Monday, March 7, 2022

The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck

Compassionate saga of American refugees
I was one of those kids who didn’t want to read The Grapes of Wrath in high school because it was too long, so instead I wrote my book report on Cannery Row. Over three decades later I finally realize what a bad choice I made by depriving myself of one of the greatest books in American literature. Published in 1939, John Steinbeck’s masterpiece tells the story of the Joads, Midwestern farmers rendered destitute by the Dust Bowl, who head for California in hopes of finding work to start a new life. Steinbeck had previously done research amid the migrant workers in California, resulting in several newspaper articles published in 1936 under the heading of The Harvest Gypsies. The living conditions he observed in the migrant laborers’ camps are vividly reflected in his depiction of the plight of the Joads and their fellow migrants. More than just a poverty sob story, however, the novel is a stirring call for compassion and an affirmation of the resilience of the human spirit.

The Grapes of Wrath is a modernist novel that doesn’t ostentatiously wear its modernism on its sleeve. Stylistically, Steinbeck bridges the gap between earlier workingman’s epics like Frank Norris’s The Octopus and Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle and the comparatively more avant garde writings of Ernest Hemingway and William Faulkner. On the surface, the saga of the Joads is a naturalist peasant epic in the mold of Emile Zola or Jack London’s socially conscious works. Steinbeck portrays the extraordinary drama of ordinary people’s lives with a frank and vividly detailed realism. The story of the Joad clan only occupies roughly every other chapter of the book, however. In between the extensive chapters on the family, Steinbeck inserts brief iconic vignettes of America in the 1930s, focusing on typical experiences of poor, working-class, and migrant laborers, such as the purchasing of a used car or a stop at a roadside diner. These glimpses into American life call to mind the nonfiction interludes John Dos Passos inserted into his U.S.A. trilogy. At times, however, Steinbeck’s vignettes are written in a style almost resembling beat poetry. These digressions from the Joad narrative cleverly broaden the book’s scope to a wider segment of humanity and greatly enhance the visceral experience of the story by reinforcing Steinbeck’s depiction of greed and inequality in America.

One thing that surprised me about the book is that on top of everything else oppressing the Joads, the Dust Bowl isn’t the only natural disaster that Steinbeck introduces into the plot. That seemed a bit unnecessary considering the family already faced plenty of socioeconomic perils, from starvation to class violence. To focus too much on the latter, however, might have resulted in a rehash of In Dubious Battle, which this book is not. The Grapes of Wrath does depict class conflict, but it bears a heavier load of compassion and pathos that elevates it to a more universal and profound tragedy of the human condition.

Though it was written in 1939, the social issues brought forth in The Grapes of Wrath are still relevant today. The Dust Bowl may be a distant memory, but American still has its share of migrant workers, wage slaves, and rampant income inequality. The global economy also ensures that most of us in the developed world exploit the equivalent of Joads in other nations around the world without even being aware of it. Over 80 years later, nothing about Steinbeck’s novel is so dated that it fails to accurately reflect human nature or the brutal socioeconomic reality. This is really a book that every American should read. Even those who can’t sympathize with its “red” message ought to appreciate its superb literary merit. In the search for the “Great American Novel,” I personally would still give the edge to Norris’s The Octopus, but I wouldn’t look askance at anyone who would choose to bestow that hallowed title upon The Grapes of Wrath.
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