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’.'”

“To the red country and part of the gray country of Oklahoma, the last rains came gently, and they did not cut the scarred earth.”

So begins John Steinbeck‘s The Grapes of Wrath, the winner of the Pulitzer Prize for the Novel in 1940.  With Grapes, I take on what is probably the most well-regarded novel in Pulitzer’s pantheon—the book that, more than any other recipient of the honor (with apologies to Edith Wharton and Harper Lee), has the status of “classic American novel” across almost every demographic.  Well-regarded by critics and lay readers, praised by grad students and by 11th graders (at least on occasion), its title is instantly recognizable to most of the reading public, and if Americans were asked to list novels they know are supposed to be “great” or “important”, I have no trouble believing that Grapes would make the top ten.  Its popularity is not universal, of course, but no book can make that claim.  Still, its public esteem towers above most of its Pulitzer brothers and sisters—forgotten novels that survive now only on dusty library shelves and in the hands of well-intentioned if mediocre bloggers—as a name that does the prize credit.  Like Babe Ruth or Nadia Comenici, we can argue about whether it remains the very best of its peers, but we are sure that no list of the “greatest” would be accurate if it is excluded.  This is pretty lofty praise, I know, but I think it’s worth acknowledging that I’m approaching a book with a daunting reputation—one of the few books on the list where I feel as though, if I review it negatively, my comments will reflect more badly on me than they will on the book, whose fame will more than defend it.  This is not to say I won’t be honest about it!  But it does give pause.

English: (1885-1978) US journalist Source: htt...

Seriously, Anna Louise Strong is fascinating—agree with her or not (and I often don’t), reading her work made me think, which is one of my highest compliments. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

My history with Steinbeck is limited to having taught Of Mice and Men once (and loving it), and having done a little reading of excerpts here and there—otherwise I know him more by his reputation than by anything else.  I’ve never even tried to read The Grapes of Wrath, nor have I seen the film (though I’ve seen still photographs of a young Henry Fonda often enough that, like it or not, he’s Tom Joad for me).  The closest I’ve ever come to reading it was during a project I worked on at the University of Washington—when combing through the letters of Anna Louise Strong, a famous socialist/communist writer, I found, read, and scanned her letters to Eleanor Roosevelt (who, it must be said, seemed to enjoy sparring with Strong, but wasn’t terribly receptive to her more radical leanings).  In a letter written in April of 1939, she talks about her travels with John Steinbeck in California, and implores Eleanor to read his “tremendous novel,” The Grapes of Wrath, which has just come out.  Roosevelt read the book, called it “an unforgettable experience”, and became one of Steinbeck’s staunchest defenders against public criticism about the political implications of his work.  I was intrigued by this exchange—and by Strong, a fascinating woman whose memoirs are well worth the read…not many people were close with both Trotsky and Mao, and her stories about traveling in the Soviet Union right after the Revolution are really spell-binding—but never got as far as picking up a copy.  I don’t know what slowed me down…maybe I just got distracted?

Anyway, I’ve read the first two chapters, and so far I’m loving it.  Steinbeck has an incredible eye for detail—most of the time, when I read, the opening chapters irritate me as authors stumble again and again over little errors.  Trains disappear behind hills that couldn’t possibly be there if the landscape was accurately described; trees in the wind suddenly behave like cartoon caricatures rather than looking like trees actually do in a storm; etc.  But Steinbeck has really beautiful command of almost every detail, capturing the little gestures and tics that make humans real, and describing them with economy and skill.  Joad’s character is really well-formed from almost the moment he speaks: the interactions with the truck driver ring almost perfectly true, and the language captures the feel and sound of Oklahoma farmers and truck drivers without resorting to the sloppy, slangy dialect that most other American novelists of the period seemed to think was de rigeur.  Obviously at this early stage I can’t anticipate much of where the story’s going, but I like how fully he immerses me in the world from the beginning.  As much as I loved Now in November, and I truly did love that book, the maturity of Steinbeck’s prose is signalling to me already that this book will depict the grim reality of the Dust Bowl and the Great Depression in a way that Josephine Johnson’s novel couldn’t do as well.  If I’m right, this is going to be a really wonderful reading experience, and I’m looking forward to a book for the first time in a little while, which is nice.

