“Lanny Budd was the only occupant of a small-sized reception-room.”

So begins Dragon’s Teeth by Upton Sinclair, the recipient of the Pulitzer Prize for the Novel in 1943.  Upton Sinclair, of course, is a famous name—the kind of name that folks who don’t read literature may remember from a high school class, the kind of name that creeps into Trivial Pursuit questions and Jeopardy answers.  But most of us, of course, haven’t read any of his stuff: his magnum opus is 1906’s The Jungle, a look at the Chicago stockyards that’s so famously harrowing that most of us don’t have the stomach for reading it.  I myself have only ever read excerpts, and generally haven’t wanted a hot dog for days afterwards.  Maybe a very select few of us have encountered 1927’s Oil!, although I’ll admit I’ve never even picked it up once, and might never have heard of the novel (or that Sinclair wrote it) had Paul Thomas Anderson not chosen to adapt it (loosely) in an Oscar-nominated film called There Will Be Blood a couple years ago.  Dragon’s Teeth, then, feels to me a little like one of those consolation prizes coming in—the author that the Pulitzers never got the chance to recognize (or felt like recognizing) before, winning a little too late in his career, perhaps?  Certainly another Sinclair (Lewis, that is) got one of those pity prizes for Arrowsmith, anyway.  The novel is the third in an eleven novel series (yes, eleven) that arcs through most of 20th Century American history up to that point, following along with the life and career of a man named Lanny Budd (a reference to Melville’s Billy? I kind of doubt it, but you tell me).

Lanny is the bright, cosmopolitan son of an American arms manufacturer, and as the novel opens, he is waiting for the news that his wife has given birth. The initial story we get is a bit outlandish: we are apparently in Europe (France, I’m pretty sure) and Lanny’s wife is someone who married him at the drop of a hat.  Literally, we are expected to believe that she was a debutante who got into trouble in Italy, asked the advice of an American reporter there whose advice she trusted, and when he told her “ditch the guy you’re with, get on a train, find Lanny Budd and marry him”, she did, despite the fact that she’d never met Lanny before.  They married within 24 hours of her stepping off the train.  So now, here he is, a fish out of water as an American overseas, waiting for some nurse to stick her head into the reception room and let him know he’s a father.  That’s as much as I’ve read so far, and it’s a little too far-fetched for me so far.  Maybe all of this will settle down soon, but for now it’s hard to see how I’ll identify much with these characters, or take an interest in them.  I wonder (as I always do when the Pulitzers award a sequel) whether or not I’m just out of luck picking up characters who were really introduced elsewhere, and who I won’t ever really understand.

Upton Beall Sinclair Jr. as depicted on the co...

Upton Sinclair in 1934—a guy spoiling for a fight in defense of California’s poor. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Sinclair, though, is a fascinating guy, and it’s possible that this novel (which seems to be starting out around the late 1920s) will explore some of the political landscape of America in a meaningful way.  Sinclair wasn’t just the muckraker who exposed contaminated food in the stockyards—he remained active in politics throughout the first half of the century, backing socialist candidates, founding ACLU chapters, ultimately running for Governor of California on the EPIC platform (End Poverty in California) unsuccessfully.  He remained a little marginalized by all sides—a man too capitalist for the real radicals but too radical for the mainstream—and for that reason is interesting to me.  I learned a little about the leftist movements on the West Coast in the 1920s and 1930s when I was working on digitizing labor history documents at the University of Washington, reading the letters of folks like Anna Louise Strong and Lincoln Steffens and occasionally encountering mentions of Upton Sinclair and his work, and it makes me curious to see what his fiction is like.  I think right now my expectations of him as a novelist are not very high, but that I’m trying to make myself ready to be satisfied with a work that’s historically and politically interesting even if it’s not very successful as prose.  But I also don’t want to draw too many conclusions just yet: Lanny may yet win me over!  Onward and upward.

“Nobody could look at you and not want to stand up and face what is coming.”

Holy crud, people, it finally happened.  Two characters in In This Our Life had a real conversation—a talk in which they did not say everything a novelist could wittily think up for them to say given all the time in the world, a talk in which their moments of candor are really vulnerable and even unexpected, a talk that does not simply reveal the next nine plot twists without either of the characters figuring them out.  It comes almost 250 pages into a novel that is a little under 500 in total, so it’s much too late in the game to salvage the book’s reputation with me entirely.  But it’s a start.

