Category Archives: Steinbeck, John

The Pearl: Read from November 27 to 28, 2015

Steinbeck’s greatest achievement was to give voice to the poor. Steinbeck’s critics could say he romanticized his subjects by making them all good souls who always had the high moral ground and earthy common sense, but so many of his subjects had been marginalized their whole lives that they were nearly invisible and so, I believe, deserving of a champion.

Yet many of Steinbeck’s stories end badly for the main characters, they are almost always defeated by the forces they hoped to struggle free from. For a time each character in a Steinbeck has hope for the future only to succumb to the cold reality that the rich and the powerful will remain rich and powerful and the poor will remain poor and exploited.

Yet still he gave a voice to the poor and he showed his audience how difficult it was for the less fortunate to rise out of their situation, how desperate they could be to change their lives, and how terrible it was for them to fail. Steinbeck imparts on the reader a great empathy for his characters because it is vital for us to feel the pain of these people. This is why, I believe, Steinbeck’s characters are almost always “good, honest people” because we believe ourselves to be people like his characters. And so when we see these characters struggle and fail we also struggle and fail and for a moment we empathize with these people.

Had Steinbeck’s characters been more like Tolstoy’s, full of faults and failings and hubris, he would have been less successful to get us to actually feel the pain of poverty and hopelessness because we would have had an excuse to blame the characters for their failings. Yet when the characters are a sketch, when we see only the good and watch how the bad washes over them, we understand, if only a little, the plight of people who cannot escape from their situations.

This was Steinbeck’s greatest achievement: he got us to actually care about people we might otherwise never even notice. Steinbeck didn’t need to create realistic characters like Tolstoy’s because he knew his readers were full of faults and prejudices; his job was to get those very people to not be selfish for a few hundred pages and show them how our insensitivity to the less fortunate could be devastating.

This story, like almost all of Steinbeck’s stories be updated to our own times with very few changes. Replace the pearl of the world with a lottery ticket, move the setting to an inner city or desperate country, and the truths would still be the same: the poor will be taken advantage of by the powerful and any resistance on the part of the poor will be dealt harshly by the law, no matter the justification.

And so when we ask ourselves “Why did Steinbeck never offer any solution to these problems”, then we should look in the mirror because he was actually asking us that question, he only gave us the tools to recognize there was even a problem to begin with.

33% done with The Pearl

I’ve always loved Steinbeck, his language is straight-forward, and a little romantic, and his characters can be thin, but he, like Tolstoy, get to the heart of a subject. Yes, Tolstoy’s characters were vivid and real, and he was unflinching in his realism, but he, like Steinbeck, captured the soul of something, the golden, gleaming, wet light of wonder.

And Steinbeck’s cinematic writing, so visual, like a movie.

The Grapes of Wrath: Read from June 20 to 30, 2013

Replace farmers from Oklahoma with migrant workers from Mexico and I doubt you’d be able to tell that this novel was written back in 1939. And that’s what really stuck me about this novel – how relevant it still is – in some ways even more now than then.

The first similarity is economic. As I write this we are still either going through a ‘great recession’ or are slowly emerging from an economic downturn. The causes are different, of course, here in the novel it was bad farming techniques mixed with new technology that drove the farmers from their land. Today it’s an over-saturated housing market – people banking all their futures on the bubble of hope that perhaps the value of their own home will increase enough for them to make a tidy profit. And just like land that’s been worked too hard, people worked the housing market too hard and it collapsed. Banks came to take the farms in the novel and banks came to take the homes in our own time.

And both examples were of people running as fast as they could just to stay a little ahead of disaster. The farmers grew crops that destroyed the soil because they had no choice – they couldn’t compete with the new farms, the corporate farms and machine efficiency. A family can’t compete with a fleet of harvesters and tractors – working the land by hand can’t keep up with a tractor. And the same goes for the people with houses these days. Everybody borrowed on cheap credit from the bank to hopefully ‘buy low’ and then ‘sell high’, but when everyone does it then there isn’t no value in any of it and it all falls apart and everyone still owes the banks. And all they wanted was a piece of a dream, a chance to stay afloat economically, to send their kids to a good college, to make the car payments, put food on the table.

