John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath (Viking Press, 1939, 619 pp.) turns 75 this year, and for many decades it has been regulated to juvenilia, to high school students, to young people inept at work and the American worker, work and the American worker being precisely the story of The Grapes of Wrath. Surely this young readership was not the market in 1939, when hundreds of thousands of Americans with money bought the novel. Did adults in 1939 encourage children to read it? If so, what did those children make of Tom Joad saying to the Reverend Jim Casy, “Pa’ll be glad to see you. He always said you got too long a pecker for a preacher.”
Another adult consideration of the novel is the overarching reputation of The Grapes of Wrath, and whether it is responsible for one to write of details of a novel that explicitly deals with large subjects like dignity, fellowship, hunger, and death. These themes—and it is a novel of heavy punctuated themes and very little ambiguity—are what once made novels novel. Now, it seems that novels are about simpler, lower-to-the-ground struggles. Or perhaps that is the novelists themselves.
Yet another aspect is the ever-present permanence of The Grapes of Wrath, a book Americans know or think they know whether they have read it or not. One supposes all of us are aware of the oft-cited, oft-referenced occurrences; the Joads travel west, Grampa gets buried on the side of the road, Granma dies crossing the desert, Tom Joad kills a man and flees, and Rose of Sharon nurses a starving man at the novel’s conclusion. These are national memories, or national occurrences, depending on one’s generation.
And adding one final complication, I reread The Grapes of Wrath with the unavoidable notion that it might have something to say about these contemporary times, financially troublesome for all but the wealthiest (who seem to no longer spend excess money on books), a notion that thankfully proved false. Despite some financier-related correlations to times past and present, and some dorm-room Marxist chatter Steinbeck employs (chatter temporarily back in vogue among a new breed of laptop Marxists) there is little of the present in the past. There is only the novel itself.
Steinbeck employs two narratives in The Grapes of Wrath, one the well-known tale of the destitute Joad family, the foreclosure of their land in Oklahoma and their jalopy-journey west to California, where more trouble awaits, and the second narrative, the one I had forgotten, the interspersed chapters of misery and heartbreak of various named and nameless stragglers and malcontents, that Steinbeck uses to illustrate the harsh American condition of the 1930s, the poverty, misery, indignation, and suffering of people, and those lucky few who have employment and thus shower scorn onto those less fortunate.
Early on in the novel, there are wonderful descriptions of devastation and hardship. Chapter 1 is a parody of Genesis, of land ruined by drought and wind and dust, of crops felled and broken and terrorized by nature. Steinbeck rings Old Testament:
“The dawn came, but no day. In the gray sky a red sun appeared, a dim red circle that gave a little light, like dusk; and as that day advanced, the dusk slipped back toward darkness, and the wind cried and whimpered over the fallen corn.”
Chapter 5 brings us a goggled tractor driver hired by the banks—faceless banks now own the land—who, astride his machine, slices through the fallow dust and slams homes off their foundation, leaving families both broke and homeless and hungry. Steinbeck describes the tractor driver as a sci-fi monster:
“The man sitting in the iron seat did not look like a man; gloved, goggled, rubber dust mask over nose and mouth, he was a part of the monster, a robot in the seat. The thunder of the cylinders sounded through the country, became one with the air and the earth, so that earth and air muttered in sympathetic vibration.”
The farmers are confused; their children toe the earth and keep quiet, keep nervous, while the wife watches the husband for signs that he might break—something no man can do if he is to keep his family—and the man, the husband, watches out too see what hell might be coming next. He knows only misery comes, for he once had his acres and his horses to plow and food enough for all, and then came the banks who had paper that gave them rights to the acres, and machines came that supplanted the slow work of beasts—(“But this tractor does two things—it turns the land and turns us off the land”)—and suddenly forty acres and a homestead means nothing in the world, nothing to everyone except the farmer and his family that worked and owned it for generations.
A quarter of The Grapes of Wrath passes before the Joads leave Oklahoma for California, and in that fist quarter I didn’t care much for the Joad chapters, as the interspersed chapters were much more lively with descriptions of hardship and loss. Members of the Joad clan—true family and hangers-on—seem to function purely as extensions of Steinbeck’s moralizing until they hit the road, all except for Ma Joad, who comes alive in quiet moments when a righteousness springs from within her. Early on we get a glimpse of her that betrays the fierce behavior to come:
“Her full face was not soft; it was controlled, kindly. Her hazel eyes seemed to have experienced all possible tragedy and to have mounted pain and suffering like steps into a high calm and a superhuman understanding. 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 old Tom and the children could not know hurt or fear unless she acknowledged hurt and fear, she had practiced denying them in herself.”
