Steinbeck's novel is the first to herald the Age of Ecology
John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath is a ghastly portrait of poverty, filth, human misery,Steinbeck's novel is the first to herald the Age of Ecology
John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath is a ghastly portrait of poverty, filth, human misery, starvation, and injustice. It tells the story of the Joad family, Oklahoma tenant farmers or “Okies,” dispossessed from their Dust Bowl homestead by bankers and wealthy landowners. In a jalopy, the Joads go west along Route 66 in search of greener pastures, the proverbial Promised Land, only to confront the scorn of Californians.
Steinbeck imbued the novel with an essentially ecological message, about how “machine-man” with his iron tractors loses connection to the land, destroys the land, then consequently destroys his own humanity.
His political observations in the novel, one literary scholar has pointed out, “grew largely from his interest in Ed Ricketts’ ideas.” (Ricketts was a pioneering marine ecologist and the inspiration behind the Jim Casey character in Grapes.)
The reaction to Grapes—which weighed in at a mammoth 850 pages—shocked even Steinbeck, who thought it wouldn’t be a popular book at all and advised his publisher to “print a small edition.” After one month, 83,000 copies were in print, a number that would swell to 430,000 by year’s end, a staggering success then and now. Since the first edition appeared seventy-five years ago, the novel has never been out of print or sold less than 50,000 copies annually, in English alone.
Ecstatic reviews rolled in from critics at Atlantic Monthly, Harper’s and North American Review. Clifton Fadiman at The New Yorker summed up the novel’s power: “If only a couple of million over comfortable people can be brought to read it, John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath may actually effect something like a revolution in their minds and hearts.” Such praise, however, only fed the hysteria of detractors—namely the Associated Farmers, conservative politicians, the clergy and communist witch-hunters.
Steinbeck wrote the novel in a marathon session—ninety-three working days over five months starting on May 26, 1938. It physically and emotionally crippled him and his wife Carol, who served as his stenographer and initial editor and who came up with its title from a verse in “The Battle Hymn of the Republic.” With the manuscript completed in early 1939, they moved into a secluded Spanish-style ranch near Los Gatos, seventy-five miles from Monterey. Medical tests at the time showed that Steinbeck’s metabolic rate was “shockingly low” and neuritis left him bedridden for two weeks. The publication of The Grapes of Wrath in April of that year thus heralded the worst of times for Steinbeck, “a nightmare all in all.”
Hollywood stars quickly came knocking at his door—Burgess Meredith, Charlie Chaplin, Spencer Tracy, Anthony Quinn—the “swimming pool set” as Steinbeck dubbed them. They became occasional visitors around the pool at his Los Gatos home. He was offered $5,000 a week to write screenplays, and the film rights for Grapes sold for $75,000, one of the highest prices ever paid for a novel at the time.
Director John Ford turned it into an Academy Award–winning blockbuster in 1940, starring a young Henry Fonda as Tom Joad, a character who has been ranked as one of the greatest screen heroes of all time by the American Film Institute.
It was too much for John Steinbeck—the money, adoration, invidious innuendo and threats. “This whole thing is getting me down,” he wrote his agent, “and I don’t know what to do about it. The telephone never stops ringing, telegrams all the time, fifty to seventy-five letters a day all wanting something. People who won’t take no for an answer sending books to be signed. I don’t know what to do.” By the beginning of July, the Los Angeles Times reported that the famous writer had retreated to “a secluded canyon three miles from [Los Gatos], and padlocked himself against the world.”
Steinbeck fled to Hollywood that summer to hide out, but also to get away from Carol. Suddenly she seemed to be turning on him too. Her behavior, including bouts of heavy drinking, had become erratic and hateful toward the writer. She had suffered greatly for his career and grew resentful. In Hollywood Steinbeck struck up an affair with actress Gwen (or Gwyn, as she later spelled it) Conger, a petite starlet twenty years his junior.
When Steinbeck returned to Los Gatos he found Carol hysterical. In late July, while at a party in Beverly Hills, she blew up, screaming viciously at her husband in an embarrassing public feud. Distraught and bewildered, John Steinbeck needed help. And there was only one place where he could hide out from his estranged wife, snooping FBI agents, newspapermen and scandalmongers. He ended up at Pacific Biological Laboratories, the home and business owned by Ed Ricketts on Cannery Row.
“Once, when I had suffered an overwhelming emotional upset,” he later recalled. “I went to the laboratory to stay with [Ed Ricketts]. I was dull and speechless with shock and pain. He used music on me like medicine… I think it was as careful and loving medication as has ever been administered.”
By autumn, Steinbeck was spending most of his time on Cannery Row, helping Ricketts with work at the lab and reading science books. He had tired of the “swimming pool set,” which he felt Carol had fostered.
On a number of levels, he sensed he was undergoing some kind of slow death—matrimonially, professionally, creatively, physically. He had barely written a word in 1939, his marriage had effectively collapsed, his health was frail, and war in Europe, which began in September, cast a doomsday spell over his psyche.
