“Sometimes you do a crime, an’ you don’t even know it’s bad. . . .”

. . . Maybe they got crimes in California we don’t even know about.  Maybe you gonna do somepin an’ it’s all right, an’ in California it ain’t all right.

Steinbeck and the Joads are both increasingly interested in rules, in laws, in boundaries.  On the one hand, this development is not at all strange in American fiction—some of the most well-known American novels predating Grapes of Wrath deal with rules of one kind or another (The Scarlet Letter deals with the strictures of Puritan society; The Age of Innocence with the social obligations imposed by the old families of New York; etc.).  But the interesting thing for me about the considerations of rules and laws in Grapes is how distant and even mysterious the rules are for the characters we follow.  The Joads and the Wilsons engage in a dialogue at one point—is there a law against stopping along the side of Route 66?  Even when this idea is dismissed, Tom still insists on the notion of rules that bind human beings—when Wilson tells Tom he doesn’t own the roadside and can’t say anything about it if the Joads set up camp, Tom insists, “you got a right to say if you wan’ neighbors or not”.  Later, Pa Joad and several other folks engage in a long discussion about the death of Grampa—is it against the law to bury him themselves?  Why?  What will the consequences be if they break this law?

These events are preceded by the even more explicit conversation I quote from at the beginning of the post, where Tom is trying to assure his mother that breaking parole won’t be an issue, because they’ll only care if he commits another crime, and he’ll steer clear of that.  Ma is thorough in thinking about this—it’s one thing for Tom to have such an intention, but who knows what’s wrong or right?  What if it is right to do something in Oklahoma, but wrong in California?  Who can live in such a world?  All of this, of course, takes place against the backdrop of confused rules that have forced the Joads into this position.  Somehow, without their knowing it, the rules changed.  They’ve done the same things they always did, but conduct that once was enough to keep them on their land and surviving (if not thriving) is now insufficient to keep them from being cast off it.  There seems to be one rule for them and their kind, and another rule entirely for the rich men who now own the land.  Steinbeck weaves again and again into this question of authority—the characters want to know what they are obligated to do, but seem to struggle in knowing whose laws they are to keep.  What is right conduct?  Socrates and Tom Joad have the same question.

There’s a moral and theological angle here, too, that I’m not quite ready to examine, but I think it bears mentioning.  Jim Casy, doing his best to pray for Grampa in the hour of his death, only gets to “forgive us” before death halts his prayer in its tracks—left unsaid is the “forgive those who trespass against us”.  Is this merely an accident, or does Steinbeck mean for us to understand the implication that these simple folk want to be forgiven but don’t understand how badly they are sinned against?  When Tom goes to write the note for Grampa’s grave, he settles on the opening of Psalm 32: “Blessed is he whose transgression is forgiven, whose sin is covered.”  Why the emphasis on the Joads’ need for forgiveness?  (Side note: I loved the verse Tom initially picks at random out of the Bible—Genesis 19:18 “An’ Lot said unto them, ‘Oh, not so, my Lord.'”—which Ma rejects as not meaning nothin’.  As Steinbeck clearly knows, that verse is when the angels are taking Lot out of the city of Sodom to save him and his family from destruction, and he is begging them not to be sent so far away from his home.  The mountains, he said, were too far away, and he would die in traveling there.  The irony is dark, but revealing, I think, about what these characters do and do not understand.)  All of this will have to be made sense of eventually.

Missouri migrants living in a truck in Califor...

A Missouri family’s truck on the road to California — how on earth Al Joad could keep a thing like this from falling apart in the first 50 miles is a mystery. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The more I read, the more emotionally powerful the scenes become—the sturdy kindness of the Wilson family to the Joads, the willingness of all these poor people to look out for each other, even the roadside waitress selling nickel candies at two for a penny to the scrawny Okie children.  There’s a sense of the goodness that characterizes America at its best—a society that, despite all the talk about rugged individualism on the frontier, embraces the notion that we are all our brother and sister’s keeper.  A society of simple folk who would never turn away a hungry stranger, who accept kindness with gratitude but are a little reluctant to receive anything they think of as “charity”.  At its best, it’s definitely the most moving Pulitzer novel I’ve read, and one of the most emotionally gripping books I’ve ever read, period.  It’s also so consistently good at providing genuine moments—Granma’s slow realization of her husband’s death, the boy’s excitement that drops instantly into nausea and sorrow at the death of the dog, Al’s quiet despair as he proves unable to maintain the cars to the standard he knows they need.  It’s not even that I’m in love with the characters (although I sometimes am): it’s that I believe in them so much I think I’m on the road with them.  I think they really happened.  And in other guises, under other names, they did happen, by the thousands, on the long roads like Route 66 through the Great Plains and onwards to the Pacific.

