“Sooner or later people suffered for their sins. The neighbors might forget, but God remembered—“

I know it’s been a while since you heard from me on Journey in the Dark, my current Pulitzer novel.  Truthfully, that’s because it’s been going fine—not outstanding, but a solid reading experience.  I finally realized I was more than 3/4 of the way through and hadn’t posted since my initial post on the novel: apologies!  I’ll try to capture in broad strokes why it’s gone well but not memorably enough to make me say “Ah! I must write about that great moment!” or “AAAHHH!  I MUST write about that AWFUL passage!”

The setup, as I wrote initially, was good.  I thought at the time that I was being set up for some thoughtful exploration of race, in particular, maybe also class.  As it’s turned out, the race element has moved to the back: it’s not so much that Flavin mishandles it as that it’s just not what he’s interested in.  Instead, he’s pretty taken with just exploring the character of Sam Braden: what does it take to be a self-made man, and what kind of people do you encounter along the way?  Flavin does have the consistent habit of taking away tension by narrating the ends of stories in flashback before popping back to tell the middle of those stories in “real time”.  I find it irritating, although less so than when it was the consistent device in The Late George Apley.  I have no idea why that would be so, but it is.  For the most part, though, he’s just tracing all these elements he set up at the beginning to their logical conclusion—what would life be like for Sam’s flighty, dreamer sister who was (probably inaccurately) informed by some posh girls in their small town that she had a voice good enough for opera?  Where would it take Sam’s Estella-equivalent (Great Expectations definitely looms large over big stretches of this novel) childhood obsession, a young woman too beautiful and aware of her talents to really be willing to settle, but also a young woman who seems unsure of what it is she wants in the first place (critically important for anyone afraid of “settling”)?  Where would it take Sam?

It’s taken Sam on a sort of picaresque journey through American capitalism—winning his way into the railroad business (at a very low level) as it’s conquering the West, then flopping into sales in the era when advertising and PR become dominant market forces, shifting then into manufacturing and importing/exporting as the world opens up for American mass-produced goods.  He serves in the army in WWI, watches a business fail and then resurface, and makes the miraculously fortunate decision to give up being a business owner—selling all his shares—a few weeks before the Great Crash in 1929 destroys most of the families he knew.  It’s less politically and historically aware than Upton Sinclair’s novel (Dragon’s Teeth, my long-time nemesis, chronicled extensively here), but in some ways I don’t mind that at all: it lets me focus on Sam as a real person dealing with real issues whose magnitude he can’t always assess accurately.

I chose the title I did for this post because the sentiments—expressed by Sam’s spinster elder sister, Madge—rings so true for so much of the novel.  Without seeming vindictive about it, Flavin certainly ensures that his world is a “just” one, at least by some standards.  People who flout convention will reap the consequences.  Everything catches up to you eventually.  Sam’s relatively consistent devotion to ethical behavior—not totally consistent, but certainly more than a lot of his acquaintances—allows him to escape most of this, so far, but I think I see a reckoning coming.

My only concern at this point is that I don’t see this novel signifying much.  Flavin isn’t trying to make Sam emblematic of much of anything, as far as I can tell.  Other than some vaguely positive (while clear-eyed) assessments of capitalism, maybe some general leanings towards supporting society’s strictures about sobriety, modesty, and fidelity, I can’t see that Flavin is trying to say much beyond the flat details of the story—that America is a place where a Sam Braden can make a life, and a successful one.  If that’s all I get from the book, it certainly will have been a better reading experience than a lot of the things I’ve read.  But I can’t say it will stick with me.  I’m already fading on a lot of details earlier in the novel, without having even reached the end yet.  I think I can understand the Pulitzer committee responding to this well in the moment, but I wonder if, even just a few months later, they realized it didn’t have the challenge and controversy that distinguishes real art (most of the time), and came to regret their choice.

We’ll see.  Sam still has a few chickens to come home to roost yet.  I doubt very much I’ll post again until my review, which hopefully shouldn’t take too much longer.  I’ll ponder the calm tone and simple success of the characterization, as opposed to the relatively slim joys of the plot and its underlying significance, and see what it adds up to, in the end.

1943: Dragon’s Teeth, by Upton Sinclair

Literary Style:

It’s been two years since I wrote one of these reviews.  Of course, right after I reviewed the 1942 novel, In This Our Life, we found out we were expecting our little daughter, so there’s a reason this stretch of my life was so devoid of Pulitzer reading time.  Still, I’m glad to finally finish this one, and with the momentum I picked up, I’m already close to 1/4 done with 1944’s selection (post on that upcoming, probably tomorrow or Monday), so I hope this is the longest gap I ever hit between reviews here at FP.