Pa Joad and Tom comment on her sudden changes, admiring and fearing her. She knows her son Tom is one rage away from another spell in prison, and that Pa is weak from his endless losses, and that the others in the traveling party are various degrees of useless, but as vitals as one, a family.
There are moments for each character in The Grapes of Wrath to experience an epiphany; Tom argues with a fat service station manager until he notices the manager’s shop is bare and ruined, and the manger is only a few days removed from failure himself; the Reverend Casy talks himself into seeing to a new flock, hungry, secular, and moving east to west; Ma runs her fingers over the cool white porcelain of a newer bathroom in a government work camp; and Uncle John goes on bender to keep him from real and imagined demons.
Steinbeck’s prose in The Grapes of Wrath varies from risible to perfect. At times, in the interspersed chapters, he turns phrases so bad and so syrupy that one turns away. Adding to the discomfort, in the later chapters, he concludes with thunder sentences of foreshadowing and doom:
“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. And 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.”
Yet in the dialogue, especially between Tom and Casy, Tom and Al, and Ma and anyone who tries to get one over on her, Steinbeck is humorous and spry, and leads a reader to unpredictable resolutions. He also has a great ability to effortlessly switch character perspective, such as in this dialogue with a strange religious woman worried over the ill Granma:
The woman looked reproachfully at Ma. “Ain’t you believers, ma’am?”
‘We always been Holiness,’ Ma said, “but Granma’s tar’d, an’ we been agoin’ all night. We won’t trouble you.’
‘It ain’t no trouble, an’ if it was, we’d want ta do it for a soul a-soarin’ to the Lamb.’
Ma arose to her knees. “We thank ya,” she said coldly. “We ain’t gonna have no meetin’ in this here tent.”
The woman looked at her for a long time. “Well, we ain’t a-gonna let a sister go away ’thout a little praisin’. We’ll git the meetin’ goin’ in our own tent, ma’am. An’ we’ll forgive ya for your hard heart.”
Ma settled back again and turned her face to Granma, and her face was still set and hard. “She’s tar’d,” Ma said. “She’s on’y tar’d.” Granma swung her head back and forth and muttered under her breath.
The woman walked stiffly out of the tent. Ma continued to look down at the old face. Rose of Sharon fanned her cardboard and moved the hot air in a stream. She said, ‘Ma!’
‘Whyn’t ya let ’em hol’ a meetin’?’
‘I dunno,” said Ma. “Jehovites is good people. They’re howlers an’ jumpers. I dunno. Somepin jus’ come over me. I didn’ think I could stan’ it. I’d jus’fly all apart’.”
My favorite writing in The Grapes of Wrath is from an incident in the Hooverville, when Tom trips a deputy and the deputy draws his gun:
“The deputy staggered and Tom put out his foot for him to trip over. The deputy fell heavily and rolled, reaching for his gun. Floyd dodged in and out of sight down the line. The deputy fired from the ground. A woman in front of a tent screamed and then looked at a hand which had no knuckles. The fingers hung on strings against her palm, and the torn flesh was white and bloodless. Far down the line Floyd came in sight, sprinting for the willows. The deputy, sitting on the ground, raised his gun again and then, suddenly, from the group of men, the Reverend Casy stepped. He kicked the deputy in the neck and then stood back as the heavy man crumpled into unconsciousness.”
A woman is shot through the hand, and “fingers hung on strings against her palm.” That is Steinbeck at his best, clear and concrete. There are many vivid lines like this in the novel that sneak up on a reader, as though Steinbeck considered them light or disposable. They do not fit with the grand themes of the book—perhaps that makes them all the better.
Steinbeck’s bad habits, his terrific complicated multi-character scenes, and his wonderful imagery and nature writing, make up the entirety of The Grapes of Wrath. A reader can imagine Steinbeck struggling with how far to push scenes and ideas, how biblical to reference, and how that reference might (and at times does) slide into parody.
The Grapes of Wrath is a wild mess of a novel, and I think it endures because of that messiness, which Steinbeck writes so well. Steinbeck never lets the reader get comfortable, and he keeps his outcast people and their predicaments in motion, roiling above floodwaters, in or near trouble, and rarely basking in elusive but necessary humanity.