In the novel the Californian’s hated the Oakies, called them lazy, called them animals, called them thieves; in today’s world we call the homeowners who lost it all idiots, greedy, lazy. But we also hate the banks. Call the banks greedy, inhumane, a great machine that’s too big to die and too big to fail and everybody has to keep feeding it because nobody is really too sure how to control it anymore.

But there is one difference, and that’s the work. When the people lost the value on their homes, when the banks realized that the amount of money in the economy was based on a weak speculation and that there was actually a lot less money than there really was, when that caused credit to dry up, and when that caused smaller businesses to close up because they couldn’t run the businesses with no credit, which in turn caused people to lose their jobs, and that caused the economy to drag down deeper and created a vicious cycle that made it worse and worse – after all that, the people had nowhere to go because all the ‘poor jobs’, the type of work Steinbeck writes about in the novel had all been taken by the immigrants.

And that cussed more issues. The poor American middle-class blamed the Mexican’s and now militia patrol the borders to kick the Mexican’s out or do worse things in the desert at night when nobody is looking. A man like Casey in the novel is no different than a immigrant getting killed by some militia border patrol.

And that causes resentment on all sides and the center can’t hold.

And that’s just the economic similarity between the novel and today’s times. Politically it’s the same too. A conservative will say the poor just gotta work, but the conservative will also be on the side of the businessman and when everyone needs work, the businessman can keep wages down and in turn keep the poor really poor. But that’s supposed to be ok because the conservative will say the poor can take help from a charity or a church – but that’s easy to tell someone else when it’s not you having to beg and take charity, easy to tell another man to beg. But the conservative man is holding on by a thread as thin as can be too and he’s causing his own demise because soon the corporation will put him out of work too, his job will be lost and he’ll have to go begging and he won’t be so mean and conservative anymore. He’ll see the value of sticking by your fellow man instead of blaming him for his troubles.

And that’s what the book is about – about family, about sticking together, about helping, about not letting the fruit on the vine rot when others go in need. And that’s why it’s an even more radical novel today than when it was written because it ‘smells’ of Communism or of Socialism. And the conservative man doesn’t want to hear about that, he doesn’t want a union because union men are lazy and he doesn’t want socialism because the government will tell him what to do and he doesn’t want communism because he can take care of his own family.

That is until he can’t, then he’ll be singing a different tune or he’ll be turning on his own people like some of the people in the novel who turned against their own just to put food on the table; the great selfishness.

That’s the saddest thing about the book – how spot on Steinbeck was about human nature. And for as beautiful as the novel is, as well written as it is, nothing can compare to how true it is. And maybe that’s the thing that makes people still so angry about it – that it reveals a truth we don’t want to accept about ourselves, that deep down we know that they way we live, that the American dream is not working, that it never really worked and that we either side with the people who will toss us on the heap of irrelevance or we fight the powers that be. And maybe if we worried a little more about if their neighbor has enough in his bowl and a little less about if we have enough in our own then maybe things would be better.

The novel is a microcosm of American, then and now. And that’s quite an achievement because how many novels ring this true 75 years after they were written? And the novel is a damning indictment too, and that’s why it still scares people.

And that ending. What an ending too. It’s both hopeful and sad. It’s religious and it turns religion on it’s head too. It’s bleak and yet it’s also comforting.

Now I didn’t realize it at first, but this is the third in a series of books I’ve been reading that deal explicitly with society – ‘The Seven Pillars of Wisdom’ talked about a people fighting for their independence in the deserts of Arabia, ‘100 Years of Solitude’ about a village coping with modernity, and now this novel about a country having to find a new direction. And they are also about the poor, about people who have been taken advantage of by a government or an economy and have been cast aside. And that’s been a struggle since man understood ownership and it will continue to be a struggle as long as some men side with the very forces that could steamroll everyone in the end.

