Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Quote of the Day (John Steinbeck, on Depression-Era Homeless)

"[Route] 66 is the path of a people in flight, refugees from dust and shrinking land, from the thunder of tractors and invasion, from the twisting winds that howl up out of Texas, from floods that bring no richness to the land and steal what little richness is there."— John Steinbeck, The Grapes of Wrath (1939)

John Steinbeck’s most famous work, The Grapes of Wrath, was published on this date 70 years ago today. That novel forms the bedrock of his reputation, winning him the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award. The product of a reporting assignment for The San Francisco News, it teems—with incident, reporting, symbolism, mythology, compassion, and an outraged demand for justice for the Dust Bowl refugees who flocked to California by the thousands in the 1930s, only to find want and exploitation in that seeming Eden, too.

Our current economic crisis does not, at least at present, come close to an era when one-quarter of the population was unemployed and President Franklin Roosevelt could declare, without exaggeration, at his second inaugural address that he saw “one-third of a nation ill-housed, ill-clad, ill-nourished.”

But, like the subprime situation, the dispossession of “the Okies” resulted from more than one cause. As Jay Parini’s John Steinbeck: A Biography noted, draught had combined with land speculation, faulty agricultural practices, and the drift toward agribusiness. There already had been Hispanic- and Asian-American migrant farmers whose plight had been ignored, but the influx of white settlers from the middle of the country pushed the system past the breaking point (and finally led to some much-needed media attention), resulting in unsanitary migrant camps and further massive exploitation of workers at starvation wages.

The uneven quality of his novels from the 1940s through his death in 1968 led many critics to denigrate Steinbeck’s work (and the situation wasn’t helped by high school English departments that assigned what in my opinion is one of his lesser efforts, The Pearl, simply because of its relative ease of reading). For a long time, it seemed that the era he chronicled was impossibly far from us—and even harder for us to comprehend.

At the moment, however, we might have a better sense of the desperate times that The Grapes of Wrath depicted with such verisimilitude.

The question now becomes who will try to depict the plight of the common man now as Steinbeck did. There’s a real problem here, stemming at least partly from the fact that writers as a group these days no longer share the socioeconomic background of the working class, as Steinbeck –who dug ditches and washes dished while attending college—did.

(Oddly enough, it might take a rock ‘n’ roller—Bruce Springsteen, in the song “Seeds” and, even more explicitly, the CD The Ghost of Tom Joad—who might have the closest sensibility to Steinbeck’s.)

But there’s a bigger issue, too—the American writer’s lack of engagement with the teeming, squalling society of 21st century America. Earlier this decade, Tom Wolfe famously tagged fellow literary lions Norman Mailer, John Irving, and John Updike “The Three Stooges” for “not engaging the life around them.”

The literary model and style hailed by Wolfe—realism—was practiced by Sinclair Lewis, Zola, Balzac, and Steinbeck’s contemporary, James T. Farrell (Studs Lonigan). That mode is one with which Steinbeck would have been comfortable, too.

Wolfe’s novel A Man in Full was not the cause celebre that his earlier Bonfire of the Vanities was, but to me it accomplished something that I don’t recall other fiction doing over the last couple of decades: connect the high-flying, entrepreneurial ethic of the Reagan Era to the lopsided odds facing the common man who struggles to live a decent life. Wolfe might be a cultural conservative, but I think he has much in common with Steinbeck in terms of scorn for plutocrats who’ve lost their moral compasses.

Finishing The Grapes of Wrath will prepare you for the chilling relevance of this quote from one of his last books, Travels With Charley (1962): “If I wanted to destroy a nation, I would give it too much and I would have it on its knees, miserable, greedy, and sick.”

Steinbeck was talking about what he saw as the materialism rampant in Eisenhower’s America, but he might just as well as have been discussing this country in the nearly 30 years from the inauguration of Reagan to the collapse of the bull market last year.

1 comment:

Jeffery said...

Well maybe we will get a great writer out of the economic depression and gloat like Steinbeck this nest time around. Anyway authors need to be able to stir things up. Steinbeck had people who wanted to kill him and who were banning his book. Thomas Wolf was ragged on by the literary giants of our day. We need better authors like Wolfe and Steinbeck