“Some of the owner men were kind because they hated what they had to do, and some of them were angry because they hated to be cruel, and some of them were cold because they had long ago found that one could not be an owner unless one were cold. And all of them were caught in something larger than themselves. Some of them hated the mathematics that drove them, and some were afraid, and some worshiped the mathematics because it provided a refuge from thought and from feeling.” (p. 33)
The Resolution Project: For my New Year’s resolution this year (that being 2011), I decided to try and read all one hundred of the novels picked by Time Magazine as the best since their inception in 1923 to the list’s publication in 2005. I exempted myself from reading ones I’ve already read, leaving some eighty-six or so to read before the end of this year. Some spoilers may lie ahead, so be warned if you’re the type to be bothered by that.
The Joad family of Salisaw, Oklahoma is in a bind. The owner of the land they sharecrop off of has decided to try factory farming as the Dust Bowl looms over the Midwest, and the Joads are left with nowhere to live. When their boy Tom Joad is released from McAlester Prison for good behaviour off of his homicide stint, the family decides to pack it all up and head West to the fabled land of California, which has been described to them by handbills as a land of plenty, with jobs and land for all who care to take them. But should the family survive the trek in their ancient jalopy, what is to separate them from the hundreds of thousands of other migrants who also have come to the Golden State?
Like The Great Gatsby, The Grapes of Wrath is one of those inviolable CLASSICS of literature that without a doubt deserves its spot on the Time 100 list. The book captures a period in time so well, and with such detail and gravitas that it will undoubtedly endure as long as books are read, a cautionary tale of what happens when too much power and influence is centered in the hands of too few. Also like Gatsby, Wrath is one of the books on the list I felt deeply ashamed for not having read before, but also probably don’t have too much to say about. Its influence has been so profound, and the quality of the text so high, that everyone at least knows about it, and won’t glean any sort of insight from my feeble attempts at analysis. So I won’t try too hard on that.
The last book I read, Henry Roth’s Call It Sleep, was difficult for me to get through, partly because of the author’s insistence on keeping the argot of non-English speakers’ language intact, for better or worse. In Wrath, though, while the language of the “Okies” was nowhere near gramatically perfect, it was still accessible in a way that Roth’s text was not. Perhaps the poor sharecroppers’ English reminded me subconsciously of the people who attended my high school in rural Alberta?
One aspect of Wrath that really spoke to me was the way in which Steinbeck would occasionally shift his narrative focus away from the Joad family, giving us a glimpse into the life of another person in the era. He shows us the life of a diner waitress and a used-car salesman, among others. This alleviates a problem I thought I might have with the book going in; while the story of the Joad family is certainly gripping, it could occasionally become too depressing to bear. Shifting focus to someone else gives us time to breathe, while deepening our knowledge of the era. Even the aforementioned car salesman, who could have come off as a minor villain without this focus, is made somewhat understandable to the reader. He, like everyone else, just trying to get by. Steinbeck is more likely to blame the system that has set salesmen at odds with customers more than any individual person.
The author saves his real vitriol for the landowners, the true, though unseen, villains of the piece, and also for tractors (Steinbeck hates himself some goddamn tractors), the most visible tool of encroaching industrialism upon the dying rural society. Some of the best passages in the book are descriptions of tractors “raping the land”, or diatribes on how the owners work, just how things have gotten so bad, and why they fear the little people.
“And the great owners, who must lose their land in an upheaval, the great owners with access to history, with eyes to read history and to know the great fact: when property accumulates in too few hands it is taken away. And that companion fact: when a majority of the people are hungry and cold they will take by force what they need. And the little screaming fact that sounds through all history: repression works only to strengthen and knit the repressed. The great owners ignored the three cries of history. (p. 249)
I think that remembering things like this are even more important in today’s society than ever, what with Wall Street engineering a housing bubble that has destroyed the global economy and plunged the world into recession yet again. The lessons of the past are always there for us to see, it is only when we either forget about them, or willfully ignore them like the bankers at Bear Stearns and Lehman Bros. did, that they come back and bite us all on the ass. I can see why Wrath faced so much political controversy upon its release, it’s because it’s filled with unhappy truths like these. It could easily be seen as a piece of socialist literature, as its critics undoubtedly tagged it, but it’s more humanist than anything else.
“There is a crime here that goes beyond denunciation. There is a sorrow here that weeping cannot symbolize. There is a failure here that topples all our success. The fertile earth, the straight tree rows, the sturdy trunks, and the ripe fruit. And children dying of pellagra must die because a profit cannot be taken from an orange. And coroners must fill in the certificates – died of malnutrition- because the food must rot, must be forced to rot.” (p. 365)
Total pages read since January 1st: 11601 pp.
Total books on the Time 100 list read since January 1st (not including ones read before 2011): 28
Next up on the Resolution Project: Gone With The Wind, by Margaret Mitchell (1936)