The Guardian carried a piece by Melvyn Bragg titled, John Steinbeck’s bitter fruit that drew chilling parallels between the corporate greed and joblessness of Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath and the situation in Britain today. Steinbeck has always been my favourite author since schooldays. I travelled from the bittersweet Of Mice and Men, via the wonderful Cannery Row and Tortilla Flats to the harrowing East of Eden and The Grapes of Wrath, a highly political novel for which Steinbeck received huge criticism. It was banned in schools and libraries, publicly burned, vilified on talk radio and condemned in Congress. Happily, most of all, it was read.
Steinbeck was clear about the guilt of the bankers in the Great Depression. As he prepared to write the novel, he said of them,
“I want to put a tag of shame on the greedy bastards who are responsible for this [the Great Depression and its effects].”
He made a statement in chapter 5 of the novel, published in 1939, which is even more true in 2011:
“The bank is something more than men, I tell you. It’s the monster. Men made it, but they can’t control it.”
Then in chapter 14 a passage could have been written for the “We are the 99%” of the Occupy movement:
“This is the beginning—from “I” to “we”. If you who own the things people must have could understand this, you might preserve yourself. If you could separate causes from results, if you could know that Paine, Marx, Jefferson, Lenin were results, not causes, you might survive. But that you cannot know. For the quality of owning freezes you forever into “I”, and cuts you off forever from the “we”. “
In 1962, he won the Nobel Prize for Literature despite the New York Times vilifying the award the day before,
“The Swedes have made a serious error by giving the prize to a writer whose limited talent is in his best books watered down by 10th-rate philosophising”
However, the Nobel Prize committee cited Grapes of Wrath as a “great work” and as one of the committee’s main reasons for granting Steinbeck the prize.
The saddest thing for me as I leafed back through my old copy of The Grapes of Wrath was that we never seem to learn the lessons of history. The Second World War that came hard on the heels of the Great Depression prevented social unrest arising from the poverty and anger from finding expression against the privileged few who prospered. We have fought two world wars and are still embroiled in military action overseas. People are finding expression for their anger and frustration through the Occupy movement. Let’s learn the lessons this time.
Footnote: Three unrelated Steinbeck facts.
- Despite what most people think, “I know this… a man got to do what he got to do” was not said first by John Wayne, it was a quote from The Grapes of Wrath.
- John Steinbeck Toured Wales in 1959 whilst researching The Acts of King Arthur and his Noble Knights which was published posthumously in 1976.
- He used George Borrows’ wonderful book Wild Wales: Its People, Language and scenery for background for his first novel, Cup of Gold, about the Welsh pirate Henry Morgan.