When Steinbeck finished The Grapes of Wrath in 1938, he expressed doubts about its quality. Since then, critics and the public alike have decided that he needn’t have worried. Sure, there are some exceptions: not everyone likes Steinbeck’s phonetic rendering of the Oklahoma dialect or his overwrought religious imagery, all the blaring indications that John Casey (JC!) may have similarities with Jesus Christ. It’s certainly true that the book doesn’t so much slip over into sentimentality as avalanche.
But then again, The Grapes of Wrath isn’t meant to be subtle. Sometimes reading about the “Okie” family’s ever-increasing woes can feel like getting clanged round the head with Tom Joad’s spade – but that’s because Steinbeck wants us to feel it hard. Reading it over the past few weeks has felt like an urgent and all too resonant experience, especially since we’re also living in a time of environmental catastrophe and mass migrations.
But the book’s enduring power is testament to Steinbeck’s art as well as the lamentable staying power of his subject. Steinbeck’s writing is carefully crafted, even in the documentary, pace-changing chapters that interrupt the main story to explain the bigger context of the 1930s Dust Bowl migrations. Here, his chief literary weapon is the force of truth. People were, as Steinbeck wrote to his agent Elizabeth Otis in 1938, actually starving. He dares you to deny it and forces you to confront the implacable logic of capitalism where the system is lethal but no single person can be blamed; no one to “lay for”, as one frustrated character puts it.
It is also the force of careful composition. If it feels as if Steinbeck is writing on tablets of stone, it’s because he chiselled every sentence. “With the rhythms of poetry one can get into a reader,” Steinbeck told a Columbia undergraduate in 1953, “open him up and while he is open introduce things on an intellectual level, which he would not or could not receive unless he were opened up.”
There’s a handy summary of Steinbeck’s intentions in Robert DeMott’s introduction to the Penguin Classics edition:
“To execute The Grapes of Wrath [Steinbeck] drew on the jump-cut technique of John Dos Passos’s USA trilogy, the narrative tempo of Pare Lorentz’s radio drama Ecce Homo! … the stark visual effects of Dorothea Lange’s photographs of Dust Bowl Oklahoma and Californian migrant life, the timbre of the Greek epics, the rhythms of the King James Bible, the refrains of American folk music, and the biological impetus of his and Edward F Ricketts’s ecological phalanx, or ‘group man’ theory.”
No reason to question any of that – although I do wonder how many of Steinbeck’s 14 million-odd readers have registered or cared about such ideas. But like many of the best writers, Steinbeck is most effective when you don’t notice his careful craftsmanship.
There are also quite a few individual moments that are so powerful that you have to pause and come up for air. About halfway through, when we’ve been living so close to the Joads that we feel part of their world, we get a glimpse of how others see them. A gas-station attendant who has just served them tells his co-worker: “Jesus, what a hard looking outfit.” Suddenly, we know that, to strangers, the Joads are frightening. And there’s Tom Joad’s unforgettable “I’ll be there” speech, as well as the beautiful and terrible final image of Rose of Sharon offering her breast to a starving man and the troubling enigma of the last sentence: “She looked up and across the barn, and her lips came together and smiled mysteriously.”
Steinbeck’s real talent is to make us live with the Joad family. Once you’ve tuned into their speech patterns, and learned their personalities, you feel almost as if you walk among them, “putting one foot in front of another”, salting meat, fixing cars, driving and making camp. “These people must be intensely alive the whole time,” Steinbeck wrote in his diary. “We have to know these people. Know their looks and nature.” It worked. He succeeded.