“Then Göring, President of the Reichstag, declared the session adjourned, and so a great people lost their liberties while rejoicing over gaining them.”

There’s a conventional wisdom about Holocaust movies and the Academy Awards—namely, that if you can just manage to set your movie in that ghastly genocidal event somewhere, the overwhelming emotions associated with it will lend your film a gravity and importance that it might not deserve, and earn you some nominations/awards you otherwise wouldn’t get.  And there’s some truth to it.  For every Schindler’s List, which is a truly great movie, there’s a The Reader or The Pianist (arthouse films that, set in almost any other historical era of oppression and violence, probably wouldn’t get quite the notice), and then the occasional Life is Beautiful, a film that almost no one likes as well in retrospect as they did when it came out, a film that (for many of us) really cheated its way into our hearts by dialing up our emotions to 11 but without giving the subject matter the depth of understanding it deserved, now that we think about it.

Welcome to the rise of Nazi Germany, then, in the hands of Upton Sinclair, because that’s right, dear readers, James is back on the Pulitzer trail and half-way through the 1943 winner of the prize, Dragon’s Teeth.  I’m making more headway now, and it’s time to come up for air and share a few thoughts with you all.  Sinclair’s approach to the novel is still not totally successful for me, but somehow the story is becoming more and more engrossing.  Yet, if I step back to think about it, I worry a little that it’s a Life is Beautiful phenomenon.  The story is set in such an urgent and important time period in German and Jewish history, and several of our main characters (though not the protagonists) are German Jews, and it can be easy to get swept up in the power of what the actual lives of those characters would have been that I don’t think as much about whether Sinclair’s work with them is actually successful writing.  And it’s hard to say exactly where I stand.

Sinclair does some things well—the quote that serves as the post’s title is a nice example.  He does great with these sweeping movements of history, noting what the famous real-life people are doing, sneaking notes about their intrigues and scheming into conversations wherever he can, and moralizing extensively about them in the voice of the narrator—“The Germans gained an empire and lost their souls”, stuff like that—without it being remotely tied to any individual character’s perspective on the situation.  Much of it feels like just a memoir written by a thoughtful and aggressive partisan, which really it is: Sinclair’s perspective on the gross errors made by Americans and Western Europeans in the 1930s which had led to the position the world is in as he writes, engulfed in the second world war, the war they’d sworn to avoid in 1917 and yet had somehow planted the seeds of in the very peace they signed in 1919.  Honestly, I’d rather read his memoir.  He’s much better at dicing up the leftist movements into factions and explaining how they thwarted each other, or examining the ways in which Fascism could present itself as respectable in so many different lights, than he is at writing meaningful dialogue or constructing characters we care about as people.  Sinclair, in other words, could easily have written half of The Grapes of Wrath—the non-Joad chapters, in which Steinbeck told the story of the people and their movements and what it all signified—but would have found even the worst Joad chapter hopelessly above his reach.  That’s my impression as it stands now.

And it’s such a shame, because he sets himself up beautifully.  We’re in 1933, and Hitler has seized power—Jews are fleeing the German Republic as it loses the very name of “republic”, and some of our central characters are among them.  I’ve just read about how the young German Jewish musician, Hansi Robin, fled with his wife across the border into France (with the Budds’ assistance), and then played the music of his people with tears in his eyes before a crowd as an act of political protest once the abuses of the Nazi party against Jews in Germany are starting to make the news.  And it really is powerful, right up until I realize that the character I’m sympathizing with is a guy I personally am constructing.  I’m piecing him together from some of the movies I mentioned, and some stories I’ve read, and the words of a couple of Holocaust survivors whose stories I was privileged enough to hear in person, more than a decade ago.  If I knew nothing about this era other than what Sinclair is giving me, I’d have almost no emotion to bring to the table—unless he has a violin in his hands, I literally cannot even tell one Robin brother from the other, let alone remember which one is socialist and which one communist.

The result is difficult to characterize.  The art of the West is now well steeped in Holocaust memories and events—most potential readers could bring a rich palate of emotions to these chapters just as I can, and get something out of them that Upton never put in.  So, does that make this a good reading experience?  But then every time I try to really grab hold of someone—to ask myself who this American heir to a munitions manufacturer, Lanny Budd, really is, or what I think his rich wife, Irma, really thinks about the power struggle in Germany—I realize they’re just paper people.  I turn them in my hands to try to see them better, and they are so thin that they disappear to me almost entirely.

