A book to make the reader rage; a book to make the reader weep in shame and despair
John Steinbeck’s Pulitzer prize-winning novel was both a colossus of a book, an infinitely worthy winner, and a far-from perfect book, a flawed book.
Reading it, with that mixture of complex, uncomfortable emotions plus a sense of, at times, a critical, not to mention slightly jaundiced eye, I was reminded of Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra, for the following eulogy, of the deeply flawed Antony, given by Cleopatra:
His legs bestrid the ocean; his rear’d arm
Crested the world. His voice was propertied
As all the tuned sphere, and that to friends;
But when he meant to quail and shake the orb,
He was as rattling thunder.
Of course this is hyperbole, but it also recognises ‘giants amongst men’
And this is such a flawed giant among novels. At a time where it is routine to praise the literary at-best-mediocre, as if it were exceptional, how can the shaken, uncomfortable, disturbed reader find words for a book such as this, written out of such a searing sense of a cruel and indifferent world, filled with a humankind sleepwalking towards its own destruction. This book is indeed gargantuan – in subject matter as well as number of pages.
On the front of the paperback version I started to read (before downloading from Kindle, as there was just too much I needed to underline) was the following quote from Steinbeck:
I’ve done my damndest to rip a reader’s nerves to rags, I don’t want him satisfied
The Grapes of Wrath was published in 1939 when the machinery of war was providing a terrible solution to the stock market crash and depression of the 30s, which is the subject of this book. It is a book written out of white-hot, red-raw rage, disgust and righteous polemic against an indifferent, blinkered and self-obsessed capitalism.
The book follows the fortunes of one small family, the Joads, Oklahoma small farmers, homesteaders, as the move from small family farming to larger and larger conglomerates, changes and destroys our connections to the land itself, and to each other.
nitrates are not the land, nor phosphates, and the length of fiber in the cotton is not the land. Carbon is not a man, nor salt nor water nor calcium. He is all these, but he is much more, much more; and the land is so much more than its analysis. The man who is more than his chemistry, walking on the earth, turning his plow point for a stone, dropping his handles to slide over an outcropping, kneeling in the earth to eat his lunch; that man who is more than his elements knows the land that is more than its analysis. But the machine man, driving a dead tractor on land he does not know and love, understands only chemistry; and he is contemptuous of the land and of himself
The Joads stand for the thousands of others, unnamed, the small men and women.
The crash of 29 had (as do more recent depressions and recessions today) ripple-down effects on all, and, as ever, the disadvantaged, those without much financial leeway, those whose belts are already notched tightly, have fewer places to go, fewest savings which can be made, the closer to the breadline they were, before fall.
Like thousands of other homesteaders, losing their land and their livelihood in the face of conglomerate rapacity, the Joads follow the lure of jobs to be had, fruit-picking (for virtually starvation wages) in California
Steinbeck for sure uses and manipulates his readers, hectors them, lectures them, throws the red book at them, shoves our faces up against our own indifference, our sentimentality, our complicity. Having lacerated us with bruising accounts of our hard-heartedness, of our denial of the beggars in our neighbourhood, he cunningly and deliberately rubs salt in our wounds by exploiting our sentimentality.
The deaths of many, through starvation and illness because of starvation, and the deaths and the suffering of some of the individuals whose journeys we follow, in the book are intercut with the casual death and suffering of animals, whether by our carelessness, or the carelessness of a red in tooth and claw natural world.
Where are we most hurt, where do we weep most – is it for the suffering of our own kind, or is it for the suffering of another species. I knew my tears and my grief for the death of an animal were manipulated by the writer. But I also knew why, and I knew what he was showing me about myself, and could not, in any way, fault his manipulation here.
Steinbeck shows how nature itself is struggle, a survivalist struggle – but draws a very different conclusion about the rightness of ‘survival of the fittest’ from that drawn by right-wingers; he does not take the slightly later Randian view of the triumph of individual struggle, rather, sees collectivism as the only solution, the choice which must be made.
