Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath is an aggressive, brutal, novel that tears a reader through the depths of starvation, disease and displacement. Based on extensive research, it is a long text detailing the travails and realities of Middle American tenement farmers turfed off their land and out onto the roads. Hundreds of thousands of people head for California, for the false dreams of comfort, food and (to borrow an anachronistic term) “a living wage”.
The book alternates between standard, narrative-driven chapters following the unpleasant experiences of the Joads, one particular migrant family, and highly poeticised, more general, evocations of the wider social and political implications of the migrations west.
Steinbeck’s prose is beautiful, is evocative, is deeply engaging and difficult to detach from. In its density it conjures up vivid descriptions of the nastiness, pettiness and cruelty caused by the arbitrary callousness of the weather, the land and the aggressive and dehumanised ideals of capitalism. For it is a deeply politicised text, an unbiased attack on the need of money and property and paper over connection with nature, with work, with graft*, with animals. There is an inherent conservatism in the text, a disapproval of technology, that I found troubling, particularly as I was repeatedly moved to tears by Steinbeck’s unbridled pointing out of the negative repercussions of capitalism… Yes, I’m a liberal, yes I’m pro-people, pro-charity, pro-work, pro-sharing, whatever, but I’m also pro-progress. And this book makes a very strong and very clear case against the oft-accepted notion that technological development is better for everyone. Because people are put out, replaced, by machines. Human connections, natural connections, are disturbed by change.
One of the least subtle ways the novel clarifies its political point is through the repeated comparison between horses and tractors, between horses and men. A farmer wouldn’t lock his horses alone in a barn for the Winter, yet he can a tractor… And he can expect, nay, DEMAND, a migrant worker gets off his land and finds his own food at the same time too.
Lots of horrible things happen in this book, it is rather unrelentless in its pessimism about the present. But it is UTTERLY positive and optimistic about the virtuous, about the good, about the downtrodden and the generous – those whose minds are unpoisoned by wealth, by material greed, are better people, improved people, more satisfied people…
When a man has tilled his one field, grown and harvested his own crop, he understands much more what it signifies than if he pays someone else to do it. If it’s an investment, it’s just money, if it’s where you live and make your food, it is life. It is YOURS. And that is the novel’s key point. What is ownership if it is only a piece of paper? Who makes the clothing? The company whose name is written on it or the faceless, raceless, bodiless person working in a sweatshop for fuck all in some town you’ve never heard of in some place you never want to go?
The message is harsh and sadly relevant. This is a beautiful novel, but a deeply arresting one. I’d recommend. Unless you’re looking for something light.
*I don’t mean graft in the “bribe” sense, I mean it in the “back-breaking”, “hard” sense. Possibly no longer semantically relevant. I once sent a batch of CVs off that said I was “ready for graft”. Needless to say (clear from my ONGOING lack of a career), nothing came of that…