#29 The Grapes Of Wrath by John Steinbeck
The Grapes of Wrath is a novel published in 1939 and written by John Steinbeck, who was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in 1940 and the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1962. Set during the Great Depression, this wrenching novel focuses on the Joads, a poor family of sharecroppers driven from their Oklahoma home by drought, economic hardship, and changes in financial and agricultural industries. They were victims of a ruthless system of agricultural economics, and like countless other share croppers and small-scale farmers, they become dispossessed from their land that had been their home for generations. Due to their nearly hopeless situation, and, in part, because they were trapped in the Dust Bowl, the Joads dispose of all their belongings except for the bare necessities and migrate to California. Along with thousands of other “Okies”, they sought jobs, land, dignity, and a future. The novel has an unusual structure, with chapters that present historical and social information that led to the present situation (“intercalary chapters”) are interspersed with chapters of narration that focus on specific characters and develop the plot. Steinbeck emphasized that only through unity, dignity, family, and selflessness can people survive. Despite their grueling problems, the Joads move from a concern for their own welfare to a concern for everyone. This is especially obvious in the development of the main character, Tom Joad. As the novel opens, Tom has returned home after serving a jail sentence. The Dust Bowl has decimated the region; foreclosures have forced the farmers off the land. Tom and the itinerant preacher Jim Casy decide to accompany Tom’s family to California to find work. Tom’s initial narrow concern only for his own problems slowly moves to a concern for his family unit (quickly augmented by the addition of others unrelated by blood or kinship) and by the end of the novel, to a concern for all the Okies. Thus, the family’s literal journey West becomes symbolic of an acceptance of humanity. To Steinbeck, this inclusiveness is essential because the migrants’ misery is caused by people who benefit from it — the California farmers who deliberately degrade the migrant workers to keep them powerless — not by capricious weather or simple ill fortune. It is in the power of “we” that the overwhelming sense of loneliness and doom are brought to a level more able to be endured. The Grapes of Wrath was first regarded as a protest novel, and later was viewed as a work of art. It is frequently read in American high school and college literature classes due to its historical context and enduring legacy. Unfortunately, there are those who wish to ban it from the curriculum” “The Grapes of Wrath is inappropriate and school children should not be allowed to read it. It uses vulgar language, it should be banned.” -Micheal Davis I must admit that when I was assigned to read this book back in high school, it had little more effect on me than merely an assignment. After reading it this time, my opinion of it has changed. Perhaps because I have lived long enough and have endured some hard times, some as a result of my own stupid decisions, some not. There were several phrases in this book that caught me, but this passage had a more marked effect: “One man, one family driven from the land; the rusty car creaking along the highway to the west. I lost my land. A single tractor took my land. I am alone and I am bewildered. And in the night one family camps in the ditch and another family pulls in and the tents come out. The two men squat on their hams and the women and the children listen. Here is the node, you who hate change and fear revolution. Keep these two squatting men apart; make them hate, fear, suspect each other. Here is the anlage of the thing you fear. This is the zygote. For here ‘I lost my land’ is changed; a cell is split and from its splitting grows the thing you hate – ‘We lost our land.’ The danger is here, for two men are not as lonely and perplexed as one. And from this first ‘we’ there grows a still more dangerous thing: ‘I have a little food’ plus ‘I have none.’ If from this problem the sum is ‘We have a little food’, the thing is on its way, the movement has direction. Only a little multiplication now, and this land, this tractor are ours. The two men squatting in a ditch, the little fire, the side-meat stewing in a single pot, the silent, stone-eyed women; behind, the children listening with their souls to words their minds do not understand. The night draws down. The baby has a cold. Here, take this blanket. It’s wool. It was my mother’s blanket — take it for the baby. This is the thing to bomb. This is the beginning — from ‘I’ to we.'” Despite my dislike for having to read stories written in dialects, I was able to feel the emotions and thoughts being telegraphed through the words. I could hear the pain and desperation in the dialog and thoughts of the characters. I could feel the frustration and loss as they moved through the story. Often, I felt anger at the way things were stacked against them and at the way people were pitted against each other by the powers that were. It was difficult to comprehend the scenes of waste by the California farmers who felt it was worth their while to destroy that crops and livestock since it wasn’t cost effective to harvest them. With so many people starving, I cannot fathom any realistic reason as to why the starving people were not offered to