Here’s what’s up—Roy (whose husband, Peter, has left her) and Craig (the man who was engaged to Roy’s sister, Stanley, until Stanley left him in the lurch to run off with Peter) have been seeing more of each other, and this point in the book is the first time we’ve gone off and actually followed them into the world.  They’re an odd pair in some ways—Roy is ridiculously sensible, to a fault, really, a hard-headed gal who buries her emotions and who initially finds Craig a bit frivolous.  Craig, on the other hand, is a passionate idealist, the sort of fellow who attends lecture series and political rallies and talks about fighting the capitalist plutocrats.  They initially share nothing other than their status as survivors, crawling away from the blast zone that was Roy’s marriage and Craig’s near-marriage.  But they’re coming to love each other in a fragile, fractious way that feels really honest, and their conversation reveals it—Craig singing out some idealism about how the two of them could have a real marriage that they could both rely on (one of his remarks is this post’s title), and Roy smacking him down out of an intriguing mixture of practicality and fear of her own feelings.  They stop on their drive and have a talk with a simple fellow who farms out in the sticks, and runs a filling station on the highway to make a little cash for seed-money.  Roy remarks on Craig’s easy ability to relate to working men, and reflects inwardly about what it reveals about Craig (and how it contrasts with other aspects of his personality).  Ultimately their conversation doesn’t really resolve their underlying tensions—some promises are made, but not really binding ones, and both of them aren’t playing all their cards just yet.

Where the heck was this author for the last 248 pages?

What’s maybe most strange is that her early dialogue is full of over-shares and characters being much too forthcoming, in ways no person ever really is even with their closest loved ones, but now that Roy and Craig really have developed an intimate relationship (intimate emotionally—not physically, not yet at least), we finally get a dialogue where people are holding back and behaving cautiously.  There’s not much else to say right now—the other subplots are either terrible (in the name of all that is holy, will Asa just leave his terrible wife and go be with his friend’s widow who actually treats him like a human being? those wheels have been spinning for hundreds of pages without getting ANYWHERE) or almost forgotten (the poor young black man, Parry Clay, is finally re-emerging thanks to a commitment Craig is making towards Parry’s education, but I swear we’ve seen the kid for maybe 2 pages of the last 180).  There isn’t really a novel here worth reading.  But I at last know, at least, that Ellen Glasgow did have the talent available to her to write something decent, which reduces a little of my ire at the selection of this novel.  Depending on how much more of that she can bring to the surface, this book may climb out of the most wretched depths of my ranking of the Pulitzer winners.  Grapes of Wrath this ain’t, though, and frankly it would take a lot of work for it to rise even to the level of Arrowsmith.  Onward and (hopefully) upward.

“Not for anything in the world would she exchange her lot for her mother’s.”

I’ve been a bit quiet about In This Our Life, Ellen Glasgow’s soap-operatic look into the sordid (but not especially compelling) lives of a down-on-their-luck family from somewhere in the Upper South (Virginia?), and that’s for two reasons.  One is that I’ve been busy enough (and uninterested enough in the book) that I haven’t made a ton of progress on it, although recently I’ve gotten further in, close to the book’s half-way point.  The other is that it’s hard to say much about the book, which is largely failing to be bad in an interesting way.

The main focus of the plot, which I addressed myself to earlier, is on the relationship of the father, Asa Timberlake, to his daughters, Roy and Stanley, which is strained by his inability to understand this wild and unconventional young generation, and by the weird fact that although it’s absolutely crystal clear from the information available that Stanley will ditch her fiancé and run off with Roy’s husband, no one (least of all Asa) seems to see it coming.  The only secondary plot of note is about a young African-American man named Parry, who is ambitious and whose skin is very light in color, and his attempts to get Asa’s family’s support as he intends to make something of himself (Parry is associated with the family’s long-time black servant, Virgie, and may I think come from a family that the Timberlakes once owned).  Veterans of this blog will recognize, I think, that the first plot is associated in some ways with Early Autumn, 1927’s winner which reflects on infidelity and fidelity over a couple of generations of a down-on-their-luck family in New England, and a woman’s relationship to her daughter.  And the second plot might as well be carbon-copied (at least at this summary level) from the relationship between Toussaint Vaiden and Colonel Miltiades Vaiden in 1933’s winner, The Store.  Glasgow hasn’t done a bunch with either plot at this point—Stanley has, at least, run off with Roy’s husband, so now the cat’s out of the bag, but it’s not clear she has any notion of what to do about this or where to go now that the tension has been set loose.  Parry, poor soul, just keeps showing up to ask a white man for help, and gets some nonsense—in some cases, nonsensically kind but useless suggestions about “helping if I can” when the speaker clearly can’t, and in other cases nonsensically racist and condescending crap like “there are plenty of white lawyers to help black folks in trouble if they haven’t done any wrong, so why get uppity notions about being a lawyer when you can have a happy life as a postman or something?”  The wheels are spinning for characters and reader alike.  Given that, I thought it would be a good time to reflect on why the plots aren’t working here, in a book that will avoid the bottom spots on my list only by mostly avoiding crass offensiveness, when they worked moderately to very well in two books that currently rank 5th and 8th out of 22 (soon to be 23) Pulitzer winners.

en:Louis Bromfield photographed by en:Carl Van...

