Book Report: The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck

Steinbeck’s earnest and raw portrait of the Dust Bowl and American capitalism stands as one of the finest works of American literature, a radical and breathtaking perspective on the horrors of a system that can’t help itself. But there’s a hidden scandal in the book…

When I was an undergrad, I remember clearly sitting with my study group in the northwest corner of the RPI student union hours before our MATH-4800 Numerical Computing exam. They were cramming knowledge about Householder decompositions and Runge-Kutta methods. I sat serenely pushing through the last 100 pages of Steinbeck’s masterpiece. They asked me why I wasn’t studying. “Anything I didn’t learn in the last 15 weeks I’m not going to learn now,” was my reply. In honesty I had more interest in the story than in the exam. I got an A in the course, anyways.

Looking back on this book almost 20 years after I last read it, with a lot of changes in my life, my politics, and my understanding of the systemic flaws (or features) of American capitalism, I’m struck now by the radicalism of this text. Many critics point out the ascension of Tom Joad to be a Christ-like figure after the death of the preacher, J(esus)im C(hrist)asy. And that’s true. But Tom Joad also killed two guys, killings that were clearly justified in the circumstances: the first, a drunken man who stabbed him four years before this story starts, and the second, a union-busting thug who struck J.C. down. When Tom tells his Ma, “wherever they’s a cop beatin' up a guy, I’ll be there,” he’s not not referring to the two men he killed, especially not after he and Casy had beat up a cop earlier in the story. Joad’s salvation isn’t merely absolution, it’s justice against oppression, and like Casy, it’s through violence if necessary.

It’s the fourteenth chapter of the book that makes this all clear early on:

If you who own the things people must have could understand this, you might preserve yourself. If you could separate causes from results, if you could know that Paine, Marx, Jefferson, Lenin, were results, not causes, you might survive. But that you cannot know. For the quality of owning freezes you forever into “I,” and cuts you off forever from the “we.”

Jesus. Steinbeck really said “eat the rich” in 1939, had the book turned into a movie starring Henry Fonda the year later. It’s astonishing to see something this bold earn such strong praise in the anti-communist American canon. The twenty-fifth chapter:

Burn coffee for fuel in the ships. Burn corn to keep warm, it makes a hot fire. Dump potatoes in the rivers and place guards along the banks to keep the hungry people from fishing them out. Slaughter the pigs and bury them, and let the putrescence drip down into the earth.

There is a crime here that goes beyond denunciation. There is a sorrow here that weeping cannot symbolize. There is a failure here that topples all our success. The fertile earth, the straight tree rows, the sturdy trunks, and the ripe fruit. And children dying of pellagra must die because a profit cannot be taken from an orange. And coroners must fill in the certificates—died of malnutrition—because the food must rot, must be forced to rot.

The people come with nets to fish for potatoes in the river, and the guards hold them back; they come in rattling cars to get the dumped oranges, but the kerosene is sprayed. And they stand still and watch the potatoes float by, listen to the screaming pigs being killed in a ditch and covered with quicklime, watch the mountains of oranges slop down to a putrefying ooze; and in the eyes of the people there is the failure; and in the eyes of the hungry there is a growing wrath. In the souls of the people the grapes of wrath are filling and growing heavy, growing heavy for the vintage.

A revolution is just. It is Christ-like to kill the rich. It is self-defense to kill to avoid starvation when the man you kill keeps you out to starve to protect a margin.

The Grapes of Wrath is the finest work of American literature. It’s lessons have not yet been learned. Are we moving closer to learning them?

I would like to end this piece here, but the feminist intentions of my project would be remiss to not mention that there is not insignificant controversy in Steinbeck’s sourcing of the material for this story. Sanora Babb was a novelist and writer who researched the conditions of the American midwest during the Dust Bowl. Her letters and field notes were seen by Steinbeck and absorbed into The Grapes of Wrath. Babb’s own novel, similar in its treatment (I cannot comment on its radicalism) was shelved after Steinbeck’s success. It would take another 7 decades to be published. I’ve not yet read it. It would be a shame, but a characteristic shame, if Steinbeck’s opus was itself a theft. In the bosoms of women there is a growing wrath, too, for as we see ourselves falling once again into an era of inequality and oppression, none of us are left with any doubt for how these stories will unfold. Is it time we learn the lessons of the novel, too?

To read more about my Modern Library project, read this post.
Photo credit Dorothea Lange, Library of Congress, source: National Park Service

The Grapes of Wrath
John Steinbeck
ISBN 9780142000663

Posted: 14.10.2023

Built: 22.05.2024

Updated: 27.10.2023

Hash: e7e297f

Words: 922

Estimated Reading Time: 5 minutes