Wednesday, August 5, 2015

The Grapes of Wrath, or A Big, Fat Trainwreck Waiting to Happen, by John Steinbeck

Title:  The Grapes of Wrath
Author:  John Steinbeck
Published:  1939
Challenges:  Back to the Classics (20th century classic); The Classics Club; Manly Reading List, and my little book club 

Fine!  Ostracize me.  I am not getting on the The Grapes of Wrath-is-the-most-awesome-American-story-ever bandwagon.  In my literary experience, this was a train wreck waiting to happen.  Naturally, if you take ignorant, uneducated, unskilled, unwise, superstitious people, and surround them with a world lacking of justice, law, and humanity, BAM! You will get instant victims. Add John Steinbeck's propaganda and I was left psychologically wrenched, mentally abused, emotionally aggravated, and plainly dumbfounded.  Throughout much of the story, I ignored and suppressed my disgust so I could finish the book; but my conscience told me it was not right.  When I got to the wretched, abrupt ending, I thought I could scream; but I spared myself the energy.

So let me just get this out of the way: The Grapes of Wrath is praised for its natural beauty - you know - Steinbeck's writing ability and style.  OK, I will give it that.  However, if I need beautiful writing about the land, I will read Willa Cather.  Another praise is that Steinbeck illustrates themes that are true, good, and right.  Ill-treatment begets ill-treatment and compassion begets compassion.  It's like the pay-it-forward game.  He also (overly) demonstrates that those in power can be inhumane, selfish and greedy.  Check.  But then he also expresses how desperate people are still capable of feeling and responding with sympathy and mercy toward others also in need.  True.  

Farming is a risky life.

I know that farm work is exceptionally insecure and risky work because so many particulars are running against you and are out of your ability to change.  Farmers had zero protections against these losses.  In addition, the 1930's in America were hard and desperate for everyone, all over the country.   But I think Steinbeck exaggerated his hopeless worldview for his own agenda, and I guess that is what you can do when you have the power of the pen.   

I personally feel terrible because I somewhat suggested this book for my little book club, and we discussed the possibility of curse words.  Some considered that it probably would not have bad language given that it was written in the 30's; but I was suspicious: "It's Steinbeck."  Sure enough, many characters in this story blasphemed God's name, especially the ex-preacher, of course. Everyone: man, woman, youth, unemployed, employed, poor, those better off. It did not matter. Apparently, no one in Steinbeck's world has any reverence for God.  And many characters have a foul mouth - again - especially the ex-preacher.  

Approaching dust storm in Texas, 1935

Steinbeck has awful theology.  He likes to use a lot of references and connections to Bible stories and characters; in fact, he likes to turn his characters into living Bible personalities. But please do not think he is a Christian writer or that The Grapes of Wrath has good Christian undertones (as I read in some opinions) because it does not.  Steinbeck is playing with these ideas because it is what he knows - his mother read them to him a lot - but he does not know Truth.  And if anything, his real issue is with religion, which is separate from faith, of which none of his characters have.

For example, the ex-preacher in the story is a wicked man, and he was never saved.  He does not know anything about God or saving grace, and the reader cannot impart wisdom from him, as I think Steinbeck wanted to portray.  It is a pet peeve of mine when authors have their characters meddle with Scripture and Christian Truth.  But it is even worse for me when I read Christian opinions rejoice over literature, as if the author has a Christian message.  Not here.

Migrant workers from Oklahoma

A Little Mexican-American History

Another thing, and this is for Steinbeck: he explained how the wicked Americans stole Mexican territory, like the property owners in California who were protecting their land from the desperate migrant workers, as if this was history repeating itself.  