Hey, Louis, is there any chance you could come in for a re-write? I’m losing steam with this one, man. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

To take Early Autumn in hand first—the lesser of my two “good” examples—I think what Glasgow is missing is a sense of context and broader significance.  In Louis Bromfield‘s book, I got the sense that I was seeing events that went beyond the family in question (in his case, the Pentlands): their diminishing social stature was tied (however subtly) to changes in America and the region they lived in, and the family’s sense of itself and its history helped add a certain grandeur (however decaying) to the anxieties of the older generations as they dealt with the family chaos.  Conversations between characters add to what we already know about the situation as people reveal (or conceal) their emotions in recognizably human fashion, and when in the later stages of the novel the characters confront each other to express hard truths about love and their relationships to each other, I felt the talk was somehow “earned” by having been built up to.  Glasgow’s book, by comparison, gives us a Timberlake family whose moorings are unclear—there’s a lot of talk about wealth in the book, and it opens with Asa looking forlornly at his family’s old home, now lost to their poverty, but none of the characters seem to have walked away with any ideas about the family and what it means to be a Timberlake.  The book (for the sake of the plot) contrives at some pre-existing tensions and relationships but they all feel hollow—I can’t believe that the characters I see in front of me could believably have behaved in the past in such a way as to make the backstory real.  As a result, all the back-and-forth between Asa’s generation and Roy and Stanley’s feels odd—the parents and elders don’t feel like they have much added perspective (other than commenting all the time about “how different these young people are!”) and the young people seem sometimes terribly old.  I think Glasgow is driving at some pretty heavy attacks on modernity and what it does to love and youth (especially for these poor helpless young women, if I may paraphrase the vibe I’m getting from her), but it’s never clear what’s making all this happen, or where these people came from.  Furthermore, as I’ve complained before, the characters wear everything on their sleeves, saying almost everything they might be thinking out loud and to the people they feel it towards—the only exception being explicit mention of the affair between Stanley and Peter.  Anyway, since no human being actually acts this way all of the time, and most of us never act this way more than 5% of the time, it’s irritating to navigate through, since the characters feel like felt puppets bobbing their way through a script.  Some parts of the script are plausibly interesting—Roy, for example, and her feelings about the way she wishes people would treat her after her husband runs off with her sister—but I can’t buy into the emotions because they don’t feel authentic.  Bromfield’s novel is, oddly enough, able to make me feel far more by telling me far less.

T. S. Stribling‘s book, The Store, really is the book Glasgow wanted to write, although it’s much smarter about race than hers is, with livelier characters and more complicated and interesting interpersonal relationships.  The Vaidens of Stribling’s book, though, have fallen down from somewhere specific, and it’s easy to see how that’s affected them and what it pushes them to do.  Even the relationship between the Colonel and his wife (one of the few things I complained about with this book) is more nuanced than Asa’s relationship with his wife, Lavinia—at least I am forced to work out their relationship to each other and try to make sense of it, rather than read the narrator flatly telling me things like “Asa no longer loved his wife, and could not believe that he ever had, but now adopted an attitude towards her as of a stranger, although one who felt obligated to care for her.”  I mean, what’s the point of writing a book when you can give it all to me in synopsis form?  Anyway, to dial in on the racial subplot in Glasgow’s novel and contrast it with Stribling, Stribling makes the world of freed slaves and their descendants a living one.  People have fights with each other, are complex enough to be both wise and foolish, saintly and sinful, and ultimately it’s not always clear how we’re supposed to take them.  Toussaint Vaiden, the upwardly mobile, light-skinned black man of Stribling’s novel, is so ambitious as to be almost a scoundrel in some ways, but his arrogance and confidence make sense because of who he is and where he comes from, and they do not diminish the sympathy his character rightly gets from the reader in the novel’s tragic conclusion.  By comparison, Glasgow has given us a poor man’s copy in the figure of Parry Clay—a young black man who never loses his temper or speaks out of turn, who studies hard and merely needs a loan (which he will pay back! every penny!) to get his schooling to become a lawyer.  Parry never feels as urgent as Toussaint, and he arises out of almost nowhere in Glasgow’s novel, which treats the African-American characters as a real sideline—despite this novel being set 40ish years after Stribling’s, the black characters seem more obsessed with the lives of the white family they know, and more unmoored from any larger African-American community, and it feels like laziness (or impoverished imagination) on the part of the author, rather than any kind of real statement about the fracturing of communities, etc.

Anyway, I could go on, but given that I’m comparing a novel no one has read to two other novels no one has read, this is more for my benefit than anyone else’s, I suppose!  All I really need to do for those of you who, for reasons best known to yourselves, follow my aimless path through the Pulitzers is to tell you that I’ve read another 100 pages or so of a book I wish I didn’t have to read, and that once I’ve read another 300 pages or so, I’ll never have to pick it up again.  I may post again on this one if I manage to get anywhere worth relating, but something tells me I may just take my medicine as fast as I can and then write a review when all’s said and done.

“No one, not even her husband, had ever heard her utter a disagreeable word, and seldom a true one.”

