Sunday, November 13, 2011

Signal Watch Reads: The Grapes of Wrath

The Grapes of Wrath is among the books you're supposed to read that I was never assigned in K-12 or during college (I only took one literature class in college, and I don't know if we read anything by an American author.  Film and History degrees.  Sorry.), and as Tom Joad never dawns a cape in the book, nor does Ma Joad fight a robot or gorilla, it fell to the bottom of my reading list.  But as part of my program to catch up on books you're supposed to read that also translate pretty well to audiobook, I recently finished the 22 hour odyssey of Steinbeck's best known work.

No doubt in the era in which it was released, the book was a piece of propaganda, and I imagine it was intended as something like the socially-conscious work of Upton Sinclair in books like The Jungle, using popular media to draw attention to the circumstances of those who'd been caught up in the crush of economic and environmental turmoil in the farming communities of the south-central United States (in our case, Oklahoma) during the 1930's.

As a quick summary - the book follows the fortunes of the Joad family which, like everyone else in their Oklahoma community, is devastated by a bad crop, and loses their farm to a large industrial concern (the books makes plain this misfortune befalls most small farmers in the middle states).  With farm as home, they have nowhere else they can go and earn a living, and so take to the road to California, where they believe jobs will await them picking fruit.  It follows the hardship of crossing the country when there's no money to start with, and the reason all those Okies believed that this would work.

Once in California, the Joads face the crushing reality of their situation - there are no jobs, no money, and there's nothing to return to in Oklahoma (or anywhere else, if the sheer number of people from all over is any indication).  Moving from a Hooverville to a government camp to a peach farm to a cotton farm, the Joads face ever-lowering wages and prospects as the supply of workers continues to greatly outpace demand, and every day becomes a lesson in hardship.

Its an interesting read against the backdrop of the modern economic woes, especially reminding you of the strides made in the ensuing 70-odd years since the books publication for many Americans.  Families are still wiped out, but the fall is most definitely different from that of the family farmer of just a few generations ago (the bottom line is that we're not seeing mass migration of Americans in pursuit of work yet, soup lines or Americans simply starving to death.  But you also wonder exactly what we're willing to put up with.).  And there's certainly parallels you can draw between how farmers were unable to cope with the changes in industrialization of farming and changes in how most people are dealing with the brave new world of the financial industries putting them in situations which make no sense to them,and have devastated them.

Steinbeck draws a fairly clear picture of the lopsided battle of haves-and-have-nots, of the corrupting, inhuman forces of profit as the only outcome.  What's key is that whether Steinbeck was a pinko or not, his characters are not.  They don't even understand what communism is, only that they want to work and earn a living, and events have conspired to seemingly make that impossible.

In our current political climate (much as, apparently, happened upon the books release) the book would be dismissed or attacked by many as left-wing, commie propaganda.  And there's certainly truth to that, and surely that may be something we're beginning to see rumbles about in via Occupy Wall Street and other avenues.  The deck is most certainly stacked to curry sympathy for the Joads, who it paints as simple, loving, salt-of-the-earth folks with virtually no education, and flawed but mostly simply caught up in a situation not of their own making or understanding.  In a lot of ways, their belief in others as basically decent or understanding is what got them where they were before the story begins, and it turns up repeatedly throughout the book.

Steinbeck clearly had an idea about how to write dialog to reflect his characters, and maybe even their simplicity.  But he doesn't make anyone angelic, just to prove his point.  The characters all have their own motivations, desires and arcs within the book, whether its Al's desire to prove himself or Ma having to come into her own as her husband fails to lead the family.  While its impossible to separate the novel's message from the characters, part of how it remains effective this many years on isn't just Steinbeck's vivid descriptions of the realities and seeming madness of the situation (something odd and artificial, dictated by rules set by people with not even a passing interest in how the game effects those who may not even have realized they were playing).  Its also a story of survival on American soil, and that's something we don't think about very often, and something I often wonder if we're too arrogant to believe that hand-to-mouth living is something we could return to.


The book ends on an unpleasant note, something that seems dictated almost from the first pages.  And certainly in 1939, there was no reason to believe there was a clear solution to any of the nation's economic woes.  I understand the film provides the characters with a bit more or a happy ending, and I'll watch it, but it seems like a cheat.

End spoiler

I'm not sure we really use novels to express these sorts of ideas anymore.  If we are providing fictionalized accounts, likely it'd end up as a film or on a TV show.   And that would be fine.  Despite the 24-hour news cycle, prevalence of documentary film, exposes, etc...  it still seems that giving people a story, even a fictional one where the reader or viewer is given the opportunity to wonder what they'd do in a situation, seems to create a connection to an issue better than presenting the real-life facts.

We simply don't have this sort of connection with novels as mass media (maybe a TV show?).  But its probably worth at least investigating why Steinbeck would write such a book, to at least verify the veracity of the situations he describes.

By the way, one of my least favorite things to read is what I'd term "victim porn", and its a fairly well celebrated form of the novel, which takes the "let's raise stakes and keep putting our protagonist in worse and worse positions, not of their own making and maybe even kill off the protagonist at the end".  Victorian novels are pretty keen on this concept.  I find this sort of thing a bit of a cheat to the reader, even if they know the're perfectly aware that they're participating in the contrivances.  It always feels less like a story to me and more like a parlor trick to elicit strong feelings.  Its like reading about the euthanasia of a pack of puppies.  Of course it'll draw emotion.

I'm not sure Grapes of Wrath entirely avoids getting lumped in with this subset of literature.  Certainly Steinbeck finds rough scene after rough scene in which to place the Joads, and I think I've alluded to the propagandist nature of the book.  But I don't know where it falls once you're presenting perhaps a condensed version of real-life struggles versus a Victorian Rube Goldberg contraption of ill-fates for our protagonist.

In the end, I suppose I liked the book well enough.  And I can see the merit.  But I'm still wrestling with it a bit in my head.  But, hey, one more for the list checked off.

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