All right, I have heaped enough praise on Steinbeck for weeks now—it’s time to make one of my few criticisms, since after all no work of art is perfect.  I do get a bit impatient with some of the soaring impersonal rhetoric from Steinbeck, especially the passage where he speaks at length in praise of “Manself” and this notion of progress and aspiration and I don’t know what all.  You can almost hear him thinking as he writes, “Hot damn! This is good stuff!”  I’m not opposed to an author being obviously a little in love with how great their stuff is (see my praise of Melville, for one), but Steinbeck’s arrogance is at times a little intrusive.  He has so much power in the scenes he underplays that it’s especially grating to feel as though he’s now showing you all his cards.

The one criticism I keep expecting to unload, and can’t?  Steinbeck’s women.  Given my experience with him, I figured they’d be caricatures or worse, but so far they’re well-written and seriously portrayed.  They’re not (usually) the focus of the scene, but there’s a lot of complexity to Ma Joad, and he’s hinting at it with Sairy Wilson.  Even excitable “Rosasharn” (Rose of Sharon) seems the right mix of maturity and girlishness for a teenager facing pregnancy and possibility all at once on the long road to California (and, she clearly believes, economic freedom for her and her husband).  I wish they were given the chance to say a few more wise things, but honestly there isn’t that great an imbalance of wisdom on this road, and I think Steinbeck’s respect for the women, especially the older women, is clear.  I keep waiting for the other shoe to drop, but for now I really can’t complain even a little bit.  Keep it up, John.

“There ain’t no sin and there ain’t no virtue. There’s just stuff people do.”

The Grapes of Wrath is turning out to be a really marvelous reading experience, full of great characters and great moments, but maybe the most interesting aspect of all at this point is the way Steinbeck and his characters play with morality.  The quotation that serves as this post’s title is from the (former) Reverend Casy, whose dialogues with Tom Joad explore faith and meaning and ethics in remarkably natural language.  He puts forward that thesis of moral relativism pretty early on in their conversation, but the nice thing about Grapes is its complexity—it’s not at all clear to me that Casy believes it himself, let alone Steinbeck.  The world inhabited by the characters is fraught with moral concerns, whether we’re considering the simple personal level (as when Muley Graves considers the problem of being asked by two hungry men for food, and his explanation of why he is compelled to share with them) or the much larger corporate level (as when the characters and the narrator explore how to make sense of right and wrong when the agent doing wrong is an impersonal company—how do you hold to account a person that isn’t a person?).  Casy and Joad and Graves aren’t moral relativists at all.  Sure, they make allowances for reality, as when Joad gives up the house and sprints into the cotton rather than stand his ground for his idea of what’s right.  But in the end it’s clear that all three of them understand that there are lines that should not be crossed.  One of the delights of the book, though, is that they don’t become particularly self-righteous, and they don’t have any immediate solutions to present.  They explore the landscape, both physically and through the sharing of stories, without drawing too many conclusions too quickly.  I’m loving it.

Another aspect of the book I’m enjoying is its richness, like an abundant harvest of lines and moments that I can’t quite hold in my arms.  I read on, realizing as I go that I’m letting great things spill past me on either side.  I just can’t pay rapt attention to everything I like or I’ll never get through.  And Steinbeck has a way of giving you scenes that work on enough levels that you can get something and move on—the (in?)famous turtle, who spawned so many high school English assignments, is a great example.  We can take it, if we like, as just the account of a turtle, just Steinbeck giving us another vision of how nature is being violated and damaged by human activity.  We can go just a little deeper, and read a few lines as symbolism—the turtle’s thrashing accidentally plants some seeds, for example, and it’s revealing and thought-provoking to spend a little time trying to tie a few elements of its experience allegorically to the small farmers of Oklahoma who are being driven off the land.  I got the feeling at that point that there was almost nothing about the chapter that I couldn’t continue to dig into and explore, but I wanted to keep moving, and so I did—whatever else there is to get out of the turtle (feel free to share in the comments any perspectives you have) will have to be saved for my next read of the novel, since I can already sense I’ll be returning to this novel again someday.  Anyway, that level of detail and interest is all over the book, and I keep pausing and then moving on all over the place, making little bits of meaning out of Joad’s childhood baptism and the blood of Muley Graves’s father in the soil and the ravenous hunger of the grey cat.  It makes me feel caught up in something huge, an emotion that I have only rarely felt in the Pulitzer journey…only Wharton and Age of Innocence really comes to mind as a comparison, and even that is not really right.  It’s like reading Melville, or Homer.  I hope the feeling lasts.

