One-Minute Book Reviews

March 16, 2010

John Steinbeck’s Pulitzer Prize-Winning ‘The Grapes of Wrath’ — Champagne or Table Wine?

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Dorothy Parker called The Grapes of Wrath “the greatest American novel I have ever read,” but many critics disagree

The Grapes of Wrath. By John Steinbeck. Penguin Classics, 464 pp., $16, paperback. Introduction by Robert DeMott. Also available in other editions.

By Janice Harayda

Still enraged that Premier Bankcard is charging a 79.9 percent interest rateon its credit card? Reading The Grapes of Wrath might be cathartic. More than 70 years after its publication, this novel remains one of the most scathing indictments of banking and related industries to appear in American fiction.

In 1936 the San Francisco News sent John Steinbeck to investigate the living conditions of displaced Dust Bowl farmers who were streaming into California looking for work. That assignment inspired The Grapes of Wrath, a Pulitzer Prize–winning novel about how displacement and bureaucratic cruelty transform families.

Steinbeck refracts his theme through the bleak story of the Joads, Oklahoma sharecroppers evicted by a bank who set out for California hoping to earn a living as fruit-pickers. Ma and Pa Joad and their children face an almost soap-operatic array of disasters on their car trip and in the blighted Eden of California, where people disparagingly call them “Okies”: hunger, homelessness, illness, death, unemployment and the sadism of rich landowners. Their stoic dignity has endeared them to readers of all ages and to the Swedish Academy, which gave Steinbeck the 1962 Nobel Prize in literature.

The Grapes of Wrath has won less consistent acclaim from critics, who disagree on whether the Joads’ story is Dom Perignon or mediocre table wine. Dorothy Parker, one of the finest critics of her day, called the book “the greatest American novel I have ever read,” and it appears regularly on lists of the most influential works of fiction of the 20th century. But Edmund Wilson said that Steinbeck reduced his characters to their biological drives and animal instincts. And when Jonathan Yardley reviewed a volume of Steinbeck’s collected works for the Washington Post in the 1990s, he was struck by “the solemnity, the sentimentality, the heavy-handed irony, the humorlessness, the labored colloquialisms, the clumsiness” and “the political naiveté” he found in them, though reminded of the “powerfully sympathetic portraits of American farm workers and . . . the vision of social justice” he once admired.

Many of the complaints about the book have merit. Steinbeck conflates poverty and goodness – and wealth and evil – to a degree rarely found in novels written in the documentary style of The Grapes of Wrath. He portrays sympathetically and often sentimentally characters such as a waitress who thinks that the rich are thieves and “the bigger the car they got, the more they steal.” He is less subtle than his fellow social-realist and Nobel laureate Sinclair Lewis is in Main Street and other books. You know exactly what you are supposed to think about every issue raised in The Grapes of Wrath, which is why some critics have dismissed it as propaganda or a tract.

But the sentimentality of The Grapes of Wrath is not the cut-rate sentimentality that floods a market full of books by Mitch Albom imitators. It is hard won. And it is rooted in a deep and sincere concern for the brutal conditions endured by the Depression-era poor, some hungry enough to eat coal, as Ma Joad did, or trade a child’s doll for gas that would allow them to flee circumstances. The novelist Don DeLillo rightly said that in The Grapes of Wrath “there is something at stake in every sentence.”

There’s also something going on in every sentence. The Grapes of Wrath keeps its momentum from its opening chapters, when Ma and Pa Joad’s son Tom returns from prison, to its last pages, when the family tries to help a sick man though its own circumstances have grown more desperate. At times, the action includes perceptive observations on what makes life worth living. Steinbeck writes that migrant workers yearned for amusement and found it when they gathered around a fire to hear a storyteller: “And they listened while the tales were told, and their participation in the stories made them great.” The Grapes of Wrath is not a great novel as many critics would define it: a near-flawless work that yields new insights with each reading. It has been made great by the participation in its story of the successive generations to whom it has spoken as if by firelight.

Best line: The title. It appears in this line in the novel: “In the souls of the people the grapes of wrath are filling and growing heavy, growing heavy for the vintage.”

Worst line: “‘No, it ain’t,’ Ma smiled.”

Reading group guide with 12 discussion questions about The Grapes of Wrath from by the Big Read project of the National Endowment for the Arts.

Movie link: The 1940 movie of The Grapes of Wrath with Henry Fonda was nominated for seven Academy Awards and won two.

