History of Literature











John Steinbeck



 
 



John Steinbeck


 

John Steinbeck

American novelist
in full John Ernst Steinbeck
born Feb. 27, 1902, Salinas, Calif., U.S.
died Dec. 20, 1968, New York, N.Y.

Main
American novelist, best known for The Grapes of Wrath (1939), which summed up the bitterness of the Great Depression decade and aroused widespread sympathy for the plight of migratory farm workers. He received the Nobel Prize for Literature for 1962.

Steinbeck attended Stanford University, Stanford, Calif., intermittently between 1920 and 1926 but did not take a degree. Before his books attained success, he spent considerable time supporting himself as a manual labourer while writing, and his experiences lent authenticity to his depictions of the lives of the workers in his stories. He spent much of his life in Monterey county, Calif., which later was the setting of some of his fiction.

Steinbeck’s first novel, Cup of Gold (1929), was followed by The Pastures of Heaven (1932) and To a God Unknown (1933), none of which were successful. He first achieved popularity with Tortilla Flat (1935), an affectionately told story of Mexican-Americans. The mood of gentle humour turned to one of unrelenting grimness in his next novel, In Dubious Battle (1936), a classic account of a strike by agricultural labourers and a pair of Marxist labour organizers who engineer it. The novella Of Mice and Men (1937), which also appeared in play and film versions, is a tragic story about the strange, complex bond between two migrant labourers. The Grapes of Wrath won a Pulitzer Prize and a National Book Award and was made into a notable film in 1940. The novel is about the migration of a dispossessed family from the Oklahoma Dust Bowl to California and describes their subsequent exploitation by a ruthless system of agricultural economics.

After the best-selling success of The Grapes of Wrath, Steinbeck went to Mexico to collect marine life with the freelance biologist Edward F. Ricketts, and the two men collaborated in writing Sea of Cortez (1941), a study of the fauna of the Gulf of California. During World War II Steinbeck wrote some effective pieces of government propaganda, among them The Moon Is Down (1942), a novel of Norwegians under the Nazis, and he also served as a war correspondent. His immediate postwar work—Cannery Row (1945), The Pearl (1947), and The Wayward Bus (1947)—contained the familiar elements of his social criticism but were more relaxed in approach and sentimental in tone.

Steinbeck’s later writings were comparatively slight works of entertainment and journalism interspersed with three conscientious attempts to reassert his stature as a major novelist: Burning Bright (1950), East of Eden (1952), and The Winter of Our Discontent (1961). In critical opinion, none equaled his earlier achievement. East of Eden, an ambitious epic about the moral relations between a California farmer and his two sons, was made into a film in 1955. Steinbeck himself wrote the scripts for the film versions of his stories The Pearl (1948) and The Red Pony (1949). Outstanding among the scripts he wrote directly for motion pictures were Forgotten Village (1941) and Viva Zapata! (1952).

Steinbeck’s reputation rests mostly on the naturalistic novels with proletarian themes he wrote in the 1930s; it is in these works that his building of rich symbolic structures and his attempts at conveying mythopoeic and archetypal qualities in his characters are most effective.

 

 

