1940: The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck


From the Back Cover:

At once naturalistic epic, captivity narrative, road novel, and transcendental gospel, Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath is perhaps the most American of American classics. Although it follows the movement of thousands of men and women and the transformation of an entire nation during the Dust Bowl migration of the 1930s, The Grapes of Wrath is also the story of one Oklahoma farm family, the Joads, who are driven off their homestead and forced to travel west to the promised land of California. From their trials and their repeated collisions against the hard realities of this new America, Steinbeck creates a drama that is intensely human yet majestic in its scale and moral vision, tragic but ultimately stirring in its insistence on human dignity.

My Thoughts:

It’s difficult to know exactly where to begin with a book like The Grapes of Wrath. I remember first reading it for pleasure in the 7th grade, a time in which I was probably just old enough to begin to understand the more subtle, complex ramifications of the book, but not quite old enough to maintain a decent grasp on them. I borrowed the book from my grandmother’s bookshelf at her recommendation, after she had told me a few stories of her own life growing up in West Texas through the Great Depression and World War 2. Many of those stories are just bits and pieces now, and if anything, rereading The Grapes of Wrath now makes me want to hear them again, and ask better questions this time around.

I read The Grapes of Wrath again in high school, as part of the assigned curriculum either my sophomore or junior year, although I couldn’t tell you now which it was. I remember it feeling like a task and leaving a bad taste in my mouth, like many of the books I was assigned in high school. However, I have been fortunate to go back to many of those that did seem beleaguering during school and had the opportunity to enjoy them outside of any assignments. And, after reading and enjoying several other novels by Steinbeck over the years since high school, I finally had the chance to come back to this one and read it in a whole new light.

There is something fantastically complex in the simplicity of the goal of this novel. Steinbeck, on the surface, is telling the story of the Joad family, pushed off their farm in Oklahoma and migrating to California in search of work, only to run into a whole new set of troubles there. However, the Joads function as the new Everyman, showing that their struggle is not singular or unusual, but is in fact the struggle of tens or hundreds of thousands, that the Joad family is in a very real way the new face of America. Frequent cut scenes throughout the novel describe actions and events as habitual and recurring and reinforce the reality of life for migrant workers on the road and looking for a job.

The Grapes of Wrath is propaganda, let there be no doubt. It was designed to tell the stories of the migrant workers in a way that would stir people to action against the injustices that these displaced people were facing. It was a dangerous and revolutionary book, and one that would lead the FBI to maintain a file on Steinbeck throughout the 1950s when the fear of Communism gripped the country tightly. It’s a story that vilifies capitalism and it’s cronies to the point of making them out as murderers, even if they are unintentionally murderers. It is a book that does not pull any punches as the reader is forced to bear witness to suffering and starvation and death. It is a powerhouse of a novel that does not let up. Steinbeck gave a voice to a people who had been objectified, commoditized, and exploited; a people who would not have had a voice otherwise.

The Pulitzer Prizes, especially for Fiction and Novel, have been fraught with controversy since their inception, and I’ve discovered, going back and reading some of the older winners, that they were books that did not hold up to time, that may have been important or influential the year they were published, but have been all but forgotten now. The Grapes of Wrath is not one of those books. It was not only the most talked about, most read, and likely most controversial book published in 1939, but it is one that continues to endure, and continues to matter. Injustices are still being enacted upon people, especially in the guise of capitalism. The free market exploits and slavery worldwide is at an all time high. These same problems are still relevant today, still exist today, and should be just as equally repugnant today as they were to so many readers 75 years ago. Of all the novels I have read thus far in my exploration of the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, this is without a doubt the most appropriately awarded novel I have read. And it is without a doubt one of the most important pieces of American fiction from the 20th Century.

Favorite passage:

Behind the tractor rolled the shining disks, cutting the earth with blades–not plowing but surgery, pushing the cut earth to the right where the second row of disks cut it and pushed it to the left; slicing blades shining, polished by the cut earth. And pulled behind the disks, the harrows combing with iron teeth so that the little clods broke up and the earth lay smooth. Behind the harrows, the long seeders–twelve curved iron penes erected in the foundry, orgasms set by gears, raping methodically, raping without passion. The driver sat in his iron seat and he was proud of the straight lines he did not will, proud of the tractor he did not own or love, proud of the power he could not control. And when that crop grew, and was harvested, no man had crumbled a hot clod in his fingers and let the earth sift past his fingertips. No man had touched the seed, or lusted for the growth. Men ate what they had not raised, had no connection with the bread. The land bore under iron, and under iron gradually died; for it was not loved or hated, it had no prayers or curses.

Why you should read it:

This is one of the few books that has defined and shaped America in the past 250 years. It paints a picture of an era and people that is still engrained in American culture 75 years later. It is the voice of a people who suffered and struggled and who had no voice of their own. If you haven’t read it, or if you read it years ago in school and didn’t like it then, pick it back up. Like Malcolm Cowley wrote, this book is “very high in the category of great angry books like Uncle Tom’s Cabin that have aroused a people to fight against intolerable wrongs.”

Currently reading: The Trees by Conrad Richter



2 thoughts on “1940: The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck

  1. I’m glad I came across this post, as I’m at a very reflective period in my life and find myself, as you stated, revisiting reads from my younger years. I hated Steinbeck with a passion. I couldn’t connect with his language or his story. Now, 15-17 years later, I KNOW I’ll not only appreciate but likely enjoy revisiting some of his works. I’m going to add this to the list. I’m currently in a JD Salinger phase, although I’ve always been enthralled with his descriptive language and style of storytelling. Happy reading.

  2. Hi! I’ve been reading your site for a long time now and finally
    got the courage to go ahead and give you a shout out from Humble Tx!
    Just wanted to say keep up the fantastic job!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s