This week’s #5starfriday selection is poised to help you recover if you were forced to read The Grapes of Wrath in high school. It is time to rediscover this most American of American Classics. The themes continue to resonate as we strive to recover from the financial crisis of 2008 and struggle with on-going issues of equality and justice.
The Great Depression, the Dust Bowl, and a volatile political climate figure largely in the novel. Steinbeck turned a spotlight on poverty, the drastic plight of the migrant workers, and violence against anyone seeking to unionize workers. Steinbeck exposed the divide between the have and have-nots and the suffering of the powerless at the hands of the powerful.
This Pulitzer Prize winning novel begins as the Joad family is forced to leave their farm in Oklahoma and seek migrant work in California. After an arduous journey, they arrive to find the low pay and squalid living conditions prevent the laborers from making even meager progress.
Steinbeck’s honest dialogue and descriptive writing keep the reader caring about the protagonist Tom and the Joad family as they struggle to maintain their dignity in the face of dehumanizing prejudice and loss of civil rights.
This led to the novel being banned and Steinbeck himself vilified as a communist and liar.
Nonetheless, the work has continued to be read and discussed since its publication in 1939. In the introduction to the 2006 Penguin edition of The Grapes of Wrath, Steinbeck expert, Robert DeMott, described this novel as “part naturalistic epic, part labor testament, part family chronicle, part partisan journalism, part environmental jeremiad, part captivity narrative, part road novel, part transcendental gospel…”
As with many works of fiction, the reader is advised to not view The Grapes of Wrath as a factual history lesson. In a 2014 blog in the LA Times, Charlotte Allen pointed out several flaws in the novel ranging from geography to the actual number of Oklahomans who worked as migrants.
In spite of these criticisms, the work continues to resonate because of its moral vision as well as its symphonic and cinematic narrative. Many consider this the Great American Novel because of the universality of its themes. In 2016 we are still exploring how all of us can reach the Promised Land.