English: Buried machinery in barn lot in Dalla...

The Dust Bowl swallows a farmer’s livelihood, South Dakota, 1936 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Steinbeck’s attention to detail doesn’t just work on that momentary symbolic level, either—the structure of the novel is working beautifully so far.  I loved the transition from Chapter 5 to Chapter 6.  In 5, Steinbeck’s telling the broad general story of the Dust Bowl, and there are nameless families being cast off their land.  It works great to give a sense of the great big thing that’s happening in Oklahoma, but it’s admittedly just a little remote.  But then there’s this perfect pivoting image—5 ends with a generic corporate employee knocking a generic farmer’s house off its foundations, and then immediately 6 begins with Tom Joad and the Reverend Casy arriving at Joad’s family’s house, only to find that it’s been knocked off its foundations in exactly the same way.  The sudden leap from the general to the very specific is incredibly smart—it makes personal the events I’ve just read in parable form in Chapter 5, and it reminds me how impersonal the injustice suffered by the Joads really is.  Tom’s family isn’t the victim of some vendetta—it’s just one more bystander getting eaten up by a machine that will not be sated.  And then Muley shows up and Joad and Casy pump him for some information, and the story gets so incredibly rich.  I kept flagging paragraphs saying to myself, “oh, I have to quote that in my blog post,” until I realized I’d marked about half of Chapter 6 for inclusion.  Really I just want some of you (all of you!) to try reading this book, since I’m really taken by it so far, and I’d love to talk it over with some fellow travelers.

There are things to deal with, of course—Steinbeck is very blunt and honest about sexuality (and how men like these men would talk about it), and the characters clearly feel on some level emasculated by what’s happening to them.  At one point they use pretty clear (although not very graphic) language to employ a rape metaphor in the context of the companies taking over the land—this is problematic, of course, although it’s still a fair question what is accurate character depiction and what is Steinbeck’s insensitivity.  I’m keenly aware of having no real female characters yet, and I’m anxious to meet some and see if Steinbeck can handle them better than he did in Of Mice and Men.  And at some point I should probably tackle the question of whether this novel is propaganda, given that it was so radical for its era that Steinbeck was denounced on the floor of Congress as a dangerous man.  I think it’s telling important and hard truths about what it’s like for one man, or one family, to try to take on and beat the pitiless progress demanded by a beast that lives on nothing but profits.  In this way, it’s talking about people’s connection to the land in a way that Pearl S. Buck only kidded herself she was doing, and it’s confronting the political causes of the suffering in the Great Depression that Josephine Johnson’s novel couldn’t (although there the decision was a conscious one, and I don’t blame her for it).  But it is also fair to ask the novel some hard questions, since the Dust Bowl and the migration west of the Okies and the Great Depression are not merely the fault of a few soulless banks—not only that, at least.  I don’t know what I really expect of Steinbeck on that front, but it’s something I’ll be thinking about, and I expect to post about it sooner or later.  For now, the energy of the book is pulling me forward, and hopefully I’ve shared enough that it’s pulling a few of you, as well.

1929: Scarlet Sister Mary, by Julia Peterkin

Thanks to my good friend Graham, whose advice in a recent comment was to get this novel done and behind me, I bulled through the thing at lunch today, hence my somewhat rapid arrival (after weeks of slogging) at this review.