Of Mice and Men

John Steinbeck
1902-1968

The title of quite possibly John Steinbeck's best known work refers to a line from a Robert Burns' poem To a Mouse, hinting simply at the tragedy of the tale. The novella tells the story of George and Lennie, two migrant workers who have been let off the bus miles from the California ranch where they work. George is a small, sharp man with dark features, and Lennie a mentally subnormal, shapeless giant who is deeply devoted to George and relies on him for protection and guidance. Camped out for the night, this unlikely couple share a dream of starting a farm together. Back on the ranch, the men meet Slim, the mule driver who admires their friendship. He gives Lennie one of his puppies and convinces the two men to include him in their dreams of buying a piece of land and setting up home. But the dream is shattered when Lennie accidentally kills the puppy and, without meaning to, breaks the neck of a woman on the ranch. Fleeing a terrible death at the hands of a lynch mob, Lennie encounters George, who gently reiterates the story of the idyllic life they will share together, before shooting his friend in the back of his head. When the mob arrives, Slim realizes that George has killed his friend out of mercy and leads him away.
This is a story about brotherhood and the harsh reality of a world that refuses to allow such idealized male bonds to be nurtured. George and Lennie's unique relationship approaches that ideal, but it is misunderstood by the rest of the world, who cannot comprehend true friendship, instead undermining one another and exploiting weakness wherever it can be found. But perhaps the real tragedy of the novel lies in the depiction of the death of the great American dream as a reality, exposing it as exactly what it purports to be: merely a dream.

 

 



EAST OF EDEN
 

Type of work: Novel
Author: John Steinbeck (1902-1968)
Type of plot: Regional chronicle
Time of plot: 1865-1918
Locale: California
First published: 1952
 

East of Eden is an ambitious but not altogether successful attempt to present three stories simultaneously: a panoramic history of the Salinas Valley (symbolic of America as a whole); a melodramatic chronicle of two families in the valley; and a symbolic re-creation of the Cain and Abel story. In each story the theme is the same: good and evil are always in conflict, but man's freedom and glory lie in his ability to choose the good to direct his own life.
 

 

Principal Characters

Adam Trask, a settler in the Salinas Valley. He marries Cathy Ames in Connecticut and moves west where he and their twin sons, Caleb and Aron, are deserted by her.
Cathy Ames, Adam Trask's innocent appearing but evil wife. Deserting Adam and their twin sons, Caleb and Aron, she becomes the proprietress of a notorious brothel.
Aron Trask, smugly religious, idealistic twin son of Adam Trask and Cathy Ames. Unable to face the knowledge of his parents' past, he joins the army and is killed in France.
Caleb Trask, impulsive twin son of Adam Trask and Cathy. Rejected in an effort to help his father, he takes revenge by revealing to his brother Aron the secret of their mother's identity. He later accepts responsibility for the disillusioned Aron's death.
Abra Bacon, Aron Trask's fiancee. Disturbed because she feels unable to live up to Aron's idealistic image of her, she finally turns to the more realistic Caleb Trask.
Charles Trask, Adam Trask's half brother.
Samuel Hamilton, an early settler in the Salinas Valley.
Liza Hamilton, Samuel Hamilton's wife.
Lee, Adam Trask's wise and good Chinese servant.
Faye, proprietress of a Salinas brothel. Her death is engineered by Cathy Ames as she seeks to gain full control of Faye's establishment.
Will Hamilton, business partner of Caleb Trask.

 

