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Grapes of Wrath (Penguin Modern Classics)

The Grapes of Wrath - John Steinbeck, Robert DeMott The Grapes of Wrath was originally published on March 14th, 1939. Steinbeck's first wife Carol typed out the 200,000 word manuscript, and also came up with the title. It went on to become the best-selling book in America that year, and won a Pulitzer Prize in 1940. Steinbeck was also awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1962. Although when asked if he felt he deserved it, his reply was: "Frankly, no." A reviewer in The New Yorker said that The Grapes of Wrath "dramatizes [...] the terrible facts of a wholesale injustice committed by society. " The book's origin lies in a series of articles Steinbeck wrote in October 1936 for the San Francisco News, about the plight of migrant workers in California (known derogatively as 'Okies' as many of them hailed from Oklahoma). They were fleeing the 'Dust Bowl' - a large area of the American mid-west blighted by dust-storms resulting from the drought years of 1934-1938. Steinbeck travelled with them, and visited the squatter camps they lived in, so he knew whereof he wrote. The articles were later published in a pamphlet called 'Their Blood Is Strong'. It is a powerful first-hand description of a system gone bad... " ...owners found that one man with a tractor could do the work of ten sharecropper families. Faced with the question of starving or moving, these dispossessed families came west. To a certain extent they were actuated by advertisements and handbills distributed by labor contractors from California. It is to the advantage of the corporate farmer to have too much labor, for then wages can be cut. The people who are hungry will fight each other for a job rather than the employer for a living wage. " Welcome to the machine. Steinbeck then developed the points he made in these articles the best way he knew how - by writing a novel. This novel. And in this novel he focuses on the struggle for survival of one ordinary sharecropper family - the Joads. Young Tom Joad has just been released from prison, paroled four years into a seven year sentence for killing a man in a drunken fight. On the way home he hitches a ride with a truck driver, picks up a turtle (don't ask), and bumps into the preacher who baptized him. His name is Jim Casy. Check the initials. They travel on together to the Joad family's home, but find it deserted. The Joads have been evicted, and are staying with a relative. There seems to be nothing for them in Oklahoma any more, so they plan to go west and try their hands at fruit-picking. They load up all their remaining possessions (the ones they haven't sold to raise money) on to a truck and hit the road. And so Tom, his Ma and Pa; Grampa and Granma; siblings Noah, Al, Winfield, Ruthie and Rose of Sharon (who is pregnant) plus her husband Connie, and Jim Casy all set off along Highway 66 towards the promised land: California. But the only kicks they get on route 66 are the nasty kind; and there's no friendly welcome waiting for them at the other end. They, and thousands like them, face hardship, starvation and death. The struggle for life, that's what this novel is about. That's what the chapter about the turtle is about. (Chapter three it is - read that even if you don't read the whole book.) In the early stages of the novel Steinbeck punctuates the tale of the Joad family with short chapters directly based on those newspaper articles. The following is the first of two quotations from those mezzanine chapters, for the length of which I do not apologize... " And the migrants streamed in on the highways and their hunger was in their eyes, and their need was in their eyes. They had no argument, no system, nothing but their numbers and their needs. When there was work for a man, ten men fought for it - fought with a low wage. If that fella'll work for thirty cents, I'll work for twenty-five. If he'll take twenty-five, I'll do it for twenty. No me, I'm hungry. I'll work for fifteen. I'll work for food. The kids. You ought to see them. Little boils, like, comin' out, an' they can't run aroun'. Give 'em some windfall fruit, an' they bloated up. Me, I'll work for a little piece of meat. And this was good, for wages went down and prices stayed up. The great owners were glad and they sent out more handbills to bring more people in. And wages went down and prices stayed up. And pretty soon now we'll have serfs again. And now the great owners and the companies invented a new method. A great owner bought a cannery. And when the peaches and the pears were ripe he cut the price of fruit below the cost of raising it. And as cannery owner he paid himself a low price for the fruit and kept the price of canned goods up and took his profit. And the little farmers who owned no canneries lost their farms, and they were taken by the great owners, the banks, and the companies who also owned the canneries. As time went on, there were fewer farms. The little farmers moved into town for a while and exhausted their credit, exhausted their friends, their relatives. And then they too went on the highways. And the roads were crowded with men ravenous for work, murderous for work. And the companies, the banks worked at their own doom and they did not know it. The fields were fruitful, and starving men moved on the roads. The granaries were full and the children of the poor grew up rachitic, and the pustules of pellagra swelled on their sides. The great companies did not know that the line between hunger and anger is a thin line. And money that might have gone to wages went for gas, for guns, for agents and spies, for blacklists, for drilling. On the highways the people moved like ants and searched for work, for food. And the anger began to ferment. "Wrath is in the title of the book for a very good reason. It is an ANGRY book. Angry about the inhuman treatment of people, real people - with families - who are considered less important than numbers on a balance sheet and left to starve because employing them doesn't make 'economic sense'. " ...in the night one family camps in a ditch and another family pulls in and the tents come out. The two men squat on their hams and the women and children listen. Here is the node, you who hate change and fear revolution. Keep these two squatting men apart; make them hate, fear, suspect each other. Here is the anlage of the thing you fear. This is the zygote. For here ` 'I lost my land' is changed; a cell is split and from its splitting grows the thing you hate - 'We lost *our* land.' The danger is here, for two men are not as lonely and perplexed as one. And from this first 'we' there grows a still more dangerous thing: 'I have a little food' plus 'I have none'. If from this problem the sum is 'We have a little food', the thing is on its way, the movement has direction. Only a little multiplication now, and this land, this tractor are ours. The two men squatting in a ditch, the little fire, the side-meat stewing in a single pot, the silent, stone-eyed women; behind, the children listening with their souls to words their minds do not understand. The night draws down. The baby has a cold. Here, take this blanket. It's wool. It was my mother's blanket - take it for the baby. This is the thing to bomb. This is the beginning - from 'I' to 'we'. If you who own the things people must have could understand this, you might preserve yourself. If you could separate causes from results, if you could know that Paine, Marx, Jefferson, Lenin were results not causes, you might survive. But that you cannot know. For the quality of owning freezes you for ever into 'I', and cuts you off for ever from the 'we'. "When I first read this book, I found it hard to believe that such a socialist book could have been written by an American. Steinbeck, like Dickens, was not just a wonderful novelist, but also an incisive social commentator. Writers can prick the conscience of a nation, change attitudes and sometimes even the national psyche. Although if Steinbeck were alive today he would be angered by the way that poor people are still being treated as peons by the likes of Sel-More, Crap, McBurgers & co. To deny people a living wage is to treat them worse than animals. In the epilogue to "Their Blood Is Strong" Steinbeck said: "If you buy a farm horse and feed him only when you work him, the horse will die. No-one complains at the necessity of feeding the horse when he is not working. But we complain about feeding the men and women who work our lands." Thanks for reading - sorry if this review was a bit too long and political for you. As the author himself said after completing The Grapes of Wrath: "Got her done. And I'm afraid she's a little dull." And it's true - some people may find this book dull. But I feel sorry for them - this is an immensely powerful and authentic depiction of a social tragedy. Is The Grapes of Wrath one of the greatest books ever written? My answer: Frankly, yes. NB This review was adapted from one I posted on dooyoo.co.uk to commemorate what would have been John Steinbeck's 100th birthday: February 27th, 2002.