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.
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.
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.
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.
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’.'”