Tuesday, October 15, 2013

The Grapes of Wrath

Reading Of Mice And Men in high school pretty much killed any interest I might have had in reading any more Steinbeck.  "Boring and depressing" was my teenage reaction to that novel.  But the older I get, the more often I discover the beauty, or the skill, or the power in some work that I didn't appreciate back then.  The Last of the Mohicans is an example--hated that in school, but loved it when I read it again a couple of years ago with my daughter.  Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath is one that, being by Steinbeck, I wouldn't have opened, except that James at Following Pulitzer reviewed it so glowingly last year that I was moved to put it on my TBR list.  (And my father loved it, which should have made me give it a chance a long time ago!)

Anyway.  Now I love it too, and better late than never, I suppose.  It's the story of the Joad family of Sallisaw, Oklahoma, whose farm is repossessed during the Depression.  They take to the road, hoping to find work picking fruit in California.  My two strong takeaways from this book are the very moving characterizations, and Steinbeck's apparent desire to get a social message across--the crying need for social safety nets such as unions and government programs.

Surely it's a sign of skillful characterization that I actually grew to love this family and suffered along with them through all their trials.  They were by no means angelic;  they were more interesting than that.  Ma Joad's iron will is tempered occasionally by self doubt.  Tough son Tom's quick temper is balanced by his integrity and passion for justice.  Ex-preacher Casy, who has given up Christianity, eventually performs an act of self-sacrifice that is obviously meant to be Christ-like.  I felt I was on a journey with these complex and interesting human beings, and was sorry to part with them at the end.

It's clear that Steinbeck was pro-union, and it's really hard to dispute, reading this book, the need for migrant workers to have some bargaining power when they faced starvation wages, squalid living conditions, and blacklisting by large farm corporations if they objected.  I think it's easy to forget that within living memory, without government safety nets, Americans sometimes starved to death.  (James, the blogger mentioned above, made this point in his review last year also.  It's such a large theme in the novel that I don't know how anyone reading it could fail to be struck by it, and I certainly was.) 

After finishing The Grapes of Wrath, I watched Ken Burns' documentary Dust Bowl.  I'd highly, highly recommend that as a companion to this book.  It provides a detailed but accessible explanation of the "dust bowl" phenomenon and its origins--a man-made ecological disaster.  And it includes plenty of photographs, which I was constantly mentally matching to characters in the book.  I also watched the 1940 movie starring Henry Fonda.  Although the film is a truncated version of the book, and left out some important but controversial-for-the-time elements, the casting was genius and the acting superb.  Watch it too.

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  1. Very nice discussion of Steinbeck's characterization and the context of the story. I was impressed, when I read the novel three years ago, with Steinbeck's grasp of the philosophical currents in American life as expressed in the novel. One aspect was the contrast between materialism and idealism reminiscent of that described by Emerson in his essay "The Transcendentalist". In Steinbeck's novel the epitome of idealism is Jim Casy. More recently I read and enjoyed East of Eden which shares some stylistic characteristics with this novel.

  2. You know, I'm really weak on the subject of American literary movements; probably because I haven't read a lot of American lit outside of what was assigned in school. I've got some Hawthorne on the TBR list, and now I'm willing to read some more Steinbeck. Perhaps I'll start with the Emerson essay, though--thanks for the suggestion.

  3. Oh man oh boy, Amy, it sounds like you and I dealt with "The Grapes of Wrath" in the same manner! I had been putting it off for years, probably because of the sheer girth of the novel. But I never doubted that I would read it eventually.

    In my less than humble opinion, I believe that Steinbeck is a far better author than Hemingway, Yeah, I said it. (I really liked Steinbeck's "The Winter of our Discontent" and "Travels With Charlie"!)

    I have a beautiful illustrated edition of "Grapes..." and I finally tackled it in August of this year. Love, LOVED it!

    After that I also watched the Ken Burns' documentary "Dust Bowl" on Netflix -- and was surprised to learn that I had actually vacationed in that part of the Oklahoman panhandle! I learned a LOT from that documentary and, like you, I compared his film to the unforgettable characters in the book.

    And after THAT, I next watched the Henry Fonda film on Netflix! I was disappointed that they [necessarily] cut out a good half of the book in the movie version, but knew that it had to be done. Still dang good, though!

    I think that you and I both finally reached a point in our lives where we were mature enough to read more serious stuff and avoid the 'fluff'. Like Thoreau said, "Read the best books first, or you may not have a chance to read them at all!"

    1. Wow, you're not kidding--it's almost uncanny. Great minds, eh?

      This book was so unexpectedly beautiful that it makes me want to look at some other Steinbeck, even though I have a high-school memory of hating Travels With Charlie. But over the last couple of years I've been re-reading classics I was assigned in high school and reacting so very differently than I did back then. It's like I tell my children ad nauseum: some things you can only understand by living long enough.

      Great quote from Thoreau. He and Emerson are on my list too. :)

    2. As a male reader, "Travels With Charley" appealed to me, as he was a lone wolf traveling around the country. "Once There Was a War" is a good collection of articles that he wrote as a war correspondent. "The Moon is Down" is about the German occupation of Norway. I supposed that his writing appeals mostly to men. But you have a LOT of good novels to pick from when you turn to Steinbeck!
      So many books, so little time.

    3. I didn't know he was a correspondent in World War II. That kind of interests me, actually. Off to Amazon... :)