Skip to main content
book review

Steinbeck wrote his timeless novel in a hundred days.

Reading John Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath as a teenager, I didn't really understand the red earth.

Where I grew up in rural, agricultural B.C., the earth was brown, heavy, rich from the occasional flooding of the Fraser River. My main frame of reference for "red earth" was Mars, as depicted in comic books and science-fiction pulps. I knew, rationally, that such a thing existed, but it didn't seem real to me.

And in a novel so rich in imagery, I suspect I took the term at a metaphorical level: red earth, blood-stained, wounded, dying.

It wasn't until I visited Oklahoma City last month that I saw red earth for the first time, and everything about The Grapes of Wrath seemed to click into a different arrangement in my mind.

And standing on the front porch of the Indian Trading Post, a stone's throw from Route 66 – "the path of a people in flight, refugees from dust and shrinking land," – the wind playing through the brown scrub grass, turning the hydro windmills in the distance, it was easy – too easy – to see all of it happening, to recognize, finally, the world behind the words.

"To the red country and part of the grey country of Oklahoma, the last rains came gently, and they did not cut the scarred earth."

Following a series of articles chronicling life in the migrant camps and fields of central California during the Great Depression and an aborted attempt at a satirical novel concerned with the same material (L'Affaire Lettuceberg, which it remains unclear whether Steinbeck abandoned or destroyed), Steinbeck wrote what would become The Grapes of Wrath in a deliberately scheduled hundred-day burst in mid-1938; the novel was first published 75 years ago this month, and has just been reissued in a new Penguin edition.

It is one of those rarest of books: still contemporary, still vital after all of those years, still important.

Nay, critical.

It was an immediate sensation, adored and reviled by turns. It sold over 400,000 copies in its first year, and was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in 1940 (the novel was also singled out for recognition when Steinbeck was awarded the Nobel in 1962). A cornerstone of 20th-century American literature, it remains widely studied and read, a perennial seller. It is also perennially challenged, with conservative forces seeking to have it removed from libraries and curricula owing, largely, to what is referred to, perhaps over-coyly, as its "obscenity." This continued opposition is a pale shadow of the rancour and violence which greeted the novel's original publication, with Steinbeck being threatened, and referred to as a communist. Damning stuff in 1939.

Rereading the novel today, one is forced to consider the contradictions – not unlike those of its original reception – which characterize The Grapes of Wrath itself, and to recognize that it succeeds not in spite of these issues, but precisely because of them.

The Grapes of Wrath is never simply one thing; this is its greatest weakness, and its greatest strength. It is at once polemical and realistic, intimate and detached, naturalistic and self-consciously literary, mired in its time and utterly timeless. It shouldn't, by rights, work, at all.

And yet it does.

Seventy-five years on, there's no need to summarize the movement of the novel. Forced off their share of Oklahoma land, the journey of the Joad family to California, drawn by the promise of jobs and a life, is firmly ingrained in the popular consciousness. The tragedy of what they find in what they hoped would be their promised land is as American a tale as the opening of the West decades earlier.

Interweaving third-person chapters with the narrative of the Joads' journey, Steinbeck creates a counterpoint, page by page: intimate modernist realism juxtaposed against detached vignettes (car salesmen cheating the migrant families, a waitress in a roadside restaurant watching the Okies pass, etc.) and raging, detached overviews (Chapter 25, which ends with "In the souls of the people the grapes of wrath are filling and growing heavy, growing heavy for the vintage" is rage-inducing and chilling simultaneously). The tension between these chapters and the Joads' story is the fuel that drives the narrative, building the tension, raising the stakes. The reader knows the bitterness which awaits the family before the Joads do, and the non-narrative chapters take on the tone of prophecy, an Old Testament fury coiled and building.

But "Old Testament" isn't quite the right term for a novel that eschews traditional Christianity. Often seen as a Christ-figure, lapsed-preacher Jim Casy makes the case – often – that religious faith offers little more than hypocrisy and conflict. The Grapes of Wrath, despite its deep morality and its righteous fervour, is far from a religious text.

It is, however, a deeply spiritual book, and it is from this root that the power and longevity of The Grapes of Wrath grow.

Grounded in a ferocious sense of right, the polemical material takes on that prophetic tone, and in so doing, resets the boundaries of the novel itself. Steinbeck's deep immersion in the reality of the migrants' life opens the novel up to the universal. Steinbeck strives, as William Blake wrote in Auguries of Innocence, "To see a World in a Grain of Sand...And Eternity in an hour." The novel, rooted in the red earth of the topical, takes on the stature of myth, especially in its closing page, with its flood and that transcendent gesture of Rose of Sharon, whose child was stillborn, offering her breast to a dying stranger.

It is in moments like these that The Grapes of Wrath becomes a holy book, touched with grace. Nowhere is this more clear, however, than in what is likely the novel's most familiar moment: Tom Joad's speech.

Having already served a prison sentence for homicide, the eldest Joad son spends the novel actively avoiding trouble, keeping his temper in check even when provoked. When he witnesses the murder of Jim Casy, though, Joad lashes out, and is forced to flee, to leave the family. Upon his departure, he tells his mother, "I'll be all around in the dark – I'll be ever'where – wherever you look. Wherever they's a fight so hungry people can eat, I'll be there. Wherever they's a cop beatin' up a guy, I'll be there… I'll be in the way guys yell when they're mad an' – I'll be in the way kids laugh when they're hungry and they know supper's ready. An' when our folk eat the stuff they raise an' live in the houses they build – why, I'll be there."

It's Tom Joad that draws the novel into the wider world. While I feel echoes of the Joad family's struggles in the novels of Rohinton Mistry and Rawi Hage, and in the grace and power of David Adams Richards's Mercy Among the Children, it is Tom Joad that haunts me.

It's not just a matter of the influence of the character. Yes, Woody Guthrie and Bruce Springsteen both wrote songs around the character, but it goes beyond any work of art.

As he promised, Tom Joad is there.

He's there when Wal- Mart employees in the United States aren't paid enough to eat, and have to turn to public assistance. He's there when millionaire politicians and prosperous corporations oppose the raising of the minimum wage to something someone could actually live on. He's there when the banks force people off their land, whether from agricultural consolidation or subprime mortgages. He's there as desperate migrants brave the Rio Grande in search of their promised land, and as politicians threaten to build a border fence, and people – in fear for their own jobs – take up arms against the "other."

And I saw him, on a breezy late winter morning, in the placid reflecting pond on the site of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City, where 168 people died in what was the largest domestic terror attack in the United States. The citizens of Oklahoma chose to respond to that act of unspeakable violence with an offering of, in the words of the memorial's dedication, "comfort, strength, peace, hope and serenity."

As Joad said, quoting Jim Casy, "For if they fall, the one will lif' up his fellow."

For 75 years, Tom Joad has walked the roadways of America, a ghostly presence, a shadow.

A conscience.

Over the 450 pages of The Grapes of Wrath, John Steinbeck stripped away the legends of America, the lie of a promised land, and gave, in return, a mythic rebirth, a sense of the holy, and a conscience to guide, and to haunt.

Not bad, for one hundred days.

Robert J. Wiersema's new novel, Black Feathers, will be published next year.