He punches the reader, again and again, with the righteousness of left wing politics, the infamy of capital. Yes, we live in a world where it is now easy to see that communism and socialism (not to mention other isms) can be as self-serving of its own ideology, as much inclined to sacrifice the individual on the alter of its own drive to ‘progress’ and ‘the ends justify the means’ – but I don’t personally have any problem with his polemic, placed in its own time.
Yes, for sure there are long sections which are boring, where, for example, pages and pages are devoted to the hard graft of repairing cars – but, again, I don’t mind, because he is wanting to make the reader realise the skill and the dignity of manual work. And yes, there are also at times problems with trying to give a flavour of the speech of the common man – at times the setting down of dialect gets wearing, and makes characters sound a bit simple or idiotic (my prejudices showing, clearly) , whereas this is not what is intended, and I think, again, Steinbeck is trying to offset a literature which is written by, and for, the ruling classes and the intelligentsia.
I have to forgive all these ‘flaws’, these niceties, about what literature should be, how it should NOT be polemic, how we should NOT be so at times crassly manipulated, because this is a book whose power, whose beauty, whose hugeness overrides its imperfections.
My nerves are indeed ragged, I am sick and sore, hurt and confused. I feel as if I have been run over by a proverbial ten ton truck, repeatedly, and then, offered exquisite flowers, delicate, fragile moments, writing of transcendent glory, before, again Steinbeck punches me in the gut and delivers yet another knock-out blow, of polemic, putting me through the emotional wringer, or boring me with the innards of motors.
But I don’t care. This is a book which seethes with enormous power, and the roughness of its sometime edges are part of that power. ‘Perfection’ would be, in this case, something to inhibit the power.
I’m grateful, very grateful, to my fellow blogger and friend FictionFan whose own superb review kicked me into reading this. Even if it may well be to the detriment of whatever-I’m-reading-next as I can’t NOT read, but what do you turn to after reading amongst giants?
Finally, this particular Kindle download version is brilliant, interlaced as it is with wonderful reproductions of paintings and drawings and stills from the movie which was made of this book. Thanks, again, to FictionFan for persuading me to this version .
The book of course was filmed, powerfully, by John Ford. starring Henry Fonda as Tom Joad, with Jane Darwell as the towering, dignified figure of the matriarch of the family, Ma Joad. The reach of the film, like the reach of the book, was long.
Here is a rather wonderful collage of edited sections of the film cut and accompanied by a Judy Collins version of the song ‘Brother, Can you spare a dime?’
I discovered that Woody Guthrie had composed and performed folk songs to Tom Joad, narrating his story (not included here, as they are spoilers). Not to mention, much later, Bruce Springsteen produced his own tribute to the power of Steinbeck’s book, reaching deep beyond its time : The Ghost of Tom Joad
Steinbeck’s book was both lauded, hence, that Pulitzer prize, and his later winning of the Nobel Prize for Literature, – and banned in its year of publication from the public libraries and schools of parts of California, as the second part of the book is a searing indictment of the greed of Californian agribusiness. The Associated Farmers, opposed to the organisation of labour, were one of the groupings instrumental in that ban, which was in place for 18 months. They for sure understood the power of this particular pen.
The Grapes Of Wrath, Kindle Illustrated Edition Amazon UK
The Grapes Of Wrath, Kindle Illustrated Edition Amazon USA
Superb review, m’dear! Yes, indeedy! Doesn’t it make you want to get out a placard and march on somewhere about something?? You are more forgiving of the emotional manipulation and polemics than I, but I think we’re just about equal on the anger front. It was the ending that pushed me over the limit – I was spluttering in rage and sobbing for the beauty and ugliness of it for days. I must say the GAN Quest has thrown up some fabulous reads (and some stinkers) which have had the side effect on me too of making most of the other stuff I’m reading seem somewhat mediocre in comparison. Not that I’d want every book to affect me this strongly – couldn’t take it!
