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.