“The last two days I have had death premonitions so strong,” he scribbled in his journal on October 19, “that I burned all the correspondence of years. I have a horror of people going through it, messing around in my past, such as it is. I burned it all.” But with death came a rebirth too—a rebirth that would confound many who knew him.
He began an era of “new thinking” which involved the study of science. It became “a sort of sea anchor with which he tried to ride out the storm.” Steinbeck completely abandoned fiction writing and, oddly, wanted to produce a high-school level textbook on the marine biology of San Francisco Bay under Ricketts’ tutelage. Why, at the height of his literary career, with cash and kudos flooding in, would America’s best-selling author abandon the very craft he seemed to have mastered? The answer eluded many literary critics.
One of the greatest American men of letters in the twentieth century, Edmund Wilson, set the tone—and one can arguably say the misunderstanding— for a generation of critics who excoriated Steinbeck, notwithstanding his popular appeal. “Mr. Steinbeck almost always in his fiction is dealing either with the lower animals or with human beings so rudimentary that they are almost on the animal level. . . , ” wrote Wilson in an influential review of The Grapes of Wrath. “This animalizing tendency of Mr. Steinbeck’s is, I believe, at the bottom of his relative unsuccess at representing human beings.”
Steinbeck’s fiction was weak, flawed, belittling, Wilson argued, because his characters were simply not human, or not human enough. But Wilson completely missed the philosophical and scientific import of what Steinbeck was actually saying.
Anthropocentricism—the placing of human beings at the center of the universe—has been the very foundation of Western thinking, from ancient times through the Age of Reason into modernity. In eras bubbling with religious and imperial zeal, society saw nature as a gift from God, and its exploitation as a divine right. “The world is made for man,” Sir Francis Bacon wrote, “not man for the world.” The Enlightenment harkened a new world in which science would give mankind absolute dominion, in a biblical sense, over nature. With the new inventions of the Industrial Revolution, humans polluted and plundered the planet’s bounty: the soil, oceans, forests, lakes and rivers, and their myriad creatures.
Singularly, however, one event effected a sea-change in this man-centered worldview in North America. In the 1930s, huge dust storms blew over the Great Plains, transforming the sun into a lusterless ball in a gray sky. The Dust Bowl, vividly described in the opening chapter of The Grapes of Wrath, is arguably the worst environmental catastrophe of the twentieth century. It destroyed entire harvests, displaced some 300,000 farmers and precipitated violent social unrest and even starvation. A group of pioneering Midwestern plant ecologists concluded, however, that the Dust Bowl was a wholly man-made disaster; misguided farming practices had destroyed the native sod which was a vital buffer against wind and drought.
It’s a conclusion that resonates throughout Steinbeck’s epic novel—“The land bore under iron, and under iron gradually died,” he wrote—and made John Steinbeck, argues his biographer, “the only major literary figure of his time to embrace and bring to his writing one of the most—if not the most—important concepts of the twentieth century, a concept that has changed radically the way man views himself and his relationship to his environment.”
As Galileo rankled the Vatican for confirming that the earth was not the center of the universe, so too was Steinbeck attacked for trying to show that the earth itself was not a man-centered world. Humans were biological beings, Steinbeck suggested, and were thus united by the same natural laws that shape the rest of the animal kingdom. He was not denying the uniqueness of the human species—its distinct cognitive, linguistic and emotive powers—as Wilson contended, but rather recognizing that humans were one with nature.
The fate of civilization, in effect, rests perhaps less on how man treats his fellow man than on how man treats the environment. That humanity’s survival depended on the health of the global commons—a fact that sounds trite today in light of global warming, species extinction and habitat destruction—was a prophetic statement half a century ago. And while literary scholars criticized Steinbeck for animalism and gross sentimentalism, it has been the scientific community who has largely vindicated the writer, proclaiming Steinbeck a conservationist, an ecological prophet and the first American writer to herald the Age of Ecology.
John Steinbeck knew, as Ricketts had once written, that “the study of animal communities has this advantage: they are merely what they are, for anyone to see who will and can look clearly; they cannot complicate the picture by worded idealisms, by saying one thing and being another: here the struggle is unmasked and the beauty is unmasked.”
In The Grapes of Wrath, John Steinbeck unmasked the human struggle and was persecuted with “worded idealisms” for doing so. By turning to marine biology and the tide pools, he hoped to apply his own eye to this “peep hole,” and to fish for the same beauty and struggles among animal communities that he had unmasked among human society. “Our fingers turned over the stones,” Steinbeck said of seashore collecting, “and we saw life that was like our life.”
This review of The Party: The Secret World of China’s Communist Rulers by Richard McGregor was originally publisThe beast that is China’s ruling party
This review of The Party: The Secret World of China’s Communist Rulers by Richard McGregor was originally published in the Vancouver Sun on August 14, 2010 and on my blog at http://horsethatleaps.com/theparty.
In the spring of 2006, I enrolled in a curious course at the B.C. Institute of Technology in Vancouver. It was called the “Fundamentals of Doing Business with China,” but it turn out to be more like “Leninism 101.”
Our instructor, Lawrence Gu, had just become dean of Canada’s first Confucius Institute, a partnership between BCIT and the Chinese government. There are now more than three hundred Confucius Institutes around the world, mostly offering Mandarin classes. BCIT, Gu enthused, was the first to offer a practical business course.
