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The Power of The Grapes of Wrath
Steinbeck has become one of my favorite writers -- for the love he has for his characters, the loveliness of his language, and the clear-eyed conviction with which he writes. Originally, I failed to see the beauty in Steinbeck's people, though it is plainly there. Perhaps I hadn't seen enough of the world myself, yet. There was a lot I didn't understand about people.
What Steinbeck does so well is to show people's struggle for simple human decency in the face of meanness and ignorance. He toes a fine line, but there is no romance or pity in his work. He loves his characters, warts and all, as an author must. He shows those who polite society might find wretched and despicable to have real humanity. The bums and whores of Cannery Row. The lost imbecile of Of Mice and Men.
Easygoing and plainspoken for the most part, Steinbeck's language is richly evocative. Indeed, his example shows these qualities are not at odds, but, in fact, related. He is also a master of pacing. In his passages of description, he never gets bogged down in detail, never lets the eye linger too long.
Take a look at the opening of Chapter 15 of The Grapes of Wrath, a description of a roadside hamburger stand. The language is precise, stopping here and there to dwell in more detail where necessary, but always marching onward. As the camera-eye moves about the scene, it is not wandering aimlessly, seeing whatever falls in its line of vision; it is moving purposefully, taking in a whole scene.
Part of this passage's success comes from its use of repeating sounds to maintain continuity as the eye moves from object to object -- for example, the repetition of "bar," "nickel," "candy," "seltzer," and "Coca-Cola" in the first paragraph, and "pot" and "roast" in the third paragraph. If you scan these opening paragraphs as poetry, you'll find a pattern of stresses that serves to slow down the rhythm in key places to that of a sacred chant. These formal techniques are characteristic of Steinbeck. He uses them throughout the novel to tell the story in the form of a sacred myth.
In addition, Steinbeck also has a perfectly tuned ear for the rhythms of American speech and idiom. He renders the simple beauty of American dialects so well that his writings serve as a declaration of their value.
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What I realized from reading Steinbeck this time is how much his writing is about values. In complex, nuanced ways, Steinbeck's characters demonstrate and uphold our most important values through their actions. Values of hard work, honesty, humility, and compassion.
Of course, lots of people claim the mantle of moral superiority in talking about values, so how can you tell whom to trust? Well, I believe the difference is that the true prophets speak of these values unfettered by any obsession with sin. The minute you hear a prophet raging against sin and telling you what's wrong with you, run the other way. Such false prophets have made a huge profit over the centuries telling people what's wrong with them and claiming to have the key to fix it, particularly here in America, birthplace of self-help.
The Problem of the Spiritual Journey
Reading The Grapes of Wrath also made me question my own inclination towards do-it-yourself spirituality. For a long time I've approached religion as a salad bar from which I would collect only the bits and scraps that I agreed with. I believed that spirituality was ultimately an individual journey. Much as I admired the community a church can provide, I felt dogma was implicit in any organized religion and that church therefore hindered that journey.
Yet, there's a scene in which Tom Joad discovers Jim Casy, the Preacher, is part of a strike at a peach orchard that the Joads are unwittingly helping the land company to break. Casy tells Tom: "Jail house is a kinda funny place. . . Here's me, been a-goin' into the wilderness like Jesus to try find out somepin. Almost got her sometimes, too. But it's in the jail house I really got her." Casy found that it was in society -- not on a solitary journey -- that he had his revelation. In the jail house, Casy found himself surrounded by all kinds of people, but people who all shared one thing: need. And he saw that this need was the cause of their stealing and drinking, their sins -- sins that arose from suffering at the hands of others. The way out of that suffering, Casy learned, was for the people to work together; only then could they have the power to end their suffering. Only by acting together could they express the opposite of sin. As long as they kept to themselves they were powerless.
After reading this passage, I went for a walk up to the newstand and it came to me, that, like Casy, my notion of a hermit-like spirituality was misguided. The fact is, I have never truly believed I needed to go off to a mountain cave in order to find salvation. To remove oneself from the world and its problems is a cop-out. I believe the real challenge is to find salvation in the world, rather than outside of it. Humans are social animals, and it is only through our relationship to each other that we have the means to express virtue and spirit. A solitary spirituality may be of some value, but it is not fully mature. Engagement with others is the most fertile ground for spiritual growth. Yet, salvation cannot come through individual questing nor good works in the community of the world alone. Salvation can only come when the journey and the work become one.
The Power to Transform
The stories and poems I enjoy the most are ones that inspire the "I'm back" response. You suddenly look up and regain awareness of the chair you're sitting in, the floor under your feet, the walls of the room. "Oh, wow. I'm back!" you say.
There is another way art can transform experience, and that is when it transforms a person. I finished The Grapes of Wrath as a different person from who I was when I began. I can think of few more powerful or more noble things a work of art can do than that.