Furthermore: The site for the Nobel Prize foundation has a biography and more about Steinbeck and The Grapes of Wrath. The California Association of Teachers of English site explores some of the author’s local connections. A preloaded digital audiobook editor of the Penguin Classics edition of The Grapes of Wrath from Playaway is available online and at many libraries.

You can also follow Janice Harayda (@janiceharayda) on Twitter at www.twitter.com/janiceharayda. She satirizes the publishing industry on her FakeBookNews page (@FakeBookNews) on Twitter at www.twitter.com/FakeBookNews.

© 2010 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
www.janiceharayda.com

January 22, 2008

John Bowe Exposes Abuses of Migrant Workers in Florida, Oklahoma and Elsewhere in ‘Nobodies’

 

Nobodies: Modern American Slave Labor and the Dark Side of the New Global Economy. By John Bowe. Random House, 304 pp., $25.95.

 

By Janice Harayda

In ancient Rome the authorities created a torture device called “the brazen bull,” a life-sized metal statue of a bull in which they locked people accused of misbehavior. “A fire was built below the bull’s belly, and with careful placement of musical pipes within the bull’s head, the victim’s screams would be transformed into ‘music,’” John Bowe writes in Nobodies.

Most of us like to think that such inhumanity has gone the way of the Caesars. But Bowe argues that spiritual descendants of the Roman torturers exist in modern employers who exploit migrants and frighten them into silence with threats of deportation, harm to their families back at home or other punishments. And the abuses he describes are no less chilling because his rhetoric about them at times becomes overheated.

Bowe focuses in Nobodieson the harm done to three groups, including Mexican and Central American orange- and tomato-pickers in Immokalee, Florida, and garment workers on the American commonwealth of Saipan, whose mistreatment led to a class action suit against JCPenney, the Gap, Tommy Hilfiger and 21 other corporations that was settled for $20 million. Then there were the welders brought over from India to work for the John Pickle Company (JPC) in Tulsa:

“JPC had confiscated their passports, crammed 53 workers into a squalid barracks on factory premises, and was feeding them disgusting, unsanitary food, verbally abusing them, constraining their movements, and forcing them to work six days a week. The company had even hired an armed guard to keep them from escaping over Thanksgiving.”

Bowe is such a fine reporter that if he had let facts like these speak for themselves, Nobodies might have appeared on every newspaper’s list of the 10 best books of the year. But he also tries to show that the growing gap between the rich and the poor, as exemplified by forced labor, undermines democracy.

That’s true, but Bowe is much less effective as an analyst than as a journalist and can’t quite pull it off. In the third section of his book, on Saipan, he loses his focus and serves up something that resembles an investigative report less than a highly stylized travelogue of the School of Geoff Dyer. And in the fourth section he tries to link the stories in his book to global events such as the attacks on Sept. 11 in a way that comes across as simply glib.

Bowe says on his blog that he wishes he’d written a simpler book, and it’s a perceptive comment. As good Nobodies is, it could have been better if he’d tried to do less in it.

Best line: “The average migrant [worker] has a life expectancy of just 49 years. Twenty thousand farmworkers require medical treatment for acute pesticide poisoning each year; at least that many more cases go unreported. Nationally, 50 percent of migrants – up from 12 percent in1990 – are without legal work papers. Their median annual income is somewhere around $7,500.”

Worst line:“Osama bin Laden, to my thinking, is just another name for Osama bin jobs, Osama bin minimum wage, Osama bin social justice. The poor will find ways to revenge themselves on the rich. And the ideology that provides the most comfort and justice to the largest number of people will prevail. If the revenge motive of brand Osama holds greater appeal than brand Freedom, well, I guess that means that brand Freedom didn’t do such a great job of delivering on its promises.”

Editors: Daniel Menaker and Dana Isaacson

Published: Sept. 18, 2007 www.randomhouse.com and www.johnbowe.wordpress.com/

Furthermore: Parts of “Florida,” the first section of Nobodies, appeared in different form in the April 21, 2003, issue of The New Yorker. In 2004 Bowe’s work to date on the book won the J. Anthony Lukas Work-in-Progress Award and other honors. The plight of the Immokalee tomato-pickers led to a four-year boycott of Taco Bell, which ended in 2005 when its parent company agreed to give workers a raise that would nearly double their wages and take other steps to improve their working conditions. Bowe lives in Manhattan.

Janice Harayda is an award-winning journalist who has been the book columnist for Glamour, the book editor of the Plain Dealer and a vice-president of the National Book Critics Circle www.bookcritics.org.

© 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

http://www.janiceharayda.com/

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