So, am I enjoying myself?  I’m getting something from the reading, that’s for sure.  At least some of it is new to me—Sinclair knew the politics of leftist movements internationally very well, and I’m sure I can trust those details in the story.  Much of it resonates with other non-fiction books I’ve read, maybe most centrally Erik Larson’s (he of The Devil in the White City: if you haven’t read Larson, you need to hunt something down) In The Garden of Beasts, which is about a real American family, a wealthy one, that came to Germany when the paterfamilias was appointed ambassador to the new Nazi state, and his adult kids came piling along with him to meet these fresh-faced young Aryans and learn more about the young German empire as it was being reborn.  It’s exactly the book Sinclair wants to write, truthfully, and the fact that I’ve read it means that I really can add dimension to some of the conversations he’s supplying.  The novel itself isn’t terrible—it’s just sloppy, because he doesn’t really care about these people as people.  They’re there solely to serve Sinclair’s agenda, like characters in a Dan Brown novel, who are there only to help Dan tell us his latest “insights” into world religion or history or whatever he thinks he’s an expert on this year.  Now, again, as I said earlier, I think Sinclair is fascinating, and I’d have read his memoir about the 1930s with interest—he’s well ahead of Brown in that regard, for me.  So I forgive him more, I think, for the fact that this is more a piece of propaganda, combined with a bit of a scolding tone aimed at the middle-class folks who should have listened more to people like Upton Sinclair in the ’30s, than it is a work of art.  That’s the way it feels now, at any rate: we’ll see if the last half can move me from this position at all!

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“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.

“Instead of peace, the nations had got more armaments and more debts.”

This much, at least, can be said for Upton Sinclair’s Dragon’s Teeth, the 1943 Pulitzer Prize winner for fiction and the current monkey on my back—it does all it can to summon up the picture of how chaotic Europe felt in the period following World War I, particularly the first dangerous signs of the worldwide depression that creeps up around our main characters here in the spring of 1930.  What is frustrating is how little else Sinclair is interested in doing with the novel.  The cast of characters is pretty broad, at this point—we have Lanny Budd, the scion of a munitions magnate, and his wealthy wife Irma, and their little infant; Lanny’s friend, the wealthy German Jewish importer/exporter, Johannes Robin, along with his wife and assorted leftist kids, one of whom has married Lanny’s communist half-sister; snooty parents galore, supercilious nurses and servants, a crusty yacht captain, an aging Greek industrialist, a middle-aged Polish woman who claims to be able to contact a Native American named Tecumseh in the spirit world, and the list goes on.  This mix of people ought to yield almost unending delight and fascination, but instead, Sinclair is running the whole book aground on what the late Roger Ebert called “Brotman’s Law“—“If nothing has happened by the end of the first reel, nothing is going to happen.”  I am, translating movie reels into novel pages, about two reels into Dragon’s Teeth at this point, and I fear Brotman is right about my fate.

It’s not that nothing at all happens: it’s only that no meaningful tension or conflict is being built up to.  Every incident seems to pass quickly and unimportantly: Lanny and Irma have some little tensions but I’m not waiting with bated breath for their marriage’s house of cards to rise or fall.  Robin’s concerns for his childrens’ leftist sympathies keep recurring, but with no apparent end in mind.  For crying out loud, our Polish psychic with the Indian spirit guide, who ought to be good for at least a laugh (if not some spooky mystery), is of no significance in the novel’s terms either—she does seem to have freakish abilities to talk about facts she should have no way of knowing, but the characters themselves are not terribly interested, and so far all it’s done is provide Lanny with an opportunity to intrigue a businessman into coming down to the yacht for a seance.  None of this is gripping writing.  I have no idea why I’m following all these people, why I care if someone’s making money or losing money, whether it matters that someone is coming on the yacht, or buying a painting, or worried about their mother, etc.  There isn’t a single character in the novel who, if Sinclair killed them off on the next page, would make even a small ripple in the pool of the story: I wouldn’t wonder about an unfinished thought or a storyline that might never resolve.  As I think about it, isn’t that a pretty damning statement to be able to make about any novel?

So, what is Sinclair doing, if not creating some sort of meaningful plot?  Well, on the one hand, I think he expects his setting to do the heavy lifting here: we know, from the vantage point of 1943, what these characters do not.  We know to shake our heads sadly as Lanny and his father hope that the family fortunes rebound once the stock market dusts itself off from that one-time little hiccup in October of 1929.  We know to cringe with fear as Robin, the wealthy German Jew, makes a little cash selling guns to the Nazi Party while simultaneously betting on the fact that they’ll never seize power.  We suck in our breath quietly as the rich folks tour the Mediterranean by yacht and see all the terrible battlefields of what they don’t know yet should be called the First World War.  But that’s not enough, Upton, and you really ought to be able to know it.  All it does is give a sense of forboding, the knowledge that there’s a horizon and crossing it will have consequences.  What differentiates this from a truly tragic and ironic piece (say, Oedipus Rex) is the impulse that drives the action forward, the captain wrecking the ship on the rocks only we know are there, the plague in Thebes that will force its ruler to unearth the true cause even as it unmakes his whole life.  It wouldn’t take much for Sinclair to crack the whip a little and get us there—some specific dealing for Robin vis-a-vis the Nazis that will force a meaningful confrontation, or maybe some leftist shenanigans that a few young Budds and Robins get mixed up in (maybe in the Soviet Union?) that forces the rest of the family to get off their butts.  But he’s not interested in writing that kind of book.

