“Man’s inhumanity to man makes countless thousands mourn” Robert Burns
😀 😀 😀 😀 🙂
When Tom Joad returns to his parents’ farm after serving a prison sentence for murder, he finds it deserted. In the four years he has been gone, the land has turned to dust through a combination of drought and poor farming practices. The onset of the Great Depression has meant that the banks have taken over ownership of vast tracts of the land and, in pursuit of profit, are expelling the small tenant farmers to create massive one-crop farms, worked by machines rather than men. Driven by poverty and lack of work, many of the farmers are uprooting their families to go to California, their own promised land, where, they are told, the country is filled with fruit ripe for picking, and there is work for all. Tom and his family join the exodus.
First published in 1939, this is a fairly contemporaneous account of the devastation wrought on Oklahoma farming communities during the Depression, and Steinbeck’s anger and disgust come through loudly in the power of his prose. A starkly political novel, it’s interesting that there is little or no reference to either the politicians or policies of the period. This adds to the feeling of the farmers being isolated, abandoned by their nation and utterly reliant on their own limited resources. It falls somewhere between a call to arms for the poor to unite to overthrow the forces of capitalism, and a warning to the powers that be that the result of driving people to the limits of desperation might be just such an outcome. I didn’t know Steinbeck’s own political stance before reading the book, but was unsurprised to read later that at this period he was involved in the Communist movement within the US.
A large red drop of sun lingered on the horizon and then dripped over and was gone, and the sky was brilliant over the spot where it had gone, and a torn cloud, like a bloody rag, hung over the spot of its going. And dusk crept over the sky from the eastern horizon, and darkness crept over the land from the east.
It’s undoubtedly one of the most powerful books I’ve read and it has left me with many indelible images. The writing is never less than excellent and is sometimes stunning, while the characterisation and brilliant use of dialect make the Joad family and the people they meet on their journey completely real. The story is a simple one, of man’s inhumanity to man – a story that has been told often, but rarely with such concentration and power. But it’s several weeks since I finished reading the book and I still haven’t quite decided what I think of it.
On the one hand, most of the first half of the book drags terribly as Steinbeck tells the story of the journey in minute, endless detail. I feel I could now get a job as a car mechanic working on 1930s models. I get the importance of the car to these families, but I don’t care whether bronze wire will wear away as the widget rubs against the doodah – I truly don’t. But the tedium and repetitiveness of parts of the book didn’t bother me as much as the heavy-handed and unnecessary polemical interludes, where Steinbeck spells out his message in case the reader has been too stupid to understand it. I’m guessing any reader who doesn’t ‘get’ it, will have given up the book long before Steinbeck gets to the political pamphlet chapters. Occasionally it stops feeling like a novel at all and becomes almost like a ranty student essay on the evils of capitalism. If he explained the process of supply and demand once, he must have explained it a hundred times – ironic really, since it is surely only needed once, if at all. And the constant misery! Again, yes, absolutely – the story is appalling, more so for being true, and of course we need to see the horrible impact of absolute poverty on people’s lives and humanity. But when authors feel they have to top up the human misery with the old ‘dead dog’ technique, I fear they cross the line between emotional truth and emotional trickery. Of Mice and Men was the book that taught me how easily pathos can turn into bathos, and decades later I feel exactly the same about this one. And then there’s the ending… but we’ll come to that…
“Preachin’s bein’ good to folks when they wanna kill ya for it. Las’ Christmus in McAlester [the jail], Salvation Army come an’ done us good. Three solid hours a cornet music, an’ we set there. They was bein’ nice to us. But if one of us tried to walk out, we’d a-drawed solitary. That’s preachin’. Doin’ good to a fella that’s down an’ can’t smack ya in the puss for it.”
On the other hand, the story is an important one that is as relevant today, sadly, as at the time of writing. Whether one agrees or not with Steinbeck’s call of Workers Unite! and class struggle as the solution to poverty and ongoing waves of mass migration, whether one believes that capitalism or socialism is the system most likely to bring a more fair and just society in the end, the vivid picture that he draws of humanity’s imperative struggle for survival in even the most hopeless of circumstances cannot fail to move and must surely stir the consciences of those of us whose present comfort depends on the poverty of others. I found myself drawing parallels with the current influx of people from Africa and Asia into Europe, and the issues surrounding illegal immigration in the US. But more than that, I discovered I was making comparisons to slavery and reflecting that at least, under that repellent system, the owners felt that they had to protect their ‘investment’, whereas these people belonged to no-one, had no intrinsic ‘economic value’ and were thus ultimately even more dispensable. An uncomfortable train of thought and a tribute to Steinbeck’s anger that he made me think it against everything I believe.
The women watched the men, watched to see whether the break had come at last. The women stood silently and watched. And where a number of men gathered together, the fear went from their faces, and anger took its place. And the women sighed with relief, for they knew it was all right – the break had not come; and the break would never come as long as fear could turn to wrath.
Sometimes the quality of the writing takes the book almost to the sublime. From the first chapter, with the unforgettable images of the windstorm and the dust and the dying corn, with the women watching to see if their men will break, he makes the land a character in its own right, as important as any Joad, and its death as moving as one of theirs. The story of the turtle’s indomitable spirit as it unwittingly spreads the seed that will allow nature to have its rebirth is one of the most beautiful pieces of writing I have read. While I was never quite sure what message he was attempting to send with the biblical themes, they add a sense of eternality, of inevitability, to the struggle for a more just society. The sheer power and anger of the ‘Moses’ scene will stay with me forever, as will that ending – which I hated even while I recognised the force of its essential truthfulness, and which left me as angry about humanity being reduced to this as Steinbeck could possibly have desired. And just as angry about the emotional manipulation he used to achieve that effect.
Not a book that I can say I wholeheartedly enjoyed, but one that I am glad to have read and will not forget.
* * * * * * *
So…how does it fare in The Great American Novel Quest? To win that title it needs to achieve all five of the criteria in my original post…
Must be written by an American author or an author who has lived long enough in the US to assimilate the culture.
The theme must shed light on a specific and important aspect of American culture and society of the time of its writing.
It must be innovative and original in theme.
I certainly think the socialist theme would have been innovative in its time and in fact still reads as innovative now, when the Cold War has been won and capitalism appears to have been the victor. (In fact, I am intrigued as to why a book with such a strong socialist message is so highly regarded in the ultra-capitalist US? Answers below, please.) Achieved.
Must be superbly written.
Hmm…it is superbly written, there’s no doubt about that, especially the descriptive writing about nature and the land, the biblical echoes in some of the language, and his wonderfully skilled use of dialect. However… there are also huge chunks of it that are simply dull and don’t add much. But I’m going to say achieved, since the excellent bits outweigh the dull bits.
Must capture the entire ‘American experience’.
I fear not. It isn’t trying to. But one of my criticisms of it is that it doesn’t expand out to set the experience of the ‘Okies’ into the wider context of society, thus giving a one-sided, polemical picture of the poor as fundamentally good and the rich as uniformly bad. A powerful but too simplistic message, though perhaps it wouldn’t have felt that way at the time.
* * * * * * * * *
So not The Great American Novel, but for achieving 4½ stars and four GAN flags, I hereby declare it A Great American Novel. But one I doubt I’ll ever read again…
* * * * * * * * *