Book Review: The Grapes of Wrath

The best kind of home decor. 

A few weeks back, I became a subscriber to The Library of America, a nonprofit publisher which releases, "...authoritative editions of America's best and most significant writing." If you're a bookstore wanderer like me, you're probably familiar with their books from the distinctive jackets - jet black with a red, white & blue stripe across the middle. I already had a couple of their titles in the collection (the works of Thomas Paine and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow) I decided, however, that I wanted to become a regular subscriber in order to amass the best of America's literary history within my personal library. Plus, the books are gorgeous and they look so damn good on my shelves.

As a low-price introductory offer, they allow you to choose from among a variety of collections - the works of James Fenimore Cooper, 19th Century American poetry etc.. They're sent to your home, and if you like the initial offering, you keep it. More books will then start arriving every month. To begin my journey, I opted for the complete works of John Steinbeck.

In high school, everyone encounters Steinbeck at some point. I specifically remember being assigned three of his works; The Moon is Down, The Pearl and the grand daddy of them all, The Grapes of Wrath. Confession time - I never finished reading The Grapes of Wrath in freshmen (or was it junior?) English class. I'm sorry Mrs. Werner. Please consider what follows as my looooong overdue book report. 

The original dust jacket cover to Steinbeck's masterpiece.

When the Steinbeck collection arrived, I first read Of Mice & Men, which was a bite-sized (albeit tasty) morsel of a book. Poor, sweet, doughy-headed Lenny! I was only delaying the inevitable, however, as I knew that I'd have to make penance for my youthful transgression and read the much more substantial, Grapes, from cover to cover. So it began. 

There's a difference between reading a book because you want to and reading a book because you're assigned to. Ever since my high school and college days, I've since gone back and reread (or read for the first time) several books which I had once skipped or glossed over. Some were terrific and made you wish you'd paid more attention on the first go around, like Ralph Ellison's The Invisible Man. Others were nothing but toil & drudgery - a long march through the barren wastes (i.e. Edith Wharton's The House of Mirth). The Grapes of Wrath, fortunately, was a good read.

I assume most of you are familiar with the basic plot line, so I'll be brief. Tom Joad of Oklahoma gets out of prison (he killed a man in self defense) and journeys home to find his family packing up for a desperate trek to California in the hopes of starting a new life - the Dust Bowl having laid waste to their great plains farm. Accompanied by their former preacher, now turned roaming philosopher, Jim Casey, the Joads beat the odds and make it to the Golden State. They immediately encounter a new set of obstacles in the form of hostile police, callous California natives, and rapacious big farm bosses who underpay and overwork their field hands, for no other reason than the fact that they can. Hilarity does not ensue. 

My criticisms are twofold.


Firstly, Steinbeck lays on the symbolism a bit thickly at times - in fact he damn near slathers it. Case-in-point:  I get that Jim Casey is the book's 'Christ figure' (his initials are JC for goodness sake). Not content with any ambiguity, Steinbeck belabors the point by having him wander in the wilderness, sacrifice himself, and eventually die a martyr's death. Message received.  

Secondly, Steinbeck is an obvious socialist and The Grapes of Wrath is heavy with proletarian propaganda. Political philosophy aside, at the time this book was published in 1939, the country was still mired in The Great Depression and the novel struck the national conscience like a thunderbolt. It is, after all, very well written propaganda. Submitted for your approval, 

Is a tractor bad? Is the power that turns the long furrows wrong? If this tractor were ours, it would be good - not mine, but ours. We could love that tractor then as we have loved this land when it was ours. But this tractor does two things - it turns the land and turns us off the land. There is little difference between this tractor and a tank. The people were driven, intimidated, hurt by both. We must think about this.

There's a recurrent theme in Steinbeck's work - that of good people placed at the mercy of an unjust, inflexible system. The sum of his writing equates to a gigantic, upsetting syllogism. You could almost entitle every Steinbeck novel, "It Is What It Is - And It Sucks."

My favorite character? Ma. Sure, Tom's good for a speech or two, but this woman holds her struggling family together with naught but duct tape, human kindness and wisdom throughout the book. You just want to give her a hug and tell her everything is going to be okay - but you know it's not. For my money, the book's best passage is her description. 

She seemed to know, to accept, to welcome her position, the citadel of the family, the strong place that could not be taken. And since Tom and the children could not know hurt or fear unless she acknowledged hurt and fear, she has practiced denying them in herself. And since, when a joyful thing happened, they looked to see whether joy was on her, it was her habit to build up laughter out of inadequate materials […] from position as healer, her hands had grown sure and cool and quiet; from her position as arbiter she had become as remote and faultless in judgment as a goddess. She seemed to know that if she swayed the family shook, and if she ever really deeply wavered or despaired the family would fall, the family will to function would be gone.

When she and Tom have to part company, it's wrenching, and when they made the book into a movie, this passage inspired the scene that ALMOST won Henry Fonda an Oscar...

I'm glad I finally got around to reading this book. I hope Mrs. Werner accepts this apology.