The Grapes of Wrath
By John Steinbeck
Considering that Steinbeck is one of my favorite authors and that The Grapes of Wrath is one of the most studied pieces of American literature, you'd think I'd have long since read it. Maybe even more than once. I never took any specific courses in American lit, though, and in my personal reading I just never got around to it. Until just now, that is.
The first thing I was struck with--as I am always struck by Steinbeck's stories--was how deeply concerned with land the man was. Every one of his stories I can recall reading has begun with a description of a place. But "description of a place" doesn't really do it justice, because for Steinbeck, the places where his stories occur are characters unto themselves, and his descriptions are like songs, full of life. I sometimes wonder if a modern author could get away with openings like this, nearly devoid of action or hooks. I suspect they could, if they were writers of the same caliber as Steinbeck.
That's a big if, of course. And sometimes I wonder whether people really appreciate how skilled the man was. He's obviously hailed as a great and important writer, and his stories are read in classrooms from elementary school through university. But how many people actually look at his work for what it is?
Take a book like The Grapes of Wrath for example. It's a fairly simple story, told in straightforward language that makes it quite easy to read. Structurally speaking, there's nothing particularly surprising about the plot--the descriptions of the conditions that the migrant workers had to endure must surely have been shocking to readers of the day, but even at that, an attentive reader would have been able to guess the course of the narrative well before the last page. The morality is clear, even strident. The scenes border on the melodramatic.
All that apparent simplicity belies the subtlety and skill in Steinbeck's writing, though. Take another look, and you see themes developed and woven into the structure of the story, adding depth if you care to find it. And, of course, the characters themselves are so richly realized that you can't help but feel like part of the Joad family, yourself. And something about the way the book cuts back and forth between scenes and descriptive interludes brings it all home in a profound way, even though each individual portion might seem to be beating the reader over the head with message and melodrama. It's a masterpiece.
For me, one of the trickiest parts was in remembering exactly when it was taking place. Given the Joads' humble background and folksy speech, it's easy to picture them as belonging to the age of horse and buggy, possibly even as far back as the Civil War era. Yet Steinbeck wrote the novel in the mid-to-late 1930's, and he set the story contemporaneously. Consider, then, that by the time of the events depicted in The Grapes of Wrath, Duke Ellington and Louis Armstrong had already been recording for over a decade. Benny Goodman was already the King of Swing. Hitler had already come to power in Germany. James Cagney, Mae West, Clark Gable, Walt Disney, and the Marx Brothers were all already household names. If anything, the abject poverty of the migrants is even more striking in that context.
The Grapes of Wrath was acclaimed a "great work" by the Nobel Prize committee, and has been both praised and damned by critics and readers for over 60 years. You may not have the same reaction to it that I did, but whether you're already familiar with it or whether it's new to you, I'd say that there's enough there to make it worth your while.
Started: 8/18/2010 | Finished: 9/1/2010
It does keep getting worse, but then, I feel like you kind of know that it's going to. At least, I did.
When I read the book a couple of years ago, my husband saw the book I was reading and said, "It gets worse." I asked him how he could say that, he didn't even know where I was in the book. He said, "It doesn't matter. It just keeps getting worse."
Golly, I hope that's not a spoiler or anything.