Thursday, June 4, 2009
Waiting for the new Steinbeck
70 years ago the great American novelist John Steinbeck published his masterpiece The Grapes of Wrath. It chronicles the sorrowful journey of the Joad family, Okies who lose their tenement farm during the Dust Bowl of the 1930s. Like thousands of other migrant farmers, the Joads head west to the verdant farms of California. What they find instead are akin to squalid refugee camps, forgotten by their government and exploited by the wealthy land owners who use this tragedy as a means to pay the migrant farmers pennies a day for their labor. While The Grapes of Wrath is ultimately a homage to the "ordinary" hard working people of this country, it also took a swipe at class inequities, greedy businessmen and corrupt local governments. It was this last characteristic that got Steinbeck in trouble and makes The Grapes of Wrath so much more than another popular novel of its day.
This was during the world-wide Depression, of course, which many blamed on the greediness of the wealthy. Many other countries sought to solve this class struggle with Communism and there was a growing sympathy for Communism in the United States especially among labor and the far left. The Grapes of Wrath was just too close to the bone in this regard, especially in passages where the characters discuss how revolution erupts when too few have too much. Although Steinbeck was not a Communist, his book brought a beacon of light to the miseries of the migrants and caused a national stir including charges that he was "a Red." The southern California county which was the fictional setting of the story actually banned and burned the book as did many other local governments and schools.
The putative reason for this condemnation was obscene language. Indeed, Steinbeck's characters often speak in earthy phrases and there is a famous or should I say infamous scene where Rose of Sharon, the Joad's daughter offers her mother's milk to a starving man after she miscarries. But it is generally agreed today that the book was banned because it portrayed the farm owners as inhumane and promised that the working people would someday rise to power. In short, it was banned because of its political message, not its language.
The bans and the book burnings brought new attention to the novel and propelled it to the top of the bestseller list. People had charity drives for the migrants called "Grapes of Wrath" parties. Hollywood rushed a movie adaptation which won awards. Even the hat worn by Henry Fonda as Tom Joad in the film became popular and known as "a Joad cap." Steinbeck became famous, which he hated and rich, which he liked.
What really fascinates me about this book, however, is how it intersected with history as few books do. Steinbeck believed that art could be used for the social good, and surely The Grapes of Wrath is a reflection of the hardships wrought by history, in this case, the Great Depression. On the other hand, the book also caused history. It brought needed attention to the migrants' plight and is certainly infamous for being a banned book. That's quite a lot of heavy-lifting for one book.
So, who's our Steinbeck now? Where's our contemporary Grapes of Wrath? During these troubled economic times, who's the author who will write about the suffering, rise to the bestseller list, tick off the powers that be and have a hat named after his character?
Nobody comes to mind like Steinbeck. Perhaps Tom Wolfe??? Suggestions please!
P.S. The person who was responsible for ending the ban in southern California on The Grapes of Wrath was a librarian.