In August, I’ll be participating in the John Steinbeck Classics Circuit, so this week I decided to revisit The Grapes of Wrath, one of three Steinbeck works I have read and hated (the other two are The Pearl and Of Mice and Men). I often wonder, in the case of the other two, whether my dislike wasn’t largely a matter of reading these books in secondary school and (a) not having them taught very well or (b) not being ready for them myself, but I never wonder that about The Grapes of Wrath. Because of that, and because it’s the only one of the three I actually own, I picked it up for the first time in over ten years and read the first chapter.
The novel alternates between chapters about the Joad family, an unlucky brood from Oklahoma that migrates to California during the Dust Bowl and finds itself still poor and starving in its new home, and chapters about the land and the migrants as a whole. In the beginning, before the migration begins, that second group of chapters sets the scene. The opening chapter is one of these and is beautiful, gives me hope that Steinbeck and I could get along someday.
The the red country and part of the gray country of Oklahoma, the last rains came gently, and they did not cut the scarred earth. The plows crossed and recrossed the rivulet marks. The last rains lifted the corn quickly and scattered weed colonies and grass along the sides of the roads so that the gray country and the dark red country began to disappear under a green cover.
He’ll go on to describe the whole summer: after this first rain, there won’t be much more, and the corn and weeds will dry out, a layer of dust will form across the country, and then the wind will come, raising the dust into the air and driving it everywhere. The drying out too will change the color of the land, lightening the red to pink and the gray to white.
These descriptions are slow and careful, and probably bored me as a high school student, but now I take them as a sign of care and watchfulness and attachment to the land. I also notice a quiet artfulness in many of Steinbeck’s descriptions. Above, the “rains lifted the corn” (emphasis added), cars “boiled” clouds of dust behind them, “the wind felt over the earth,” “the corn threshed the wind.” These verb choices are excellent—not at all showy, not at all boring, not what you’d expect but perfect.
The end of the chapter describes the reaction of the people when the wind finally stops and the dust drops out of the air, and perfectly sets up everything that will come after:
The men were silent and they did not moved often. And the women came out of the houses to stand beside their men—to feel whether this time the men would break. The women studied the men’s faces secretly, for the corn could go, as long as something else remained. The children stood near by, drawing figures in the dust with bare toes, and the children sent exploring senses to see whether men and women would break. … After a while the faces of the watching men lost their bemused perplexity and became hard and angry and resistant. Then the women knew they were safe and that there was no break. Then they asked, What’ll we do? And the men replied, I don’t know. But it was all right. The women knew it was all right, and the watching children knew it was all right. Women and children knew deep in themselves that no misfortune was too great to bear if their men were whole.
The men’s wholeness, and the women’s and children, will be tested, and the question of whether they break is not at all answered yet. The other question, of “What’ll we do?” will have to be answered over and over again by each of them first.