Sunday, May 23, 2010

Reading Steinbeck

Further Thoughts on The Grapes of Wrath

As thinkers, mankind has ever divided into two sects, Materialists and Idealists; the first class beginning to think from the data of the senses, the second class perceive that the senses are not final, and say, The senses give us representations of things, but what are the things themselves, they cannot tell.

- Ralph Waldo Emerson, The Transcendentalist

When I first read The Grapes of Wrath, many years ago, I basically read it for plot, and since Steinbeck is a good story-teller there is a good plot line to follow; but upon rereading I find that, like all great novels, there is much more to the book - many more levels of meaning. Steinbeck said as much in his letters:

I know that books lead to a strong deep climax. This one doesn't except by implication and the reader must bring the implication to it. If he doesn't, it wasn't a book for yim to read. Throughout I've tried to make the reader participate in the actuality, what he takes from it wil be scaled entirely on his own depth of shallowness. There are five layers in this book, a reader will find as many as he can and he won't find more than he has in himself. (Steinbeck, A Life in Letters, January 16, 1939: pp. 178-79)
My own rereading finds me wondering at the many levels of meaning and essence of the novel. What started as an examination of The Grapes of Wrath as an example of some aspects of capitalism expanded into other areas of artistic expression of philosophic ideas. The characters themselves represent ideas as their lives and actions intertwine with the journey of the Joad family. I found the former preacher Jim Casy seemed to embody the Transcendentalism of Emerson (and a touch of Whitman) when he rhapsodized on his new life:

I ain't gonna preach. . . I ain't gonna baptize. I'm gonna work in the fiel's, in the green fiel's, an' I'm gonna be near to folks. . . Gonna lay in the grass, opn an' honest with anybody that'll have me. Gonna cuss an' swear an' hear the poetry of folks talkin'. All that's holy, all that's what I didn' understan'. All them things is the good things." (p 94)

While the strongest character, Ma Joad, continually defends the family from outsiders and from themselves,  embodies many virtues, perhaps the greatest being her integrity. Living true to the truths of her family she draws on inner strength to see them through their journey, even when some do not make it all the way to California. Her desire to protect her rebellious son, Tom, creates a sense of danger, but she always maintains a focus on protecting the family from the danger in this relationship. With the other members of the family we see a group of characters that adhere to each other, relying on each others' strengths, providing a paradigm of a community whose members are bound by a strong sense of common purpose. This is an example of collective action, but the family is not always alone in this world. In spite of the malevolence of nature they face from the opening pages of the novel, there are instances of help from strangers, whether an anonymous trucker or the friendly store clerk at the campground, who defy their own insecurities and fears to bond in surreptitious friendship with the Joads.

There are more levels of meaning to explore, including the importance of Nature, seen beginning on the first page of the opening chapter; symbolism and metaphor, as when the "monsters" and "decay" come and the "wonder" goes out of both life and work; and American philosophy, an idealism that is demonstrated in the individualism of Jim Casy when he says,

I know this -- a man got to do what he got to do. I can't tell you. I don't think they's luck or bad luck. On'y one thing in this worl' I'm sure of, an' that's I'm sure nobody got a right to mess with a fella's life. He got to do it all hisself. Help him, maybe, but not tell him what to do.(p 224)

Beyond the exploration of these levels is the transcendence of a great work of art that promises more riches in the next reading, and in doing so pleads with the reader to return again soon.

The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck. Penguin Books, New York. 2002 (1939).
The Selected Writings of Ralph Waldo Emerson. Brooks Atkinson, ed. Modern Library, New York. 1968.

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