Title: The Grapes of Wrath
Author: John Steinbeck
Genre: Historical/Slice of life
Review: There are a few novelists writing as well as Steinbeck and perhaps a very few who write better; but it is most interesting to note how very much alike they are all writing: Hemingway, Caldwell, Faulkner, Dos Passos in the novel, and MacLeish in poetry are those whom we easily think of in their similarity of theme and style. Each is writing stories and scenarios of America with a curious and sudden intensity, almost as if they had never seen or understood it before. They are looking at it again with revolutionary eyes.
Stirred like every other man in the street with news of foreign persecution, they turn to their own land to find seeds of the same destructive hatred. Their themes of pity and anger, their styles of sentimental elegy and scarifying denunciation may come to seem representative of our time. MacLeish’s “Land of the Free,” for instance, going directly to the matter with poetry and pictures–the matter being that the land is no longer free, having been mortgaged, bought and finally bankrupted by a succession of anonymous companies, banks, politicians and courts, or, for the present instance, Steinbeck’s “The Grapes of Wrath,” as pitiful and angry a novel ever to be written about America.
It is a very long novel, the longest that Steinbeck has written, and yet it reads as if it had been composed in a flash, ripped off the typewriter and delivered to the public as an ultimatum. It is a long and thoughtful novel as one thinks about it. It is a short and vivid scene as one feels it.
The opening scene is in Oklahoma, where a change in the land is taking place that no one understands, neither the single families who have pioneered it nor the great owners who have bought it over with their banks and lawyers. As plainly as it can be put, Mr. Steinbeck puts it. A man wants to build a wall, a house, a dam, and inside that a certain security to raise a family that will continue his work. But there is no security for a single family. The cotton crops have sucked out the roots of the land and the dust has overlaid it. The men from the Bank or the Company, sitting in their closed cars, try to explain to the squatting farmers what they scarcely understand themselves: that the tenants whose grandfather settled the land have no longer the title to it, that a tractor does more work than a single family of men, women and children put together, that their land is to be mechanically plowed under, with special instructions that their hand-built houses are to be razed to the ground.
This may read like a disquisition by Stuart Chase. There is, in fact, a series of essays on the subject running through the book, angry and abstract–like the perplexed and figuring.” The essayist in Steinbeck alternates with the novelist, as it does with Caldwell and the others. The moralist is as important as the story-teller, may possibly outlast him; but the story at the moment is the important thing.
The most interesting figure of this Oklahoma family is the son who has just been released from jail. He is on his way home from prison, hitch-hiking across the State in his new cheap prison suit, picking up a preacher who had baptized him when young, and arriving to find the family setting out for California. The Bank had come “to tractorin’ off the place.” The house had been knocked over by the tractor making straight furrows for the cotton. The Joad family had read handbills promising work for thousands in California, orange picking. They had bought an old car, were on the point of leaving, when Tom turned up from prison with the preacher. They can scarcely wait for this promised land of fabulous oranges, grapes and peaches. Only one stubborn fellow remains on the land where his great-grandfather had shot Indians and built his house. The others, with Tom and the preacher, pack their belongings on the second-hand truck, set out for the new land, to start over again in California.
The journey across is done in superb style, one marvellous short story after another, and all melting into this long novel of the great trek. The grandfather dies on the way, and then the grandmother. The son Noah stops at a river and decides to stay there. Without quite knowing it, he is the Thoreau in the family. A fine river, fish to catch and eat, the day and night to dream in: he wants nothing else. The little children have their fun along the road; wise little brats, they are growing up, secret and knowing. Tom and his brother take turns driving the truck, easing her over the mountains, grinding her valves, scraping the plugs: they are the mechanics. The sister, Rosasharn, christened for Rose of Sharon, expects to have her baby. Her husband disappears, aims to better himself in his own selfish way. The Joad family meet people coming and going, going to California from the Western States with hope and the orange handbills and a $75 jalopy; people coming from California embittered and broke, speaking darkly of deputies, double-crossing, 20 cents an hour and labor trouble. Those coming from California are going back to their native Oklahoma, Texas or Arkansas, to die starving in what had once been their homes, rather than die starving in a strange country.
Californians are not going to like this angry novel. The Joad family drive over the mountains, through the desert, the great valley, through Tehacapi in the morning glow– “Al jammed on the brake and stopped in the middle of the road. * * * The vineyards, the orchards, the great flat valley, green and beautiful, the trees set in rows, and the farm houses.”
And Pa said, “God Almighty!” The distant cities, the little towns in the orchard land, and the morning sun, golden on the valley. . . . The grain fields golden in the morning, and the willow lines, the eucalyptus trees in rows. . . . Pa sighed, “I never knowed they was anything like her,”–silent and awestruck, embarrassed before the great valley, writes Mr. Steinbeck, of even the children.
The beauty and fertility of California conceal human fear, hatred and violence. “Scairt” is a Western farmer’s word for the inhabitants, frightened of the influx of workers eager for jobs, and when they are frightened they become vicious and cruel. This part of the story reads like the news from Nazi Germany. Families from Oklahoma are known as “Okies.” While they work they live in what might as well be called concentration camps. Only a few hundred are given jobs out of the thousands who traveled West in response to the handbills. Their pay is cut from 30 cents an hour to 25, to 20. If any one objects he is a Red, an agitator, a trouble-maker who had better get out of the country. Deputy sheriffs are around with guns, legally shooting or clubbing any one from the rest of the Union who questions the law of California. The Joad family find only one place of order and decency in this country of fear and violence, in a government camp, and it is a pleasure to follow the family as they take a shower bath and go to the Saturday night dances. But even here the deputy sheriffs, hired by the banks who run the Farmers Association, are poking in their guns, on the pretext of inciting to riot and the necessity of protective custody. The Joad family moves on through California, hunted by anonymous guns while they are picking peaches for 2 1/2 cents a box, hoping only for a little land free of guns and dust on which they might settle and work as they were accustomed to. The promised grapes of California have turned into grapes of wrath that might come to fruition at any moment.
How true this may be no reviewer can say. One may very easily point out that a similar message has been read by the writers mentioned above, and that Mr. Steinbeck has done the same thing before. It is easy to add that the novel comes to no conclusion, that the preacher is killed because he is a strikebreaker, that Tom disappears as a fugitive from California justice, that the novel ends on a minor and sentimental note; that the story stops after 600 pages merely because a story has to stop somewhere. All this is true enough but the real truth is that Steinbeck has written a novel from the depths of his heart with a sincerity seldom equaled. It may be an exaggeration, but it is the exaggeration of an honest and splendid writer.
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