Edith wharton face

Edith, you have GOT to come and save me from this book. I will pay you a large sum of money (for your time period) if you’ll rewrite this novel. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The quote that serves as this post’s title leads me right into what my ongoing problem is with In This Our Life by Ellen Glasgow—as I suggested in my first post on the novel, she simply doesn’t trust us to understand what she’s doing.  As a consequence, she labors over events that should come naturally, over-explains situations, and generally weighs down the novel with too much exposition.  Take this quotation, then—it’s clever, isn’t it?  I think it’s a good indication of the kind of writing that Glasgow can do when she’s on her game.  In one sentence, we get a nice sketch of a character we don’t know much about—this is Maggie, the wife of Asa Timberlake’s son Andrew, whose geniality is captured in a turn of phrase I think is pretty well constructed.  There’s an edge to it that’s slightly Whartonian: the woman whose desire to please is so excessive that she’s totally unreliable.  So, you say, why do I raise it as a complaint?  Because it is immediately followed by this sentence: “But, as with most persons who see only the best, her vision was usually short-sighted and often inaccurate.”

ARGH.  She just (pardon my metaphor) craps all over the nice little sentence she’d crafted.  Instead of letting the quick cut go by nicely—“and seldom a true one” gives the image of the kind daughter-in-law a cheeky little twist, after all—she stops and explains what “and seldom a true one” means in excessive detail.  I learn nothing I didn’t already basically know, but now I feel like I’m being treated like a five year old.  This happens in every single paragraph.  Characters have long conversations, spurred by nothing other than the narrator’s (author’s) desire to make sure we can’t possibly miss the point.  The first three chapters, for instance, refer again and again to the awkwardness Asa feels over the fact that he and his family have been forced to rely on the charity of his wife’s Uncle William.  I must have heard on at least six occasions about how hesitant Asa is to ask for help, but how they really couldn’t manage without him, and how strained the emotions are around the house as a result.  And then, after all of that, Asa comes home and has a lengthy chat with his daughter, Roy (again, his daughters’ names are Roy and Stanley), in which Roy explicitly complains about Uncle William, remarks on how his character dominates family gatherings, regrets that the family is forced to live in a house William owns, REITERATES (for crying out loud) that William really does own the house (doesn’t he Daddy?), notes that she should feel grateful to him, adds that instead she resents him, and then observes that in fact probably she resents the fact that she has to feel grateful.  All of this takes place in a three-minute conversation on a random weekday evening, apropos of nothing (certainly William hasn’t done anything of note that day, or that week, as far as I am aware), and all of it explicitly and rapid-fire.

This kind of exposition is so unbelievably tedious, it makes me wonder why Glasgow had such a great reputation as a novelist.  I can see that she has a flair for writing under the right circumstances, but conveying plot details or the inner life of characters seems to be incredibly difficult for her: as an essayist, a woman of letters perhaps, even a poet, I can envision how her talents would be put to good use.  But the Glasgow writing this book is a novelist at the end of a long and successful career.  How could she think that people talk this way, suddenly relating years of backstory and the fermenting unspoken feelings of their hearts to someone they’ve spoken to every day of their lives, as though they just realized the camera was running?  And why does she think we need to be given all of this in carefully typed dialogue, anyway?  Can’t I already make plenty of inferences about the family’s attitude based on the information I have?  Aren’t there, in fact, a lot of ways for helping me understand the complicated balance of feelings between gratitude to a generous wealthy family member and resentment over the need for that gratitude that do not involve me having to hear one character explain it to another?  Much of the time, we’re even unaware of that kind of thing ourselves—great novels draw this sort of thing out over time, and if a character does ultimately make this kind of revelation, it comes at a cost, and it’s spoken at the right moment because on some level it needs to be said then, and to the right person.  This chat, by comparison, is just Glasgow trying to get us from Asa warming up leftovers to him checking in on his invalid wife.  There’s no setup or payoff, and barely any emotion to it.  It’s like saying to your cashier at the supermarket “has it been a busy day?” while you’re pulling out your debit card, and having her say “well, not really, but my mind’s been occupied with the question of whether or not I can finally forgive my father for driving my mother into the alcoholism that killed her”.  Sure, the revelation is a sad one objectively, but in the moment you’re not really sure why you’re hearing it, or what prompted it, or whether any of this is real.  No matter what happens afterwards, you’re not going to respond to that news the way you would if you had first become invested in this woman’s life on any level.