Let me just help with a little filler: the Mexican government was unable and unwilling (because of the distance) to supply aid to settlers whom they permitted to live within their territory from frequent peaceful Indian raids, and they decided to put it up for sale.  They refused to sell it to the American government because slavery was still practiced in the U.S., and Mexico did not want to sell the territory to a nation that would spread slavery.  So they considered selling to France, or worse, England.  (No offense to the English, but America had just won the War of 1812 and did not feel like sharing the continent with English neighbors.  I totally understand.)  We could argue all day long that America had evil plans to expand the nation's borders, and that they used the tension following the Alamo loss to start the war; but whatever the case, it happened.  America won (and not without sacrifice.  The Mexicans were true warriors!).  And then after America stole the land, they paid the Mexican government a measly $15 million (which is like $380 million today). We seem to leave this part of history out of history when we recall the territory issue with Mexico, and Steinbeck perpetuates it here.

I would like to share this, too, what annoyed me greatly: the Joads.  They are the main family in the story, and they give a poor name to American farmers.  No wonder farmers hated this story.  Readers of The Grapes of Wrath can see their growing demise, but not the Joads. They were painfully pathetic, at times, except Tom, in whom I invested great hope. And, yet, I don't even know what happened to him because Steinbeck had to like end the story or something.  

Migrant workers from Florida

Did you know that Hitler, like all sucky dictators who worship American cinema, praised the film version of The Grapes of Wrath because he said (I will paraphrase) that if all Americans are like the Joads, then the American military is done?  He even used the film as propaganda against the Americans.  Ha!  Thanks, Steinbeck.  

In addition, Communists, too, loved The Grapes of Wrath for their own propaganda against capitalism.  Maybe Steinbeck did not mean it that way, but it sure comes across. Community is good, but not the way Communists sell it.  And capitalism is best when good people are free to do what they know is right.  I am sorry that some people are corrupt, but capitalism can fix that if people refuse to work for that employer or company, and consumers reject their goods or services.  That is how it is supposed to work.  

Migrant worker camp
And I certainly do not regard the union aspect of the story because I believe (as I have witnessed) unions give the people justification to turn ugly, wicked, and violent. Unions are bullies, too, and do not always have the little guy in its best interest.  I have seen unions destroy jobs and people's lives. 

And finally, as is also mentioned within the story, I do not think that all revolution is right. One should ask if revolution brings about the best or right outcome just because change may occur.  If it happens by force or threat, it cannot be right.  

There you have it.  I would never read through this again.  I know Steinbeck is a formidable author and writer and not to be overlooked.  I would even suggest everyone read The Grapes of Wrath at least once, as chances are, you will love it.  But I am in the minority. Lately, I am in a really bad mood, and I think it is obvious that my bad attitude has deeply influenced my heart and voice.  Hoping I can shake this soon because I now have to review Neitzche.     


Anonymous said...

It is hard to comment on your review because it goes beyond a review and extends into a critical essay.
My compliments for all the thought and analysis you put into it.
Each person reads a book differently and that is one of the joys of reading and sharing your thoughts.
You made some vary valid points and have made me curious about Steinbeck's agenda. I'll have to delve into that.
During my ' short vacation break' from my blog I have had the time to read many types of reviews floating in the blog-o-sphere.
You are one of the most thought provoking writers of posts I have come across {there are others as well,...} and I applaud your commitment to reading and reviewing while retaining your 'own unique voice'.

Cleo said...

Grr .... blogger ate my last post so let's try again today!

:-) Sorry, I shouldn't smile but I got so engrossed in your review that I completely forgot about dinner and had to be reminded! I really love how passionate you are about what you believe. You give great food for thought.

What you mentioned about Steinbeck bothered me when we were reading East of Eden. When I label a classic a "classic" for myself, I like to feel that the writer has put time into, not only developing his own ideas, but that he understands others that may link with his, or even go against them. For example, in Les Miserables, I feel Hugo knows one side of the issue personally, but also understands the other side in a deep way that makes him either able to present an accurate portrayal of it, or to critique it intellectually. With Steinbeck, I feel like he has an agenda and just picks and chooses anything that fits that agenda whether he truly understands it or not. While he used the Cain/Abel story for East of Eden, even there I felt his theology was "off" and that he would mish-mash anything that might promote his agenda (I'm not intending to use agenda in a negative connotation here --- just his vision for his book). I always thought he was lacking in a complete vision ----- he gives wonderful snippets, but for me, he just misses it.

