The Grapes of Wrath is an angry, incendiary novel that blends poetic prose and sharp characterization with a severe downward-spiral plot and one-dimensional antagonists to incite a specific reaction in the reader, one of revulsion toward an economic system that, in Steinbeck’s view, was impoverishing an enormous class of Americans while enriching a lucky few. It’s a six-lister, ranking #10 on the Modern Library 100, #3 on the Radcliffe 100, and #54 on The Novel 100, and only missing from the Guardian 100. (I don’t believe any book shows up on all seven of the booklists I use, partly a function of their varying eras – such a novel would have to have been published between 1900 and 1950, in English – and partly a function of the Guardian‘s clear contrarian bent.) According to Daniel Burt’s essay in The Novel 100, it was banned and burned when first published due to its political perspective and controversial closing scene, while literary critics frowned on its preachy dialogue, thin characters, and bombastic plotting, but its reputation appears to have been rehabilitated over time, with the work now widely recognized as an American classic.
The family at the story’s center is the Joads, one of many Oklahoman families who lose their farms and head west toward the promised land of California, where jobs allegedly await these families if they can handle the trek across the southwest. The chapters alternate between those focusing on the Joads’ plight and general scene-setting chapters that provide background for the core plot and give Steinbeck a chance to wax poetically, as on the subject of Route 66:
66 is the path of a people in flight, refugees from dust and shrinking land, from the thunder of tractors and shrinking ownership, from the desert’s slow northward invasion, from the twisting winds that howl up out of Texas, from the floods that bring no richness to the land and steal what little richness is there. From all of these the people are in flight, and they come into 66 from the tributary side roads, from the wagon tracks and the rutted country roads. 66 is the mother road, the road of flight.
The Joads reach California but not entirely intact, and end up in a “government camp,” a squatter’s paradise with real buildings, clean sanitary facilities, and a fair but strong system of self-government that enforces cooperative behavior through social pressure and the rarely-used threat of ouster. The system works perfectly, and even an attempted coup by outsiders is quickly thwarted through teamwork. It is the idyllic view of communism common to much literature of the interwar era, although to be fair to Steinbeck, the camp was not a unit or system of economic production but a social safety net for the unfortunates swept aside by capitalist greed during the Depression. The Joads aren’t in the camp for very long, but the idea of a self-enforcing system like this one operating without a whiff of corruption among those in power is incredibly naive. Steinbeck’s commentary isn’t just limited to the scene-setting chapters, and one major criticism of the novel is that he puts his opinions into the dialogue, making characters sometimes seem like mouthpieces for his political views, like Uncle John’s comments on rampant consumerism:
Funny thing, I wanta buy stuff. Stuff I don’t need … Stuff settin’ out there, you jus’ feel like buyin’ it whether you need it or not.
Steinbeck’s prose didn’t seem bombastic to me, nor was I troubled by slightly preachy dialogue; perhaps the 70 years since the book’s publication have seen such widespread degradation in prose writing that what was overbearing in 1939 seems fresh and clever today. Most impressive to me, however, was the book’s pacing. The Joads lose their farm, travel west over sparse land, and end up in a Hardy-esque series of big and small calamities in California that leave the reader afraid to hope for anything, yet Steinbeck focuses on little details like repair work on the family’s car to keep the text moving even when the family isn’t. There’s also a clear faith in the goodness of man – at least, of poor man – encapsulated not just in the jarring final scene but in many small sacrifices made by and for the Joads earlier in the book.
I wondered on Twitter last week if Cormac McCarthy had any of this book in mind when writing The Road, a similarly what-the-hell-can-go-wrong-next story that also focuses on a parent trying to keep a family together against impossible odds. The Joads know the name of their destination on the desolate road, but don’t know what it holds; the Man doesn’t know the name of his destination, but has a similarly vague sense of what might be there to go with the strong sense that he must take the Boy there. Both books show the best and worst of humanity in horrible situations. Both authors put substantial focus on food – not just the search for the next source, but on the consumption of it. And perhaps the father and son in the barn at the end of Grapes inspired McCarthy to build a novel around a boy and his father.
I may have more to say on Grapes of Wrath, since it, like The Road, inspires so much thought after the first reading, but in the meantime, I’ve moved on to Arthur Conan Doyle’s Exploits and Adventures of Brigadier Gerard.