1940: The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck

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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. Continue reading

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The 1940 Novel Decision

The jury of Fletcher, Krutch, and Lovett returned for the third and final year in 1940, and by their opinion, had no trouble selecting their recommendation for the prize, writing in their report, “We are unanimously agreed to recommend as our first choice ‘The Grapes of Wrath’ by John Steinbeck,” calling it “the most powerful and significant of all the works submitted for our consideration.” As a second choice, they listed Escape by Ethel Vance, and in the case neither of those satisfied the committee, also provided To the End of the World by Helen White, Seasoned Timber by Dorothy Canfield, and Night Riders by Robert Penn Warren as tertiary recommendations.

While the jury had no problem recommending The Grapes of Wrath, some members of the Pulitzer Prize Advisory Board had problems with Steinbeck’s work being awarded the prize. In advance of their meeting, member Walter M. Harrison of the Oklahoma City paper Daily Oklahoman, wrote to the board trying to persuade them not to choose The Grapes of Wrath, stating that “such a decision would encourage more efforts in erotica by a host of authors writing for the market and promote a false sense of value with the immature reader which surely is neither enlightening nor constructive.” He went on to complain that while some of the migrants from his state may resemble the characters in the book, “there is another unit, clean in their habits and minds, decent in their living and speaking.” He further criticizes “the quarrel about the cause of the problem” faced by the migrants and “the lack of a solution.” Continue reading

1935: Now in November by Josephine Johnson

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From the Back Cover:

Originally published in 1934, Josephine Johnson’s first novel, about a middle-class family driven into poverty by the Great Depression, won the Pulitzer Prize and drew clamorous praise. Certainly, more than 50 years later, its characterizations ring remarkably true: a family of three daughters, struggling to exist as dirt-poor farmers, the father unable to respond to the fiercely devoted eldest girl who longs to be his “son.” The brief and intense narrative movingly evokes the torment of people isolated, and driven by strong–yet often unexpressed–feelings of love and hatred, and paints and indelible portrait of the Depression and Dust Bowl years.

My Thoughts:

I read Now in November around the same time as I saw Christopher Nolen’s film, Interstellar. I won’t comment on the rest of the movie, but the opening scenes are filled with actual interviews, conducted by Ken Burns, of Dust Bowl survivors. I did not know they were real interviews when I went into the movie, but recognized immediately that it was not scripted, that those people were speaking from a raw and intimate knowledge of something apocalyptic. The land itself rose up against them and was terrible in its destruction. Josephine Johnson captures those feelings and emotions in the pages of Now in November. Johnson also captures the brokenness of humans, the struggles of despair and depression and mania, and the melancholy resignation that comes on as disaster leaves no choice but to be accepted, even as you’re attempting to fight against it.

The novel is narrated by Marget, and focuses mainly on her tenant farming family as they struggle through the drought leading up to the Dust Bowl. Marget’s sister Kerrin has psychological issues–possibly some sort of manic depression–that slowly becomes more evident as the drought continues and the farm totters on the brink of disaster. Marget’s mother has an unwavering faith that carries her through the drought, but it’s a faith that her daughters question and do not understand. Her father is stoic, but has the incessant need to always be right and in control of the situation, which leaves him adrift when he faces something that he can do nothing at all to control. And Marget sees herself as homely and unloved, a constant victim of her circumstances, who so often wishes for more, but cannot build up the courage to do anything because of a fear of rejection and failure. In fact, the drought is little more than the impetus to discover how different people fall apart and persevere in the face of adversity. It is a tool for Johnson to use to explore humanity, and so the novel is at its heart about the struggle to survive and reconcile personal convictions in the face of an impersonal, impartial cataclysm. It explores the different ways that people break when they are strained past their limit, and whether or not they are able to pick the pieces up and put any of them back together again after the fact. Continue reading