The Grapes of Wrath (1939)
by John Steinbeck (1902-1968)
It is probably difficult today for us to appreciate how much controversy The Grapes of Wrath created. “This account of the predicament of migrant workers was taken more as social document than as fiction. Some saw it as an exposé of capitalist excesses, others as a distorted call to revolution. Social injustice was depicted so sharply that Steinbeck himself was accused of being a revolutionary.”[i] Our concern here is that The Grapes of Wrath has relevance to Simple Reality. “[It] applies not only to one era or society but also to the universal human predicament.”[ii] As we know, the universal human predicament is P-B.
Steinbeck’s goals as an author were not unlike the goals of this book. “Steinbeck once declared that the writer must ‘serve as the watchdog of society, to satirize its silliness, to attack its injustices, to stigmatize its faults.’”[iii] He was, however, more an advocate of the positive principles of Simple Reality than a despairing anti-capitalist Marx or Engels.
Simple Reality emphasizes self-reliance as critical to attaining an experience of the present moment. Steinbeck “demonstrates faith in the common man and in the ideal of self-reliance.”[iv]
The Simple Reality context of Oneness or “one big soul” is important to create a sustainable future for humanity. Steinbeck “also develops the Emersonian religious concept of an oversoul. The preacher Jim Casey muses, ‘maybe that’s the Holy Sperit—the human sperit—the whole shebang. Maybe all men got one big soul ever’body’s a part of it.’”[v] (Emerson’s “oversoul” is akin to P-A’s Implicate Order.) The same sentiment of Oneness is expressed by Tom Joad: “a fella ain’t got a soul of his own, but on’y a piece of a big one.”[vi]
John Steinbeck believed in the human capacity to grow in consciousness, in our natural tendency to realize a more profound reality. He believed in human intuition. “This theme, that all men essentially belong together and are a part of one another and of a greater whole that transcends momentary reality, is what removes The Grapes of Wrath from the genre of timely proletarian fiction and makes it an allegory for all men in all circumstances … the real story of this novel is not the Joad’s search for economic security but their education, which transforms them from self-concern to a recognition of their bond with the whole human race [compassion].”[vii]
The Joad’s began their journey in the Oklahoma dustbowl concerned with their personal survival strategies and surviving as a family. They experienced violence, injustice and suffering which, if it didn’t kill them, transformed them, deepened their compassion and broadened their identification beyond their individual personal struggles. “Thus the Joad’s have overcome that separation which Paul Tillich [one of the most influential theologians of the twentieth century] equates with sin, that alienation from others [and the Other] which existentialists are so fond of describing as the inescapable human condition.”[viii] It is the human condition, but it is not inescapable.
Looking deeply into the human condition, Steinbeck listens to his heart and hears the beat of an alternative future for humanity. “The wrath grows, a fearsome, terrible wrath; but better wrath than despair, because wrath moves to action. Steinbeck would have his people act, in concert and in concern for one another—and finally prevail over all forms of injustice.”[ix]
Shall we await the grapes of wrath, let despair ripen on the vine or shall we take action in our own lives and begin the creation of a new story where both anger and despair are no longer part of our identity?
[i] Magill, Frank N. [ed.]. Masterpieces of World Literature. New York: Harper, 1989, page 340.
[vi] Galati, Frank. “On the Adaptation of John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath.” Denver Center Theatre Company, November-January 1992-1993, page 1.
[vii] Magill, op. cit., page 340.
[ix] Ibid., page 341.
Find a much more in-depth discussion in printed books by Roy Charles Henry.