May 31, 2011

The CCLaP 100: "The Grapes of Wrath," by John Steinbeck

(Since the beginning of 2008 I've been writing an ongoing series of essays here that I call the "CCLaP 100," whereby I read for the first time a hundred books considered by many to be classics, and then write reports here on whether or not I think they deserve this label. For the complete list of books, as well as an explanation behind how the list was compiled, you can click here.)

The Grapes of Wrath, by John Steinbeck

The Grapes of Wrath (1939)
By John Steinbeck
Book #59 in this essay series

The story in a nutshell:
Inspired by a series of journalism pieces he did for the San Francisco News in the middle of the Great Depression, John Steinbeck's 1939 The Grapes of Wrath is as much a history book as it is narrative fiction, with the author himself very publicly stating many times over the years that the whole point of even writing it was to damn and hold accountable the sociopathic bankers and corporate CEOs who caused the Great Depression in the first place. As such, then, the novel relies on just a minimal plotline, essentially following a typical Oklahoma family (the Joads, a name now synonymous with blue-collar nobility) as the mighty Midwestern dust storms of the 1930s devastate their family farm, the bank forecloses on their land, and the group is forced to sell all their possessions and make a harrowing cross-country trip to California in search of work (a journey surprisingly similar to the popular post-apocalyptic fiction of our own times), just to get there and find out that things might possibly be even worse than back in Oklahoma itself. Cut within this storyline, then, are what Steinbeck called "interchapters," experimental half-story half-poems indicative of the book's Early Modernist times, in which we sometimes listen in on random conversations around the country regarding various issues important during the Great Depression, and sometimes receive Victorian-style direct lectures from the author on the immorality of it all, and how the money-men who caused all the messes need to burn, burn, burn.

The argument for it being a classic:
Well, for starters, this novel won the 1940 Pulitzer Prize, with the Oscar-winning movie version a year later eventually being declared by the Library of Congress as one of the 25 most important films in American history, and with Steinbeck himself eventually winning the Nobel Prize as well, essentially the most important literary award on the planet. Even if you ignore all of this, though, passionate fans of The Grapes of Wrath (and there's a lot of them) don't just like this book but believe it to be one of the best of all time, an iconic masterpiece that profoundly exemplifies the American spirit in general. And that's because the novel itself is all about basic human dignity and a kind of religious respect for individual freedom, the cornerstones on which the entire US democratic system rests; and that's why fans claim that attacks by its critics that the book is politically biased are way off base, in that dignity and individual freedom aren't values exclusive to either liberals or conservatives, even if admittedly in this case these freedoms were most threatened by a series of rich white males who by and large voted Republican.

The argument against:
Just as fans of The Grapes of Wrath tend to be not just casual but hardcore about their love, so too are critics hardcore in their hatred, claiming that this is not just a bad book but literally one of the most overhyped projects in American history, a lazy piece of anti-capitalist propaganda with so much political baggage that it can barely even be looked at as a simple piece of literature, much less by judged on those kinds of merits. Because sheesh, they argue, where do you even start with how awful this is? With the cornpone, phonetically spelled rural dialogue, nearly unreadable yet establishing a terrible precedent for a million lazy MFA students in the 72 years since? Or maybe the way that Steinbeck makes his points with all the subtlety of a union organizer repeatedly hitting you in the back of the head with a two-by-four, screaming with each whack at the top of his lungs, "RICH BANKERS BAD!!! RICH BANKERS BAD!!! RICH BANKERS BAD!!! RICH BANKERS BAD!!! RICH BANKERS BAD!!!" Or perhaps it's the dreadful avant-garde nature of those interchapters just mentioned, a bad side-effect of living in an age when a contemporary novel could barely get published without it containing at least some kind of genre-redefining experimental element? Whatever the case, this very vocal minority claim that this is not a novel to be admired at all, but rather a badly constructed brochure for communism just as propagandistic as Mao's Little Red Book, and that very nearly caused an actual violent groundswell proletariat revolution in this country, quashed only by the bombing of Pearl Harbor a mere two years after this novel's publication.

My verdict:
So are you ready for what will undoubtedly prove to be the most controversial statement in the entirety of the CCLaP 100 essay series? Okay, here we go -- The Grapes of Wrath was kind of terrible. Start your hate mail, people! Because, man, every single thing that this book's critics say about its pedantic, lecturing, holier-than-thou attitude is absolutely true, a problem I've begun realizing recently is endemic across history and all kinds of different societies; that whenever a far-left liberal sits down to write about something that genuinely angers them, that far-left liberal tends to completely lose the ability to utilize symbolism, metaphor, poetry or elegance, delivering instead these sanctimonious screeds that are like a freaking dental visit to try to choke your way through, whether that's Sinclair Lewis talking about Nazis, Norman Mailer talking about Vietnam, Robert Redford talking about Iraq, or Michael Moore talking about...well, anything, really.

Now combine this with the general problem I mentioned about Early Modernism overall, of how much of it from those years tends to include raw experimentation just for the sake of being rawly experimental, and which I've learned the hard way that one has to take with a huge grain of salt just to make it through most of them to begin with; and now add to all this that instantly headache-producing phonetic dialogue, a clunky and ham-fisted gimmick that calls way too much attention to itself, yet as mentioned has unfortunately become a hallmark among a certain strain of academic writers; and you can easily see why The Grapes of Wrath turned out to be one of the most disappointing reads of this entire essay series so far, if not maybe even the biggest lemon of all once the entire series is finished. I'm still labeling it a classic, because my opinion today is clearly the minority one, and with this book simply too important to too many people to blow it off, no matter what I myself thought of it; but certainly, along with so many other Early Modernist novels, I'm discovering that what was important about these books for contemporary literature often is quite a different thing than what I personally like in contemporary literature, and that more and more I find myself preferring instead the twenty to thirty years of literary history right before this period, when the raw experimentalism of the dawning 20th century was nicely tempered and shaped by the Victorian standards still expected of full-length stories. (For more, see Joseph Conrad, Rudyard Kipling, GK Chesterton, Edith Wharton, Theodore Dreiser, Sherwood Anderson, et al.) Although I definitely agree that it should be included in the canon of "great books," it's doubtful that I myself will be returning to John Steinbeck anytime soon.

Is it a classic? I suppose

The next four books scheduled to be read:
Les Miserables, by Victor Hugo
Stranger in a Strange Land, by Robert Heinlein
A Confederacy of Dunces, by John Kennedy Toole
A Journal of the Plague Year, by Daniel Defoe

Read even more about The Grapes of Wrath: Amazon | GoodReads | LibraryThing | Shelfari | Wikipedia

(And don't forget that the first 33 essays in this series are now available in book form!)

Filed by Jason Pettus at 4:47 PM, May 31, 2011. Filed under: CCLaP 100 | Literature | Literature:Fiction | Reviews |