Of course, it wasn’t all my daughter’s fault.  Upton Sinclair’s book is maddening in its first half—slow-paced, shallow, crammed full of characters that are hard to distinguish, formless, seemingly aimless.  If not for the blog, I’d have given up all hope of sticking with it entirely.  But that would have been to miss out on some good story-telling, it turns out.  The last half of the book succeeds at least in being gripping and page-turning, and to some extent in digging deeper into characters, by shedding most of what makes the first half bad.  Once the Robins are endangered by the rise of the Nazi state, and one in particular is imprisoned in a concentration camp (n.b.: not an extermination camp, like Auschwitz, since we’re still only in 1933-1934…that’s not to say anything about the camp is less than horrifying, but I think we do tend to conflate “concentration camp” with “extermination camp” in casual usage), Lanny Budd and his wife Irma become our central focus.  Sinclair mostly forgets his jabs at wealth and class, or else figures out how to work them into a more thoughtful examination of the character of Irma in particular, whose wealth and class have a real bearing on her willingness to risk on behalf of some Jewish in-laws who’ve run afoul of powerful German capitalists.  The stakes are high, and the book gets far more up close and personal with the gruesome, dehumanizing violence of the Nazi agenda that I would have guessed.  I expect that Sinclair’s fearlessness in depicting these horrors probably worked to his advantage in the voting for that year’s Pulitzer—a novel that makes Hitler and his henchmen look this blandly evil, written by a noted American propagandist, must surely have felt “right” to a lot of people on the board.

That’s not to say it is obvious to me, taken as a whole on its literary merit, that this ought to be a prize-winning novel.  I don’t have personal experience with the other likely contenders from that year (maybe one of Steinbeck’s less well-known titles, The Moon is Down, or Lloyd Douglas’s big popular success in historical fiction, The Robe? It’s hard to say), but Sinclair’s novel has at least as many weaknesses as it has strengths.  Certainly as a work of literature (which is all I consider in this section of the review) it is weakly executed in narration, characterization, and consistency of tone—of all the many characters I’m asked to keep up with, only two really feel alive to me.  If you like a well-written novel (and not every reader cares; I happen to, but I’m not judging people who are more taken by setting, plot, etc.), this will fall short of the mark.

Historical Insight:

The ugly, appallingly evil world into which Sinclair lets us peer

The ugly, appallingly evil world into which Sinclair lets us peer

The strength of the book, as I have said all along (more so recently), is Sinclair’s unflinching look at the desperate state of Europe in the 1930s through the eyes of a lefist American (Lanny Budd, ostensibly, although really most of the actual commentary/insight is expressed by our allegedly 3rd person narrator, a thinly-veiled Upton Sinclair).  Given the second half of the book, really the deepest looks are aimed into the crumbling Weimar Republic in Germany, and how the cruel peace imposed on Germany at Versailles in 1919 planted the seeds of revolution that Hitler would grow into a garden of his own devising, and for his own purposes.  We see the violence of the Nazi state, the duplicity with which Hitler used real revolutionaries to seize power (only to double-cross those same revolutionaries when they threatened his ability to win over the powerful tycoons who ran big business in Deutschland), even down to the minute details like Goebbels’s wife being the highest ranking Nazi woman (given that Hitler and Göring are bachelors in 1933) or Ernst Röhm, leader of the SA, being a homosexual (a fact blandly commented on by the characters who know it: while no one could call this a gay-friendly narrative, it’s strikingly devoid of homophobia, especially given the era).  Lesser insights are given into French and English politics and social movements of the era.  In fact, if I have one complaint, it’s a damning one (for a Pulitzer winner)—Sinclair barely explains anything about America at all.  He’s poised to comment—Lanny and Irma are heirs to various American businesses and fortunes, and have extensive ties on that side of the Atlantic.  They even visit on one or two occasions, but Sinclair sweeps them back to Europe before they can really engage with the Great Depression, the right-wing unrest in the States that in some ways mirrored Nazism/Fascism on the European continent, Roosevelt’s surge into leadership and his bold actions in pushing through his 100 Days of the New Deal.  I’ve certainly enjoyed revisiting the 1930s—as a history major, most of this is review for me, but some of it is new and all of it is interesting.  I just wish it was telling me something more about America.


On the unscientific scale, I give this a “If you are interested in the time period, like a good pot-boiler, and aren’t fussy about writing style”.  As someone who is interested in the 1930s (and likes a thriller at least some of the time) but IS fussy about style, I’m pretty ambivalent about this one.  I wouldn’t recommend it too widely, but I did find myself liking the last third, especially, and am much more positive about it now than I was only a month or two ago.