But given your reaction to this one, I am going to strongly, strongly recommend both Revolutionary Road and American Pastoral to you, if you haven’t already read them. Two others that won’t get out of my mind…
I’d normally say ‘glad you enjoyed it’ but it doesn’t seem appropriate with this one somehow…
Lady Fancifull said:
Revolutionary Road has been glaring balefully at me for a while, both as pushed by you and someone on the old Vine Forum all those years ago. It was immediately bought and rather got lost in the huge pile, so I really must….American Pastoral I don’t know at all.. did you blog it…I shall investigate…though possibly I need calming down..or not…I know exactly what you mean about the ending of this. It’s sort of perfect, awful, terrible, pointless, profound, solves nothing, says everything, is deeply shocking in all sorts of ways.
Oh no, I wouldn’t suggest you read either of them straight away – too much!! American Pastoral is the Roth one that I declared The GAN – the one about the father of the girl who bombs a post office as part of the Vietnam protests… another fury-inducing one! Rev Road is more… saddening? Tragic? Less political but more human…
Lady Fancifull said:
My only Roth, indelibly seared into my memory for a memorable line and scene which no doubt all adolescent readers will remember, was Portnoy’s Complaint. It too probably had its part to play in turning me vegetarian…………….
As Revolutionary Road IS on the bookcase, there is no excuse to avoid it for too much longer. It will also take a title off that Popsugar challenge – A book you own but have never read – so many vying for THAT place, through no fault of their own except my inability to avoid bulk buying of recommended books by fine reviewers!
Steinbeck not only proved of course to be a stunning, (in ALL senses!) and wonderful reading experience but also in one fell swoop got me ‘Pulitzer’ ‘a book which was banned’ and a book made into a movie (though the latter category also applied to something else I read this year)
I have several categories which are going to be impossible I think – and one is a book you were SUPPOSED to read in high school and didn’t – such was and is my love of literature that I had read everything I was ‘supposed to’ probably several years before ‘supposed to’ I fear that the entire of The Canterbury Tales awaits me, though this was at degree level, and it was the defeat of the hard work of middle English which did it, and daunts me even more now. AND I have it (but not in Middle English) in an ancient, second hand copy from those days, still dustily waiting on my shelves. All 500 pages. Whimpers a little. Mind you, there are good jokes within, in a medieval sort of way, to lift an exhausted reader from the harrows of Steinbeck……….
I’ve never been able to bring myself to read Portnoy’s Complaint. I have a real love/hate relationship with Roth – and I suspect it would fall into the hate category. He’s much less self-obsessed in American Pastoral and the revolting sex scene stuff he specialises in is kept to a bearable minimum. It also won the Pulitzer.
Yes, I’d struggle with that category too – I think I read everything I was supposed to in school, though I did refuse to study All Quiet on the Western Front and Memoirs of an Infantry Officer for O-levels. But I read them both before I refused. Hmm… good luck with Canterbury Tales! I never made it past the prologue myself and can’t say I’m tempted to try again. But perhaps you will tempt me…
Lady Fancifull said:
I’ve read a few of the tales, but not the whole caboodle. At least my Penguin version is not in Middle English. I suspect I got both versions, the modern one as a crib because it was far too onerous to read in the original.
I’m not holding my breath on persuading you, particularly as I’m going to have to love it ecstatically to even want to post a review of it.
I did like the film, the Knight’s Tale, with Paul Bettany as a butt naked Geoffrey Chaucer A LOT though.
I had The Canterbury Tales on my A level English Lit syllabus – I don’t think I’d have ever attempted them without the teaching guides (it was a correspondence course, and very heavy on older works – Coriolanus and Twelfth Night too…! Don’t recall anything modern!) I was only 19; I don’t think I’d have the patience nowadays for Chaucer, although I did appreciate them at the time.
Sweeping and seething, yes, I can quite understand your reaction. I too recommend Revolutionary Road – depressing though it is – but not straight after this.
Excellent review. I do remember long sections that I skipped over, so I like the way you reference that (and forgive him for that). Incidentally, it’s a book that fitted in well with Communist ideology, so we did actually study it at school in Romania.