Literary Style:

My primary criticism of this book stands—Peterkin is trapped by her inability to be as racist as her parents’ generation (which is, it should be said, a good thing) and yet trapped by her failure to conceive of truly wise, intelligent, and articulate African-Americans (which is, no matter how much we make “it was the 1920s!” excuses on her behalf, a bad thing).  The result is a book that is at its relative best when it is furthest from the characters, most distant from their emotions and expressions.  I’ve detailed at length why this troubles me so, and won’t belabor the point here.

There were some good passages in the final chapters that continue to remind me of what the novel could have been.  The relationship between Mary and one of her children—a child who, as a result of growing up, has learned more about the world than they care to—is particularly poignant.  For a while I see a woman it would have been good to meet.  But the depth is an illusion, undercut by Peterkin the moment she can.

Ultimately it’s a profoundly disappointing book—Peterkin, out of a desire not to go too far in any direction, goes absolutely nowhere.  Is this book a defense of Mary (whose infidelities, after all, result from an abusive and unfaithful spouse) or a criticism of her (since it’s clear her promiscuity has harmed virtually everyone in her family)?  It fails on both counts, but is not better in doing so—it’s not as though this is a nuanced portrait in which I see both sides of Mary.  No, instead Peterkin tries to have her cake and eat it: Mary repents of her sins but will not leave them; she has a divine vision that calls her to a sincere change of life (but then takes it back under her breath); Mary wants to have all the comforts of conventional living with all the freedom of iconoclasm.  It’s childish, and Peterkin ought to know it.  Watching a child grow up to be a mother of ten (by nine different men, none of whom are in the picture) without ever taking responsibility for her life is simply sad, not revealing.

The book fails even to be a simple morality play.  The wicked prosper while the good suffer.  But no one seems to have any fun at all.  This novel is the novel every teenage boy I ever taught thought The Scarlet Letter was.  They never saw what Hawthorne was up to, and denounced the book for being boring, sentimental but unsympathetic, uneventful, and frankly unbelievable.  But I’d trade all of Scarlet Sister Mary for that one walk Pearl takes in the woods, or the thoughts that flit through Dimmesdale’s mind in an hour on the scaffold.  The novel isn’t as wretched as the worst Pulitzer winner I read (despite all my complaints), but it fails to convince me that Peterkin had any reason to write it beyond a vague interest in writing a sort of “Scarlet Letter” from a “black perspective”.  And in doing so, she achieves neither the former nor the latter.

Historical Insight:

The book doesn’t do enough here, but its marginal successes here are about its only saving grace.  The depiction of African-American piety, with its notions of grace and sin, along with the vivid experience of its church meetings and Brer Dee “lining out” hymns, is absolutely the strength of the book.  I don’t know if I can trust Peterkin to be accurate, but it’s interesting enough that I believe in that slice of life, and want more.  The rest is silliness—Peterkin doesn’t know the first thing about cotton-picking, and does very little to conjure a believable life for a mother of ten in a world before electronics and home appliances.  A real Sister Mary would be working her fingers to the bone trying to earn money, cook, clean, wash, tend to, etc., the needs of such a vast family with no significant outside help.  But instead she seems to have the carefree life of a teenager.  There may be young children in the home, but Peterkin’s uninterested in making that seem remotely vivid.  There’s something to this book that calls to me—I’d like to read a real African-American take on church-going and growing up a “sinner”.  But it’s not coming anytime soon…Gone With The Wind, to name but one, is one of the hurdles between me and black authenticity.


This novel rates at “unworthy of your time”.  It has none of the worst excesses of The Able McLaughlins that made that novel fun to hate.  It’s just a waste of good paper and ink—at best, the rough draft of a novel Peterkin could have written with the help of an aggressive editor and at least one genuine black American with the willingness to share a real story.  It’s a shame she never did.

The Last Word:

Since you’ll never read this book, I don’t mind sharing the very last scene in it: Mary has just had a painful experience involving the death of a child.  She has spent days without food and water, praying to God for help and repenting all her sins.  She has begged her way into the church because she wants to “walk in the light” again.  And now that the elders have decided to forgive her and make her a Christian again, here’s the last scene, involving the old conjurer, Daddy Cudjoe, and the charm he gave her that allowed her to use black magic to seduce the many men she’s seduced:

Meeting was over and the people came up to welcome Mary back into the fold.  They shook her hand until it was numb, her arm ached with weariness, but her heart was warmed through with so much kindliness.

