say about the endings of the books I read. I’ll take your comments on board and see where my mind takes me. Thanks again for the comment!

      • Paul Hamann says:

        How does it “end” the book for me? It’s twofold. First, Rose of Sharon’s act arrives at what might be the most desperate of a series of desperate moments in the novel. There’s no guarantee anyone will make it. The Joad family is shattered: it will NOT go on without Al, Noah, Grandpa, Connie, and (of course) Tom. To indicate it will is foolishness (again, why I can’t stand the movie and its ending). But I think the message of “even when we have nothing to give, we have something to give” could not be better expressed, even as the image surprises me. It passes the Dobyns test. And I agree that the old man is infantalized, which is part of the point. It’s a beautiful and horrifying image all at the same time. All of these motifs, beautiful and frequent throughout the book, are perfectly encapsulated in the final image, and I want to know exactly what the mystery is in Rose of Sharon’s smile. That last word is perfect, and yet I need to search into it.

        Also, the continuing fight against impossible odds matters deeply to me. This is a losing battle the workers are fighitng. Indeed, it’s lost: the family is gone, the work is gone, the food is gone, the dignity is gone. And yet…and yet…there’s fight. Even if there’s not hope, there’s fight. I classify Rose of Sharon’s choice alongside Hektor running to Achilles when he knows he will die, or Macbeth doing the same after learning he has similarly been tricked. I don’t have any wonder about the future for the Joads or those around them. The odds are stacked against them. The cruel side of capitalism has triumphed. I don’t feel there are any loose ends to tie up. And yet it matters that the fight continues.

        I can’t argue with -Gatsby- as the best ending in American Lit. It’s been so long since I struggled through -Moby Dick- in college that I won’t speak to that. But this ending absolutely and gorgeously encapsulates everything Steinbeck said in the previous 600 pages that I don’t share your desire to add one more “short” chapter. It would be redundant and extraneous in my eyes.

  2. SilverSeason says:

    I join with James in being dissatisfied with the ending. It’s poetic, but a little voice kept saying to me “this is not going to work — what will they do tomorrow?” My dislike of the ending is also related to my impatience with the Rose of Sharon character. Ma was real and Ma had lived, but Rose was an irritating symbol of innocent and ignorant girlhood. Other that that, Mr. Steinbeck, your book is magnificent.

    • jwrosenzweig says:

      Nancy, I think I agree with you—my only hesitation is that it may be Steinbeck’s trying to show some kind of growth with Rose of Sharon. If so, it makes a little more sense to me, but I just don’t think he laid the groundwork. Where is this resilience in the character before?

  3. […] but not least, James of Following Pulitzer wrote a thoughtful review of The Grapes of Wrath that’s also well worth […]

  4. […] 1940: The Grapes of Wrath, by John Steinbeck […]

  5. […] characters we care about as people.  Sinclair, in other words, could easily have written half of The Grapes of Wrath—the non-Joad chapters, in which Steinbeck told the story of the people and their movements […]

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