Month: February 2011

Rereading “The Grapes of Wrath”: Chapter 1

“To the red country and part of the gray country of Oklahoma, the last rains came gently, and they did not cut the scarred earth.”

Not to compare John Steinbeck to T.S. Eliot or anything, because I’m pretty sure neither had anything to do with each other, but the first chapter of The Grapes of Wrath has more than a few moments that dance around some themes that appeared in The Waste Land. Yes, the two were separated by seventeen years and that gigantic romantic abyss of love and hate we call “between the wars,” but throughout those first couple pages of The Grapes of Wrath, there’s so much craving for rain I couldn’t help but find myself back

“where the sun beats,
And the dead tree gives no shelter, the cricket no relief,
And the dry stone no sound of water.”

That ancient fertility ritual has ground to a halt. The rain has stopped in Oklahoma. And while that’s what really happened, there’s something so terribly Modernist about this opening.

“The dawn came, but no day. In the gray sky a red sun appeared, a dim red circle that gave a little light, like dusk; and as that day advanced, the dusk slipped back toward darkness, and the wind cried and whimpered over the fallen corn.”

We’re in Rats Alley now, that’s for sure. The men come out and silently study the corn. The women study the men. The children study the men and the women. The world has basically just ended, and these tough, terse old farmers and farmers’ wives and farmers’ children – I grew up around these people, although I wasn’t one of them – just watch it end, and think (Steinbeck ends the chapter “The men sat still – thinking – figuring.”) And then there’s that dust – settling like this was Cormac McCarthy’s The Road or something. Post-apocalyptic already. Look – the stars are even gone.

“When the night came again it was black night, for the stars could not pierce the dust to get down, and the window lights could not even spread beyond their own yards. Now the dust was evenly mixed with the air, an emulsion of dust and air. Houses were shut tight, and cloth wedged around doors and windows, but the dust came in so thinly that it could not be seen in the air, and it settled like pollen on the chairs and tables, on the dishes. The people brushed it from their shoulders. Little lines of dust lay at the door sills.”

Because the world has ended, there’s no reason to rush anything. This book is going take things incredibly slow. But it’s such a vast narrative we’re looking at (where every other chapter or so isn’t about the Joad family but just the people) that we must accept a slow pace.

I’m not insanely knowledgeable about The Grapes of Wrath, or literature. I’m a journalist and my studies in literature are minor and mostly behind me. I don’t want to come across authoritative in writing this. This is a personal journal of rereading a book that showed me that even if the worst happens and the end of the world comes, when that boot is crushing down on your face and you have no money and you feel like you have no power, if you organize and solidify and band together with the other powerless people you can get by. It’s only when you give in and let the powerful people and the rich people have their way that you get destroyed.

The Grapes of Wrath is as essential reading for radicals as anything else, and far more radical than any other high school standard I can think of. This is a socialist book – maybe the socialist bible. Contained in it is a perfect socialist narrative as wonderfully carved as the Christian narrative of the New Testament. There are exquisitely carved weapons in this book to arm everyone in the world who feels powerless and poor and exploited. Just look past what you think The Grapes of Wrath is, and consider that it might be something else – one of the most dangerous and most powerful and most beautiful books in the world.