Monday, March 20, 2017

Steinbeck and Emerson

The Grapes of Wrath

by John Steinbeck

"Lookie , Ma. I been all day an' all night hidin' alone.  Guess who I been thinkin' about? Casy! He talked a lot. Used ta bother me. But now I been thinkin' what he said, an' I can remember---all of it.  Says one time he went out in the wilderness to find his own soul, an' he foun' he didn' have no soul that was his'n.  Says he foun' he jus' got a little piece of a great big soul.  Says a wilderness ain't no good, 'cause his little piece of a great big soul wasn't no good 'less it was with the rest, an' was whole.  Funny how I remember.  Didn' think I was even listenin'.  But I know now a fella ain't no good alone." (p 418)

The Transcendental concept of the Oversoul is expressed in the earthy folk language of Tom Joad and Jim Casy as the belief that all human's souls are really just part of one big soul. Ralph Waldo Emerson, the most well known proponent of transcendentalism, defined the Oversoul as the universal mind or spirit that animates, motivates, and is the unifying principle of all living things. In The Grapes of Wrath Casy makes numerous references to this one large soul that connects all in holiness, and they dovetail nicely with the basic idea of strength in group unity. 
Somewhat conversely, American transcendentalism also recognized individualism, a faith in common people and their self-reliance. This concept of the survival of the human life force is symbolized by the survival of the land turtle and Ma's comment, "We're the people — we go on." This combination of rugged individualism and an embracing of all men as part of the same Great Being is physically expressed in the education and re-birth of Tom Joad: His strongly individual nature gives him the strength to fight for the social welfare of all humanity.

The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck. Penguin Books, 1967 (1939).
Essays: First and Second Series by Ralph Waldo Emerson. Vintage, 1990 (1876)


Brian Joseph said...

It has been a long time since I read Steinbeck. I have Emerson more recently. This is a fascinating connection of ideas. I need to read The Grapes of Wrath again.

James said...

Thanks for your observation. I find Steinbeck both challenging and inspiring in ways unlike few other authors.