Old Daddy Cudjoe came last, after most of the others had gone and only Andrew waited outside to see Mary home.  He took Mary’s hand and shook it, then he cut his eyes all around to be certain Maum Hannah could not hear him when he whispered:

“If you gwine to quit wid mens now, Si May-e, do gi me you conjure rag.  E’s de best charm I ever made.”

Mary looked straight into his eyes and smiled as she shook her head.

“I’ll lend em to you when you need em, Daddy, but I couldn’ gi way my love-charm.  E’s all I got now to keep me young.”

“He believed that because he was always sincere, his opinions must always be correct.”

The “he” in this instance is Dr. Pickerbaugh, the windbag public health official for whom Martin Arrowsmith now serves as assistant.  Pickerbaugh never misses a chance to write a shockingly bad poem about tuberculosis for the paper, or to demand that the city fathers sponsor “Take Cold Showers Week” to spread the good news of his public health ideas (which seem mostly to amount to old wives’ tales with a thin layer of science spread atop).  He is so thoroughly lampooned that it should seem obvious that Sinclair Lewis wants to draw contrasts for us—the pompous phonyism of Pickerbaugh with the cold medical realism of Arrowsmith; the unnecessarily restrictive morality and excessively judgmental behavior of Pickerbaugh with the sunny openness and air of freedom that surrounds Arrowsmith.  But Martin once again proves able to elude any chance that I might form a high opinion of him.

You see, Pickerbaugh has eight daughters (all named after flowers, even the five year old twins, Arbuta and Gladiola), and the eldest, Orchid, is a charming little flirt, all of nineteen years old, with an eye for a dashing older man (married or not).  And Martin proves as helpless at the wheel of his love life as he did in his college days (where, you may remember, he found himself engaged to two women at once…and decided the best thing to do was to tell them both at the same time over lunch).

It’s not that Martin proves increasingly unfaithful to Leora (without ever actually doing anything) that is really sickening.  It’s that, even when he pulls back from his impulse to “make love” to Orchid (it should be noted that “making love” meant something rather different in the 1920s…more akin to “wooing” or “hitting on”, depending on one’s approach), he does so for thoroughly self-centered reasons.  It’s not that he thinks it would be wrong to treat Leora in such cavalier fashion.  It’s not even that he worries about how she’ll treat him if she finds out.  He just thinks it would be degrading for a man like him to behave this way—essentially, it would damage his fine opinion of himself.  And yes, at times, he thinks of how good and sweet Leora is, and it causes him to pull back from Orchid’s advances….but again, it’s motivated by selfishness.  He thinks maybe he would rather have that first toy, after all, and not this bright new shiny thing.  Martin is appallingly believable as the man who does all the things that make a person feel guilty, and who experiences none of the joys that ought to accompany such guilty actions—this is how Lewis puts it, and it’s fair.  I’m not advocating (Heaven knows!) marital infidelity, but somehow it would be better for his character if he truly loved Orchid—if their furtive conversations and one illicit embrace were a sincere expression of love.  His disloyalty to Leora would then at least march under the flag of passion, an emotion that turns somewhere outside himself.  But Martin seems trapped in the gravity well of his massive (yet strangely fragile) ego.

I don’t know what to make of all this, other than that Lewis seems to want to bring down every aspect of the Midwestern society he describes, like Samson in the temple of the Philistines.  He thinks the men who make up “high society” are ignorant fools, and the men who make up the professional classes are educated fools, and the rest are too vulgar to bother with.  The religious are either frauds or fenced in by their own piety; the irreligious are soulless libertines or else aimless wanderers.  The landscape grows excessively bleak, frankly–it’s being well-written and well realized, I think, but it’s harder and harder to enjoy.  It’s hard to want a bad ending for Martin (who deserves one) but there isn’t much to Martin, if we’re going to have a “redemption” storyline.  And the role of science in all this seems to serve less as a theme and more as a setting—certainly it’s not clear to me how the new science is affecting events, for good or ill, and that’s a shame, since an examination of science in the 1920s would be really intriguing to me.  I’m trying not to blame the book for failing to be what I want out of it…but the book seems disinterested in being much of anything other than a chronicle of human frailty and childishness, and it’s hard not to blame such a book for failing to offer something more, whether an explanation, a justification (however weak), or a cure.