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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“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.

“The people in flight from the terror behind—strange things happen to them, some bitterly cruel and some so beautiful their faith is refired forever.”

Stop whatever else you are doing.  Or, if you are about to leave the house, set aside the next free half-hour you can build a wall around.  Get out your copy of The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck.  If you do not own one, admit this to no one—go quickly to the nearest library or bookstore and remedy this most grievous situation.  You will want a quiet place where you feel sure no one will overhear you (or else someone you love and trust).  Pour yourself a small glass of water, and take one tantalizing sip.  Let the rest lie untouched at a table by your side until the chapter is over.

Turn to Chapter 12, the chapter than begins “Highway 66 is the main migrant road…” and read it out loud.  Don’t rush it—read it gently, read it with confidence, read it with care.  Read it the way Garrison Keillor reads aloud, even though you sometimes think he overdoes it with his Midwestern vowels—he is right about this, and you are wrong.  Tell yourself that you are reading one of the great American poems that found itself unexpectedly in the middle of a novel, the song of a people, the bare bones of a nation’s hope and fear and wrestling match with the frontier and the promise of Opportunity and the idea of the West.  As the chapter progresses, there will be characters—try to give them voices.  The poem is also a play, full of scenes and soliloquies but without stage directions, and your mind will have to be the stage.  See them as you speak for them.  When you get to the very end, give yourself a moment or two of absolute quiet, and then take a good long drink of the water Danny asks for.  This is a chapter to savor, not only because it is beautifully written, but because it is so raw and honestly American.  I have no idea what Joseph Pulitzer wanted out of his Pulitzer Prize, but this is what he should have wanted, and if Steinbeck’s novel from here on out is a shattering disappointment (an outcome I do not expect) the book is still a masterpiece for what it’s done so far.

I know I should write more, but I don’t want to impose my meaning on Chapter 12 just yet….I want to mull it over and live with it a while, and let some of you do the same (if you’re willing).  I finished it and I knew I just had to set the book down and breathe for a bit.  I got the notion to read it out loud about three sentences in, and the experience was something truly numinous.  If Whitman and Frost had tried to collaborate, I think the prose poem they fashioned would have borne a close likeness to this chapter about the road west.  Stunning.  I do apologize, by the way, for a long absence—a trip home to the Northwest took me away from the blog (and I set the novel aside too, figuring I wanted to be able to blog reactions, rather than save them up throughout the trip….I came back to Steinbeck tonight for the first time in a couple of weeks, and he dropped me with one perfect punch).  For the last time, folks, if you haven’t read Grapes, get it on your nightstand, and if you have read it, keep talking to me in the comments—this is a reading experience I want to share with as many people as possible.

P.S. Who are these people who criticize the non-Joad chapters as being “dull” or “boring” or “a waste of time”?  If you’re lurking, speak up and make your case, because I don’t get it.  It’s like saying that Beethoven’s Ninth is a pretty good symphony “except for all that singing toward the end”.

“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!

“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.