Saturday, March 03, 2012

Book #1: The Grapes of Wrath

I'll be the first to admit that I thought this book was about grapes, if not literally, than in some indirect form. That the title has much of a relation to the novel as the name of this blog has to its contents was irrelevant and, after learning of the origin upon finishing the book, probably gave it some extra points in my heart. The Grapes of Wrath, for those who are as ignorant of twentieth-century literature as myself, is set in Depression-era America, tracking an Oklahoma family as they are forced off their land and drive across the country to California to search for work.

I learned a lot about America from reading this book, much as most of what I've learned about America comes not from the major cultural exports of America, but from what's in between them: the low-budget commercials that I saw on the nearest FOX and NBC affiliates to Ontario (WUTV-FOX and WRGZ-NBC). At some point before, say, World War II, I feel as though it was possible to talk about a distinct American culture and know what you were talking about, before even Korea had an ROTC, public prosecutors and multiple Starbucks on every corner. Then again, the Americanisms in this book are the ones we recognize easily even today, particularly in the manner of speaking and the love affair with the car.

Grapes of Wrath has a lot of sentence fragments that often seem overly dramatic and seem to have inspired countless teenagers to write drivel in the same style, but I liked them for the most part in the book for brevity. Often Steinbeck did wax philosophical in these short sentence fragments, but at least they were comprehensible compared to, say, the paragraphs-long descriptions and ruminations that Kafka served up.

It would be an omission to note that the book, set in the Dust Bowl era as the Great Depression stretched along, makes for a remarkable parallel with present-day America, itself finally starting to make a slow recovery from a horrendously deep recession. The prominence of banks as inhuman monsters in both the book and modern America is perhaps a coincidence, but what is not is the desperation that takes hold of those in the book, as well as many of those in American, seen in both how many people have been unemployed for over a year, as well as how many people apply for open positions. The Joad family is by no means skilled at anything other than farming, more or less analogous to today's unskilled manufacturing workers, who bore the brunt of an economic catastrophe.

The Joad family, once it makes it to California, compounds life for those already living there, functioning with other migrants from the Midwest and Southwest to drive down wages. This is, in effect, analogous to the backlash Mexican workers have seen in America during the recession. We would never think to use the word Okie as an epithet today, but it was a dirty word in contemporary California, even if you were from Kansas or Texas. While many of the state and county tactics for driving out internal migrants were callous and illegal, other policies which recognized the migrants could not be driven away and decided to improve the situation to the best of the government's ability mirrored the other side of today's immigration debate.

Running through the book is the latent fear of Communism, one that no longer has any relevance in America though it remains some currency in South Korea. Workers who demand a higher wage or any sort of decent treatment are branded reds, and much of Steinbeck's rage against corporate America would probably strike us as boilerplate socialist thought. But Steinbeck makes a relevant point, one that may have been lost as society became overly complex, that caring about people over corporations is not a sign of weakness or the absence of masculinity, but that it's only logical to care about people when thinking about how a society ought to be.

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