The frustration is compounded, then, by the fact that, although 98% of this novel is obvious information that gets pounded away at us so that we and all the characters know exactly who is holding what cards at each point in the game, the other 2% is mind-blowingly stupid and implausible in its attempts to hide from at least the main character (if not the reader) a totally obvious fact.  Again, remember that these characters say every important emotional thing on their mind to each other at all times, and that the narrator fills in any gaps with flat assertions about who believes what and how they feel about it.  The following events occur — Asa is walking home when a car speeds by.  He notices that the car is driven by Peter (Roy’s husband of two years), but for some reason the passenger is Asa’s other daughter, Stanley, who is engaged and will marry a man named Craig later that week.  Asa notes briefly that it’s odd that Peter should be driving Stanley around, especially as A) Stanley owns her own car and can drive it, and B) Roy has been feeling a little down lately and would probably appreciate a nice drive out.  He gets home to find Roy down in the dumps.  She keeps talking about how stressed she is, and emphasizes that she wants Stanley married as soon as possible.  He asks why she’s unhappy, and she literally says “I can be happy as long as I know I have Peter.”  He replies, “Well, obviously you do have Peter since you’ve married him, so that’s that.”  (Seriously.  “So that’s that.”)  She gives him an odd look, and continues the conversation.  Later on she says, again apropos of nothing, “Peter has his freedom.  I told him that from the beginning.  If he doesn’t want to be with me, he doesn’t have to be.”  And Asa says, well, that’s fine I guess, you and he are clearly both honest with each other.  He asks where Stanley is.  Roy says she’s “visiting Aunt Charlotte”.  He asks where Peter is.  She says he’s “working late”.  Asa does not comment at all on the car that passed him.  Roy then goes off depressed to deal with Stanley’s wedding gifts.  Asa goes upstairs where his wife tells him, among other things, that Stanley is flighty, that she doesn’t seem to be all that in love with Craig anymore, and that she’d be kind of surprised if Stanley wasn’t getting ready to dump her fiance before the wedding that Saturday.  Now, I know I’ve narrated a ton of events here, but I wanted you to see what’s going on.  When did you first suspect that Peter and Stanley were cheating with each other?  Okay, and then when did you decide you pretty much knew that they were?  Well, old Asa has no idea.  He keeps asking himself (and others, occasionally) what’s wrong with Roy, and can’t figure it out for the life of him.  I’d submit to you that this entire subplot is totally implausible—not the cheating, obviously, but the fact that I’m supposed to believe that this guy cannot connect these dots.  Furthermore, I’m supposed to believe that Roy, who shares all her emotions in clinical detail with her father, can bring herself to say (effectively) “I think Roy will leave me, I’ve told him that he can make that choice, and it’s making me sad” but without actually saying “Roy and I are likely to get divorced”.  I just can’t figure this book out.  Who are these people?  On what planet do events like this occur or characters like this live?

There’s a whole racial thing going on too that I can’t even get into yet.  So far I can’t work out how much of the terrible racism is the characters’ racism (which would be accurate for the time and place) and how much is the narrator asserting “true” things about black people (which I really don’t stand for).  At this point, the novel is turning out to be a lot like The Store except really bad at all the things that T. S. Stribling managed to do well.  I fear I’m going to continue dismantling it in public the rest of the way, but I hear that my “takedowns” of novels are more fun to read anyhow, so perhaps you all don’t mind as much.  I certainly mind having to read it.  We’ll see if Glasgow can figure out a way to make the thing tolerable, at least, in the chapters ahead.

“The street was darkened by a smoky sunset, and light had not yet come on in the lamps near the empty house.”

So begins Ellen Glasgow‘s In This Our Life, the recipient of the Pulitzer Prize for the Novel for the year 1942.  The opening scene of the darkening street and the empty house quickly features our main character, Asa Timberlake, an aging Virginian scion of a great family laid low, a man trapped in a marriage he cannot abide and a career he’d sooner lose than keep.  He reminds me in many respects of the more exotically named Colonel Miltiades Vaiden, the man at the heart of most of the plots in T. S. Stribling’s The Store, but where The Colonel was interesting as a schemer and a man constantly drawn into the lives of those around him, Asa Timberlake is disappointingly uninteresting, thus far.  He has somewhat strained relationships with his daughters, Stanley and Roy—yes, those are the names of his daughters, and no, as far as I know the plot will not feature them moving to Las Vegas and starting up a magic act—and a feeling of hapless melancholy more or less pervades everything else he touches, from what I’ve seen.

In many ways, the novel’s opening chapter suggests I’m in for another of Pulitzer’s Worst Hits—it’s almost textbook “bad writing”, so much so that I feel I must be judging it too harshly.  We start with aging Asa looking at his old family house being demolished (symbolism, much?).  An unimportant character appears out of nowhere, and extricates Important Plot Points question by question, like a Socratic parody of how to communicate to the audience.  The conversation goes something like this:

“Is that you, Asa?  Aren’t you supposed to be at Significant Job?”
“Yes, it is my job for Reasons Important to My Emotional State Which I Will Reveal to You, a Stranger.”
“Well, my job now is knocking down this house. Say, isn’t it your old house where Important Family Event occurred?”
“Ah, yes, Important Family Event about which I will mention just a few more Revealing Details.”
“Yeah, that was right before Incident I Will Stop Short of Relating Out of Propriety, since I assume the narrator will handle it in a moment, wasn’t it?”
“And then Antagonist bought it right out from under you when Other Important Family Event made that a necessity?”
“You remember my entire backstory with almost omniscient precision, which is weird, since we’ve never met, and I only vaguely knew your grandfather.”
“Well, that’s my job. That and knocking down this Obvious Metaphor you used to live in. It’s surprisingly hard to demolish!”
“That’s because the house represents Something Significant about the Past. Also we hired a good architect.”

(I promise you, I’m exaggerating only slightly—reading it was like looking closely at a paint-by-numbers Mona Lisa.  It’s like reading the plot of the first novel an alien wrote after studying our literature in secret—it knows the notes, but not the music.) Eventually, the unimportant character disappears, and almost all of the rest of the first chapter consists of our omniscient narrator Telling, Not Showing us who Asa is, what all has happened over the first sixty years of his life, how he feels about it, how that affects all his relationships, and what kind of straits he feels he’s in now. It’s as though Glasgow doesn’t trust us for a minute with her story, and has to front-load all the symbolism and significance so that we can’t possible misunderstand the events of the plot or use them to reach any truths she may not have intended.