Lady Fancifull said:
So that is now 3 strong recommendations from trusted reviewers!
It will be time to dig out that copy, though not till after some recovery from what feels like an admission into Literary Accident and Emergency Ward. Sometimes you just have to accept that you need to be bruised, battered and lacerated by literature.
I don’t mind ‘depressing’ – I have, after all, a great love for Russian literature, a lot of which is light on jokes and witty frothy repartee, but the more intense the engagement and the content is, the more I need some time to convalesce a little.
Yes. It’s easy to see why Steinbeck would have been approved in Romania. How did Ayn Rand fare??!!
Never heard! (Well, I have now, but not back then…)
Lady Fancifull said:
Bet she was banned!
Excellent review Lady F – I read this a while ago now but I remember the exact same feeling, aware that I was being manipulated but it somehow didn’t diminish the power of the writing. Grapes of Wrath remains a hugely relevant work with so much to say.
Lady Fancifull said:
Yes, indeed. As that excellent FictionFan pointed out in HER review, the same stuff is kind of playing out re economic migrants and asylum seekers. The discomfort of this powerful book is intensified by the fact that it can’t be safely dismissed as ‘historical’
Wonderful review, Lady F – and I shall be reading FF’s too. I haven’t read Steinbeck since 1st and 2nd year of school (I particularly enjoyed The Moon Is Down, of the three books we read, probably because of the war history element, which was educational to me at 13) but I’ve never considered revisiting him since, strangely. This review is tempting me greatly, though, and no doubt FF will finish off the job as she’s irresistible when in persuasive mood. I enjoyed Revolutionary Road – I was going to say I loved it, but that’s not the correct word. It’s a fairly slimline novel, too, so a fast read. It was good to see a writer like Richard Yates gain a modern audience after being pretty much forgotten about. I love your reviews; you’re a fantastic writer, Lady F!
Lady Fancifull said:
What a kind comment. Thank you so much Crimeworm. I do always feel that my best reviews come from the best books! When a book grabs me, the author has me in some kind of an armlock, and best of all, refuses to let go of me for days after I finished reading, ‘something’ happens and it’s as if attention, heart, head, gut are all engaged. The most difficult and challenging reviews to write ARE those books for me.
So……Revolutionary Road…now that is I think 4 of you, or even 5, given that previous other heads up by a Viner who was forever steering me to interesting books. I have found it on the bookshelf and removed it, and put it on top of the tottering pile on the bedside table, which is the ‘active waiting TBR pile’
It is my intention, once I have finished 2 Vine books and a recent NetGalley arc added, plus the book I have to read for my book club…………to try and not let Revolutionary Road get superseded by anything else (mind you, I’m also on my way to the library to return some books……..dangerous move, dangerous move………..)
Jilanne Hoffmann said:
Bravo! Bravo! (throws flowers from the back row) Well done! Between you and FF, I think everyone (who hasn’t read it already) will be reading this GAN. Yes, Steinbeck was no friend of California agribusiness. Things haven’t changed that much in California, although they have improved on the whole. But the farmworker still suffers much being tied to the behemoth of agribusiness.
Lady Fancifull said:
Hence, I guess, that Springsteen song. Now I’m surprised that you, too didn’t come out of the woodwork and push me towards Revolutionary Road. Or at least the book!
That’s an excellent review and actually makes me want to pick up my copy and read it straight away. And the greatest books often aren’t perfect – it’s the rough edges and idiosyncracies that make us love them so. Plus Steinbeck had plenty of points to make in this book and was raging against the system so you can forgive him his polemics!
Lady Fancifull said:
Susan P said:
I read this book when I was seventeen years old. I remember being shocked and appalled. It was an awakening to things I had little experience of. I remember trying to talk to my father about it and being puzzled that he, a minister, had no compassion for those people.
Lady Fancifull said:
No wonder some people wanted to ban the book when he was awakening awareness. It’s a great mixture of emotion and argument about political/economy systems