Try not to take Nietzsche too seriously. I'm writing my review as I go and it's allowing me to get out my thoughts and exclamations. What a guy, huh? And poor, Ruth! You've had to deal with Steinbeck, Nietzsche and, coming up, Hitler. You'll need to read something about kittens and puppies after that! Be strong! ;-)

Ruth said...

Thank you so much for your comment. It is encouraging. I want to be honest, but I feel like I am by myself, on this one anyway, b/c so many people love Grapes of Wrath. It was overwhelming the positive reviews on Goodreads and all over the internet. But I couldn't suppress my feelings about it.

And you are right: I don't write reviews; I write commentary. I know not much about literature except what it makes me think about and how I feel about it. I think I describe something like that in my intro. Anyway, so when I am really irritated by something, it comes out in my writing.

Oh, and one other thing: last night I was just thinking about how I am actually glad that everyone has different opinions and feelings about books b/c otherwise it would all be so terribly boring to read other views.

Ruth said...

Ugh, Blogger.

I remember that you took issue w/ Steinbeck in East of Eden, and here I was giving him the benefit of the doubt. Not to say you did not try either; but I told myself that I liked the story, when deep down I knew it was outrageous. I couldn't totally wrap my brain around it, but I found things to like about it and focused on them. Your description of his writing reminds of him being careless or sloppy about his plot. This is definitely the case with his use of biblical theology or more like mythical theology. I definitely see your point now. I think you make a good argument. He doesn't fully close his ideas - some never come full circle. The reader is left wondering, "Where is this going?"

Have you ever read The Pearl? It is a depressing short story that he wrote. Does he ever write happy stories? Anyway, it is very good. I still love it. That's why I had high expectations for East of Eden and Grapes of Wrath, not to mention the play it gets in literary circles. I sort of like Of Mice and Men, too, but again, it causes me to cringe while reading b/c it is crude and foul.

Well, I am still willing to read more from him. But I will be honest if I don't like it. And that's that.

As for Nietzsche, I decided not to do a review. It will be a review of my notes - my feedback or response to his ridiculousness. I have diagnosed him: he is simply human - like everyone else who is at enmity with God.

Cleo said...

Steinbeck always made me uneasy. I'll read more of his works but with that same uneasiness. I hope that he can change my opinion of him, but I extremely doubt it. I haven't read The Pearl. I read Of Mice and Men in high school and hated it, but I don't think that's a fair assessment, so I'm going to read it again.

Love your opinions! Keep them coming!

My Nietzsche review is taking scads of time but it's sorting out some thoughts in my head. What I find fascinating, is that people who find themselves at odds with God, seem to spend tons of time thinking about HIm. It's like they can't get away from Him; it's as if none of us can get away from Him. Perhaps that's what bothered Nietzsche so much.

Unknown said...

Hooray! I have found a kindred spirit with respect to Steinbeck's over-rated novel. Your one comment says it all: Apparently, no one in Steinbeck's world has any reverence for God.
I applaud your find posting!
BTW, at Beyond Eastrod, I am dealing with a related issue:
Perhaps you will visit and comment.
Again, you're comments about Steinbeck's novel are most impressive. Well done!

Ruth said...

Whew, what a relief. I am glad to know someone else who didn't feel like giving Grapes of Wrath five stars. At least I am assuming you didn't.

I fear that Steinbeck's characters lack reverence for God b/c Steinbeck does; however, it also could be b/c he has a warped view of God. Not sure I fully understand him, yet.

Ruth said...

I hope you get to read The Pearl someday. It's super short. I hope to reread it again, too. I loved, loved, loved it in elementary school, but when I reread it as an adult, I found it gut wrenching. Again, Steinbeck puts simple, innocent characters in a horrid world. I'm almost starting to feel sorry for Steinbeck. When I was younger and probably more depressed about life, I could have written miserable novels, too. But I couldn't today. So I wonder if he was unhappy in his life.

