On The Timelessness Of 'The Grapes Of Wrath'

The following is an excerpt from On Reading The Grapes of Wrath [Penguin Books, $14.00] by Susan Shillinglaw.

Deliberate reading is as cleansing as deliberate movement. To enter a yoga studio is to cross a boundary into a place of serenity. To open a long book is to relinquish speed. The Joads’ car doesn’t go very fast. On the way to California, the family stops frequently, to fix the Wilsons’ car, to bury Grampa, to bathe in the Colorado River. To read The Grapes of Wrath at a steady pace is to fully participate in the family’s great losses and their determined movement forward.

The turtle crawls into the book early on, reminding readers, with his parabolic presence, that this book is not a factual record, not the history of an era. It’s a novel. Novels, not history books, include little parables that speak to timeless issues. The turtle has a profound and multivalent message.

And one part is to slow down. For about half of The Grapes of Wrath the Joads crawl to California in an “ornery” Hudson Super Six as they set out with thirteen packed together uncomfortably in the sawed-off car, now a truck—one hybrid of many in this book of transitional lives and homes. When he crosses the Oklahoma state line, Tom breaks his parole and becomes a fugitive. He and his family, the dispossessed, are frightened and stunned by loss along the route—of Grampa, Granma, and Noah, and later Connie, who skulks off after a skirmish in the Hooverville camp. Pa is unmoored from land and patriarchy. Uncle John is guilt ridden and burdensome—to himself and others. Strangers are often hostile. All this emotional intensity cannot be glossed over quickly. To participate in the actuality, a reader has to knuckle down with the agony of the Joads’ odyssey.

The turtle, like the Joads, crawls on, determined, unstoppable. The turtle carries his home with him, like the Joads. He is at the mercy of machines that might crush him, like the Joads. But if the turtle represents the migrants, so too does the seed lodged in his leg represent the potential for new life. The slow reader recognizes the significance of both the turtle and the emblematic seed he sows.

“Yesterday turtle episode which satisfies me in a number of ways,” Steinbeck wrote in his journal. And the next day, “Turtle sequence stands up.” He liked what he’d written.

Carol Steinbeck said that “one of the things John always wanted to do was write a long narrative poem. However, probably certain lyrical passages in inner chapters of Grapes and East of Eden may have satisfied this ambition of his.” Steinbeck himself called the inner chapters “sort of biblical.”

Interchapters are like rest stops on a highway. Pausing, the reader uses all senses—feeling, seeing, hearing, touching. The interchapters pull a reader off the main road and allow consideration of the long stretch, the big picture. They serve other purposes as well. In 1953, a student from Columbia University had the temerity to write Steinbeck and ask about the significance of the interchapters. Steinbeck obviously liked the letter from this young man, and he wrote a fulsome reply:

You say the inner chapters were counterpoint and

so they were—that they were pace changers and

they were that too but the basic purpose was to

hit the reader below the belt. With the rhythms

and symbols of poetry one can get into a reader—

open him up and while he is open introduce—

things on an intellectual level which he would not

or could not receive unless he were opened up.

Lyricism, imagery, dialogue, rugged little histories—the different styles and subjects of the interchapters open up a reader, slow down a reader.

Chapter 5, Steinbeck wrote in his journal, “must have a symphonic overtone... Have to make the sound of the tractors and the dust of the tractors... the smell of them... this is the eviction sound and the tonal reason for the movement.”

Tractors are monsters because the goggled driver ignores the natural lay of the land in order to keep lines straight, rips through fences and gullies, churns up dust like the wind of chapter 1, making the land uninhabitable. The Joads’ particular story is replicated again and again.

Chapters 1 and 5 are stitched together visually. In each, the displaced migrants are frozen in tableaus, the men squatting and figuring, the women watching, the children behind, with toes working in the sand. Enter spokesmen for the owners—in chapter 5—and then Joe Davis’s boy, the guy we all recognize who is out for himself, blinders on to others’ suffering. And yet he too is caught up in the economic crisis that blights lives. He too is a victim.

Owners. Banks. The cipher we actually get to talk to. That scene has played out ruthlessly as people lost homes and lives in the twenty-first century: Not my fault but someone else’s, over there. Something big and vague. In the midst of the recent housing crisis, the filmmaker Michael Moore insisted that The Grapes of Wrath was the novel everyone needed to read. That crisis continues

Then the “fierce” staccato of chapter 7, the used-car chapter, where the migrants are exploited by fast-talking hucksters. Steinbeck hated sales and after writing the chapter dreamed of his father’s store, which had failed when Steinbeck was a teenager, and he still remembered that he “used to eat pies at noon hour and was ashamed of selling things.” The syncopated prose seems another movement in a symphony, and Steinbeck had that in mind too—fusing poetry and music. Chapter 9 is about selling possessions, another blast at the capitalist monster. And chapter 11 is about the vacant houses—the end of part I, the eviction—and a return to chapter 1 and the land itself: “The machine man, driving a dead tractor on land he does not know and love, understands only chemistry; and he is contemptuous of the land and of himself.”

Steinbeck said that the model for the interchapters was John Dos Passos, whose U.S.A. trilogy folds together newsreel and biography and headlines—capturing the tempo and the voices of contemporary life. Steinbeck also captured multiple genres in his interchapters: history, montage, dialogue, poetry, journalism. But as a reviewer for the Virginia Quarterly Review noted in 1939, “Whereas Dos Passos’ social books are built on hate for an economic system, The Grapes of Wrath is built on love for the people bound to that system. It is a significant difference.”

Slow readers down with poetry. When the novel was first reviewed in the New York Times, the reviewer warned his readers that it was a “very long novel, and yet it reads as if it had been composed in a flash, ripped off the typewriter, and delivered to the public as an ultimatum. It is a long and thoughtful novel as one thinks about it. It is a short and vivid one as one feels it.”

Feel it. The Joads’ is a slow journey toward the dream that America holds out for its people: land and home and job. The Joads’ expectations and the road’s realities clash in slow-motion prose.

From ON READING THE GRAPES OF WRATH by Susan Shillinglaw. Reprinted by arrangement with Penguin Books, a member of Penguin Group (USA) LLC, A Penguin Random House Company. Copyright © Susan Shillinglaw, 2014.