Our first lesson was on China’s governance. “It’s the most sophisticated structure in the world,” Gu said. “It looks familiar, but it isn’t.” He distributed four handouts. Stapled on top was one simply titled “Party.” It was an organizational chart showing the Communist Party’s Secretary General, the Politburo Standing Committee, Politburo and Party Central Committee, in descending order.
“Why do I put the Party first?” he asked.
At every level of government, Gu explained, village leaders, mayors and provincial governors are shadowed by Party apparatchiks who hold the real power in China. At the top sits the Politburo Standing Committee. “These nine members are really calling the shots,” Gu said. He described the Party’s Secretary General Hu Jintao, who is also China’s President, as “the emperor.”
Gu boasted of his “pragmatic” approach in beating out more prestigious universities for the country’s first Confucius Institute: “We followed the Chinese government strategy and you’ll find out that’s the strategy for success.” That is also the first fundamental: when in China you need to toe the Party line.
Gu’s greatest challenge was finding a course textbook. “I don’t think you can have one,” he said. “The subject is too difficult and fluid.”
That is until now. Richard McGregor’s new book, The Party: The Secret World of China’s Communist Rulers, should be required reading for anyone wanting to do any kind of business in China. Understanding the Party is fundamental to success—and survival, as McGregor describes in chilling prose.
McGregor’s narrative unfolds like Peter Matthiessen’s Snow Leopard, in which the writer tracks the mysterious cat through the Himalayas. As we travel with McGregor in search of his “beast,” as he calls the Party, we see mostly the bloody trail of its mauled victims, from 35 million starved to death in the Great Leap Forward to students massacred in Tiananmen Square. With every gripping anecdote, McGregor gets closer to capturing the essence of the Party, but in the end this animal, like the snow leopard, proves elusive.
“The problem in writing about the Party… is that, much as the Party might be staring you in the face, you can’t easily glare back,” he writes. Indeed, he adds: “Sometimes, you can’t see the Party at all.”
“The Party is like God,” one Chinese academic tells him. “He is everywhere. You just can’t see him.”
Yet McGregor sees more than most. A reporter for the Financial Times, he’s been covering China for more than a decade, and is a seasoned, entertaining guide. His book is a page-turner, a mystery of sorts. Although he only glimpses into the Party’s inner workings, McGregor’s quest to shed light on the murky clique that rules the world’s largest country becomes a vehicle for understanding modern China with all its contradictions and paradoxes.
The Party is everywhere and nowhere. “Over time,” he writes, “the Party’s secrecy has gone beyond habit and become essential to its survival, by shielding it from the reach of the law and the wider citizenry.”
McGregor deftly describes how the Party has junked its outdated Marxist software, but “still runs on Soviet hardware.” It operates on a Leninist mainframe, keeping its “lock-hold on the state and three pillars of its survival strategy: control of personnel, propaganda and the People’s Liberation Army.” This point is often lost on many Western observers who hail the end of Communism in China. Not quite.
“The Leninist bureaucracy survives, but the Party has added a touch of McKinsey to ensure it performs,” he writes, referring to the global business consultancy.
The book’s first half focuses on the Party’s control of the state, business, personnel and the army while the second half describes the Party’s many challenges: reigning in corruption and rogue officials in the regions, controlling the growing capitalist class and managing the narrative of China, “because if this narrative unraveled, it could devour them all.”
At times, McGregor makes it seem like the average Chinese is living in the Matrix; workers may be improving their lot, but the real purpose of their daily toil is to sustain and enrich the “red machine,” whose greed and graft knows no bounds. And anyone who tries to expose the Party for what it truly is will be duly annihilated.
“As a political machine,” he writes, “the Party has so far proved to be a sinuous, cynical and adaptive beast in the face of its multiple challenges.”
McGregor is less successful at describing its evolution. That the Party has succeeded so spectacularly shouldn’t be a surprise. Lenin designed his dictatorship of the proletariat by a vanguard party of professionals as a means to industrialize rural peasants. Leninism is reverse-Marxism: first the political revolution and then an industrial one. That’s exactly what China’s Communist Party has done with aplomb.
But can this rickety “Soviet hardware” effectively manage an increasingly post-industrial, pluralistic society of tech-savvy citizens and irreverent youths? For many observers, democratization seems inevitable in China, just as the autocratic Kuomintang relinquished power to multi-party elections in Taiwan. Indeed, the Party already allows for elections of village leaders and in some townships. Yet McGregor sidesteps the issue of political reform.
The Party has become craftier too, but McGregor barely touches on the new methods and technologies being used to seduce and suppress, co-opt and coerce, public opinion. Besides the Great Fire Wall, the Party is employing electronic surveillance, polling and focus groups, and is probably monitoring Internet search terms on Baidu (China’s Google) and the blogosphere to keep one step ahead of the mob.
Whether it uses democratic elections or technological innovations (or a bit of both) to manage the complexities of post-industrial society, as McGregor rightly points out, the Party isn’t over in China....more