The Story

The soil of the Salinas Valley in California is rich, although the foothills around it are poor, and life in the valley is barren during the long dry spells. The Irish-born Hamiltons, arriving after American settlers had displaced the Mexicans, settled on the barren hillside. There Sam Hamilton, full of talk, glory, and improvident inventions, and Liza, his dourly religious wife, brought up their nine children.
In Connecticut, Adam Trask and his half brother Charles grew up, mutually affectionate in spite of the differences in their natures. Adam was gentle and good; Charles, roughly handsome with a streak of wild violence. After Adam's mother had committed suicide, his father had married a docile woman who gave birth to Charles. Adam loved his stepmother but hated his father, a rigid disciplinarian whose fanatic militarism had begun with a fictitious account of his own war career and whose dream was to have a son in the army. To fulfill his dream, he chose Adam, who could gain the greater strength that comes from the conquest of weakness as Charles could not. Charles, however, whose passionate love for his father went continually unnoticed, could not understand this final rejection of himself. In violent despair, he beat Adam almost to death.
Adam served in the cavalry for five years. Then, although he hated regimentation and violence, he reen-listed, for he could neither accept help from his father, who had become an important figure in Washington, nor return to the farm Charles now ran alone. Afterward, he wandered through the West and the South, served time for vagrancy, and finally came home to find his father dead and himself and Charles rich. In the years that followed, he and Charles lived together, although their bickering and inbred solitude drove Adam to periodic wanderings. Feeling that their life was one of pointless industry, he talked of moving west but did not.
Meanwhile, Cathy Ames was growing up in Massachusetts. She was a monster, born unable to comprehend goodness but with a sublimely innocent face and a consummate knowledge of how to manipulate or deceive people to serve her own ends. After a thwarted attempt to leave home, she burned her house, killing her parents and leaving evidence to indicate that she had been murdered. She then became the mistress of a man who ran a string of brothels and used his insatiable love for her to torment him. When he realized her true nature, he took her to a deserted spot and beat her savagely. Near death, she crawled to the nearest house—the Trasks'— where Adam and Charles cared for her. Adam found her innocent and beautiful; Charles, who had a knowledge of the evil in himself, recognized the evil in her and wanted her to leave. Cathy, needing temporary protection, enticed Adam into marrying her, but on their wedding night, she gave him a sleeping draught and went to Charles.
Feeling that Charles disapproved of Cathy, Adam decided to carry out his dream of going west. He was so transfigured by his happiness that he did not take Cathy's protests seriously; as his ideal of love and purity, she could not disagree. Adam bought a ranch in the richest part of the Salinas Valley and worked hard to ready it for his wife and the child she expected. Cathy hated her pregnancy, but she knew that she had to wait calmly to get back to the life she wanted. After giving birth to twin boys, she waited a week; she then shot Adam, wounding him, and walked out.
Changing her name to Kate, Cathy went to work in a Salinas brothel. Her beauty and seeming goodness endeared her to the proprietress, Faye, and Kate gradually assumed control of the establishment. After Faye made a will leaving Kate her money and property, Kate slyly engineered Faye's death. Making her establishment one which aroused and purveyed to sadistic tastes, she became legendary and rich.
