I grew up in Steinbeck land and was forced to read all of his shorter works in middle school: The Pearl, The Red Pony, and a few longer works like Cannery Row and Sweet Thursday. I remember feeling sucked in an inescapable vortex of despair when I read his writing (really just compounding my maladjustment thanks to raging pre-teen hormones) and overall despising such morose indoctrination. For heavens sake, the red pony dies in the first few chapters, the strange boy spends the rest of the novel torturing small animals, and a dead baby is tossed into sea. These were my middle school takeaways and enough to deter me from further Steinbeck reading. That is, until The Grapes of Wrath.
I am teaching American Studies this year and felt like I have a teacherly duty to say something about Great Depression and this iconic work. So, I tentatively picked up The Grapes of Wrath for the first time and have been radically surprised by my new love affair. Steinbeck has created such rich, complex characters, superbly uses dialect, and manages to maintain a strong poetic essence throughout the narration. There is such a lovely sense of humanist spirituality and deep ecology. I can't help but be pulled into the story, to be enamored by the goodhearted decency of the Joad family, and to stand in allegiance with displaced migrant families gathered around their rusty cars on the side of route 66.
"Before I knowed it, I was sayin' out loud, 'The hell with it! There ain't no sin and there ain't no virtue. There's just stuff people do. It's all part of the same thing.'... I says, 'What's this call, this sperit?' An' I says, 'It's love. I love people so much I'm fit to bust, sometimes.'... I figgered, 'Why do we got to hang it on God or Jesus? Maybe,' I figgered, 'maybe it's all men an' all women we love; maybe that's the Holy Sperit-the human sperit-the whole shebang. Maybe all men got one big soul ever'body's a part of.' Now I sat there thinkin' it, an' all of a suddent-I knew it. I knew it so deep down that it was true, and I still know it."
"I ain't gonna preach...I
ain't gonna baptize. I'm gonna work i the fiel's, in
the green fiel's, an I'm gonna be near to
folks. I ain's gonna try to teach 'em nothin, I'm
gonna try to lear. Gonna learn why
walks in the grass, gonna hear 'em talk, gonna
hear 'em sing. Gonna listen to kids
mush. Gonna hear husban an wife a-poundin'the
mattress in the night. Gonna eat with 'em an
learn. Gonna lay in the grass, open an' honest with
anybody that'll have me. Gonna cuss an' swear
the peotry of folks talkin. All that's holy, all
that's what I didn understan. All them things is
the good things."
- John Steinbeck, The Grapes of Wrath