purchase these items that were soon destroyed. “The people come with nets to fish for potatoes in the river, and the guards hold them back; they come in rattling cars to get the dumped oranges, but the kerosene is sprayed. They stand still and watch the potatoes float by, listen to the screaming pigs being killed in a ditch and covered with quicklime, watch the mountains of oranges slop down to a putrefying ooze; and in the eyes of the people there is the failure; and in the eyes of the hungry, there is a growing wrath. In the souls of the people the grapes of wrath are filling and growing heavy, growing heavy for the vintage.” (Pg. 349, para. 4) It seemed that the bank was an evil in this story, just as it is a frequent source of issues in today’s society. One would think that society would have learned how to hold the reins of that beast to not let it get out of control again! “We’re sorry. It’s not us. It’s the monster. The bank isn’t like a man. Yes, but the bank is only made of men. No, you’re wrong there—quite wrong there. The bank is something else than men. It happens that every man in a bank hates what the bank does, and yet the bank does it. The bank is something more than men, I tell you. It’s the monster. Men made it, but they can’t control it.” (Pg 33, para. 10-12) I felt extreme pity for “Ma”, who remained an enduring strength for those around her, and made sacrifices for the comfort and welfare of others. I often felt anger and loss of patience for Rose of Sharon, who seemed to portray self-centeredness and a lack of respect for others. I often felt compelled to reach into the story and slap her, saying that the world did not revolve around her. She finally did pay compensation for her selfishness in one of the most famous images in The Grapes of Wrath, the novel’s final one, in which Rose of Sharon Joad, whose baby was recently stillborn, breast-feeds a sickly, starving man on the floor of an old barn. In this image, Steinbeck powerfully dramatizes the desperate plight of Depression-era migrant workers, whom the author felt had been abandoned by society. There seemed to be no place for these people to turn. Even the Salvation Army was mentioned several times as being an entity that not only belittled the migrant workers, but also took advantage of those down on their luck. Eventually, they learned to turn to each other, and to stick together against all the odds stacked against them, and they were feared by the California farmers and agents. “Repression works only to strengthen and knit the repressed.” (Pg. 238, para. 1) When The Grapes of Wrath was published on March 14, 1939, it created a national sensation for its depiction of the devastating effects of the Great Depression of the 1930s. By the end of April, it was selling 2,500 copies a day—a remarkable number considering the hard economic times. In May, the novel was a number-one best-seller, selling at a rate of 10,000 copies a week. By the end of 1939, close to a half million copies had been sold. John Steinbeck was shocked by the tremendous response to his novel. Almost overnight, he was transformed from a respected, struggling writer into a public sensation. Yet The Grapes of Wrath was bound to cause controversy in a country experiencing a decade of major social upheaval during the Depression. With the novel’s publication, Steinbeck found himself immersed in a great national debate over the migrant labor problem. Many people were shocked by the poverty and hopelessness of the story, and others denied that such circumstances could happen in America. Amidst the controversy, people who had never read a book before bought a copy of The Grapes of Wrath. At $2.75 per copy, it was affordable and quickly sold out. Libraries had waiting lists for the novel that were months long. It was perhaps inevitable that such an epic novel would cause a sensation. With the exception of Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind (1936), The Grapes of Wrath was the publishing event of the decade. Widespread charges of obscenity were brought against the novel, and it was banned and burned in Buffalo, New York; East Saint Louis, Illinois; and Kern County, California, where much of the novel is set. In fact, the novel remains one of the most frequently banned books in the United States, according to school and library associations. The book was denounced in Congress by Representative Lyle Boren of Oklahoma, who called the novel’s depiction of migrant living conditions a vulgar lie. Charges were made that “obscenity” had been included in the book in large part to sell more copies. Eventually, First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt stepped in to praise the book and defend Steinbeck against his critics. In 1940, the novel won the Pulitzer Prize. Yet, at the time, such were the pressures of Steinbeck’s celebrity that he described fame as “a pain in the ass.” The popularity of the novel has endured. It is estimated that it has sold fifteen million copies since its publication. For almost sixty years, Steinbeck’s novel has been a classic in American literature; it has been translated into several languages, including French, German, and Japanese. The Grapes of Wrath has also been an integral part of the school curriculum in America since the end of World War II. A celebrated Hollywood film version, starring Henry Fonda and directed by John Ford, was made in 1940. I’ve ordered this from the library, and is probably the only way I’m going to get my husband to appreciate this fine piece of literature!