Today the New York Review of Books comments on social change: the roads are clogged with "retired farmers" who "leave for Florida in their fancy campers." John Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath records an earlier time, depression days of Dust Bowl farmers, their farms blown away, heading in jalopies for California's golden groves. If modern America has any idea of Okies and hard times, it is largely due to Steinbeck's greatest work.
In it, Steinbeck's "voice over" and vivid episodes create a kind of newsreel of a period when times got tough and the tough got going, westward as ever in their very American and indomitable flight to something better. It is that courage and determination "in the presence of this continent" that has made the book a classic of our literature, that gained it in its own day a great success despite its ignorant Okies (with their accents and even their customs all wrong), and its nasty union men (either venal or fanatic), and its sordid language, as some thought. ("Take the vulgarity out of this book," a shocked Oklahoma congressman told the House of Representatives in 1940, "and it would be blank from cover to cover.") Steinbeck outdid himself as he wrote about what some representative Americans of his time "are doing, thinking, wanting." He said: "It's all a writer knows. I have set down what a large section of our people are doing and wanting, and symbolically what all people of all time are doing and wanting. The migration is the outward sign of the want." He intensely admired the Okies "because they are brave, although the technique of their life is difficult and complicated, they meet it with increasing strength, because they are kind, humorous and wise, because their speech has the metaphor and flavor and imagery of poetry, because they can resist and fight back, and because I believe that out of these qualities will grow a new system and a new life which will be better than anything we have had before."
Steinbeck's faith seems to have been in something more like a Life Force than the strident socialism of his day; he had a sort of mystical belief in people, not a political belief in the proletariat. And so he wrote a work of art that went beyond the propaganda novel of police brutality and proletarian strikes, an angry and unorthodox New Testament of a religion of mankind. Critics differ as to whether Jim Casy is the Christ or the John the Baptist of this gospel and whether Tom Joad is the Christ or the St. Paul, but all must agree with the critic who wrote that what we have is "a re-enactment in modern times of events which occurred centuries ago," a story of man evicted from his garden that is far more successful as an allegory than East of Eden. The trials and tribulations show the sacrifice of a child to remove the curse of barrenness, the testing and the promise of salvation in the end, as well as the desert of despair and the water of life. God who provided the turtle with a shell can offer man no less protection. Run over, he will survive. Changes will have to come, but if brave Ma perishes then Rose of Sharon will be our Blessed Mother. This is a religious novel, not merely a socialist one, not merely a bitter comment on the sentimental "wagons westward" epics and the sociological diatribes. Steinbeck is more artist than activist, and he has woven of actual events and biblical allusions what has been rightly identified as "a pattern of dispossession; of nobility achieved by sacrifice necessitated by suffering; of wandering in the wilderness of exile; of struggle, defeat, hope, and eventual victory; of decadence and renewed struggles—here is an allegory of humanity itself."
This is the kind of message, if not exactly the kind of writing, that wins the Nobel Prize for Literature. This is the kind of theme that for once exactly fitted one of Steinbeck's basic limitations: he is not a great thinker and his characters are not, either. He specializes, our best American critic (Edmund...
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