‘Don’t turn on your own kind’, Tom says. Well I hope Tom is still somewhere out there keeping an eye on everyone, helping where he can, beat up and bloody but still fighting. The world needs more Tom’s and more Ma’s. Someone’s gotta keep the family together.

Anyway, brilliant novel. Pure genius.

page 517 of 608 of The Grapes of Wrath

The point isn’t to make sure your own bowl is full, it’s to make sure the guy’s bowl next to yours isn’t empty.

The camp women, when they chastise the other lady for not taking store credit, they go on about how they won’t take nor do they give out charity. Everyone wants to work. Yet ask a man who already has a full cup and he’ll say another man shouldn’t be too proud to accept charity.

page 446 of 608 of The Grapes of Wrath

Well now I know what the title means … it’s even more depressing than what I thought.

The old adage of giving a man a fish vs. teaching him how to fish is only applicable if everyone has an equal fishing pole and equal access to the water. And that’s the real crime Steinbeck is trying to highlight : raw, unchecked capitalism has allowed the few to fence up and gate the waters and the land.

page 415 of 608 of The Grapes of Wrath

With the Joad’s now at the government camp I keep thinking about Solzhenitsyn’s experience in ‘One Day In The Life Of Ivan Denisovich’, however, only as a counter example.

Steinbeck seems to be extolling the virtues of communism or at least the virtues of the poor who share.

I never know how to feel myself since I can see both up and down sides. They are both extreme points of view.

page 361 of 608 of The Grapes of Wrath

I keep thinking of the other side of the coin – Levin in Anna Karenina. He was an honorable man but he was also a landowner with his own set of responsibilities. He knew right from wrong but sometimes his right could very well mean wrong for some poor peasant.

However, this novel tells the story we never got in the 19th century; the poor. Maybe they ain’t more right, but it’s their story worth telling too.

page 296 of 608 of The Grapes of Wrath

Steinbeck intuitively writes people as though they are more or less similar to each other when in a group and only shows them unique when alone. Striking then when a new character, the Jehovist lady, comes along and seems like such a bother.

In turn, the term Oakie lumps everyone into one similar lump and nobody is seen as a human being; animals.

It’s still a problem today with how migrant workers are treated

page 247 of 608 of The Grapes of Wrath

I’m pretty sure this is the first great work of literature that uses the word ‘shit-heel’ in it.

So far everyone who runs a business is a thief or a son-of-a-bitch. Steinbeck seems to be saying that nobody who runs a business is any good. And while I get his point of speaking for those who can’t speak for themselves, the taken-advantage-of, it’s a more nuanced argument than just black and white.

page 194 of 608 of The Grapes of Wrath

Funny how this book could be considered even more politically radical now than it was when it was written – just hint at communism and whisper the word Marx these days and you’ll get everyone worked up.

And funny ho times have not changed at all since this novel was written. We still don’t trust the banks, are still getting kicked off the land, we still don’t trust businesses and salesmen – but we need ’em too.

page 150 of 608 of The Grapes of Wrath

Uncertainty and doubt vs. clinical inevitability. Tom is wary of people asking questions, Pa is wary of the buyers, Ma is weary of what happened to Tom in prison, Muley uncertain of his fate, and the preacher about his faith.

Meanwhile the tractors cut the land into even, perfect strips and the banks exact to every %. Yet even they are unsure how the system they work for works.

Man is a collection of doubts.

page 97 of 608 of The Grapes of Wrath

I’ve never seen the John Ford and Henry Fonda film version of the book so the way I imagine ‘seeing’ the novel is through the eyes of a Terrance Mallick.

The section with the used car dealership in particular is very art-house cinematic in how it’s there to paint a thematic picture. The camera would pan along the little flags, the leaking oil, a broken pen, and quick handshakes.

The novel is very relevant.

page 49 of 608 of The Grapes of Wrath

Like ‘100 Years of Solitude’, this is another book I’ve always wanted to read but never got around to.

Actually I’m glad I waited because younger me would not have appreciated this novel the way slightly older me can.

What occurred to me right from the start is how unfortunate it is that there is no longer any art left to draw attention to the problems of the world, it’s like the banks took art away too.