Adam was like a dead man for a year after his wife left him, unable to work his land or even to name his sons. Finally, Sam Hamilton woke him by deliberately angering him, and Sam, Adam, and Lee, the Chinese servant and a wise and good man, named the boys Caleb and Aron. As the men talked of the story of Cain and Abel, Lee concluded that rejection terrifies a child most and leads to guilt and revenge. Later, after much study, Lee discovered the true meaning of the Hebrew word timshel (thou mayest) and understood that the story meant in part that man can always choose to conquer evil.
Sam, grown old, knew that he would soon die. Before he left his ranch, he told Adam of Kate and her cruel, destructive business. Adam, disbelieving in her very existence, visited her and suddenly knew her as she really was. Though she tried to taunt him, telling him that Charles was the true father of his sons, and to seduce him, he left her a free and curiously exultant man. Yet he could not tell his sons that their mother was not dead.
Caleb and Aron were growing up very differently. Aron was golden haired and automatically inspired love, yet he remained single-minded and unyielding; Caleb was dark and clever, a feared and respected leader left much alone. When Adam moved to town, where the schools were better, Aron fell in love with Abra Bacon. Abra told Aron that his mother was still alive, but he could not believe her because to do so would have destroyed his faith in his father and thus in everything.
About this time, Adam had the idea of shipping lettuce packed in ice to New York, but the venture failed. Aron was ashamed of his father for failing publicly. Caleb vowed to return the lost money to his father.
As they faced the problems of growing into men, Aron became smugly religious, which was disturbing to Abra because she felt unable to live up to his idealistic image of her. Caleb alternated between wild impulses and guilt. Learning that Kate was his mother, he began following her until she, noticing him, invited him to her house. As he talked to her, he knew with relief that he was not like her; she felt his knowledge and hated him. Kate herself, obsessed by the fear that one of the old girls had discovered Faye's murder, plotted ways to destroy this menace. Although Caleb would accept Kate's existence, he knew that Aron could not. To get the boy away from Salinas, Caleb talked him into finishing high school in three years and beginning college. Adam, knowing nothing of Caleb's true feelings, was extravagantly proud of Aron.
World War I began. Caleb went into the bean business with Will Hamilton and made a fortune because of food shortages. With growing excitement, he planned an elaborate presentation to his father of the money once lost in the lettuce enterprise. First he tried to persuade Aron. who seemed indifferent to his father's love, not to leave college. Caleb offered money to Adam, but Adam rejected it in anger because his idealistic nature would not allow him to accept money made as profit from the war. He wanted Caleb's achievements to be like his brother's. In a black mood of revenge, Caleb took Aron to meet his mother. After her sons' visit, Kate, who was not as disturbed by those she could hurt as she was by someone like Caleb, made a will leaving everything to Aron. Then, overburdened by age, illness, and suspicion, she committed suicide.
Unable to face his new knowledge of his parents' past. Aron joined the army and went to France. Adam did not recover from the shock of his leaving. Abra turned to Caleb, admitting that she loved him rather than Aron. whose romantic stubbornness kept him from facing reality. When the news of Aron's death arrived, Adam had another stroke. As he lay dying, Caleb, unable to bear his guilt any longer, told his father of his responsibility for Aron's enlisting and thus his death. Lee begged Adam to forgive his son. Adam weakly raised his hand in benediction and, whispering the Hebrew word timshel, died.