The Last Word:

As is my custom, I give the author the last word in the review, choosing a passage I think shows some of the better side of what I read (although, in this case, it’s showing some of the worst sides of a character’s personality).  The context is a conversation from late in the book (but not the end), in which Lanny and his wife, Irma, are arguing about what to do for the member of the Robin family imprisoned by the Nazis.  Irma’s character is finally being developed—we can see some of this emerge as the narrator explains her reactions to her husband, and I think this is a good example of Sinclair actually working out how someone different from him sees the world.  It’s also not devoid of his moralizing—none of his narration is—so if you don’t mind that, you might be great with this book, and if it really irritates you, this novel will not work for you.

Anyway: Lanny has just gotten news identifying the camp to which this poor Robin was taken, and has announced to his wife his determination to save the prisoner—she has attempted to put her foot down, but Lanny has dismissed her attempts to stop him:

“So Irma had to give up.  She had told him what was in her heart, and even though she would break down and weep, she wouldn’t change; on the contrary, she would hold it against him that he had made her behave in that undignified fashion.  In her heart she knew that she hated the Robin family, all of them; they were alien to her, strangers to her soul.  If she could have had her way she would never have been intimate with them; she would have had ehr own yacht and her own palace and the right sort of friends in it.  But this Socialism business had made Lanny promiscuous, willing to meet anybody, an easy victim for any sort of pretender, any slick, canting ‘idealist’—how she loathed that word!  She had been forced to make pretenses and be polite; but now this false ’cause’ was going to deprive her of her husband and her happiness, and she knew that she heartily despised it.

It wasn’t just love of herself.  It was love of Lanny, too.  She wanted to help him, she wanted to take care of him; but this ‘class struggle’ stepped in between and made it impossible; tore him away from her, and sent him to face danger, mutilation, death.  Things that Irma and her class were supposed to be immune from!  That was what your money meant; it kept you safe, it gave you privilege and security.  But Lanny wanted to throw it all away.  He had got the crazy notion that you had no right to money; that having got it, you must look down upon it, spurn it, and thwart the very purposes for which it existed, the reasons why your forefathers had worked so hard!  If that was not madness, who could find anything that deserved the name?”

“So passed a pleasant period in the well-cushioned limousine in which Lanny Budd was rolling through life.”

That’s right, I’m back on the Pulitzer train!  After a very, very long delay, I’ve picked up Upton Sinclair’s Dragon’s Teeth, the 1943 winner of the Pulitzer Prize for the Novel, and am charging through as fast as I can just to get it over with.  I’m about a quarter of the way through now, and thought I could share at least a few of my reflections, although truthfully Sinclair doesn’t give me much to talk about.

The reason for that is something I discussed last year when I began the novel—Sinclair’s more a propagandist than a prose stylist, and the novel is therefore more an opportunity for him to talk about politics and economics than it is a work of literature.  The Budds and Robins (our two principal families) are still doing their respective things as American and Jewish-German munitions dealers during the interwar period (specifically, 1930, at this point in the book), and it’s still giving Sinclair plenty of opportunity to talk about all the things he cared about in the aftermath of WWI and the slow rise of the conditions that created WWII.  I still don’t think these characters are very deep or interesting, and I still find that a shame, since there ought to be scope for some really artful psychological stuff here, especially for the Robin paterfamilias whose status as a rich, arms-dealing Jew in Berlin society as the National Socialists rise to power should give him a lot to chew over.  We just don’t see it.

What we do see, jarringly, is the first fictional depiction of Adolf Hitler I’ve ever read.  Oh, of course I’ve seen him on television and in film portrayed by actors, I’ve read non-fiction about him, and I’ve certainly seen some of the footage taken of his speeches in the 1930s.  It’s just odd to have him as a character in a novel I’m reading—a man Lanny Budd is invited to luncheon with, and with whom Budd then has a long, strained conversation.  In some ways I liked it—Hitler is so clearly one of the most important men in world history, and the notion that a novel might explore what he was like outside the carefully scripted world of speech-giving and military planning is kind of intriguing.  But of course I have Sinclair’s limitations as a writer of character, and unfortunately, with Hitler, even slightly wrong tones can start to feel really odd—you wonder if the novelist is being too sympathetic to a genocidal maniac, or too sloppy in caricaturing a complex man, or any number of other things.  In short, a good novelist should try this (and maybe they have), but this isn’t a good idea for Sinclair.

I do like that Upton allows us some complexity in the main characters, at least.  For instance, when they spend the summer of 1930 at their villa, Lanny and his wife have a real liberal argument about the poor.  Lanny sees them starving and wants to buy cheap food and distribute it to them.  His wife, Irma, thinks it’s better to buy their usual expensive food, which puts more money in the hands of locals who will use it in the local economy, and not to bother with charitable handouts, which she thinks will at best encourage laziness and at worst will make people feel disrespected and dependent.  As much as I feel more sympathy to one side of the argument, there’s undeniably a case on each side, and Upton, to his unexpected credit, lets both sides have their say.

