Try the The Grapes of Wrath 

An old fashioned pen and ink drawing shows loads trucks along a country road. The book cover appears as speckled, cotton rag paper that has yellowed with age. A coffee cup and pot sit beneath the title and author.

by Eric L.

I recently read, or perhaps re-read, The Grapes of Wrath. If I was assigned this masterwork in school, I skipped it or watched the film (which is also great). Either way, both were wasted on my young mind. The 15-year-old me could not have begun to empathize with these people. Not to mention we were probably still in the Reagan/Bush 1 era, and I feel this sort of thinking had gone out of vogue. No political statement intended; except for some small bumps, those were fairly prosperous economic times for many middle-class folks. 

I was assigned and recall avoiding Of Mice and Men, and I can’t even remember that film. I’ve also seen East of Eden, but only because James Dean was in it. That said, I’m familiar with John Steinbeck: his reputation and the themes he’s known for (California and its workers). Maybe a decade ago, I read Travels with Charley: In Search of America, the autobiographical story of his travels with his dog (Charley). It was quite good, and I recommend it.  

I digress. Coming in at just under 500 pages, with an overarching theme of extreme poverty to the point of starvation, The Grapes of Wrath is a masterwork of American literature. And it’s a story that is timeless, sadly. I read a lot of books, mostly good ones, but it’s easy to forget what it is to read a great book. Although you should be reading all sorts of books and anything that you like, not all books are great, I’m sorry to say. 

In broad strokes, this novel concerns humanism and details the need for a social safety net in America. However, I would not describe the book as a polemic because it’s subtle and it humanizes nearly all the characters who are constantly being dehumanized. The Grapes of Wrath was published in 1939 during the Great Depression, and it painstakingly details the problems people faced when fleeing the dust bowl. It tells the story of the Joad family, who leave Oklahoma after being forced off their land, as they go in search of work and a better life in California.

In many ways this seems like a common trope. The progression of technology changing the way people can meet their needs has certainly been written about again and again (although I’m a sucker for these sorts of stories). Steinbeck deftly illustrates the greed, self-preservation, and dehumanization of others that undergird the whole system. For example, the Joads do not think about traveling to California independently; instead, they are lured there by people looking to exploit their labor.  

One of the saddest aspects of the book is the Joads’ optimism. They obstinately believe that all they need is some work, which they’re more than willing to do. Their naiveté and failure to appreciate the omnipresent power imbalance in America is both admirable and maddening. However, Steinbeck illustrates this often as a criticism of the American ethos. Tom, the main character and oldest son, begins to realize, with the help of the Preacher turned humanist thinker, that the game is not as fair as they all believed. Tom’s rebellion throughout the book provides a counterpoint to the acceptance of less and less by starving people. 

The truly tragic part is the control the owners, banks, and corporations wield over society. For example, their ability to use the law to enforce their rules is despicable. They are terrorizing people who just want to eat and labeling anyone “red” who speaks for labor. 

My favorite part of the book, and the most impressive, is how Steinbeck intersperses the linear story of the Joads’ journey with vignettes about the time, the land, or the people in the abstract. The passages are amazing and can stand on their own. Steinbeck’s technique is strong and unique, and I can’t think of another book written quite like this (although I’m sure one probably exists). I wonder if Steinbeck’s intent is to break up the difficult and moving chapters with something beautifully written. The Grapes of Wrath has poetic moments, particularly when he portrays the kindness and generosity of poor people.  

The Grapes of Wrath is a tough book; by no means a feel-good read, but a plea to recognize our shared humanity. Perhaps it’s also a piece of propaganda for a labor movement and a social safety net. I think any reader would be hard pressed to be unmoved by this classic.

Available in many formats: print, large print, e-book, audiobook on CD, e-audiobook, and Playaway.

Eric is a DIY Instructor and Research Specialist at Elkridge Branch. He enjoys reading, films, music, doing nearly anything outside, and people.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s