John H. Timmerman is professor of English at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Michigan.
This article appeared in the Christian Century, April 5, 1989 p. 341. Copyright by the Christian Century Foundation and used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at www.christiancentury.org. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.
John Steinbeck’s classic novel, while important as a social document that vivifies the despair of the early 1930s, is also significant for its spiritual affirmations.
In celebration of this anniversary the Steinbeck Research Center of San Jose State University will sponsor a conference exploring the novel from every conceivable angle -- sociological, political, historical and literary. The University of Alabama’s prestigious Literary Symposia series will this year focus on "The Steinbeck Question." Dozens of other enterprises have developed, including several new scholarly treatises. Scores of classrooms will turn their attention to the novel.
Such attention to one of America’s literary masterpieces is gratifying, but it tends to mask the agony and the ecstasy of the novel. When one walks into an art museum and first glimpses a masterpiece, the experience can be breathtaking. When that same painting is broken down into photocopied details for closer analysis, something of the rapture also breaks down.
Such attention is also warranted. Steinbeck said the novel had "five layers" of meaning, and he may have underestimated. But it is good to recapture the story of the novel as well as the story in the novel.
The seeds of the novel were sown some time before the writing of it. One myth has it that Steinbeck joined the migrants on their long trek from Oklahoma City to Bakersfield. He did not. Returning from a trip to Europe in September 1937, Steinbeck and his wife, Carol, bought a car in Chicago and headed south to pick up Route 66 to California. He traveled enough of the route to provide geographical details, but the firsthand experience with the migrants occurred in the fields of California.
The San Francisco News had assigned Steinbeck to do a series of articles on the migrants of California. The migrants’ situation had rapidly gone from bad to abysmal. By the hundreds of thousands they arrived in California, driven from the midwestern states by drought and sandstorms that turned the region into a blinding haze of dust. Impoverished and desperate, they looked for homes and a future in the green valleys. But where would they all live? California’s 8,000 public and private camps, for which the state provided only three full-time inspectors, couldn’t begin to hold them. The migrants pitched tents in fields, in "jungles" by dirty rivers, even on piles of manure to get warmth from the decaying offal. Strikes and violence became commonplace as wages dropped throughout the 1930s. Landowners advertised widely for pickers of fruit or cotton. When 5,000 arrived, they employed 500 at reduced wages and hired guards to keep out the rest.
Native Californians, many of whom had migrated during the earlier gold rush years or had wrested the rich land from Mexicans and Indians, were bewildered and angry. The great migration started in 1925 when cotton pickers were needed in California and handbills promising good wages and good homes were circulated in the dust-bowl states. In. ten years the population of Madera County doubled. In Kern County, fully a quarter of the population was on relief. The budget for the Kern County Hospital soared from $100,000 to $1 million in a decade, with the costs borne by taxpayers.
While writing Steinbeck kept a daily journal of his work, plotting sections and developments carefully. The journal, which also records Steinbeck’s fears and uncertainties about his massive undertaking, contains a tense drama of its own. The novel’s subject was of epic proportions, and the story nearly possessed the author. Steinbeck faced disconsolate moments when his best craft seemed unable to capture the raw truth of the human emotions. Then came moments of ecstasy when he felt that he had expressed precisely what he wanted and the migrants needed. By the time he arrived at that memorable closing scene in which Rose of Sharon, who bears one of the names of Jesus, acts in the humility and love of her namesake (having lost her baby, she suckles an old man dying of malnutrition) , Steinbeck was physically at the point of collapse. His nerves, he said, were ready to flare out in a white heat. When he finished he collapsed, and did not write again for nearly a year.
Upon publication, The Grapes of Wrath attracted immediate attention and stirred tremendous controversy. It soared to the top of the best-seller lists, where it remained for over a year, and it won the Pulitzer Prize in 1940. Its impact upon American affairs was intense. Fierce political backlash broke out on two fronts. California landowners fought desperately to discredit the novel, branding Steinbeck as a communist troublemaker. However unjustified, the label stuck for years. In Oklahoma, political powers organized to censor and ban the novel for allegedly presenting a derogatory view of the migrants.
Also, many people reacted sharply against Steinbeck’s faithfully realistic rendering of the migrants’ language. The novel has been and still is routinely censored as profane. Oklahoma Congressmen Lyle Boren went on record in 1940 with this comment: "Take the vulgarity out of this book and it would be a blank from cover to cover.
The fact is, the migrants were often a profane people. Referring to another of his novels, Steinbeck commented that he couldn’t portray such characters talking like college professors. He aimed for authenticity. The truth of the migrants’ plight, he believed, had to be told, and in the power of their own words.
None of these charges, however, can diminish the novel’s strength, nor Steinbeck’s deep sympathy with a people in terrible need. Why does it move readers today, far removed from the hounding anguish of the Depression, the cruel experience of the dust bowl and the struggle to put a plate of food before a starving family? Perhaps because these conditions, in varying forms, still exist today. Now, too, people wander homeless and helpless in the heart of the promised land. Human need is always with us, and we do well to be mindful of that need. But there are other answers as well.
The novel gives rich testatment to a spiritual idea of humanity. In struggling heroically to hold her own family together, Ma Joad nonetheless possesses a vision of the family of all humanity. This idea has not lost an iota of spiritual urgency in our "me-first" age. If the poor are always with us, we are obligated to see them as extensions of ourselves. This is no less a radical and daring concept today than it was in 1939. And no less important.
The novel also establishes a spiritual hope which, while it transcends human hopelessness, is manifested through humans. Rose of Sharon is one of the great heroines of literature. She changes from a naive little girl whose passion for herself is all-consuming to a woman who can lay down her life and set aside her own need to minister to others. While demonstrating the urgent need for humanity, the novel provides a stirring spiritual response to that need. No wonder the book has made so many so uneasy.
The significance of The Grapes of Wrath endures also because of its literary achievement. For hundreds of pages the reader is spellbound by a story woven with intricate craftsmanship out of the rich fabric of biblical symbolism and the flowing rhythms and patterns of the intercalary chapters. That it was written in so short a time is a wonder.
The Grapes of Wrath earned Steinbeck a Nobel Prize more than 20 years after it appeared. Its greatest commendation, however, lies in the fact that it is still read today. This disquieting drama of a dispossessed people who in 1938 packed their lives aboard dilapidated trucks in search of the promised land is very much a story of America, a story of each of us, which we are constantly rediscovering.