I first read The Grapes of Wrath more than fifty years ago, when it was assigned to all freshmen at Michigan State. Despite its undoubted importance in California fiction, I hadn’t gotten back to it since. Somehow it seemed more fun to read novels that hardly anyone had ever heard of. But last week finally I decided that the book had faded too far in my memory and that I needed to reestablish its place within my other California reading.
The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck. Viking Press (1939), 619 pp.
The setup just for the record: Tom Joad returns home from an Oklahoma prison to discover the family had been ousted from its tenant farm and is about to start for California, lured by the prospect of beautiful weather and plentiful jobs. Tom joins the group -- his fading grandparents, stalwart mother, overwhelmed father, addled older brother Noah, pregnant sister Rose of Sharon and her husband Connie, randy younger brother Al and even younger siblings Ruthie and Winfield, guilt-ridden uncle John and pensive friend Preacher Casy -- and off they go in a beat-up truck. They’ll enter a stream of desperate emigrants with similar hopes.
Instead of any kind of analysis, what follows are some notes to self.
The narrative has two distinct parts, which are presented in alternating chapters. One follows the Joads and employs a simple, straightforward style; the other sets the context for the journey and uses prose that is more lyrical and impressionistic. It’s an obvious but effective way to link the Joads to the big picture.
Steinbeck writes from a political viewpoint that is far to the left of most other California novelists of the time (and most novelists of the present day, as far as that goes). Unfettered capitalism is represented by heartless banking and greedy agribusiness. They do whatever they want to increase profits. Employees and small-time operators are unable to resist. Unions are an answer in theory but not practice. Only the government can establish conditions that allow ordinary Americans to express their natural altruism and cooperativeness.
The book focuses on common folk of solid Anglo-Saxon stock who are coming to California for the first time. The state’s permanent migrant workers, those of various ethnicities who follow the crops for six months and then settle somewhere to eek out a living, make no appearance. For a view of this group readers might want to try Dan Totheroh’s Wild Orchard (1927).
While Steinbeck describes some activities, notably life in the camps, in vivid detail, he doesn’t try to portray actual work in the fields at all. He may have felt that dwelling on long hours and miserable conditions would undercut his general view that employers rather than the work they demanded were the cause of the immigrants’ problems. Readers hoping to see migrant workers in action would be better off with Morris Hull’s Cannery Anne (1936); those interested in seeing migrants not working should dig up a copy of There Is a Happy Land (1942) by A. I. Bezzerides.
Big themes revolve around hope and desperation: Most people are at the mercy of outside economic forces. The California Dream, so seductive to outsiders, can easily turn into a nightmare. Good intentions and fierce determination will not always keep families together.
Even the most accomplished writers can foul up an ending. Here Steinbeck seems needlessly to carry the novel off into metaphorical melodrama. Having already made his case with extraordinary forcefulness, he should probably sign off after the big scene featuring Tom and his mother.
The book is a must-read for those interested in California fiction and unquestionably deserves rereading at least every fifty years.