 

Critical Evaluation

The expressed concern of East of Eden is philosophical—the nature of the conflict between good and evil. In this conflict, love and the acceptance or rejection it brings to the individual play an important role, yet one has always the opportunity to choose the good. In this freedom lies man's glory. The book's defects stem from the author's somewhat foggy and sentimental presentation of its philosophy and his tendency to manipulate or oversimplify characters and events for symbolic purposes.
In most of his other works, John Steinbeck was concerned with social issues from a realistic or a naturalistic point of view, portraying human travail with relentless accuracy through an intensive examination of a short time span. In East of Eden, however, Steinbeck departs from his customary literary style to write an epic portrait which ranges less intensively over a much broader time span of about seventy years. Although depictions of characters and events are really no less vivid than in his other novels, Steinbeck's East of Eden is certainly less structured, a looser novel than his dedicated readers had come to expect. Thus, despite some quite explicit sex scenes, disappointed reader expectation accounts in large measure for the failure of East of Eden to win immediate popular or critical acclaim. It simply was not what people had come to expect of Steinbeck.
The novel is, however, respectable if not brilliant. In fact, it is, in many ways, a historical romance in its panoramic sweep of significant history overlaid with specific human problems. The story ranges from the Civil War to World War I, from the East Coast to the West Coast, over several generations of two families. It displays all of the conventional elements of historical romance. Genuinely historical events and people provide the backdrop, even the shaping forces that mold the fictional characters' lives and determine their destiny. These characters thus appear to have only partial control over their lives, at best, and external factors consequently determine, to a large extent, what they must cope with in order to survive. They appear to be buffeted mercilessly by fate.
However, Steinbeck's philosophical commitment to free will aborts the naturalistically logical conclusion. As a result, both Charles and Adam Trask appear to select freely their own paths in life, the former indulging fantasies of evil and the latter choosing to disregard everyone's evil inclinations, including his own. So, too, is Cathy made to seem capable of choice and responsible for it. Likewise, the other major characters are depicted as having the capacity for moral choice and for living with the consequences. Yet it is just this aspect of East of Eden that flies in the face of the reader's expectations of "typical" Steinbeck and flies in the face of both logic and reality. Finally, it is Steinbeck's own ambivalence about free will and determinism that constitutes the major weakness in East of Eden.

