Wednesday, August 19, 2009

The Grapes of Wrath

(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.

12 comments:

AC said...

I hated this book so much when I read it in high school. I've been reminded of it 3 times in the last week, so I guess that means I'm going to have to re-read it (even though it may be with much sighing and dragging of feet). Stupid frickin' turtle over-sexed evangelists, murdering hicks, adult breastfeeding. And, just to put the cherry on top, Rage Against the Machine wrote a song about it.

jrlennon said...

It's probably the only book that both RATM and Springsteen wrote songs about...

Pete said...

A truly great book, despite its many faults. I remember being blown away by the ending when I read it during my train ride to work one morning, and looking around at my fellow commuters with something like sadness for them, knowing that whatever they were doing at that moment (gabbing on cellphones, napping) couldn't possibly compare with the experience I had with the book.

amy said...

I love reading famous books that are so famous you assume you've read them, only to realize you haven't actually ever read them at all. It's even better when they turn out to actually be as good as they are supposed to be. I just started reading Edith Wharton last year and was like, OH!

jrlennon said...

Age of Innocence is a killer. What an ending.

sjwoo said...

I got my Cornell University Edition, too, JR! Because I volunteered to be a mentor or something. Last year was that Lincoln book I never read. This one I have read, back in junior year of high school. I liked it then, though not enough to read it again.

I remember being impressed by the italicized sections (which were probably too sentimental and overblown), but you know what? I just flipped through this tome, and I can't find those sections at all. They were all very cinematic -- farmers burning oranges while people were starving, that type of thing. Did I just imagine all that? Lord, I really must be getting old.

One thing I remember from my class -- Jim Casy = Jesus Christ. I remember thinking that it was just coincidence that they shared the same initials. I was stupid when I was young.

jrlennon said...

That's all in there, but not in italics!

jonah said...

I loved this book in high school. Seriously changed my life. I abandoned traditional Christianity while reading it, began buying every Steinbeck book I could find (I have three copies of Grapes of Wrath) and started to picture myself as a "man of the people".

I haven't picked it up since. I'm too worried I won't like it. But it still has a place on my mantle. And I often look at the spine of it and think about what a great book it is.

ed said...

Never much liked that book, nor the way it was taught at me.

Travels With Charley is allright.

AC said...

I never made this connection before, but I had read something by John Steinbeck prior to The Grapes of Wrath. I liked The Red Pony a lot. I was probably about ten when I read that, and it's a rather horrifying book for a kid. Probably my introduction to themes of tragedy, failure, and the casual brutality that people inflict on animals and each other in the course of daily life. Also, the first book I remember reading where the main characters are obviously meant to be sympathetic but are not "nice" people in the way a kid would expect from reading, say, Marguerite Henry. So I wonder why The Grapes of Wrath had such a negative impact on me? Oh dear, I really will have to read it again.

jon said...

i guess it was my deplorable mid-seventies education, but my only high school and before Steinbeck memories are of the movie of The Grapes of Wrath, which is amazing, gorgeous; and of the Warner Bros. cartoon of Of Mice and Men, with chickens I believe playing the parts of Lenny and whoever the manchild is.

McQ said...

I really liked Grapes of Wrath when I read it in high school. The next Steinbeck I read was East of Eden, and only a year or two ago. Absolutely, totally *loved* it, way more than Grapes of Wrath. Completely compelling characters - especially the evil (no exaggeration there) stepmother - and story. As a native Californian long absent from her homeland, I also much appreciated Steinbeck's gorgeous descriptions of landscape and lifestyle both. Give it a look...