Trampling Out The Vintage: Steinbeck's Crusade Against Injustice

1604 words - 7 pages

"This is the beginning, from 'I' to 'we.'" - The Grapes of WrathBread-winning family men were torn asunder from their positions of meager power as the structural integrity of America's economy was undermined from the top down. Only the wealthiest of people remained wealthy. The poorest of people, determined to succeed against all odds, ran themselves quite literally down a path to fermented, rotten, never-ripe failure. The working class men and women, the hands that executed the head's work with the heart's mediation, were the new face of the United States of America. They brought with them a plea for change; political, economic, and social. There was a new economy, a new President, and a New Deal. What also arose out of necessity, to help make sense of the unfamiliar and inscrutable, was a new leftist written and visual landscape, a distinctive and defining era in US history.To attempt to contextualize the shift in the media is to ask what else was affected by the Depression in such a manner. I come repeatedly to the forgone oversimplification: everything. People who were rich became poor, and because the rich had always been of interest in a capitalist society, so now were the poor, because they were essentially the same set. All else follows. A strong shift of cultural authority occurred, removing it from the bourgeoisie, and placing the power in the hands of the largest class, the newly created working class. To appeal to the "common man," authors, photographers, playwrights, and directors needed to cater to their needs. No longer alone in their subjugation to the bottom of the cultural pyramid, the voices of groups such as immigrants, Jews, and blacks became increasingly important in the years following the Great Crash. Films like Little Caesar (1931) dare to ask "who is American?" and "Who defines it?" Little Caesar exposed the problematic assumptions of illegitimacy surrounding cases of successful second-generation immigrants - that is, the idea that in order to achieve success in the capitalist definition, that members of disadvantaged groups must use socially or legally deviant means. Films like Dr. Bull (1935) with the folksy Will Rogers, validated marginalized communities such as the Italian immigrants and the lower class. It was a powerful validation not just of people, but of Americanism as well, and created a sense of national identity (not like the Nazis though. The Nazi propaganda films weren't quite as rootsy).Additionally, to appeal to these groups which literature and visual arts now spoke for, the media quickly adopted the vernacular, shedding the way English is "supposed" to be spoken, and accurately reflecting the way it was spoken in homes across the nation. This step in technique is just as important as those strides made in subject matter as it positioned literature, a "high art" formerly catering to the high class, firmly and accessibly in the hands of those who now needed it most. Poetry, in the vein of poets such as Langston Hughes, followed this trend. As black poets transitioned from the ongoing Harlem Renaissance and into a more universal New Negro Renaissance, their work began to encompass a "folk voice," a literary use of the popular spoken lexicon (Smethurst 7).Novels, the meat and potatoes of the literary left, were subject to review by many critics from both sides of the political spectrum, who, as well as judging the book stylistically and literarily, tended to judge its character and agenda as well. No work has been more susceptible to these criticisms and praises than the centerpiece of Depression-era literature, "an ugly book as well as angry," John Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath. It embodies all the characteristics I've discussed so far, but what sets it apart was the extraordinary anger that created the spark that ignited a flame that was the greatest propagandist work of the 20th century (this word, "propagandist," has both positive and negative connotations in literary circles). All of these factors combine to create a strong piece, the epitome of all the shifts and quakes which shaped American culture in the 1930s.In late 1938, after having struggled for over a year with his new novel about the migrant workers in California, Steinbeck was "desperately tired," and the flame was in need of refueling: "Steinbeck revisited the migrant camps...He stayed long enough to refuel his anger at those whom he considered their 'murderers': farm barons who lashed out against their workers...Steinbeck's brief stay also convinced him that his novel might serve as a weapon against injustice" (Reader's Digest). It is no doubt Steinbeck's social concern lay with the people; the poignant and dynamic story of the Joads' westward odyssey preceded his political agenda (or, for these intents and purposes, let's say "mission;" "agenda" implies a hidden message, whereas Steinbeck's message was not to be misunderstood), though the work remains acutely conscious of both. He strikes a fair balance, using the great social influence he had to treat the situation responsibly.In his attempt to unify but not generalize the migrant workers, however, some critics claim his over-cautiousness led to a weakening of his message: "Because his interest was primarily in people rather than political measures, his work has never been considered quite satisfactory by left-wing leaders. Needless to say it has not found favor with conservative leaders" (Whicher 67). Of course much worse came from far-right critics who labeled his novel a socialist diatribe against capitalism, even slightly treasonous, but this is just the point: no other novel has both excited and incited to the point that The Grapes of Wrath has.There are, incidentally, within the novel itself, strong parallels with its critical reception. The polarization between two types of people is the driving force behind the conflict which caused Steinbeck to write the book in the first place. The emphasis, nonetheless, is not as much on political tensions (again, these are still discussed at length and not to be forgotten about) as it is on the unification and integration of a marginalized people: America's working class farmers, now among the poorest people in the nation. "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'" (Steinbeck 152). Steinbeck goes beyond reconciling being poor with being American. Here, he defines the two as the same. Bringing the tired, the poor (the huddled masses yearning to breathe free) into the limelight and justifying their concerns is indeed the main purpose of The Grapes of Wrath, but it is also a central theme to literature and visual arts throughout the period.To better communicate with those who share his sympathies, John Steinbeck not only follows but somewhat humorously formalizes the use of the colloquial parlance common in most socially conscious literature. A whole new grammatical structure is devised: possessive pronouns ("our'n", "their'n", "your'n"), verb conjugations ("gonna", "goin'", "done gone"), and articles ("that there," "an'"). In short, these people speak like Oklahomans and the overall effect is authenticity as well as relatability. To add more dimension to this use of language, Steinbeck interlays the narrative with chapters exploring the national macrocosms of the Joads' story, often written in prosaic formal English, such as in the "I to we" example from Chapter 14. Steinbeck juxtaposes these discordant languages as a means of self-reflexivity, of realizing the transition made in just a few short years from high-class sensibility to a sort of "common knowledge." This is Steinbeck's attempt, despite all other rhetorical strategy attempting the contrary, to unite the two classes which he continuously pits against each other elsewhere in the book. Perhaps these two styles of speaking may be different, but they both deserve to be heard.Like most authors from this epoch of American history, John Steinbeck is dead now. But his legacy lives on because in his most famously passionate and incendiary novel ever, he unites the lower class with concepts and ideas and language they can relate to, following a common literary pattern, yes, but also revolutionizing it, with a voice louder, and message stronger, and a spirit more durable than all who preceded him.Works Cited"The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck." Reader's Digest: The World's Best Reading. Readers Digest Association, 1991.Smethurst, James Edward. The New Red Negro: The Literary Left and African American Poetry 1930-1946. Oxford University Press, New York: 1999.Steinbeck, John. The Grapes of Wrath. The Viking Press, New York: 1939.Whicher, George. "Proletarian Leanings." The Critical Response to John Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath. ed. Barbara Heavilin. Greenwood Press, Westport, Connecticut: 2000. p. 67-70.


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