This isn’t to say that it’ll be all roses for Steinbeck.  I’m a little concerned about the pacing of the story, and whether or not he’ll try too hard to take in the big epic generalities that he does in the first chapter (which is often great reading, but feels a little remote—I’d rather stick with the Joads, I think, if it’s all the same to him).  And I know that I’ll have to talk about gender—a criticism I’ve levied against Mice and Men (a book I otherwise really dig) and which I can already tell will be at least partly applicable to Grapes.  I’ve started well and then faded fast before, too, so I’ll keep an eye out for that…for now, it’s onward into Oklahoma in the 1930s, and one of the book’s most celebrated moments, involving a reptile of the order Testudines.

1935: Now in November, by Josephine W. Johnson

Literary Style:

Josephine Johnson finished with the same strength I’ve been raving about throughout the novel—this is a gem of a book, and all the more remarkable when you consider that it was a first novel written by a 24 year old.  It captures the Depression through the very humble lens of a single family on a failing farm, and it does so with a power that is, for me, as successful as what I’ve read of John Steinbeck.  Johnson is careful not to overplay the worldwide Great Depression as a presence, and generally steers clear of presenting any of the rich and powerful folks who are making life harder for the family farmer.  At times, I worried this diminished her message, but on the whole I feel it was the best possible decision: to pit the haves against the have-nots would make it too easy for us to rush past Marget’s real hopes and fears, and the lives of her family.  We would know what side to take up, and spend our energy railing against the fat cats.  I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with a novel that calls for activism, but novels that do this distract us from listening, and it’s critical that we listen to Marget.  She is telling us, with courageous honesty, a story we need to be quiet to hear.  I think we have to listen to her, because while it is not our story, it might have been.  And it still may be, after all: the rains still fail for some of us, sometimes, and whatever that metaphor means in real terms to you or me, it’s important to face it.

I am moved by Johnson’s ability to evoke real understanding of several very different characters, and I’m struck by her ability to make women the centerpiece of the novel, especially young women—the three sisters are very distinct, very real, and their action (or inaction) is what drives the novel.  The men in this story are important, but only in relationship to the Haldemarne girls.  I hesitate just a little in calling this a “feminist” novel, because that word has been so abused in our society (and its meaning will vary widely depending on who reads it) and because Johnson would not have had that word in her head as she wrote.  But it feels like an authentically feminine and feminist story in a way that even the best Pulitzer-winning women thus far (Wharton and Cather, each a giant in her own right) didn’t aim for or achieve in their prize-winners, whether or not they do elsewhere.  I know I’ve been fixated on race over the last few novels, but I don’t want to ignore the importance of America’s growth and change regarding gender, and this book feels important to me as a leading indicator that women’s authentic lives were finally becoming more acceptable as worthy of public attention and interest.

Reviewers at the time were very much in love with Johnson’s voice, which has been called “poetry with its feet on the ground”.  She was compared to Emily Dickinson and the Brontë sisters, although I’m not sure I’d draw the same parallels—like them, she has a great respect for (and ability to evoke and describe) the interior life of the young woman at home, especially an introspective young woman whose mind is much more active than her voice.  She sees nature very differently, though, and her interests in story and character development fall in the very large gap between a Dickinson poem and, say, Wuthering Heights.  But that she was a rare talent is certain: not many 24 year olds are discerning about themselves and the world around them with the kind of depth Johnson (through Marget) displays in Now in November, and still fewer of them could articulate that way of seeing the world in the structure of a novel.

