Grapes of Wrath turned 75 this year. I remembered seeing a blurb on NPR’s website announcing that their book club would be trying to read it before its 75th birthday on April 14, and I contemplated trying to keep pace well enough to meet that goal with them. Unfortunately, I was still wrapping up The Secret History and knew that Grapes of Wrath just wasn’t the sort of book I could get through while juggling another novel. If I was going to read it, I’d have to do it on my own.
I’m not sure, exactly, how it slipped through the cracks of my literary education, but it remained off reading lists in high school and through all of college and more or less off my radar of interest until very recently.
It’s part of the canon. It’s a Pulitzer prize winner. It’s penned by a Nobel laureate. If that can’t help push a book onto your “to read” list, nothing can.
I think what surprised me the most about Wrath was just how much I loved it. And I loved it. The alternating chapters foreshadowing the miseries to come for the Joad family, the way it simultaneously reminded you that you were reading just one story out of many as well the story of many.
The only other book to really speak to me on the same level when it comes to understanding this part of American history is the significantly less famous Waiting for Nothing by Tom Kromer. In a way, it’s the perfect companion piece to Grapes of Wrath. While Wrath takes you through the Dust Bowl and the California migration, Waiting for Nothing shows you the cities and the flop houses and the lonely men riding the rails with nowhere to go.
But back to Steinbeck.
His language feels both sparse and rich, simplistic and complicated, and maybe it’s those nuances that made it such a slow, but satisfying read. Unlike East of Eden, which seemed to emotionally gut-punch me with every turn, Wrath was a more physically enjoyable read as well. For some reason with East of Eden the themes of love and death just really wrecked me to the point that I think that book took me four months to read. I loved it deeply in the end, but still. It was rough. Grapes of Wrath wasn’t so unsettling, but at the same time I think I loved it more.
What resonated the most strongly with me were Steinbeck’s chapters discussing the way a bank is more than a man. I think in this post-recession, post-bank-bailout world it’d be hard for those chapters not to resonate.
“The bank is something more than men, I tell you. It’s the monster. Men made it, but they can’t control it.”
You can see it in that one quote. The staying power of Grapes of Wrath is strong. It’s getting to the heart of something and that something really, truly does feel deeply American to me. It’s hard for me to put exactly what that is into words, though.
This is what I can say:
It’s been 80-some years since the Dust Bowl and the Depression and 75 years since the first publication of Grapes of Wrath and the book exists as an echo reminding us not just of where we’ve been, but where we are.