So, I’m at it again, reading The Grapes of Wrath for what is probably just shy of the tenth time. Could be the eighth. Or the ninth. But whatever the number, those readings have taken place over more than forty years, so it’s not like I’m obsessed with reading the book. I just happen to get around to it now and then.
At one time, I knew a lot more about the novel and the rest of Steinbeck’s writing than I do today. This is because I wrote my master’s thesis on Steinbeck, which necessitated my being immersed in all things Steinbeck for the better part of a year. I probably spent eight or more hours a day reading or writing about his books and short stories, criticism of his work, and existentialist philosophy, which I argued formed the foundation of Steinbeck’s oeuvre. That was a long time ago. A very long time ago, when I didn’t feel squeamish about using words like “oeuvre” in a sentence.
I’d picked Steinbeck to write about then mostly because the vast majority of criticism of his work (and him) was negative. Ridiculously negative and ad hominem. Critics just lost their shit when they started writing about John. I was amazed at how much so and decided there was fine fodder to play with there. If I had to write a thesis to get the sheepskin, I thought I might has well have fun doing it.
One critic, I recall, went on laboriously about Steinbeck’s being a fool because he wrote about a “land turtle” in The Grapes of Wrath when, the critic pronounced, there were no land turtles indigenous to Oklahoma. He also took umbrage at the portrayal of “Okies” as sometimes being mean. The critic contended this was untrue and how dare Steinbeck insinuate such a thing.
The critic was wrong on both counts.
I was also advised that the only proper place for a thesis about Steinbeck would be in the trash can, rather than the shelves of the university’s library. His books were fine for high school students, but not to be taken seriously in academia.
All of this felt like a challenge, so I took it.
None of this is to say there haven’t been critics who championed Steinbeck’s work. In particular, the late Louis Owens wrote a fine explication of Steinbeck’s symbolism in John Steinbeck’s Re-Vision of America. If you have any interest in Steinbeck beyond a good read, I highly recommend Owens’ book. It is enlightening, to say the least.
Aside from Owens himself, however, most Steinbeck critics produced criticism that Owens described as “hackneyed.” This seemed to be true when I was studying Steinbeck from a much-discouraged academic perspective. I haven’t studied any writing from an academic perspective in two decades though, so maybe that’s changed.
Not that it matters. I’ve long since concluded writing criticism about books and the criticism about the books is a laughable and meaningless enterprise.
So, I’ve read a lot of Steinbeck’s novels, and I got it in my head to reread many of them about a year ago. I started with The Grapes of Wrath and worked my way through to Travels with Charley.
But now I’m back at it with The Grapes of Wrath for the second time in a year.
I’ve gotten more from it with each reading. It is a damn fine novel. And unless you’re one of the succession of critics who have been looking to skewer Steinbeck for going on a century now, you’ll have to admit the novel is beautifully written, though beautifully written about the ugliness inherent in the human condition.
A friend of mine once told me she couldn’t read the book again because it made her feel so miserable. My counter to that was that the novel had made her feel something deeply, even if it had been unpleasant. How many novels, I asked her, have such a visceral effect on the reader?
I’ll admit, however, that I feel a connection with the story that others might not. Steinbeck writes about the travails of a cropper family, the Joads, driven from their home by the economic hardships that befell farmers, in this case Oklahoma farmers, during the Dust Bowl years. Their land taken from them and with no options left, they set out for the Promised Land of California, where abundance is said to be there for the taking. They don’t seek fortune – they seek sustenance. Honest pay for their hard work and a chance to start over, after being forced from the land that had in it no less than their family’s history: The births, deaths, battles fought and battles won, and all the living that took place in between.
The novel is a social and political critique of the American system. There are strong socialists pronouncements throughout the book, which made it both hated and loved.
My connection to the novel isn’t in its literary or social merit but in the story itself. I see in the characters and their struggles my own ancestors and the unbearable experiences they had leaving Oklahoma and coming to California.
My grandmother was an “Okie” straight off the farm. She took that journey westward. And, I hate to break it to the critic mentioned above, but she was mean. Her brothers were mean. Her sisters could be mean, too. This is not to say I didn’t love my grandmother beyond compare because I did. She was mean as hell, and the sweetest, kindest, most generous woman I’ve ever known. I’ll tell you a bit more about her along the way, and you’ll see what I mean.
As for me, I’m from the second generation after those who made the exodus from Oklahoma to California during those Dust Bowl years, as chronicled by Steinbeck in the novel.