I’ve tried to say very little about the story itself even here in the review, as I want to encourage as many people as possible to read the book.  Unlike the other Pulitzers that sit at the top of my list of favorites (The Age of Innocence and The Bridge of San Luis Rey), this is a forgotten novel—a book that even lit majors have never heard of, a book you would not have been asked to read in 8th grade or in English 301.  It deserves to be read and enjoyed, and recommended, not for any reason other than that it is beautiful and it offers us no easy answers.  It’s the kind of book you can sink into a really good discussion about—which characters you sympathized with, what significance to attach (or refuse to attach) to a given moment or turn of phrase.  How to see the ending and what to take away from the experience.  Marget’s narration is lyrically done, a very pleasant combination of plain-spoken words about the daily life on a dying farm and sharp-eyed crystalline images of the natural world, both intimate and remote from human lives.  It’s a book that doesn’t rail against injustice—it shows you what it’s like to live immersed in it, without even understanding why or how the injustice is perpetuated.  It talks about love as it really is—equal parts elation and burden, often ultimately unfulfilling and unfulfilled, almost never (once we are no longer 16) really the Romeo-and-Juliet blind wrecking-ball.  I won’t call it the Great American Novel—its scope is not quite wide enough, its ambitions are not so high, and there are little stumbles for me that are easy to forgive but just enough to hold it back from the very pinnacle.  But it is a great American novel, and a brief one, and one that anybody past the age of 12 or 13 can read with pleasure—I hope its renaissance is coming soon.

Historical Insight:

As alluded to above, this book is as good as any fiction I’ve yet read about the Great Depression—we should keep in mind that I have not yet read Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath (it’s coming, though! 1940), but that’s still pretty high praise.  I’ve read plenty of American farm novels at this point (thank you, Pulitzer board, I guess), and this really does outshine them with its ability to bring out the anxieties inherent in depending on wind and rain and sun for your life.  The tensions between farm and city are here (though often very subtle), and Marget defends the life of the farmer in her characteristically calm fashion: you can see what America looked like from the vantage point of that farmhouse front porch in 1933.  It would be easy to nitpick here—to point out that the book could do more to expose the economics that underlay the problem, or to put us more in touch with what it’s like to be Marget’s father.  But the book does more than enough for me given its brevity, and its limitations are Marget’s—we don’t get more about economics because the character narrating for us doesn’t really know what’s at work, and we don’t see more from her father’s perspective because of how much he has alienated her and how unwilling he is to share his fears with anyone in the family.  Anyway, the bottom line is, if someone told me “I’m looking for a good novel that will help me really get a feel for rural life in the 1930s”, I’d recommend this before they finished talking, and then Of Mice and Men.  Yes, Johnson beats Steinbeck.  I’m trying not to overhype this little novel, but I love it much too sincerely to be less enthusiastic about it.


Now in November receives one of the highest ratings I have yet issued: “You really owe it to yourself to find and read this book”.  I am not phrasing it in the imperative, as I did with The Age of Innocence, but I’m coming as close to that as I can.  I can envision someone disliking this book, but honestly unless you’re the kind of person who demands that your books be “cheerful” or your interests are very narrow (only certain genres, time periods, etc.) I’d be stunned if you didn’t at least enjoy the book, whether or not you reach my level of excitement about it.  It’s the kind of book a reader wants—an intriguing (unreliable?) narrator, good characterization, a vivid natural setting, and a skilled author who cares about craft and phrasing.  If it’s at your library, borrow it.  If it’s not, suggest they buy a copy.  Amazon will sell you a copy for $11.  I’m not promising refunds, but I expect you won’t be asking for one.

Last Word:

I’ve striven to avoid giving away too much of the novel, although I should probably note that it’s not full of too many twists and turns—this isn’t an Agatha Christie, and I think knowing a three sentence summary of the plot would barely diminish your enjoyment of the book.  Anyway, because that’s been my aim, choosing a passage to share as Johnson’s “last word” has been a little tough—I’ve selected one that gives away as little as possible, and have avoided by ellipsis anything I think gives too much away.  All I’ll provide as context is that this is after Marget’s lived through a lot, but before she’s lived through everything there is to face, and she’s offering a reflection on how she makes sense of her life:

“It is November, and the year dying fast in the storms.  The sycamores wrenched of leaves and the ground gold.  The ploughed fields scarred around us on the hills. . . .