What is he writing?  Propaganda—the folks who bash Grapes of Wrath and Steinbeck for being “too political” really should read this to understand their error.  Sinclair’s not interested in writing a story; he’s trying to inculcate us, to fix in our minds certain images about the world and the people in it, and the result is clunkily phrased and not really very compelling.  Take this paragraph as an example: the Budds wait at the train station for the arrival of their friends, the Robins:

“Two happy members of the prosperous classes welcoming five of their intimate friends on the platform of a railroad station.  Everybody there knew who the Budds were, and knew that when they hugged and kissed people, and laughed and chatted with them gaily, the people must be wealthy and famous like themselves.  A pleasant thing to have friends whom you can love and appreciate, and who will love and appreciate you.  Pleasant also to have villas and motorcars and yachts; but many people do not have them, and do not have many dear friends.  They know themselves to be dull and undistinguished, and feel themselves to be lonely; they stand and watch with a sad envy the behavior of the fortunate classes on those few occasions when they condescend to manifest their feelings in public.”

First off, if you like that, go get this book because it was written just for you.  For the rest of us, you hear, I think, how snippy Sinclair gets when he talks about these families.  Even granting him that they are too rich for their own good, and oblivious to how that affects others (though I’m not sure this isn’t just a caricature), is it too much to ask that he grant them the respect of being people who also have genuine feelings and, you know, more than one dimension?  Here he seems to bundle up their genuine joy at seeing their friends—not because they’re rich but because they’re human beings who care about each other—with crass consumerism and oppressive class warfare.  Upton, buddy, if you hate these people, at least make them interesting to watch, or hey, original idea here, maybe write a novel that isn’t fixated entirely on a class of people you think are parasites?  Because the sneering narration just makes it that much harder to care about a group of people whose uneventful and totally carefree lives are not the makings of a really gripping thriller.  The sad thing here is, I really want to care about these characters, a lot more than Sinclair does.  I see, in ways that he doesn’t, how complicated and fascinating a man like Johannes Robin would really have to be—the German Jew profiteering off World War I and turning a buck off of supplying Hitler with machine guns, whose leftist children are sending cash to the Communists and would move to Stalin’s USSR if Dad would let them, the devoted husband and conscientious friend who sticks loyally by his commitments and who grew up in such poverty in the ghetto that he means never to be unsafe again.  This is a guy you ought to be able to construct a towering novel around, with intrigue and connections to the German underworld, whispers of Nazi outrages but it’s 1930 and who knows, maybe Hitler’s just burning off steam, etc.  And all Sinclair can do with him is make some weird remarks about his Jewishness (sometimes it feels like a defense against anti-Semitism, and other times it feels a little deferential to it), a couple of quick quips about the Nazis, and then mostly a long streak of semi-judgmental incidents that show us that rich dudes are out of touch.  It’s not even edgy, pointed satire: most of the time it’s paint-by-numbers, lots of “X didn’t think much about the servants” or “Y wished that Z would realize how much money she’d brought to the marriage, and relax a little about making a success of his business”.

Oh, and as if all this isn’t enough, Sinclair has the fatal combination of A) casting two nursing mothers as central characters in his novel while B) clearly being a guy who cannot talk like a decent human being about nursing mothers.  And I’m not just talking about him creepily dwelling on it all the time, although he does: almost no scene is complete without either the nursing mothers being somehow inconvenient or noteworthy, or else the narrator alluding to what they’re doing.  I’ve read the phrase “the lactant mothers” more times than anyone should have to.  But he also weirdly analogizes them constantly to cows—I know, it sounds like a bad joke, but I’m serious, he refers to any social outing including both nursing mothers as a “dairy farm”, and the adjective “bovine” is used more than once in reference to them.  I mean, that’s so comically offensive, it’s hard to know how to respond.  I’ve certainly read and heard a wide array of profoundly stupidly sexist things in my day, but I don’t know if I can remember encountering anything as unexpectedly outrageous and vulgar as that in a long while.  I grant that there are exceedingly childish dudes out there who act this way around women when their bodies are being used for anything other than sexual objectification for the benefit of men, and that there were probably more of them in 1943 than there are today.  But do we have to award Pulitzer Prizes to these cretins?

A cow

In case it’s not clear, it’s not like I hate cows: cows are awesome. But there are lines you just don’t cross. (Photo credit: SocialRobot)

So, yeah, that’s where we are so far with Upton Sinclair—a dull piece of political propaganda that’s faintly anti-Semitic and distinctly sexist (although I think most sexists would object that calling a woman lovingly nursing her infant “cow-like” is beyond the pale even for them).  I am making the experience of reading it sound way more exciting than it actually is.  I’m hanging in there, though, in part because I chained myself to the mast of this ship, and in part because I know just enough about Europe in the 1930s that I can basically have a fan-fic track running in my head as I go in which all of these scenes are a lot more interesting and all of these characters are a lot more three-dimensional.  We’ll see if Sinclair can salvage this voyage (despite the dictates of Brotman’s Law), but hope is fading.

“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.