 

The Grapes of Wrath

John Steinbeck
1902-1968

It is something of a commonplace these days to talk of The Grapes of Wrath as a novel that has become profoundly ingrained in the consciousness of America, and yet no other writer chronicled the catastrophic period of the Great Depression in the 1930s with the same passion and political commitment. As Steinbeck's masterpiece, its place in the canon of great American literature is confirmed by the Pulitzer Prize it was awarded in 1940 (the same year it was adapted for film) and the Nobel Prize for Literature that the author received in 1962. It is concerned with the Joad family, who lose their Oklahoma farm and head west with dreams of a better life in California. As the journey unfolds, they and thousands of other "Okies" flocking westward converge along Highway 66, telling each other tales of injustice and relishing the plenty that lies ahead. What they find in California is exploitation, greed, low wages, hunger, and death. In a stunning indictment of the savage divisions that those with money seek to extend and exploit, Steinbeck represents the desperation of the family as the threat of violence, starvation,and death begin to eat away atthem.lt is only wrath, a defiant solidarity, and constant sacrifice that allow them to maintain their dignity.
Steinbeck has been criticized in the past for a perceived sentimentality in his characterization of the Joads, but while a reader is inevitably drawn into their plight, they are only ever actors in a tragedy that is bigger than they are. This is above all a political novel, and the defeats, the mud, the hunger, and the maltreatment all carry a political charge, a condemnation of injustice (and those in positions of power who create it), and a validation of the quiet anger and dignified stoicism of the common man in response.

 


THE GRAPES OF WRATH
 

Type of work: Novel
Author: John Steinbeck (1902-1968)
Type of plot: Social criticism
Time of plot: 1930s
Locale:
Southwest United States and California
First published: 1939

 

A bitter chronicle of the exodus of farm families from the Dust Bowl during the 1930s, this work is a harsh indictment of our capitalistic economy. Searching for work in California, the Joads begin their long journey. Treated like enemies by the businessmen along their path, the older members of the family die, and those remaining are herded into migrant camps where the poor help one another to survive.

 

Principal Characters

Tom Joad, Jr., an ex-convict. Returning to his home in Oklahoma after serving time in the penitentiary for killing a man in self-defense, he finds the house deserted, the family having been pushed off the land because of dust bowl conditions and in order to make way for more mechanized farming. With Casy, the preacher, he finds his family and makes the trek to California in search of work. During labor difficulties Tom kills another man when his friend Casy, who is trying to help the migrant workers in their labor problems, is brutally killed by deputies representing the law and the owners. He leaves his family because, as a "wanted" man, he is a danger to them, but he leaves with a new understanding which he has learned from Casy; it is no longer the individual that counts but the group. Tom promises to carry on Casy's work of helping the downtrodden.
Tom Joad, Sr., called Pa, an Oklahoma farmer who finds it difficult to adjust to new conditions while moving his family to California.
Ma Joad, a large, heavy woman, full of determination and hope, who fights to hold her family together. On the journey to California she gradually becomes the staying power of the family.
Rose of Sharon Rivers, called Rosasharn, the married, teenage daughter of the Joads. Her husband leaves her, and she bears a stillborn baby because of the hardships she endures. As the story ends she gives her own milk to save the life of a starving man.
Noah, the slow-witted second son of the Joads. He finally wanders off down a river when the pressures of the journey and his hunger become too much.
Al, the third son of the Joads. In his teens, he is interested in girls and automobiles. He idolizes his brother Tom.
Ruthie, the pre-teenage daughter of the Joads.
Winfield, the youngest of the Joads.
Uncle John, the brother of Tom Joad, Sr. He is a lost soul who periodically is flooded with guilt because he let his young wife die by ignoring her illness.
Grampa Joad, who does not want to leave Oklahoma and dies on the way to California. He is buried with little ceremony by the roadside.
Granma Joad, also old and childish. She dies while crossing the desert and receives a pauper burial.
Jim Casy, the country preacher who has given up the ministry because he no longer believes. He makes the trek to California with the Joads. He assumes the blame and goes to jail for the "crime" of a migrant worker who has a family to support. He is killed as a "red" while trying to help the migrant workers organize and strike for a living wage.
Connie Rivers, Rosasharn's young husband, who deserts her after arriving in California.
Floyd Knowles, a young migrant worker with a family, called a "red" because he asks a contractor to guarantee a job and the wages to be paid. He escapes from a deputy sheriff who is attempting to intimidate the workers. Tom Joad trips the deputy and Jim Casy kicks him in the back of the head.
Muley Graves, a farmer who refuses to leave the land, although his family has gone. He remains, abstracted and lonely, forced to hide, and is hunted and haunted.
Jim Rawley, the kind, patient manager of a government camp for the migrant worker.
Willy Feeley, a former small farmer like the Joads; he takes a job driving a tractor over the land the Joads farmed.
Ivy Wilson, a migrant who has car trouble on the way to California with his sick wife Sairy. The Joads help them and the two families stay together until Sairy becomes too ill to travel.
Sairy Wilson, Ivy's wife. When the Wilsons are forced to stay behind because of her illness, she asks Casy to pray for her.
Timothy Wallace, a migrant who helps Tom Joad find work in California.
Wilkie Wallace, his son.
Aggie Wainwright, the daughter of a family living in a boxcar with the Joads while they work in a cotton field. Al Joad plans to marry her.
Jessie Bullitt, Ella Summers, and Annie Littlefield, the ladies' committee for Sanitary Unit Number Four of the government camp for migrant workers.

