Thursday, May 8, 2014

Results, Not Causes

Reflections on John Steinbeck and The Grapes of Wrath

I took a bit of a John Steinbeck sojourn last weekend, traveling to the Salinas to visit the National Steinbeck Center museum, reading much about John Steinbeck’s life and career, and then retiring to our family cabin at Arroyo Seco for a brief and much needed writing retreat. I am also 200 or so pages into The Grapes of Wrath, the only Steinbeck I will have really read beyond the much shorter and more easily digested Of Mice and Men. On my trip, I learned for the first time (or perhaps had just forgotten) the degree to which Steinbeck was vilified not only for his politics, as encapsulated so clearly in The Grapes of Wrath, but also for the way he allowed these views to hijack his writing. Oklahoma state and Kern County officials protested loudly, as did many reviewers, against the content of The Grapes of Wrath, and critics the world over lambasted the Nobel Committee for granting Steinbeck the Nobel Prize in 1962. Such was the impact on the author that he never published another word of fiction in his life after 1962. (He died in 1968 at the age of 66.)

National Steinbeck Center, Salinas, CA
Steinbeck was obviously a great writer. One critic astutely observed that the Nobel Committee needed Steinbeck in 1962 much more than he needed them. In fact, asked the day after the prize was awarded whether he deserved it, Steinbeck himself answered, “Well, no.” But looking at the since released Nobel records showing who he was up against, you’ll come upon the names of four authors of the time you have likely never heard of, and most certainly have never heard from since. Steinbeck, in contrast, has been thrust in front of every high school and college certainly in the western states for decades and is the subject of the only museum in America dedicated to a single author.

Steinbeck is also a Northern Californian, a native son born in Salinas who set most of his work in and around the Monterey Bay Area. As such, I have an impulse to leap to his defense, particularly given that the world did experience the Great Depression, that the forces of commerce were largely responsible for it, and that social and government action were needed at the time, and were, in retrospect, incredibly successful. However, reading the pages of The Grapes of Wrath, I have to admit that the critics who have accused Steinbeck of crossing over from writing into preaching do have a point. Take for instance this passage from page 194 of my 1976 Penguin paperback edition:
One man, one family driven from the land; this rusty car creaking along the highway to the west. I lost my land, a single tractor took my land. I am alone and I am bewildered. And in the night one family camps in a ditch and another family pulls in and the tents come out. The two men squat on their hams and the women and children listen. Here is the node, you who hate change and fear revolution….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.”
I’d be surprised if one could find a clearer or more urgent call to collective action published anywhere in the world in the 1930s. Setting aside the fact that The Grapes of Wrath was such a wildly successful book, and that it was published at the height of both fascism in Europe and communism in Russia, the simple and observable fact is, Steinbeck is preaching an idea here. I personally believe it’s an idea that is not the sole purview of communism or socialism but can in fact be compatible with American capitalism, but that’s not the point. The point is, the fiction writer is most certainly becoming the social critic here, stepping outside the story to make a point—in fact, to preach a point. As great a writer as he was, the critics who accuse him of this have a leg on which to stand.

So what does all this mean to writers writing, as Steinbeck did, about work, family, and society in a time of tumultuous change—writers doing so, but doing so today, in a very different time?

The first thing to realize, of course, is that The Grapes of Wrath was written in a time of superlatives, a time when deprivation was so widespread that extremes could be convincingly portrayed in the black-and-white terms of good and evil. The work of a writer like Steinbeck, with its sermons and wistful descriptions of the great unwashed innocents, could find and sate an audience in 1930s America. Today, society’s trials are different. We live in a time of relative plenty, the country is populated largely with knowledge workers, not laborers, and the conflicts that touch our work lives—and thus our families and our society as a whole—are anything but superlative. They are subtle and confusing, offering no black-and-white, but only gray. Our characters, typically, will not be the downtrodden Joads of Oklahoma. In my case, in fact, since I was born in Silicon Valley and have lived here my entire life, I am often writing about characters who are the lucky ones, human beings placed by circumstance and personal initiative into the center of an aberration of good fortune. The question for characters like these is not, how does a man respond when pushed to the brink? The question is, how does a human being respond when the brass ring is there, but sacrifices must be made? An offering must be made, a series of choices, and it is in those choices, with all their complexities and hidden, even invisible elements, that the story lies.

Furthermore, The Grapes of Wrath was written in a time when American literature was accepting of sentimentality and melodrama—I think of them as the “pre-Salinger years”—when an author could simply write this about a character:
He had never been angry in his life. He looked in wonder at angry people, wonder and uneasiness, as normal people look at the insane.
It was a time before the great burden of ambiguity was heaped onto the shoulders of serious American writers by authors like Bellow and Updike, Carver and Cheever, Dee and Strout. Writing in a simpler time makes for simpler writing, and Steinbeck’s career is a good example of that, but you also have to recognize that this point in the endless drama where we 21st century writers have walked onto the stage also presents some great advantages. A fiction that needs ambiguity is a good fiction for the subtle and complex dramas of our complicated world. We are freed from portraying good guys and bad guys, and while we still need to create the tension that for millennia came from binary narratives of good vs. evil, we can place much of that work onto the reader: we can create active engagements with the characters, occasions to understand what’s going on (with little effort if we’re successful), and then choose a side and begin rooting (with much effort if we’re successful). A string of these dramas does not need to lead the reader to a political position, it just needs to lead them to a deeper understanding both of the particular drama we are portraying and similar dramas that unfold all over the world every day, and in the life experiences of everyone. A breach in the family occurs at the end of The Grapes of Wrath, and there will often be breaches at the ends of our stories as well. But these breaches will not be sentimental and melodramatic endings to small stories with torches to carry. They will be common—almost universal—endings to stories that could happen at any time: today, tomorrow, and every day thereafter.