(Photo by Dorothea Lange, from Shorpy.)
Every year Cornell University, the college I teach at, does a New Student Reading Project, wherein everyone at the institution, including faculty and staff, are asked to read a book along with the incoming freshmen. This year, oddly, it's The Grapes of Wrath, a book that much of the incoming class probably just read in high school. But guess what? I didn't. I had never read a word by Steinbeck, in fact, until this past week, when I plowed through Grapes with a mixture of consternation, absorption, and awe.
Steinbeck wrote this book in 93 sittings, longhand, on 18" x 12" ledger books, the sort of feat that makes scribblers like me swoon. Our hero! It was originally conceived as a series of nonfiction pieces for Life, then metamorphosed into a novel which interspersed the story of the mirgant Joad family fleeing the dust bowl with chapters of omniscient quasi-reportage and artful invention intended to capture the people and places of the age.
Let me say right off that this book is too long, too sentimental, and too didactic. I admit that I bristled at Steinbeck's characters' conviction that the only honest form of labor is done with a man's hands, for the benefit of his own family and community. I became very tired of being reminded of the soullessness of machines and the evils of capitalism, and grew frustrated at the cascading indignities Steinbeck visited upon his characters, and the way this manipulated me into sympathy.
But all that said, it's a hell of a good book. The Joads are genuinely interesting, their situation compelling, and the social structure that controls their lives quite fascinating. And Steinbeck's prose, if it sometimes overreaches, is nonetheless supple, poetic, and often deeply moving. The last chapter is simply brilliant--the way the floods break up the story into a dreamlike kind of logic, and drive the remaining Joads to the dark barn where the story ends with a stunning redemptive scene, just blew me away. The last paragraph courts melodrama in a big, risky way, and I admire that; I also love the way Steinbeck lodges the novel's last shred of grace in the heart of the one of the most annoying characters in the history of American letters, Rose of Sharon.
I'll be leading a discussion of the book with some first-year students next week, and am quite excited--even if they've read it before, the book is worth reading again, post-housing-bubble, post-Madoff, and post-anti-healthcare-assault-rifle-brandishing. And next thing you know, I'll be posting about The Catcher In The Rye.