Wednesday, March 16, 2011

The Grapes of Wrath

In the latest in my occasional turn toward books I'd somehow never gotten to before, I just read The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck. This is a flawed book, more politically flawed than I realized as I was reading it. More on that, criticism from the left, in a minute. First a word on criticism from the right.

I've often come across references to The Grapes of Wrath in various writings by esteemed literary critics. They generally condemn the book as bad literature. Poorly written, bombastic didacticism. The consensus seems to be that this book is a cartoonish exercise in blatant communistic propaganda, contrived, sentimental, manipulative, designed to trick the reader into sympathizing with the poor downtrodden workers and to support union drives and strikes.

As I expected I would, upon finally reading the book myself I find this position absurd. Blatant propaganda? I'll say—by the bourgeoisie's literary experts, who always condemn any work of fiction that depicts capitalist exploitation, engenders sympathy for its victims, sides with the struggle against it. What a crazy reach it is for any critic to pan it, for it's beautifully written, in some places soaringly achingly stirringly beautiful. There are stunningly lyrical passages, there is an intense propulsive narrative drive, there are finely wrought characterizations. Most of all there is a powerful, deeply effective portrayal of human suffering and, at the same time, of courage and dignity and solidarity . It's this latter aspect, the fact that the novel sides with the poor and suffering masses, that incurs the wrath and enmity of the commentators, for this is the highest literary sin.

So much for the criticism from the right. Wrong wrong wrong as always. What of the left?

I was aware as I read, especially as the story developed and the ever more suffering Joad family moved along on its journey of hope and horror, that there was a narrow, even distorted, emphasis in this portrayal of the Dust Bowl migration from Oklahoma and surrounding states to California during the Great Depression. The focus is entirely on the Joads and their like: white former landowners and sharecroppers forced off their land and driven West in search of jobs. Nowhere in the tale, not on the road and in the stopping-off places along the way nor in the camps, Hoovervilles and orchards of California, do we see anyone except the Joads' cohort. No Mexicans—in the Southwest and California! No African Americans, an oppressed nation that was in fact in the midst of its own Great Migration, a major wing of it from the South to California, at exactly this same time. No, in this novel just about everyone's white. Just about everyone has endured the same tragedy of losing the small stakes of land that they'd held for several generations. And all these white former farmers are competing only with each other for the same jobs in the growing fields. I knew this was by no means a complete picture but I guess I sort of thought well, this is a snapshot of one particular part of what was going on, there were after all plenty of families like the Joads and so this is their story, one specific aspect of the broader overall story. I noted, too, some places where Steinbeck seems to go out of his way to take account of the national question. For example, several times he has a character note that a family ancestor had stolen the farmland from its Native inhabitants. Likewise, he points out that California itself is stolen, from Mexico. The characters use racist language a few times; it makes them look bad and I sort of assumed this was Steinbeck's intent.

I gave him too much credit, as it turns out. A quick skim of some left commentary reveals that there was a racist strain to Steinbeck's ideology, that he created white Dust Bowl migrant literary heroes in part because he saw them as superior to the Asian and Mexican agricultural work force that was already in place and that had been long engaged in unionization struggles. He saw the new white arrivals as replacing the workers of color, and this, the triumph of white labor—not of labor as a whole, of the multinational united working class—was what he looked toward.

Oh crap. How can we call this a novel of the working class when its author purposely omitted the most oppressed quarters of the class from his vision of the proper direction of the class struggle? Is it possible for a work of fiction to embody contradiction, to have both strengths and weaknesses, to be in some ways a contribution and in some ways backward? At least one critique I recently read allows no such wiggle room, going so far as to liken The Grapes of Wrath to Gone with the Wind. The latter is an out-and-out paean to the slaveocracy, penned in homage to the pro-KKK movie Birth of a Nation; does Steinbeck's novel similarly serve as an explicit tribute to white labor as against Black, Latino and Asian labor?

I imagine there is also a body of feminist critique of this novel. I can easily guess what the charges would be, and that I'd probably agree with them. And yet. The character of Ma Joad, hedged in to the most traditional sex role as she is, hit me hard. Her indomitable will to survive, her strength—and she is by far the strongest character in the story, her compassion but also her capacity for violent confrontation.

A masterpiece of class-struggle fiction? A historically inaccurate racist sexist literary lie? A lot to think about, a lot to learn.