Well that was devastating. An absolute shot to the gut. But then, what an incredible novel.
I'm talking, of course, about Grapes of Wrath, a novel I'd avoided for years, thinking it somehow reserved for high school curricula. Let me be the first to admit: I was wrong. With Gatsby, this is the finest American novel I can remember reading. I was blown away.
Much, I'm sure, has been written about Steinbeck's masterpiece, and I'm confident my observations will have been echoed elsewhere. Still, I wanted to offer a few notes in appreciation of what Steinbeck's accomplished.
First, I love the way he constructs his narrative: chapters chronicling the Joad family are interspersed with those providing a history (a sort of lyrical history) of the Dust Bowl and Depression. For me, these chapters functioned as a river, an ocean: here is American history from a thousand feet. We see the curves of the water, the changes in its direction and current -- but not the individual drops comprising it. What we get with the Joad chapters is precisely that: the tips of the waves, the drops in the ocean: one family's struggle to float. The interconnectedness of these chapters was seamless, flawless, organic.
Second, it struck me that Grapes of Wrath is a book preoccupied with commerce. For all that it has to say about America and the American spirit, about migration and demographics, this is a novel focused on modes of exchange, and on the power of capitalism to corrupt and destroy. Almost every chapter explores this theme. I found this very powerful -- and very timely.
Third, Steinbeck was a master stylist, and his narration - as with Fitzgerald in Gatsby - perfectly mirrors his content. This is to say: there's almost no division between narrative and story, no space between the scaffolding and what it protects. The correlation here between language and content is striking, and is reinforced by Steinbeck's sensitivity to dialect. The Joad family speaks in the novel as they would have on their trail west: this is as real, I think, as a novel gets.
Finally, two last items: it's clear that Steinbeck had much to say about gender roles, and about the role of women, especially. As the novel progresses, the Joad men fade away, depleted by their struggle, anguished by their disappointed and dislocation. Women emerge as central to the story, vital to their family and their quest for sustenance. The final scene of the book, of a woman feeding a man, embodies this powerful dynamic.
Most of all, though, Grapes of Wrath struck me as a tragedy, as an unrelenting view of heartache. The Joad family escapes the dust only to be overwhelmed by the water. They leave their home and end up with nothing but a raggedy truck. By the end, they have nothing except each other. We feel their pain and wish we'd done better: we wish we as a nation had done better.