I do not see in our lives any great ebb and flow or rhythm of earth.  There is nothing majestic in our living.  The earth turns in great movements, but we jerk about on its surface like gnats, our days absorbed and overwhelmed by a mass of little things—that confusion which is our living and which prevents us from being really alive.  We grow tired, and our days are broken up into a thousand pieces, our years chopped into days and nights, and interrupted.  Our hours of life snatched from our years of living. . . .

We have no reason to hope or believe, but do because we must, receiving peace in its sparse moments of surrender, and beauty in all its twisted forms, not pure, unadulterated, but mixed always with sour potato-peelings or an August sun.

There is no question of what we will do.  It is as plain before us as the dead fields.  We are not trapped any more than all other men.  Any more than life itself is a trap.  How much of what came to us came of ourselves?  Was there anything that we could have done that we did not do?  God—if you choose to say that the drouth is God—against us.  The world against us, not deliberately perhaps, more in a selfish than malicious way, coming slowly to recognize that we are not enemies or plough-shares.  And we against ourselves.”

“They would have been kind, I know, but kindness is sour comfort.”

I’ll keep this a little briefer than I might otherwise—Now in November is moving quickly since I’m really enjoying the read, and I’d rather not slow down too often to detail who is doing what.  But I want to record a few of my thoughts as I’ve been reading, partly for myself, and partly to try to continue my encouraging you to read the book.  It’s still really excellent, and seems very solidly on course to remain so.

There’s a quality to Marget’s narration that, at its best, really does rise to the best first-person narrators I’ve read.  At times perceptive about human cruelty (and her own weaknesses) almost to the extent that Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre is, at times as capable of hiding the truth from herself (and consequently almost hiding it from us) as Nick Carraway is in Fitzgerald’s Gatsby.  Johnson can’t always sustain this momentum—this is, after all, her first novel, and the novel’s scope is limited enough by the setting (the isolated family farm during the Depression) that there isn’t always room to extend out the right metaphors and images.  But it works well enough often enough that I really am startled the novel has been so forgotten.  Johnson should be at least as familiar a name to us as Willa Cather or Harper Lee, in my opinion, or at least this book is about as deserving of a place in the canon as what I’ve read by those two women.  Yes, I’m comparing this novel to To Kill A Mockingbird.  In doing so, I am probably overstating the case a little, but not by much.  There’s psychological depth here, alongside a very vivid and horrifying look at what it’s like for a farm to dry up and blow away in the Dust Bowl.  It’s the kind of book I’m going to re-read more than once, because I know I’m missing some of its subtlety as I storm forwards to see how the threads come together.  I may be disappointed in the end—certainly any novel has the ability to fail in its final chapters and weaken the overall impression of the book.  For now, though, my enthusiasm is unflagging.

In part it’s because Johnson really does get inside the Dust Bowl—the plants turning to cinders in the fields, the lack of water so painfully real that my throat constricts as I read.  Hot, angry nights where Father sits in his chair reading the Farmer’s Almanac like some kind of Tarot deck, hoping to turn over an image of rain that will make it real.  The chafing of the horse’s shoulders as it pulls water from the pond miles to the bellowing cows.  A man, drowning in despair, pouring out gallons of milk in his strawberry fields to see if they can grow on it.  There in the dust a young woman describes her family tearing apart, descending into madness, destroyed by their own hope.  It’s remarkably compelling, despite being a plot that thrives largely on the absence of events—more than anything else, it is a novel about what doesn’t happen, and what will not come to pass.  I’m hooked.  A review approaches, perhaps with one more reflection before it arrives, and perhaps not.  Go get a copy from your library and see if I’m wrong about this one.