Thursday, April 16, 2009

Grapes of Wrath: a Prophetic Novel?

Steinbeck's magnum opus (if you exclude Of Mice and Men - which, in my opinion, you simply must if you are going to consider Grapes of Wrath his greatest achievement, by writing standards, anyway), Grapes of Wrath, is a sizable book, but also one of the most widely-read. According to some sources, a song based on the film had to be recorded in two parts!

Published in 1939 and set in 1938, Steinbeck purportedly told his publisher he had "done his damnedest to rip a reader's nerves to rags." Sonofagun even talks poetically, doesn't he? Grapes of Wrath caused a raucous public outcry upon its release; Steinbeck was called a propagandist by political pundits on both sides of the spectrum, the Associated Farmers of California called the book a "pack of lies," and it was banned and burned across the nation. Today, it is taught in highschools and colleges across America.

Set during the Great Depression, it focuses on the plight of migrant workers, derogatorily called "Okies," even though not all of them were from Oklahoma. While unemployment was still near 20%, it would be more appropriate to say Grapes of Wrath was set during the "Dirty Thirties" or the "Dust Bowl," as it deals specifically with the migrant workers displaced by the ecological disaster which befell the Great Plains during this period. A huge dust storm - the largest in recorded American history - had swept through the Great Plains, destroying farms and carrying topsoil all the way to Washington, D.C.! Thousands were displaced from the farms and lands they had owned and/or worked their entire lives. Most of them migrated toward California, where rumor had it (incorrectly) there was plenty of work for everyone. Grapes of Wrath follows the Joad family on their cross-country odyssey to California, where they believe they will find work.

While the book is now lauded as a faithful, though fictitious, recording of the events, and considered a classic by any standard, Steinbeck historian and Ohio State Professor of American Lit, Robert DeMott, wrote a fantastic article, detailing how Grapes of Wrath is directly relevant to our current financial situation. Having read the book, and being a huge fan of Steinbeck, I found the article fascinating, if obvious.

If you have not read Grapes, as it is often abbreviated, I highly recommend it, though you may wish to wait and read this feature until you have done so. It doesn't exactly contain "spoilers," but I understand the ending is different in the movie (which I have never watched all the way through), and intelligent readers (which I already know y'all are) may figure things out and spoil the novel for themselves.

I say the piece is "obvious" because, well, it is; it is no great stretch to compare the plight of the Okies to today's situation(s) and everyone and their sister has been comparing the financial recession to The Great Depression - which it sure as hell is not, it isn't even close. But it's definitely worth a read and I enjoyed it, so I thought I would share.

© C Harris Lynn, 2009

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