Ellen Glasgow, 1906

Oh, Ellen Glasgow, we don’t have to be enemies, but you’re going to have to meet me half-way. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I’ll grant that Glasgow has more skill on a sentence level than the worst of her predecessors, so at any given moment the book can give some pleasure.  That first sentence, for example, is a pretty serviceable opening—the scene itself is cliché, but the way she describes it is at least slightly unconventional.  That’s the pattern so far, with decent rhetorical execution of really bad plotting and character development.  I’ll give it credit: if we continue in this vein, it will be an entirely new way for a Pulitzer reading experience to go bad.  It gives me more respect for her talent, I guess, than decently plotted stuff that is terribly written, but frankly the other kind of stuff is more fun to read, and this one’s long, so I’m not really looking forward to how this goes.

Reasons for optimism?  Well, I was skeptical about The Store at first too, and I ended up getting a lot out of it—as I said early on in this post, I feel like we could possibly get similarly interesting stuff out of Asa.  The raw material’s there to work with, anyway.  If she can stop using the third-person narration to announce how every character feels and why, and start writing some meaningful dialogue, that’ll help, and if this book can be about anything but his bad marriage and his daughters’ bad marriages (or be about them in an interesting way), there’s hope.  But I’m not clinging to that hope with any degree of confidence.

“How can you frighten a man whose hunger is not only in his own cramped stomach but in the wretched bellies of his children?”

Apologies for the distance between posts, including a missed Poetry Friday—computer chaos has reigned for a short time here, but I think it’s passing and I should be able to resume a more regular schedule in the near future.  In any case, we return now to the plight of the Joads, now adrift in the sea of human misery that is the migrant worker experience in California in the 1930s (and, I fear, resembles the migrant worker experience in California in the 2010s more than it should).  The quote I chose as the post’s title is a good capsule summary of Steinbeck’s argument, and it’s both convincing and utterly useless in this context.  Convincing, because it really does emphasize the reality of poverty and how it can inspire the most desperate kinds of action.  Too many of us comfortable middle-class First World types like to think of crime as a moral failure that other people have (and we do not).  Few, if any, of us have experienced the kind of real deprivation that motivates most people to transgress laws and boundaries—fewer of us would be in any position to lecture others about morality, if we had.  But I also said “utterly useless” because it’s clear that Tom Joad and his family cannot easily leverage that grim determination into doing anything about their plight.  All the cards are in the hands of the owners, and the workers can either go along or lose their (temporary ramshackle) homes, if not their lives.  The Grapes of Wrath can read like a dystopian science fiction novel.  It is one of our country’s lasting shames that this dystopia was all too real, and that we allowed it to persist.  (This shame is not limited to America and Americans, by any means, but given my national identity and the national identity of the Pulitzers, it’s where my gaze is traveling right now.)

This image was selected as a picture of the we...

Florence Thompson in an iconic photograph: I think I have always fixated so fully on her facial expression that I missed the ragged children flanking her, both turned away from the camera’s eye (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I’d rather not make this blog too political—I’m a fairly political person, but I’d like to keep as much of that as possible out of my comments here—but I think certain things about Steinbeck’s novel are inescapable.  The hellscape inhabited by the Joads is, in almost every respect, the way the world would operate if free market capitalism was given absolutely free reign to work its laissez faire magic.*  There is an oversupply of workers, and so (in the absence of minimum wage laws, workers’ unions, etc.) each person must take however little is offered.  It is to the employer’s advantage to solicit far too many prospective employees, which in migrant farm work means uprooting these people and having them spend time and money traveling to you, and then to offer the least money you can get away with, knowing that (in the absence of any social safety net) even a dime for a day’s work is probably more than these people can afford to pass up.  They’ll buy cheap flour with it, maybe, and mix it with rainwater into a paste that staves off hunger.  That’s what the lucky employees will do.  The unlucky, the thousands who came to you at your bidding but find themselves turned away, will eat nothing, or eat stones to fill their bellies, and try again the next day.  We talk a lot of smack in the public arena, on news shows and on Facebook feeds, about food stamps and welfare.  The reason Americans today don’t starve to death—the reason California’s highways are not littered with dying children tonight—is because we have things like food stamps and welfare programs.  I am personally sure those programs waste some percentage of their money on people less than fully deserving of the aid.  I consider it a small price to pay for the knowledge that, in my country, even poor children will eat dinner today.  I consider it a small price to pay for the ability to go to sleep at night, the ability to live with myself.

