Steinbeck and America

In a few weeks I will be leading a cultural tour of central California exploring the home country of one of America’s greatest writers, John Steinbeck.

John Steinbeck is not my favorite American writer. I rank Mark Twain above him, and Walt Whitman, and William Faulkner, and some others, including Henry David Thoreau, who gave us Walden, the anthem of a life of simplicity, focus, nature, and a rejection of raw materialism.

One of my closest friends regards Steinbeck’s East of Eden as the greatest American novel. I read it with an open mind, but I could not see its supreme greatness. I am re-reading it now and I like it better than the first time, but it will not soon displace Moby Dick, Huckleberry Finn, or Light in August, at least in my pantheon.

I do believe that The Grapes of Wrath is Steinbeck’s finest book. In fact, I believe that The Grapes of Wrath is one of the greatest books of American literature. It as a perfect storm of a book: a great subject, a writer at the top of his form, an epic canvas, and an epic journey of a family in search of the American Dream. When the Joads finally come up over Tehachapi Pass and look down into the lush Central Valley of California for the first time, Pa Joad says, “I never knowed they was anything like her.” That’s precisely how I felt the first time I saw California. After all of the damage we have done to it, it remains the American Shangri-La, a place of unbearable beauty and possibility and wealth and light and fertility and perfect climate.

The Depression and the Dust Bow—the worst man-made environmental disaster in American history—loosed hundreds of thousands of people from their rootedness in the Great Plains—the Okies—and lurched them in makeshift vehicles along Route 66 to California, the American Canaan. That story alone makes The Grapes of Wrath magnificent. The scenes in the roadside garages and cafes along Route 66 are some of the finest and most memorable in American fiction. Ma Joad is one of the greatest characters in American literature. We love her in all of her stout moods, but especially when she picks up a tire iron and makes it clear she is willing to knock her husband senseless rather than agree to see the Joad family split apart in its desperate search for food and shelter. Steinbeck’s anger over the treatment of migrant workers, which burbles up from sympathy to disgust and finally boils over into barely contained rage, makes The Grapes of Wrath one of the great protest novels, in the tradition of Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables or Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin. It’s a parable of the American Dream and its discontents. It’s demotic—Steinbeck records the actual language of common Americans in the heartland, and he makes no attempt to make the Joads heroes or saints. They are vulgar, often ignorant, profane, lusty, more interested in pickled pork and what Steinbeck calls side meat than in transcendental philosophy or the rhetoric of agrarian revolution.

This is going to sound a bit perverse. I do not personally think Steinbeck is a genius or even a great artist. But I think there is something deeply compelling about him in his finest work—Cannery Row, Of Mice and Men, Travels with Charley, and the Grapes of Wrath performs above the author’s weight class and somehow winds up being one of the greatest things ever written by an American. When I read the Grapes of Wrath it takes my breath away. It makes me ache for all that is right and all that is wrong in America. It makes me want to get my jalopy out on the open roads of the American West. It makes me want to visit California, still owned by the great landowners and the Associated Farmers and the Chambers of Commerce. It makes me want to be, in my own imperfect way, an agent of social justice.

I don’t know quite how to explain my political outlook at this point in my life. I grew up believing the greatness of America was our wide middle class. I’m realist enough to accept the fact that there are rich people in the United States, and I do get it that, as Jesus puts it, “the poor will always be with us.” That does not mean we accept poverty as inevitable and irreducible.

But I have watched in my short lifetime as the American rich have gotten much much much richer, and the poor continue to struggle to survive, and the middle class has shrunk dramatically and lost ground. I have watched as the CEOs of great corporations have rewarded themselves at astronomical figures, until the average American CEO now earns 224 times more than the average median worker of that same corporation. And I simply don’t believe it—that the CEO deserves to earn (on average) $13.4 million per year while most of his employees live paycheck to paycheck and wonder how they are going to send their children to college.

I openly and passionately resent that fewer than 1% of the American people now own 95% of the wealth of America. This is not acceptable. This is not right. This is not morally justifiable. And this is not sustainable. I’m no Tom Joad. I’m not going to lead the revolution. And we know from the Grapes of Wrath, that for all of Steinbeck’s revolutionary rhetoric and talk of the phalanx and his depiction of the growing wrath of the workers of America, the Joads are just looking for work, for a little wooden house with a white fence and a garden, and if they get that they will settle down to a quiet and indeed conservative existence just above the poverty line, and be grateful for that modest glimpse of the American Dream.

I believe in the dignity of labor. The day care provider, the nurse in a rural clinic, the welder in a body shop, a retail clerk, or the janitor at a community college—these individuals, born in the same hospitals as the most privileged Americans, swaddled in the same diapers, educated in the same basic curriculum, living under the same constitution, are doing essential work. I do not believe that the CEO of Starbucks or a broker on Wall Street is better than those people or deserves to live a life of magnificent entitlement and privilege. I do not believe a successful college football coach should earn $5.2 million, while the philosophy and econ professor’s urn $70,000 per annum. I understand the market, charging what the market will bear, and I believe in economic incentives for success, but I do not believe we as a people should blithely accept the obscene disparity in American expectation, not just between the rich and the very poor, but between the rich and everyone else.

I won’t say with Steinbeck that the anger is building and the grapes are gravid with revolutionary possibility. But I will quote another Nobel Prize winning American author, Bob Dylan. Unless things begin to change, and we find some minimal equity in the way we distribute the American Dream,

It's a hard, it's a hard
It's a hard, it's a hard
It's a hard rain's a-gonna fall

Give yourself the pleasure of reading the Grapes of Wrath. Better yet, come on our cultural tour of Steinbeck Country, March 2-8, 2019.