The Godfather: Peter Corris on The Grapes of Wrath
I’ve written before about how audio books have enabled me to enjoy works I found too ponderous when I tried in recent years to re-read them – books by Hardy, Trollope, Galsworthy and others. So far, two authors regarded as classic have defeated me – Melville and Dickens. I tried Moby Dick and A Tale of Two Cities and gave up. Despite the expert readings, the philosophical and moralistic meanderings away from the narrative bored me.
But, determined to pursue this course of what I consider to be self-improvement, I embarked on John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath (1939). I’d never read it. I knew what it was about, as anyone acquainted with American literature must, but I’d always skirted around it. I’d read and admired other Steinbeck books – Cannery Row (1945), Of Mice and Men (1937), East of Eden (1952), The Winter of Our Discontent (1961) – but had avoided the major work, probably because I found Steinbeck to be, though masterly, depressing and I feared that The Grapes of Wrath would be the ultimate downer. I hadn’t seen the film either because I was no admirer of Henry Fonda, whom I’d always felt was wooden.
Another reason for tackling the book was that it promised a week of reading if I could stick with it. Good diversion and good value.
I was rewarded. The Grapes of Wrath is one of the most powerfully moving American books I’ve encountered; up there with Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mocking Bird (1960) and Ken Kesey’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1962).
In this novel the Joad family is forced off its hard-scrabble share-cropping farm and they move, three generations of them, from Oklahoma to California in an old Dodge car, virtually off the scrap heap and converted to a truck. The trials they encounter are heartbreaking. They are so poor that to part with 50 cents is a matter for serious consideration. They are ignorant beyond belief, knowing nothing beyond their immediate circumstances; they regard domestic violence as natural and embrace primitive religious practices like hysterical leaping and talking in tongues. Their only resources are the family bond and an indomitable spirit.
Chapters describing their pain-filled journey are interspersed with thematic accounts of the conditions in Depression-era rural America. Hard though the Joads’ journey west is, accompanied by sickness, death and desertion, there are moments of kindness and comfort that prevent the book from being solely a catalogue of woes. Though there are woes aplenty when they reach California – antagonistic locals, police and ‘Red’-hating strike breakers, exploitative employers, low wages, high prices and bad weather. The capitalism-inspired bleakness plays out to the end.
If the actual denouement is sentimental and unlikely, that isn’t uncommon in American literature. The Grapes of Wrath is a powerful indictment of a system that in some ways persists today, but this never overwhelms the compelling human story.
I might change my mind and watch the film if it comes my way, but I strongly suspect that, Hollywood being what it was, sentimentality will dominate over the raw anger that energises the book.