Sunday, November 30, 2008

The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck (with an introduction by Robert DeMott)

Like most people, I first read Steinbeck's "The Grapes of Wrath" in high school. It was one of four books that we read in a class called "20th Century Literature." For most of the class, it's very length and breadth made the reading of the book a daunting task. I was the geek in the corner who literally lapped the class, reading the entire book twice in the time that everyone else read it once.

Although this isn't my first time to re-read this classic, I was drawn to it this time by all of the correlations that are currently being made in the media between the Great Depression and today's financial crisis. First and foremost, "The Grapes of Wrath" is the quintessential dust bowl ballad of American literature. Steinbeck was able to capture the struggle of the migrant farm worker in 1930s America in a way that makes it not only accessible but also resonant to readers far removed from the events of the novel.

In this reading, which is either my third or fourth reading of the book, I can't remember for sure, I was struck more than ever by the power of the expositional or background chapters, which alternate with the narrative chapters on the plight of the Joad family. In his fascinating and informative introduction, Robert DeMott compares these chapters to jazz riffs, which is as appropriate a comparison as I can think of. The writing throughout the book is powerful and moving but, it is in these "interchapters," as Steinbeck called them, that the author really flexes his muscles as a writer.

I was also moved by the never ending resolve of the Joad family in the face of what amounts to a constant assault on their human dignity. There is an underlying goodness to most of the characters in the book that, while it may be old fashioned, is a powerful assessment of the ability of human beings to rise to an occasion or at least to band together in defeat.

"The Grapes of Wrath," is by no means a happy story and the ending is probably as far from the classic "happy ending" as could be imagined. It is, however, a story that is often moving and at times inspiring. If it's been awhile since you've read it, you should revisit this masterpiece of American literature. If you've never read it, then stop fooling around on the Internet, get yourself a copy of this book and read it.

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