Sunday, August 14, 2011

Pultizer Project: The Grapes of Wrath

John Steinbeck: The Grapes of Wrath and Other Writings 1936-1941: The Grapes of Wrath, The Harvest Gypsies, The Long Valley, The Log from the Sea of Cortez (Library of America)Okay, it's confession time. I found another Pultizer winner that I flat out could not finish. Maybe my mistake was checking out a collected works book instead of the novel by itself, because by the time I got through the short stories I was already feeling less than enthusiastic about Steinbeck's work. People trapped in loveless marriages, murders, infidelities, beautiful women who turn out to be really, really creepy. . . There is a lot of misogynism in Steinbeck's work, and sometimes it's really thinly veiled. And then I got to the Dust Bowl and the Joads.

The Grapes of Wrath has a plot line that most people are familiar with: the Joads are a poor tenant farm family from Oklahoma that get pushed off the land when drought hits in the 1930s. Like many of their contemporaries, they decide to head for California in search of jobs. Much suffering ensues. Elderly grandparents drop dead along the way (shades of Imogene Coca vacationing with Chevy Chase), husbands abandon wives and kids, babies are stillborn, and conditions in general are horrific.

Of course, the reader is warned up front this is going to be a grim, grim book: the first chapter is devoted to detailed descriptions of the corn dying from lack of rain, and even the weeds giving up and shriveling into dust. Then we're introduced to young Tom Joad, an obnoxious ex-con and a drunk. Turns out Tom's just been turned loose early from the state penitentiary where he'd been serving time for a homicide. It's pretty obvious the Joads' lives were a tragedy long before the Dust Bowl hit; the migration to California and the hell they experience there is just the latest in a long series of bad things they've suffered through.

I think I could have coped with the initially repellant characters like young Tom Joad and the grimness if Steinbeck hadn't decided to indulge in writing dialect. Why, oh, why do some authors seem to think it adds authenticity to have their poor or their ethnic characters speak in dialect?! Maybe the author thought it would make it seem more like a novel and less like propaganda if he added a layer of color to the narrative. I don't recall Steinbeck indulging in dialect in other books, like East of Eden, so maybe he outgrew it. Some authors can pull it off, but in this particular book all the folkiness and dropped consonants did was add another layer of distraction. I was having a hard time focusing on the book to begin with, the dialect made it worse, and eventually I gave up. Given the general downward trend of the Joads (see above for dying grandparents, broken marriages, etc.), I figured the book was going to end with the Joads trying to do the 1930s version of surviving in a refrigerator box under an overpass -- and I didn't need to read any farther to figure out that migrant workers get treated like shit, California was not the promised land, capitalism sucks, and unions (in the field or in the factory) are a good thing.  

Next up, yet another book I'd never heard of before by an equally unknown (at least to me) author, In This Our Life by Ellen Glasgow.


  1. And another would be reader of The Grapes of Wrath bites the dust. Wonder if there is a help group for the likes of us?

  2. Phew! I killed all attempts at dialect in my work in progress. I also added some big green insects eating people on page 2.

  3. I read it in high school and find my memories of it are colored by the Henry Fonda movie!

  4. May I borrow this book? Also, have you finished Republic?
    There is no need to publish this comment, unless you just want to.


My space, my rules: play nice and keep it on topic.