One complaint, and a common one for me: if you can’t, as an author, get the little details of your setting right, don’t bother writing at all, because it wrecks my concentration to see badly misrepresented reality.  For instance, Sinclair in a passage I just read notes that Lanny’s infant, which is a few months old, just said her first word and is now trying to learn to stand.  But the timing of these events is weirdly backwards, as I know now (as a parent of an infant).  It’s a small thing, Upton, but because it’s small, can’t we fix it?

I will keep plodding—there are much better books ahead, and I want to get to them!  But the above is all I have for now.

“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.

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.


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’.'”

“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!

“She loved him and she wanted him and she did not understand him.”

Oh, that Scarlett O’Hara.  Mitchell is unflinching about her—not just about her thoughtless attachment to Ashley Wilkes, as noted in the quotation that provides this post’s title, but about pretty much everything else.  She is impulsive and obsessive.  She has never had any female friends.  She fails to have any understanding of the inner workings of any person’s mind—not even her own.  All of this, I know from the narrator making it totally explicit—I’m not meant to infer this, but simply to know it openly.  So however I take this novel, I think it’s clear that it can’t be a wholesale defense of Scarlett, at least, and that on its own is encouraging.  Mitchell doesn’t seem to care if I admire her, anyway—whether or not she wants me to like her is still a bit mysterious to me.  Mitchell’s actually pretty talented with this character development—over the novel’s 2nd and 3rd chapters, I’ve gotten a pretty clear picture of how Scarlett thinks and acts, and her relationship to both her parents.  I also understand a lot more about both her parents—Gerald, the self-made and volatile Irishman, and Ellen, the cool and quietly authoritative Frenchwoman.  At first I thought Mitchell was playing a little too loose with them, especially when I learned that they married at the ages of 43 and 15, respectively (I need hardly mention how icky this is), but I’ll be darned if she didn’t give me a very plausible account of both lives so that I really did believe this 15 year old girl might have chosen to marry the aging Irish plantation owner, and he her.  The novel’s investing me in the O’Haras pretty successfully, and that’s making for a reasonably nice reading experience.

Except for the freaking racism which will not go away.  What’s most troubling about it is how casually it shows up, both in the characters’ dialogue and in the narrator’s statements.  This is the first Pulitzer winner set among active slave owners—Lamb in His Bosom is in antebellum Georgia but all the farmers are too poor to own slaves, and while The Store presents relationships between people who used to be slave owners and slaves, it all takes place after the war—and I just can’t take how relaxed everyone is about it, especially because Mitchell’s making me like them.  It’s like being at a new friend’s house for dinner, and the conversation’s great and the food is lovely, and then as your hostess dishes up some more potatoes she remarks off-handedly, “you know, Harold used to be an accountant before he became a loan collector for a local mob boss, which he really finds more exciting, don’t you, dear?  Why, only last week, he had to cut off a man’s little fingers.  Well, he probably didn’t have to, of course, but it’s really the only way for folks to know how serious you are.”  And you’re frozen there, not entirely sure whether to just walk out, or argue with them, or stare intensely at the peas you’re trying to jab with a fork while silently praying that the conversation will get back to their charity work or their love of Impressionist art, since you’d really like to make some new friends who aren’t completely vile human beings.  Only I can’t walk out, and arguing with characters in a novel isn’t going to change them at all.  All I can do is hope she can sideline the racism enough for me to not feel too grimy and awful for liking these people, or else hope that I can find a way of enjoying the novel despite feeling like vomiting when Gerald O’Hara enlists Scarlett in a little “practical joke” he’s thought up, where he’ll tell his oldest and most trusted slave that he just sold him that afternoon.

Illustration of Jim and Huckleberry Finn, by E...

Huck and Jim: just one more example of the racist literature I should reject? (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Let’s take that racism thing in perspective, though, for a second.  Is it possible I’m being too judgmental?  After all, I love The Iliad, despite the fact that the whole story hinges on the possession of a slave girl (Briseis) and the characters I love in that poem are no more or less blasé about slave-girls than the O’Haras are.  I’ve always thought that people are too harsh on The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, even though I’ll admit that Tom is downright callous about the slavery issue, and Huck never really makes the transformation we all want him to on the subject (though he definitely makes some kind of progress).  Is it wrong of me to hold Margaret Mitchell to a higher standard?  Or am I holding her to a higher standard at all—maybe there’s something different about race and slavery in this novel that justifies my feeling disgusted and angry in a way that I’m not with other works?  I know some of you have read this book, and more of you have seen the movie.  Am I bringing up a wall too quickly here, or am I just seeing a “profoundly racist novel” (to quote James Loewen again) for what it is?