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The Grapes of Wrath ()

San Francisco Chronicle Top 100 Novels of the West (2)

Tom Joad has just gotten out of prison for manslaughter.  He returns to his family's Oklahoma cotton farm only to find the farm deserted and the region devastated by the Dust Bowl.  When he catches up to the family, at his Uncle's farm, the whole clan heads to California in a Hudson Super-Six truck, hoping to find work, which they hear is plentiful there, picking fruit.  On the road some family members will die, some will desert, all will experience hunger, the resentment of locals, the harsh contempt of police & exploitation by growers.  Tom is forced to leave the family when he kills a strike breaker, but he pledges to preach the word of man for man and how the poor must band together to obtain their rights.  More disasters befall the family, including the loss of his sister's baby, and the novel closes with the Pieta like scene of her suckling a starving man.

The sincerity and heartfelt nature of Steinbeck's masterpiece is unquestionable, but 60 years later, we have to face the fact that he, like many intellectuals of the day, was profoundly wrong about where the poor's salvation lay.  In fact, the Depression ended when the huge industries were fired up to provide war material and, with little interruption, since then we have a seen an economy that is driven by the concerns of the upper and middle classes, but just as a rising tide lifts all boats, the poor have benefited from this progress.

Even more mistaken is his image of the noble poor.  As we have seen, even in our age of Welfare reform, the problem of the underclass is extremely intractable; some folks just won't work, even to better their own lives.  Steinbeck was deluded by the Depression,  a stark aberration in the long march of Capitalism, which made millions of people desperate, who would otherwise have been gainfully employed.

The result is a beautiful & moving, if overlong, artifact of it's time--which loses some of it's impact in retrospect.  Compare it for instance to his great novella  Of Mice and Men, a universal tale of friendship and heroism, or Winter of Our Discontent, an eerily prescient story of America's moral decline.  I personally would have preferred to see Of Mice and Men on the list.


Grade: (A-)


John Steinbeck Links:

    -WIKIPEDIA: John Steinbeck
-ESSAY: The Cruelty of John Steinbeck: America’s literary icons produced great stories; but their real lives were also cautionary tales. (Jonathon Van Maren, March 11, 2024, European Conservative)
    -ESSAY: Adopt this book: John Steinbeck: Novels 1942–1952 (Library of America, March 2021)
    -ESSAY: Banning The Grapes of Wrath in 1939 California: The Kern County, CA Board of Supervisors got a lesson in the Streisand Effect back in 1939, when they banned The Grapes of Wrath from their libraries and schools. (Livia Gershon March 27, 2022, Jstor Daily)
    -LETTER: John Steinbeck’s lovely letter to his broken-hearted teenage son is perfect Father’s Day reading. (Jessie Gaynor, June 17, 2022, LitHub)
    -ESSAY: John Steinbeck’s Promised Land: The great novelist’s travels in Israel showed him what America had lost (SHALOM GOLDMAN, DECEMBER 19, 2023, The Tablet)
    -ESSAY: How John Steinbeck Inspired the Resistance in WWII (Adam Nettina, November 2021, HistoryNet)
-REVIEW ESSAY: Of Mice, Men, and Murdering Misfits (Dwight Longenecker, April 21st, 2021, Imaginative Conservative)
    -ESSAY: Decades Later, a John Steinbeck Classic is Still Inspiring Travelers (and Their Dogs): Could "Travels With Charley" inspire your next road trip? John Steinbeck ( TOBIAS CARROLL, 1/01/20, Inside Hook)
    -REVIEW: Tom Joad and the Quest for an American Eden (Mark Malvasi, December 28th, 2020, Imaginative Conservative)
    -REVIEW: of Mad at the World: A Life of John Steinbeck by William Souder (Vivian Gornick, New Republic)
    -REVIEW: of Mad at the World (Philip Lopate, TLS)
    -REVIEW: of Mad at the World (Margot Enns, University Bookman)

Book-related and General Links:
-Center for Steinbeck Studies

Other good books by John Steinbeck:
    -Of Mice and Men
    -East of Eden
    -Travels with Charley: In Search of America
    -Winter of Our Discontent