Friday, 29 October 2010

Why didn't I read this before?

John Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath, as pertinent today as it was when it was written in the late 1930s, is a book that somehow managed to escape my prior reading. How this happened, given that a) I studied the Great Depression as part of my History 'A' Level course, b) I did Comparative American Studies at University and c) I have been fascinated by mid-20th C. America for as long as I can remember, is beyond me. But then I only watched Citizen Kane and The Wild Ones recently too.

It was Moni who persuaded me to read it, quite amazed that I've not read the novel before. She'd just finished it; a battered Pan paperback from 1978 (left). Given that the last three novels I read were all her selections - and I enjoyed all three - I had no hesitation. An absolute must-read.

The novel is set in the Great Depression and tells of the Joad family, sharecroppers from Oklahoma, forced off their land by the bank that owns it because of a succession of crop failures brought on by the dust storms. The land is in flux; the small farmer being replaced by agri-industry; one man and a tractor doing the work of twenty men each feeding his family.

The description of the dust-bowl clicked with me immediately on a spiritual level, bringing to mind dreams and flashbacks I've had of 1930s Kentucky. Interestingly, the later California settings did not have the same emotional effect.

Steinbeck's depiction of the hand-to-mouth existence of the sharecroppers, the circumstances of their birth, their lives, their deaths (so often needless, nearly always premature), resonates throughout pre-industrial mankind. The Joads' displacement mirrors that of the peasants being thrown off the land for more profitable sheep farming in Industrial Revolution England; it is a process more slowly taking place in Poland today as smallholders' children move to the cities in search of more profitable labour than tilling their tiny fields.

The Joads migrate to California, where the work is meant to be plentiful and the climate benign. They arrive to find far more dust-bowl refugees than jobs waiting for them, ruthless employers exploiting the desperate hungry families. After a spell in a government camp with showers and flushing toilets, the Joads move on in search of work and inevitable exploitation, and then come the floods. Steinbeck captures the language of the Okies, the simple humanity within the family unit trying to hold together through hard times, and contrasts the strength of Ma Joad with the occasional fecklessness of the men-folk.

Arousing fierce criticism when it was published on account of its critique of American capitalism, protected by gun-toting deputy sheriffs and farmer vigilantes, The Grapes of Wrath does have a heart-felt message about the people banding together to stand up to the system. Proto-collectivism or basic human urge to defend one's tribe?

The book's impact in popular culture was immediate; John Ford's film version appeared in 1940, the year after the book was published. Folk singer Woodie Guthrie's synopsis of the plot, Tom Joad Pt 1 and Pt 2, appeared that same year on his album Dust Bowl Ballads. Bruce Springsteen's The Ghost of Tom Joad released in 1995 dips into the legacy of the book, the film, and the songs, reminiscent in style to Nebraska, one of my all-time favourite albums.

Afterword: It's been two weeks since finishing the book. I'm now well into Dostoyevsky's Crime and Punishment, a gripping read, yet I'm not connecting at all with 1856 St. Petersburg. Grapes of Wrath is still on the window ledge by my bed; I look at it and smile as though it were an old familiar friend. The Joads had also become friends to me.


The Editor said...

I enjoy G.o.W. immensely, but even more, I love East of Eden.

Jacek Koba said...

I've held the book dear to my heart throughout my migrant life (used it in my Masters degree research too)and took a cue for my life from one of Tom's lines, that you gotta keep movin' 'cause there is life in movement - something he says when his pursuers are closing in. Read any of the collections of interviews by Studs Terkel (Working, Division Street: America, etc)if the grapes have left an aftertaste in your mouth.

Michael Dembinski said...

Funnily enough Jacek, the Studs Terkel interviews and reportage I read while still at school and university! Another reason why I'm mystified as to why GoW passed me by.