There are few authors that can rival John Steinbeck. Some get close. Some writers are able to conjure a near perfect description of nature and sceneryThere are few authors that can rival John Steinbeck. Some get close. Some writers are able to conjure a near perfect description of nature and scenery so that you want to reach into the pages to pluck a ripe peach from its tree and sit along the banks of a roaring set of whitewater. Some writers are able to shine their light deep into the heart of the human spirit and bring out whole those points of commonality that all humans share, to speak some amount of truth as to the human condition. Few are the authors that can do both, and fewer still the authors that can do so without making you feel as if you're sitting at a Sunday mass listening to antiquated ideas of fire and brimstone. John Steinbeck is the rare author who can see all, the beauty and the horror, and render it in terms that stokes the fire in people's hearts with pride of what we're capable of in our better moments as well as blanket us in the shame of what we do in those less thoughtful moments.
I've read quite a few of Steinbeck's books by now, from the Cain and Abel allegory of East of Eden to the sweet whimsy of Cannery Row, but have never felt mentally prepared enough to tackle Grapes of Wrath. Not that the writing is particularly dense or the themes are too high-minded for me to wrap my mind around, but because I knew the story (it's been told in so many different formats from the aural to the cinematic)and knowing the story I knew that reading the actual words would fill me an almost unbearable amount of rage and unless I were prepared to funnel that rage into some sort of real world action then it would just coil and burn inside me, charring me with the self-destructive nature of impotent anger.
Because what makes Grapes of Wrath so powerful is that, while fiction, it recounts events that have happened in this country before: families torn from their lands by ever-hungry banks, uprooted from their very sense of history and identity, hurling themselves across the nation in the hopes of a better life just around the corner only to find themselves despised and spit upon wherever they go, treated worse than animals by those who are only one missed paycheck from realizing just how close they are to joining the Joads. There are families turning on families, workers undercutting workers, and no prayer in the world with the power to right these wrongs as long as people are unable to focus on anything other than their short-term self interest. This has all happened before and it is happening again. Sure, it has not yet reached the fever pitch that Steinbeck illuminates in his recounting of Okie workers pushed to the breaking point by the all-consuming maw of capitalist greed, but it wouldn't take much for us to get there.
Steinbeck's opus may be some of the finest writing I've yet come across of how a family who has never given more than a passing thought to capital, banks, or usury find themselves becoming acutely class conscious as they are hunted and harried across the land. His chapters, alternating between the specific story of the put-upon Joads to the more general musings of how workers are pitted against one another and how institutional power makes every attempt to keep them down lest they realize their own strength and organize for justice, are whip smart- never preaching when all he has to do is show. Like East of Eden before it, my copy of this book is well dog-eared and underlined, page after page now heavy with ink, but I think the most resounding passage for me occurred early in the book:
"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 driver could not control it- straight across country it went, cutting through a dozen farms and straight back. A twitch at the controls could swerve the cat', but the driver's hands could not twitch because the monster that built the tract, the monster that sent the tractor out, had somehow got into the driver's hands, into his brain and muscle, had goggled him and muzzled him- goggled his mind, muzzled his speech, goggled his perception, muzzled his protest. He could not see the land as it was, he could not smell the land as it smelled; his feet did not stamp the clods or feel the warmth and power of the earth. He sat in an iron seat and stepped on iron pedals. He could not cheer or beat or curse or encourage the extension of his power, and because of this he could not cheer or whip or curse or encourage himself. He did not know or own or trust or beseech the land. If a seed dropped did not germinate, it was nothing. If the young thrusting plant withered in drought or drowned in a flood of rain, it was no more to the driver than to the tractor.
He loved the land no more than the bank loved the land. He could admire the tractor- its machined surfaces, its surge of power, the roar of it detonating cylinders; but it was not his tractor. Behind the tractor rolled the shining disks, cutting the earth with blades- not plowing but surgery, pushing the cut earth to the right where the second row of disks cut it and pushed it to the left; slicing blades shining, polished by the cut earth. And pulled behind the disks, the harrows combing with iron teeth so that the little clods broke up and the earth lay smooth. Behind the harrows, the long seeders- twelve curved iron penes erected in the foundry, orgasms set by gears, raping methodically, raping without passion. The driver sat in his iron seat and he was proud of the straight lines he did not will, proud of the tractor he did not own or love, proud of the power he could not control. And when that crop grew, and was harvested, no man had crumbled a hot clod in his fingers and let the earth sift past his fingertips. No man had touched the see, or lusted for the growth. Men ate what they had not raised, had no connection with the bread. The land bore under iron, and under iron gradually died; for it was not loved or hated, it had no prayers or curses."...more