Let me start with a confession: I did not have enough time to reread all of The Grapes of Wrath before the day of my scheduled contribution to the Classics Circuit blog tour celebrating the work of John Steinbeck. This makes me feel sheepish, like a student who has not managed to do the assigned reading for a class. On the other hand, it reminds me that we designate certain novels as “classics” partly because they are memorable enough to stay with us in the years after we read them. And sometimes the experience of reading a book is as memorable as the book itself.
I first picked up The Grapes of Wrath over twenty years ago during a two month stay on a small organic farm in the Tarn region of France. It was a lonely time for me, a twenty year old American literature student who had stumbled into this unpaid internship while seeking a summer language immersion experience that would cover my living expenses. Most of the French spoken in my midst was too rapid and heavily accented for me to understand. Only thirteen year old Rodolphe, the oldest son of my host mother, had the patience to carry on long conversations with me as we planted seeds, weeded fields, fed chickens, gathered eggs, and transformed the cows’ milk into yogurt and cheese.
During the hottest part of the afternoon when everyone rested, I wrote letters on thin air mail paper and soon devoured the few books that had fit in my backpack. Amidst the piles of Tin Tin and Asterix comic books the kids spend their afternoons reading, I found Les raisins de la colère. Rodolphe and his mother were enthusiastic in their praise for Steinbeck’s most famous novel, which they explained was standard assigned reading for French students of a certain age. Given that Rodolphe had learned from his superior history curriculum how to rattle off the acronyms of every agricultural and public works project FDR had initiated, I felt obliged to read this chronicle of American Depression era agricultural devastation.
My purpose in learning French was to be able to read French literature in the original, so there was an inherent irony to the act of reading Les raisins de la colère in French translation. When I went along that week to help out at the farm’s market booth in Toulouse, I found an English bookstore with an expensive copy of The Grapes of Wrath. At my host mother’s suggestion, I read each chapter first in French and then in English. This tested my comprehension and gave me an opportunity to see how the French translator had attempted to capture the Okie dialect in French slang. My hunger for English—and relief at being able to comprehend fully what I had read—made me love Steinbeck’s spare yet elegant prose all the more.
Reading about the struggles of the Joad family while living on a picturesque, but struggling small farm made the agricultural dimension of the story more meaningful to me. In retrospect, it is interesting to consider how Steinbeck’s 1939 critique of what we now call “Big Ag” presents in fictional form many of the same arguments that Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma and other recent nonfiction books have made about agriculture in America. The Depression era Dust Bowl was a tragic example of how corporate farms that emphasize monoculture (single commodity crops such as corn) destroy land that traditional methods of crop rotation might have saved. In one of the earliest chapters of The Grapes of Wrath, a man in a tractor drives out the starving sharecroppers by planting cotton in relentlessly even rows, damaging houses and uprooting the people who live in them. Later, the Joads learn that those who own the abundant fruit of California’s orchards would rather see it rot than let migrants like them eat it for free. Because there are so many desperately hungry migrants, those orchard owners have a guaranteed supply of workers who will work for almost nothing. Steinbeck refers to such owners “farming on paper” as they record their profits without ever seeing their land—the opposite of the small farm model I feel fortunate to have experienced.
There are many scenes in the novel that stand out, including the Joads' fascination with the modern plumbing in the federal resettlement camp where they find temporary refuge. The camp's "ladies' committee" discovers an overuse of toilet paper, which they soon find to be the result of one family's starved children subsisting on a diet of green grapes and getting the runs. However, the most memorable scene of The Grapes of Wrath is its last when Rosasharn, after giving birth to a stillborn baby and seeking refuge from a flood in a barn, sustains and comforts a sick old man with her breast milk. We do not know if this milk will save him, but her act of generosity is a pure moment of hope in an otherwise pessimistic book. Rereading that scene, I think Steinbeck was suggesting that however mechanized food production becomes, our need for food and the desire to share it makes us human. And when we are hungry for stories to sustain us, reading makes us human too and books become as much a part of our individual and collective memory as the food we eat. In giving us The Grapes of Wrath, which argues eloquently that food should be for people and not corporations, Steinbeck pulls off a good sort of "farming on paper."