The Grapes of Wrath
I SHOULD like to Say why I think The Grapes of Wrath is a landmark in American literature. I think it is quite as important in our time as Sinclair Lewis’s Main Street was in the early ‘20s.
I think it is an almost perfect illustration of the changes which have occurred in our fiction since the depression. I think it is a story whose characters — if they be not opposed by convention — will come nearer the heart than any other family of Americans I have read of since the war.
In his novels Mr. Lewis was working with characters typical of our middle class: the mediocrity in business, the small-town wife, the doctor and preacher. In his six books Mr. Steinbeck has identified himself with the migratory American and the insecure. Tortilla Flat pictured the luck of the laughing paisano; In Dubious Battle was the story of a strike fermented for good reasons among the fruit pickers in California: Of Mice and Men showed us the aspiration, humor, and pathetic dependence of the ‘hands’ in any ranch house. I think this is suggestive of the change which has become increasingly evident in the short stories and novels since 1930. Every editor knows that the sympathy of his writers has extended downward as the succession of lean years beat into our conscience the inequalities in American life. This feeling for injustice, this compassion for the dispossessed, is the driving force within The Grapes of Wrath.
Me have had a good many migrations in our history, but none more sorehcarted or desperate than that which departed only yesterday from our Dust Bowl. Here are the Joads of Oklahoma. When the fertility went out of their corn land. Pa borrowed from the bank, and when the pinch came they were dispossessed. They and their neighbors, some 300,000. Tractors of the land company ploughed under the farmyards, knocked the houses askew, buried the countryside in cotton, while the people, selling their belongings for what they could get, bought secondhand ‘jallopies,’ and, loading in kin, children, dogs, mattresses, and utensils, began their long, angry, hopeful exodus to the promised land — California. Fourteen people and one dog piled into the Joads’ truck. They suffered no more — and no less hardship than the Forty-niners. Only then there was gold, or at least land for those with courage to work. This is no indictment of California, or of those who got there first; it is simply a challenge to all of us who live in a land of plenty.
You have to go back to Dickens to find a story which so plays upon your emotions, which makes you so indignant. Tom Joad s first meeting with his mother after his parole from prison; Ma as she strips her room before the departure; the death of Grampa-such scenes are to me irresistibly moving. Less emotional but no less vivid are the daily circumstances of the caravan Ma’s vigilance, the rough humor, the tinkering of the old car, the ominous rumor of what awaits the Okies in California. As a means of relief and objectivity, the author skillfully injects interludes of impersonal description so that our mind travels, as it were, on two planes — westward bound. To tell the personal story Mr. Steinbeck uses language unadulterated, words which are profane and which in some companies would be lewd. I submit that he could not have written truthfully of the Joads without them, and that in his hands such words are as sanitary as they are relevant to the book. I am again reminded of Dickens as I notice the excessive touches in The Grapes of Wrath — how the preachment becomes increasingly intrusive in the second half, and how the book ends on a note of almost mawkish sentiment. I myself would have been better pleased to see the final period on page 477. But these are small points.
Steinbeck has the common touch, and the ability to dramatize it in action and in lingo. His novel is more than the summation of realism: it holds the hunger and the humor, the auger and the poetry wrung from deep feeling, which characterize our life in the uncertain 1930’s.