 

The Story

Tom Joad was released from the Oklahoma state penitentiary where he had served a sentence for killing a man in self-defense. He traveled homeward through a region made barren by drought and dust storms. On the way, he met Jim Casy, a former preacher; the pair went together to the home of Tom's family. They found the Joad place deserted. While Tom and Casy were wondering what had happened, Muley Graves, a die-hard tenant farmer, came by and disclosed that all the families in the neighborhood had gone to California or were going. Tom's folks, Muley said, had gone to a relative's place to prepare for going west. Muley was the only sharecropper to stay behind.
All over the southern Midwest states, farmers, no longer able to make a living because of land banks, weather, and machine farming, had sold or were forced out of the farms they had tenanted. Junk dealers and used-car salesmen profiteered on them. Thousands of families took to the roads leading to the promised land, California.
Tom and Casy found the Joads at Uncle John's place, all busy with preparations for their trip to California. Assembled for the trip were Pa and Ma Joad; Noah, their mentally backward son; Al, the adolescent younger brother of Tom and Noah; Rose of Sharon, Tom's sister, and her husband, Connie; the Joad children, Ruthie and Win-field; and Granma and Grampa Joad. Al had bought an ancient truck to take them west. The family asked Jim Casy to go with them. The night before they started, they killed the pigs they had left and salted down the meat so that they would have food on the way.
Spurred by handbills which stated that agricultural workers were badly needed in California, the Joads, along with thousands of others, made their tortuous way, in a worn-out vehicle, across the plains toward the mountains. Grampa died of a stroke during their first overnight stop. Later, there was a long delay when the truck broke down. Small business people along the way treated the migrants as enemies; and, to add to their misery, returning migrants told the Joads that there was no work to be had in California, that conditions were even worse than they were in Oklahoma. But the dream of a bountiful West Coast urged the Joads onward.
Close to the California line, where the group stopped to bathe in a river, Noah, feeling he was a hindrance to the others, wandered away. It was there that the Joads first heard themselves addressed as Okies, another word for tramps.
Granma died during the night trip across the desert. After burying her, the group went into a Hooverville, as the migrants' camps were called. There they learned that work was all but impossible to find. A contractor came to the camp to sign up men to pick fruit in another county. When the Okies asked to see his license, the contractor turned the leaders over to a police deputy who had accompanied him to camp. Tom was involved in the fight that followed. He escaped, and Casy gave himself up in Tom's place. Connie, husband of the pregnant Rose of Sharon, suddenly disappeared from the group. The family was breaking up in the face of its hardships. Ma Joad did everything in her power to keep the group together.
Fearing recrimination after the fight, the Joads left Hooverville and went to a government camp maintained for transient agricultural workers. The camp had sanitary facilities, a local government made up of the transients themselves, and simple organized entertainment. During the Joads' stay at the camp, the Okies successfully defeated an attempt of the local citizens to give the camp a bad name and thus to have it closed to the migrants. For the first time since they had arrived in California, the Joads found themselves treated as human beings.
Circumstances eventually forced them to leave the camp, however, for there was no work in the district. They drove to a large farm where work was being offered. There they found agitators attempting to keep the migrants from taking the work because of unfair wages offered. The Joads, however, thinking only of food, were escorted by motorcycle police into the farm. The entire family picked peaches for five cents a box and earned in a day just enough money to buy food for one meal. Tom, remembering the pickets outside the camp, went out at night to investigate. He found Casy, who was the leader of the agitators. While Tom and Casy were talking, deputies, who had been searching for Casy, closed in on them. The pair fled but were caught. Casy was killed. Tom received a cut on his head, but not before he had felled a deputy with an ax handle. The family concealed Tom in their shack. The rate for a box of peaches dropped, meanwhile, to two-and-a-half cents. Tom's danger and the futility of picking peaches drove the Joads on their way. They hid the injured Tom under the mattresses in the back of the truck, and then they told the suspicious guard at the entrance to the farm that the extra man they had had with them when they came was a hitchhiker who had stayed behind to pick.
The family found at last a migrant crowd encamped in abandoned boxcars along a stream. They joined the camp and soon found temporary jobs picking cotton. Tom, meanwhile, hid in a culvert near the camp. Ruthie innocently disclosed Tom's presence to another little girl. Ma, realizing that Tom was no longer safe, sent him away. Tom promised to carry on Casy's work in trying to improve the lot of the downtrodden everywhere.
The autumn rains began. Soon the stream that ran beside the camp overflowed and water entered the boxcars. Under these all but impossible conditions, Rose of Sharon gave birth to a dead baby. When the rising water made their position no longer bearable, the family moved from the camp on foot. The rains had made their old car useless. They came to a barn, which they shared with a boy and his starving father. Rose of Sharon, bereft of her baby, nourished the famished man with the milk from her breasts. So the poor kept each other alive in the Depression years.

 