This is interesting what you say about Nietzsche and people who challenge God: I wonder if his hatred and rebellion against God ate at his conscience, as when one hates his enemy so much, he cannot stop thinking about and plotting against him.

Joseph said...

I admire your passion and honesty, even though I am a fan of Grapes of Wrath. But please, after Nietzsche...we gotta get you on to something hopeful and uplifting. How about David Copperfield?

Ruth said...

Ha, ha!!!!

I am reading something lovely, though you may not think so, and it sort of influenced my opinion about Grapes of Wrath. It is the Little House series. There are nine books, and I have 1 & 1/2 left to read left. It is so inspirational and encouraging. Here are these pioneer, farming families building a community, surviving off the land, and continuously working hard. They were resourceful and self-sufficient and either very wise or very lucky. (I don't believe in luck, but God was sure working things out for them.) And then there are the Joads. Totally two different kinds of people. (I know the time periods are off by about 50 years, but still.) So those two thoughts were mingling and meshing together in my brain, and the Joads just disgusted me. Steinbeck's desire to make me feel sorry for them fell flat. Nothing else mattered when I knew farmers had to be sharp, intelligent, hard working, perseverant people, even when the land, weather, economics, and the government worked against them.

But you're right. I can't wait to get to something pleasant, like Willa Cather. David Copperfield is a hefty read, so I need to mentally prepare for that. It is on my TBR though. (A good dose of Dickens is hopeful, indeed.)

Joseph said...

When trying to think of something hopeful I almost mentioned Death Comes from the Archbishop by Cather (my recent and first exposure to her), but I wasn't sure it would be your cup o' tea. I thought it was charming. And though I've not read the Little House series...I still think it lovely.

Unknown said...

I second the vote for Death Comes for the Archbishop; while I would not describe it as "charming," I would call it first-rate literature of faith.

Hamlette (Rachel) said...

Whaddaya know? I'm re-reading Of Mice and Men right now and discovering all over again why I just... don't like Steinbeck. He makes up unlovable characters and sticks them in hopeless settings and gives them no opportunity to better themselves or those around them. Mean man, I think. Also, tricksy, in that he's putting characters in bad situations that He Has Created and then saying, "Oh, woe is them! They couldn't make better choices because they're in this terrible situation!" Hmm, not buying it.

Actually, this is making me remember a really great blog post I read not long ago called "Why the Hunger Games Needs Yellow Boots" -- I think you would find it thought-provoking.

Ruth said...

I was so excited to read the post that I went right over to it. It was excellent. I even joined her blog on FB. Thanks. The whole HG series is set this way, right up to the end. The reader is left wondering, "What was the purpose?"

And so it is with Steinbeck. I don't know if you read GofW - I am assuming you didn't - but it is like Of Mice and Men. Steinbeck created a rotten setting and placed these fools in the center of it. Everything worked against them, and every turning point is a dead end. Hopeless. It really drained me.

It doesn't help that I am reading through the Little House series. Here are these farmers/pioneers who work daily to sustain themselves, regardless of every obstacle and burden, using good judgement, wisdom, and righteousness to guide them. I compared them to the Joads (from GofW), and it was a world of difference.

Hamlette (Rachel) said...

I'm so glad you liked that post! She's not posting a lot right now cuz she just had a baby last month, but her blog continually delights me. I haven't read any of the Hunger Games books because dystopian just isn't my thing, and I keep reading people like you and her that confirm me in that decision.

I haven't read TGOW, and I only saw the movie once, probably 25 years ago. I was no impressed. I do want to at least see the movie again, though, so I can speak intelligently about the story. However, I'm re-reading OMAM right now, and recently read Steinbeck's Tequila Flat, and nope, neither of them are uplifting, instructive, or even all that entertaining. I'm starting to really wonder why people are so nuts about him.

We've been reading thru the Little House books a little bit too -- my husband never read them! He's continually agog at the number of things both Charles and Caroline Ingalls had to know how to do in order to live so self-sufficiently, which is making me really notice that too. And you're right, their situation is at times no less bleak than what I know of TGOW, but their outlooks, attitudes, and actions are entirely superior.