Unfortunately (or possibly fortunately, depending on your experience) my high school curriculum did not include John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath. Now that the steamy Summer months have come full swing, the time felt ripe to crack open the author’s dust-laden novel of a working class family struggling to survive. The Grapes of Wrath follows the Joad family and their pursuit to persist in the Land of the Free.
Tom Joad, who has been holed up in the penitentiary for the last four years, returns to his family home in Oklahoma to find no one there. On his way up the driveway, the former inmate encounters Jim Casy, the preacher; who is now rip-roaring drunk. Out of work, out of food, out of a way to live, the family was forced to leave their home after the bank lays claim to their property, the denounced holy-man explains. When Tom eventually finds his family, who were hiding out at Uncle John’s place down the road, Pa Joad explains their intention to find work in California. “Got a flyer – says they want 500 workers to come pick peaches.” Within a few days, the large family packs up their truck and leaves Oklahoma for California – but not before watching their house get bulldozed to the ground.
Steinbeck pens a journalistic style with a passionate prose to structure The Grapes of Wrath; which resembles then contemporary, Ernest Hemmingway. Rather than weave personal thoughts and observations within the Joad’s story, the author oscillates between manifesto and story arc. While there is certainly a lack of confusion on the reader’s part, the decision leads to an exhaustingly obvious opinion, which proves quite detrimental to the novel:
“The moving, questing people were migrants now. These families who had lived on a little piece of land, who had lived and died on forty acres, had eaten or starved on the produce of forth acres, had now the whole West to rove in. And they scampered about, looking for work; and the ditch banks were lines of people. Behind them more were coming. The great highways streamed with moving people. There in the Middle-and-Southwest had lived a simple agrarian folk who had not changed with the industry, who had not farmed with machines or known the power and danger of machines in private hands. They had not grown up in the paradoxes of industry. Their senses were still sharp to the ridiculousness of the industrial life.”
Notoriety for Grapes of Wrath is derived from Steinbeck’s many characters. We count seventeen in this list, yet that number is inadequate to measure up the impact of each person in the novel. Utilizing the long, emotive passages associated with melodrama, the author breathes life into each name on the page, which allows an associated memory to develop. Steinbeck has the ability to show grace at forming a smaller image to illustrate the entire puzzle:
“The preacher nodded his head slowly. ‘Every kid got a turtle sometime or other. Nobody can’t keep a turtle though. They work at it and work at it, and at last one day they get out and away they go –off somewhere. It’s like me. I wouldn’t take the good ol’ gospel that was just layin’ there to my hand. I go to be pickin’ at it an’ workin at it until I got it all tore down. Here I got the sperit sometimes an’ nothin’ to preach about. I go the call to lead people, an’ no place to lead ‘em.”
Due to the massive success of Grapes of Wrath, the reader is forced to encounter the sad fate of culturally venerated works – unavoidable mimicry. The idea and popular image of relocating to the bountiful lands of California has been so copied – though not with some success - even the original reads like an imitation. “His most mellifluous, his most melodramatic, his angriest and most idyllic,” the back of my book cover reads, but besides Steinbeck’s expert coordination of characters, the novel is pure soap opera and – only just – filled with enough entertaining passages to keep reading:
“Casy said sadly, ‘I wisht they could see it. I wisht they could see the on’y way they can deepen’ on their meat- Oh the hell! Get tar’d sometimes. God awful tar’d. I knowed a fella. Brang ‘im in while I was in the jail house. Been tryin’ to start a union. Got one started. An’ then them vigilantes bust it up. An’ kno what? Them very folks he been tryin’ to help tossed him out. Wouldn’ have nothin’ to do with ‘im. Scared they’d get saw in his comp’ny. Sa, Git out. You’re a danger on us. Well, sir, it hurt his feelin’s purty bad. But then he says it ain’t so bad if you know. He says French Revolution – all them fellas that figgered her out got their heads chopped off. Always that way, he says. Jus’ as natural as rain. You didn’t do it for fun no way. Doin’ it cause you have to. Cause it’s you. Look a Washington, he says. Fit the Revolution, an after, them sons-a-bitches turned on him. An’ Lincoln the same. Same folks yellin’ to kill ‘em. Natural as rain.”
Grapes of Wrath was part of Steinbeck’s “Califoria novels,” which included In Dubious Battle, Of Mice and Men, and East of Eden. Though very successful, the socially charged work was forced to endure a harsh, sometimes threatening reaction from readers. ”I want to put a tag of shame on the greedy bastards who are responsible for this Great Depression,” Steinbeck wrote while preparing the novel. The author received a multitude of threats and the book was banned in “numerous places, including Kern county, Calfornia“ - where the Joads ended their migration.
After the death of friend Ed Ricketts, Steinbeck’s literary and seemingly altruistic fervor would lose momentum, “except for Eden.” An eschewed sense of leftist patriotism would take over the author, which caused “hearing no evil of Democrat presidents,” and “completely believing as much as Lyndon Johnson” in support of the Vietnam war. While the Nobel prize win is admirable – though the “best of a bad lot” – the Steinbeck who penned Grapes of Wrath could hardly be seen after World War II.
In conclusion, The Grapes of Wrath stands a novel so engrained in the American literary conscious that a cultural knee-jerk is produced, but one that only lasts a moment.