Critical Evaluation

The publication of John Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath caused a nationwide stir in 1939. This account of the predicament of migrant workers was taken more as social document than as fiction. Some saw it as an expose of capitalist excesses; others, as a distorted call to revolution. Frequently compared to Uncle Tom's Cabin, it was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Literature in 1940.
Recent literary critics, taking a second look at the novel, have often lumped it with a number of other dated books of the 1930s as "proletarian fiction." A careful reader, however, recognizes that beneath this outraged account of an outrageous social situation lies a dynamic, carefully structured story that applies not only to one era or society but also to the universal human predicament.
As a social document, the novel presents such a vivid picture of oppression and misery that one tends to doubt its authenticity. Steinbeck, however, had done more than academic research. He had journeyed from Oklahoma to California, lived in a migrant camp, and worked alongside the migrants. (Peter Lisca reports that after the novel appeared, the workers sent Steinbeck a patchwork dog sewn from scraps of their clothing and wearing a tag labeled "Migrant John.") Before making the motion picture, which still stands as one of the great films of the era, Darryl F. Zanuck hired private detectives to verify Steinbeck's story; they reported that conditions were even worse than those depicted in the book. The political situation was a powder keg; Freeman Champney has remarked that "it looked as if nothing could avert an all-out battle between revolution and fascism in California's great valleys."
Social injustice was depicted so sharply that Steinbeck himself was accused of being a revolutionary. Certainly, he painted the oppressive economic system in bleak colors. Warren French argues convincingly, however, that Steinbeck was basically a reformer, not a revolutionary; that he wanted to change the attitudes and behavior of people—both migrants and economic barons—not overturn the private enterprise system. Indeed, Steinbeck observes that ownership of land is morally edifying to a man.
Steinbeck once declared that the writer must "set down his time as nearly as he can understand it" and that he should "serve as the watchdog of society ... to satirize its silliness, to attack its injustices, to stigmatize its faults." In The Grapes of Wrath, he does all these things, then goes further to interpret events from a distinctly American point of view. Like Whitman, he expresses love for all men and respect for manual labor. Like Jefferson, he asserts a preference for agrarian society in which men retain a close, nourishing tie to the soil: his farmers dwindle psychologically as they are separated from their land, and the California owners become oppressors as they substitute ledgers for direct contact with the soil. Like Emerson, Steinbeck demonstrates faith in the common man and in the ideal of self-reliance. He also develops the Emersonian religious concept of an oversoul. The preacher Jim Casy muses "... maybe that's the Holy Spent—the human sperit—the whole shebang. Maybe all men got one big soul ever'body's a part of it." Later, Tom Joad reassures Ma that even if he isn't physically with her, "Wherever they's a fight so hungry people can eat, I'll be there. Wherever they's a cop beatin' up a guy, I'll be there. . . . I'll be in the way kids laugh when they're hungry an' they know supper's ready. . . ."
This theme, that all men essentially belong together and are a part of one another and of a greater whole that transcends momentary reality, is what removes The Grapes of Wrath from the genre of timely proletarian fiction and makes it an allegory for all men in all circumstances. Warren French notes that the real story of this novel is not the Joads' search for economic security but their education, which transforms them from self-concern to a recognition of their bond with the whole human race. At first, Tom Joad is intensely individualistic, interested mainly in making his own way; Pa's primary concern is keeping bread on his table; Rose of Sharon dreams only of traditional middle-class success; and Ma, an Earth-Mother with a spine of steel, concentrates fiercely upon keeping the "fambly" together. At the end, Tom follows Casy's example in fighting for human rights; Pa, in building the dike, sees the necessity for all men to work together; Rose of Sharon forgets her grief over her stillborn child and unhesitatingly lifts a starving man to her milk-filled breast; and Ma can say "Use' ta be the fambly was fust. It ain't so now. It's anybody. Worse off we get, the more we got to do." Thus the Joads have overcome that separation which Paul Tillich equates with sin, that alienation from others which existentialists are so fond of describing as the inescapable human condition.
It is interesting to note how much The Grapes of Wrath, which sometimes satirizes, sometimes attacks organized Christian religion, reflects the Bible. In structure, as critics have been quick to notice, it parallels the story of the Exodus to a "promised land." Symbolically, as Peter Lisca observes, the initials of Jim Casy are those of Jesus Christ, another itinerant preacher who rebelled against traditional religion, went into the wilderness, discovered his own gospel, and eventually gave his life in service to others.
The novel's language, too, is frequently biblical, especially in the interchapters, which, like a Greek chorus, restate, reinforce, and generalize from the specific happenings of the narrative. The cadences, repetitions, and parallel lines all echo the patterns of the Psalms—Ma Joad's favorite book.
Even the title of the novel is biblical; the exact phrase is Julia Ward Howe's, but the reference is to Jeremiah and Revelation. The grapes have been a central symbol throughout the book: first of promise, representing the fertile California valleys, but finally of bitter rage as the midwesterners realize that they have been lured west with false bait and that they will not partake of this fertility. The wrath grows, a fearsome, terrible wrath; but, as several interchapters make clear, better wrath than despair, because wrath moves to action. Steinbeck would have his people act, in concert and in concern for one another— and finally prevail over all forms of injustice.

 

 
     
         
 

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