I don’t think there’s a way to read Grapes without contending with this message—it’s what Steinbeck wants us to hear, certainly.  I don’t think it has to be the end of the story, or that somehow Tom Joad’s fictional existence (and the many non-fictional people he represents) automatically implies that we ought to have the exact programs we do today.  But I do think it’s one of the most powerful arguments that can be made for the idea that there needs to be something in the world other than corporations playing by their own rules and private charities filling in the gaps.  You’ll notice a distinct lack of charitable support for the Joads in this book (at least thus far)—I don’t think that’s an accident, or that Steinbeck is obscuring from us the great willingness of the American charity organizations to aid Okie migrant workers in the 1930s.  It was an era where so few had money to help those in need.  And it was an era that exposed the divisions in our nation—the “redneck” Okies were not welcome in California.  Whatever local charities existed, surely many of them were run by the same sorts of well-heeled community types who drive the Joads off of vacant land and who threaten violence against anyone talking about uniting the workers.  There was charity in California for some people, I am certain, but not for the Joads…just as I know plenty of charitable people today who would gladly donate to the needs of the poor, but who are not particularly interested in funding charities that aid undocumented immigrants.  I’m not blaming people for deciding where to give their charitable donations—that is, and should be, entirely their business.  It’s for that very reason, though, that I’m acknowledging the truth that there needs to be something in the equation other than volunteer-funded charity to make sure Ruthie and Winfield don’t starve.

This is not entirely altruism, either.  What will that fearless man do whose family goes hungry every night?  What will that fearless mother do when she cannot face another morning without bread for her children?  As Steinbeck shows us, it breaks some people—they lose their minds, their will, their sense of purpose.  They abandon their commitments.  But what kind of violence can it give birth to, there in the hungry shadows on the outskirts of “civilization”?  Businesspeople attacked FDR and his “radical” policies of the New Deal, but I wonder if they should not have been thanking him from the bottom of their hearts for saving their livelihoods and their lives.  Poverty under the thumb of a wealthy few has been a recipe for revolution in more than one country, and I don’t see any reason it couldn’t have taken the United States.  There are a lot of competing interests at work in the world Steinbeck is narrating, but I think it’s clear that almost every kind of motivation (morals, ethics, self-preservation) should be coming down on the side of the wealthy taking more care in structuring a society in which Tom and the other Joads can find a fair day’s work and a fair day’s wage.

I am cruising along now, perhaps 2/3 of the way through the novel, which is far enough that I’d rather not give away too many plot details (as you can already see above).  I’m sure I’ll comment on an event or two between now and the review, but mostly I aim to follow this story to its end and then give this the most honest review I can.  Thus far, the brilliant success I detected early on has hardly faded at all—this is still the best of the Pulitzers, and we’ll see if it can hold its course the last stretch of the journey.

*I should emphasize, I don’t think many people actually advocate the kind of totally unfettered free market approach I’m describing here.  But I think many times we do talk as though “the free market” is this holy, wonderful thing.  I think it’s always worth reminding ourselves that the market needs to be balanced by other concerns, and that this balancing act is complicated for everyone involved—market economics has also created great opportunity and quality of life for a very wide range of Americans, after all!  My interest is in getting rid of the equation of “market-based reform” and “good”, and replacing it with a complicated, nuanced way of thinking and talking about economics and human happiness.  But that’s a topic for a very different kind of blog.  To put it in a more literary setting, I guess what I’m saying is that I wish members of Congress spent more time reading The Grapes of Wrath, and less time reading Atlas Shrugged.  And now I’ll stop before I get myself in worse trouble.


“You got a God. Don’t make no difference if you don’ know what he looks like.”

Sairy Wilson’s final conversation with “Reverend” Jim Casy resonated with me, hence my grabbing a quote from Sairy as the post’s title.  What’s interesting to me is how much Grapes of Wrath, which is in many ways as physical and material a book as possible (so rich with details about the natural world, about people’s bodies and possessions, etc.), is about the immaterial, and ultimately about faith and hope in things we do not see, or (in some cases) even believe in (yes, that’s a contradiction in terms, and an intentional paradox).  I’ll set aside Sairy and Jim for a moment and extend these thoughts out to other characters—I’ve gotten all the way over the mountains with the Joads now, and have reached the point where they’re looking down on the beautiful valley that, in this instant, is the California they’ve dreamed of, all along Route 66.

Ma’s faith is in “the family unbroke”, a remarkable phrase given that, in so many ways, all of these people are broken—the old ones too far gone to reach the Promised Land, the parents breaking down physically and emotionally as they go, the younger members of the family all afraid or lost or fragile.  Right after she expresses her willingness to rely on that concept—the family unbroke—the family begins to shatter as a unit.  We lose one more Joad to death, and another to the lure of freedom.  It’s increasingly clear that Tom’s commitment to stand up for himself come hell or high water will land him in trouble…likely either a California grave or a long ride back to an Oklahoma jail.  Will what’s left of the Joads, in a hundred pages or two, be enough for Ma to live by?  At what point does the gravity lose hold, the disc fan outwards into particles flung on tangents by centrifugal force?