The Pastures of Heaven: Read from May 23 to 26, 2013

A funny thing happened to me as I was reading this book – I forgot that Steinbeck wasn’t quite being literal. Yet the characters fell so alive, the valley seems like such a real place that you fall into its spell almost immediately. Not until the end when the tourists are looking down into the valley (much like how the book begins) do we feel how Las Pasturas del Cielo is a promised land and we are all still wandering around the dry California scrag like so many little American Moses’.

I wonder how someone who has never lived in America would feel about this book? I’ve been reading a lot of novels from Russia and I always wonder what it is I’m missing because I am, in fact, unaware of all the nuance that a Russian author would take for granted of his Russian reader. And would a Russian not quite feel everything that an American would feel reading Steinbeck? The distance that separate us socially as a culture, our yearning for something new and to always be on the move, the easy calm mixed with religious firmness … are these things unique to America?

I don’t know.

I do know that Steinbeck writes about the inner yearning and nostalgia and dreams of Americans with an ease as gentle as the calm breeze of the valley of this book. He’s writing about ideals, about something much more firm than a place in the ground – he’s writing about us as a people in all our varied eccentricities, our hopes and our failures and above all, our idea of what we want our lives (and our country) to be about. Here in this book is a place where harsh politics and extremist religions are tempered with hard work, good neighbors and family. People are good, and though they may not always see eye to eye, they know how to work out their differences honorably.

That’s why Las Pasturas del Cielo isn’t a real place, and that’s why the tourists at the end can’t seem to figure out that living in heaven is as simple as just walking out of the desert and into the valley. Life is complicated, life moves quickly, we grasp onto things that aren’t really firm in hopes of finding happiness in things. And yet Las Pasturas del Cielo is still there, waiting, and hoping we will all get our acts together, put aside the things in life that aren’t really that important, and just ‘go home’.

Steinbeck is writing about a very conservative ideal, but it’s the American ideal. It’s quaint, it’s hard work, but it’s full of a joy and a simplicity we wish we had more of.

Anyway, this is a wonderful book but it’s easy to forget what an artistic masterpiece this is because of its simple, idealist subject matter. Steinbeck very simply and vividly created an entire community full of living breathing people, he described the very minutest details of everyday people, and brings them to life with a uniquely American economy of words. And each story grows more mature as the book goes on, the themes a little darker, more bittersweet, but always hopeful.

I suppose a lot of readers would find the book old-fashioned, its art antiquated and its subject matter far too conservative, but there for a book about a place that doesn’t exist, there is something firm here that I can feel in my very soul that no postmodern expression could ever hope to capture. This is a book about how we could be as much as it is about how we are. It’s about a place that has never existed but we wish existed. It’s a book that everyone should read after taking a deep breath.

I hope Steinbeck will soon enjoy a renaissance because too many school kids have been forced to read him when they’re far too young to really get him and so think of his as some quaint American throwback. Yet there is real art here and it’s a kind of art we could stand to have a little more of.

page 162 of 207 of The Pastures of Heaven

While I’ll admit that Steinbeck has a slight tendency to get a little too close to sentimentality and casts some of his characters into a little too kind of a light, his ability to understand how people interact with each other is unparalleled.

His observations of human nature are spot-on and he’s at his best when he leaves a character’s story open ended.

I can’t think of any writer more American.

page 120 of 207 of The Pastures of Heaven

I’ve read the story of Junius and Robbie before many, many years ago and it always stayed with me. The image of sitting on a tree branch, barefooted in the river and lazy for days on end while philosophizing about whatever with a good friend is my idea of heaven. I can think of nothing better. Neither could Steinbeck, I imagine, since the ending of the story always makes me so sad.

All his stories have heartbreak

page 50 of 207 of The Pastures of Heaven

There is an interesting thread running through each of these stories (other than the shared location) and this is of tortured creativity. The father who keeps a fake ledger, the simple boy who can draw anything, and the deranged girl who makes up stories: they are all disappointed by their art.

I LOVE Steinbeck. He might very well be my favorite author. His style is so vivid, so simple … he’s perfection.