Title: The Grapes of Wrath
Author: John Steinbeck
Rating: * *
The Grapes of Wrath is a landmark of American literature. A portrait of the conflict between the powerful and the powerless, of one man’s fierce reaction to injustice, and of one woman’s stoical strength, the novel captures the horrors of the Great Depression and probes into the very nature of equality and justice in America. Although it follows the movement of thousands of men and women and the transformation of an entire nation, The Grapes of Wrath is also the story of one Oklahoma family, the Joads, who are driven off their homestead and forced to travel west to the promised land of California. Out of their trials and their repeated collisions against the hard realities of an America divided into Haves and Have-Nots evolves a drama that is intensely human yet majestic in its scale and moral vision, elemental yet plainspoken, tragic but ultimately stirring in its human dignity.
First published in 1939, The Grapes of Wrath summed up its era in the way that Uncle Tom’s Cabin summed up the years of slavery before the Civil War. Sensitive to fascist and communist criticism, Steinbeck insisted that “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” be printed in its entirety in the first edition of the book—which takes its title from the first verse: “He is trampling out the vintage where the grapes of wrath are stored.” At once a naturalistic epic, captivity narrative, road novel, and transcendental gospel, Steinbeck’s fictional chronicle of the Dust Bowl migration of the 1930s is perhaps the most American of American Classics. (from Goodreads)
Thoughts: I read Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men in high school and really didn’t care for it, so I’ve always avoided The Grapes of Wrath out of fear that I would hate it. And yet, for some reason, I’ve always felt guilty about that as it seems that it’s one of those books that you simply must read. So, when I finally decided to read this book it wasn’t with a lot of enthusiasm but instead with a lot of foreboding that I opened its pages. I was convinced that I would hate it. As it turns out I was only half right (or half wrong).
The Grapes of Wrath concerns the Joad family from Oklahoma. When they lose their farm they pack up and head out West to California where they have heard that there is good work available. The novel traces their movements from home, their journey West, and the troubles they encounter on arriving in California.
First off, I must say that this is not a fast moving book. It takes them the first 100 pages to even leave the farm! Second, I confess that I am not a fan of the style of Steinbeck’s writing. It is very straightforward: this is what they said, this is what they did, and this is what happened next sort of thing. Which is fine but, for whatever reason, it didn’t endear itself to me here. The only insight we have into the characters’ thoughts is through their actions and words; there is no exploration of their thought processes of what they are feeling. In this case I really wanted more and I thought that the characters sometimes came off a bit wooden and one sided
The biggest issue that I had with the book is the way Steinbeck writes dialogue. In an attempt to capture the speech of the Joads, he writes their words as they would have pronounced them, i.e. ‘tar’d’ for ‘tired’ or ‘fam’bly’ for ‘family.’ This happens to be one of my major pet peeves; I believe that there are better ways to capture the flavor of a character’s speech- word choice, grammar, rhythm, the arrangement of words and sentences, their choice of expressions- that accomplish the same goal but do not make the reader’s job – reading – difficult. His way of writing dialogue not only slowed down my reading but it was frustrating to read as well, especially when his characters were making long speeches, I also noticed that he was inconsistent with this technique: he might have a character use ‘fam’bly’ or ‘tar’d’ when talking in one scene but in another have them say ‘family’ and ‘tired.’
For the fist 230 pages or so I actively hated this book and had decided that I would never read another book by Steinbeck again. After that things picked up a little bit but over all I was left with an impression of … meh. In all honesty I will most likely not go out of my to pick up another book by Steinbeck unless I am given a really good reason. We just don’t mesh that well. While I was reading I couldn’t help myself from wondering why this book is considered one of THE American classics. At the end of the book there was an afterward that clarified things for me: The Grapes of Wrath is not high literature or that well written; the book has attained the status that is holds today not for its literary merit but for the impact that it had on the American psyche the place that it claims in our cultural history. For that reason alone I am glad that I read it.