Tom’s faith is, as far as I can tell, in himself—whatever he lived through in prison, it’s convinced him that there’s nothing he can’t handle.  He takes guff from nobody, not even men with authority and influence enough to put him back in jail.  He speaks with authority himself, now; Pa remarks to Ma about how Tom’s so “growed-up”, talking almost like a preacher now, and she agrees without hesitation.  He tells people like the one-eyed man at the wrecking yard what’s wrong with their lives and how to fix it—he sets Al straight and gets the family across the desert, insisting at one point that, if need be, they’d walk it.  Tom’s rule seems to be that if another man could do it, then by God Tom Joad is going to do it and there isn’t a soul on earth to tell him no.  I can’t tell yet what Steinbeck’s doing with this self-confidence….setting Tom up for a fall?  Revealing the inner dignity of the working man, no matter his background or circumstance?  Showing the false front so that later chapters can open up the wounded and vulnerable man underneath?  What is clear, anyway, is that Tom’s faith is in as hard-to-see a thing as Ma’s “family unbroke” or Jim Casy’s God.  He believes in a drifter, a parolee who broke parole the first chance he had, a man who murdered yet never seems to have learned caution from it.  He believes in the inherent worth of a man who will consistently be assessed as worthless by the people he meets, because of how he talks, how he looks, how he smells.  Time will alone tell if Tom’s put his faith in the right person.  Much as I admire him, I can’t rate his chances very high, given the environment he’s about to step into.

Jim Casy, then, to return to where I began.  That conversation with Sairy is so deeply moving—her quiet acceptance of her fate, her hopes for her husband, so piercing.  Ultimately Jim prays a prayer she cannot hear (does he pray?) to a God neither of them can see (is God there?) and then turns and walks “out of the dusky tent into the blinding light”.  What to do with J.C. is a challenge—as I alluded to in an earlier post (and as plenty of people have with this book, I expect….I really haven’t looked up critical essays about it), Casy’s initials obviously could be used to imply that he acts as a Christ-figure for Steinbeck’s novel.  There’s definitely material to work with—Casy as a man who takes on the suffering of others, Casy the one they all find they can depend on in a crisis, Casy who ultimately gives Sairy Wilson peace and then vanishes into the light (an ascension? a transfiguration?).  But I’m not sure I want to take him there.  More than anything else, Casy strikes me as Steinbeck’s alter ego.  He speaks rarely, but when he does, it’s usually a pronouncement of some kind—he asserts truths about who people are and why they move and what it all means.  For this reason, I find him alternately fascinating (he is the most philosophical character in a book full of wise but simple folk) and a bit irritating (his speeches sometimes feel forced on the narrative, especially since Casy rarely speaks on any other occasion….it’s easy to forget he’s still with the family some chapters).  Regardless, though, I have to deal with him, and this faith he does and does not seem to have.  He announces that he’s left God’s service, but no one else will let him.  His prayers for the dying and the dead are clearly significant moments to those around him, but he considers them of no real account.  What does Casy believe in?  Not himself—if nothing else is clear to me, that is.  He’s not like Tom in that way; he’s painfully conscious of having failed others in the past, and is wary of accepting responsibility for them now.  As the only person in the book right now who doesn’t have a family, it’s hard to see him agreeing with Ma that the unbroken family is the thing to trust in—he doesn’t exert any influence on the decisions where the family was about to split up (temporarily or permanently).  But is Casy, then, an argument for faith in God?  Who or what does he trust?

Shafter, Kern County, California. A view of th...

Whatever California looks like from a distance, this is what it will look like up close, for the Joads. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The book is getting intensely sad, and I’m uneasy about the arrival in California.  The struggles of keeping two old jalopies running down Route 66 will soon seem pretty minor in comparison with the squalor and the desperation of the picking fields.  The stories the Joads hear on the road are terrifying, especially the man whose children and wife starved to death (if we needed any evidence to understand what an impact the New Deal would have, and how desperately grateful the nation would have been to FDR for the idea of the “safety net”, this novel certainly makes a good case).  But as Tom says, the Joads have no other choice, no place to return to.  What do you do when you only have one choice?  You take it.  But what a terrible position to be in.  And even then, as people are suffering and dying because of the manipulations of the big growers and the landowners, you can hear the voices shouting down the slightest dissent—a man suggests for even a few moments that the workers are being taken advantage of, and suddenly he’s accused of being a “troublemaker”, a “labor faker”.  It’s announced loudly that these types stir up trouble and make people angry, and for the good of everybody they’ll all be rounded up and killed sooner or later.  It’s awful and true that most human societies run this way—it becomes strangely less unjust to cheat and starve the common people than it is to be the person pointing this out to the common people.  The more I read the novel (which is of course fiction, but which also of course strives to be true to that time in history, given when and for whom Steinbeck writes it), the more I realize how close we were in the 1930s to two different Americas—one America an oligarchy run by authoritarians protecting the moneyed interests and dragging the country into fascism to protect capital, and another America in a state of revolution, where workers throw their lot in with international communism for the furious and desperate reason that they cannot see another way to get bread for their children.  That we threaded the needle in that environment (to the extent that we did—obviously in some times and places both sentiments and scenarios prevailed to some extent) is a testament to something about America.  I haven’t yet figured out what.  We’re in California now, and maybe I’ll see clearer from this vantage point.  For now, it’s onward to the fields, and good luck to the Joads.