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Tuesday, March 24, 2015

The Grapes of Wrath (1939) by John Steinbeck

Dorothea Lange snapped this iconic image of the Great Depression while on assigned with John Steinbeck- his observations would form a large part of The Grapes of Wrath.

Book Review
The Grapes of Wrath (1939)
by John Steinbeck

  Hits don't come bigger than The Grapes of Wrath.  On the basis of Of Mice and Men and Tortilla Flats, Steinbeck had already made his bones, if not achieved the kind of everlasting canonical status which The Grapes of Wrath gave him.  Steinbeck did journalism and non-fiction throughout his career, and so it came to be that he toured the depression era California central valley with photographer Dorothea Lange.  She is the woman who snapped that iconic portrait above- an image which came to define the Depression for generations. 

  Steinbeck's story of the Joad family isn't exactly fashionable.  As the Depression era population has passed, the relevance of the experience of the so-called "Okies," economic migrants who came from the Oklahoma panhandle and environs to the agricultural areas of the central valley, is less apparent.  Today, the more culturally relevant agricultural migrants are those that come from Mexico.

 You could say that the shift in perspective and interest among subsequent generations of readers combined with Steinbeck's decidedly non avant-literary style makes The Grapes of Wrath less necessary, but then you have to deal with the fact that he won The Nobel Prize for Literature, and The Grapes of Wrath is his biggest hit.  Steinbeck's prose is a mixture of Hemingway and Zola, with similarities to earlier and contemporary West Coast writers like Frank Norris and Jack London.  Frank Norris and The Octopus- written very early in the 20th century, seems to be a kind of template for the combination of mid 19th century European realism and 20th century rural California locations.

   Mexican farm workers, which are the only California central valley agricultural laborers I've ever learned about, are no where to be seen.  It isn't a stretch to think that the very popularity of The Grapes of Wrath was one of the causes of the phasing out of native farm workers after World War II.  In spite of my better, more refined instincts I found myself chuckling at the idea that native born Americans would be working the central valley bringing in the crops.

  Steinbeck also embeds a more or less socialist critique to the situation the Joads and their Okies were fleeing from: The Dust Bowl, The Great Depression and the resulting take-over of large swaths of agricultural land by the banks in the Midwest and South.  The first third of the book is particularly heavy with interstitial chapters that simply contain portentous statements about "the land" and "the people."  Thankfully, once the Joads make it to California the critique becomes embedded in the plot itself, and the characters are able to speak on their own behalf.

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