THE WRATHFUL GRAPES
The Grapes of Wrath, John Steinbeck.
The first chapter of this novel was excellent. It is three pages long.
Chapter 2, Chapter 3, Chapter 4 – at the end of that reading I had a hint, becoming suspicions, impressions and conclusions that if an editor did a hard read of this novel, they would shake 50,000 words from it, lose no content and make it more intelligible and comprehensible.
I had a sharper reaction. It seemed written by a government employee or someone working on a government program. So I checked, and I was correct. John Steinbeck spent time during the 1930s on the Federal Writers Project. No telling what he did, but government writing did do very little for him. It left Steinbeck very undisciplined. The only discipline he had was writing an outline which he followed but didn’t know how to use. This novel is the result of any government activism in the arts – poor works of literature, badly composed music, ill-conceived sculptures and paintings by applying colors identified by numbers.
Should anyone write a novel like The Grapes following an outline? It is impossible to figure out at the beginning. The length of this novel is about 200,000 words. Notating this point, explicating that point and figuring out the relationship between them is important, and how to express each, but a detailed outline [I. A. B. 1. 2. a. b.]? Idiots believe they can use microscopic analysis to make every point, identify every adverb and specify every comma and period for 200,000 words.
Indeed, reading WordPress blogs for two months, I’ve come across posts acclaiming the benefits of outlining without the writers telling what their outlines consist of, or how they are used or how the outline prompts their imaginations to produce any passage, chapter or book making the novel, story or writing memorable and excellent. Moreover, I’ve seen a blog advertise a “Storyboard” for novelists, like film writers do so they have illustrations they can show actors, art directors, directors and producers [people who do not read]. This is outlining at its worst, and removes the imagination of any writer from the process. These Storyboards reveal the accuracy and truth of George Owell’s analysis (my previous blog READ ORWELL):
“It would probably not be beyond human ingenuity to write books by machinery…Even more machine-like is the production of short stories, serials and poems for the very cheap magazines. Papers such as the Writer abound with advertisements of Literary Schools, all of them offering you ready-made plots at a few shillings a time. Some, together with the plot, supply the opening and closing sentences of each chapter. Others furnish you with a sort of algebraical formula…” (Orwell, “The Prevention of Literature,” January 2, 1946.)
Chapter 5 of The Grapes starts with 2,000 words of presentation. [Chapter 5 itself starts 10,000 words into the novel]. I suppose readers are to pay attention to identified parties – landowners, tenants, spokesmen for landowners, the Company, the banks. Steinbeck attempts to set up the relationships of all the people, and their visceral reactions to one another. In all those 2,000 words is not one character, no one to sympathize with, no one to hate, just Steinbeck’s raw, clunky social propaganda. The outcome to this outlined argument might be, tenants should remain on the land for free, although neither they nor anyone else can farm the land or otherwise live there without public assistance.
The beginning of Chapter 5 begins raw, didactic, cold and unfeeling:
“The owners of the land came onto the land, or more often a spokesman for the owners came. They came in closed cars, and they felt the dry earth with their fingers, and sometimes they drove big earth augers into the ground for soil tests. The tenants, from their sun-beaten dooryards, watched uneasily when the closed cars drove along the fields. And at last the owner men drove into the dooryards and sat in their cars to talk out of the windows. The tenant men stood beside the cars for a while, and then squatted on their hams and found sticks with which to mark the dust.
“In the open doors the women stood looking out, and behind them the children – corn-headed children, with wide eyes, one bare foot on top of the other bare feet, and the toes working. The women and the children watched their men talking to the owner men. They were silent.”
Let’s help Steinbeck out of this passage:
Tuffs of dust blew across the farms like last year, the dry earth yielding nothing to the red-brown sun. Closed cars motored among the farmhouses sited in the wide fields. Everyone knew these men, met by tenants in their yards while their women and children watched from the doorways of the houses. Men rolled down the windows and looked: the hard life in the faces of the woman and children, wide, blank eyes, some barefooted, always thinking before moving.
These seven lines pick up the substance of the dozen lines of Steinbeck and provide the same impact. If readers need the children’s “toes working,” [I don’t know why that is important other than to show the kids were minutely active], it can be dropped in later. How about “the tenant men” squatting “on their hams and found sticks to mark the dust.” Other than being unclear, it is out of place where it is in Steinbeck’s paragraphs. It should happen after the conversation has gone on a while.
But as it is written, Steinbeck has no movement by any human being, no one is uncomfortable, no one reacts to anyone else. Steinbeck paints a poor still-life. Everyone is robotic, which makes his passage and the 1500 following words inhuman. There is point after point, point-of-view after point-of-view. Purportedly, humans adhere to some of them, but how many? How are they said to other human beings in that setting? Which points-of-view bring sadness or laughter? [For readers who say none of this is important, you are not fiction writers and likely you are poor non-fiction writers. Your strengths are in law, advertising and other PR pursuits.]
In reality ending tenant relationships and foreclosing on land produced very human situations during the 1930s. No one made money with the dust, drought and kicking tenants and other farmers of the land. In the 1930s America, there were thousands of local banks, and many representatives of landowners as well as landowners themselves. Most tenant farmers and farmers were part of the small community. Tenants knew the bankers, owners and representatives. They and indebted owners knew why they were in debt and that they would have to leave. They knew they could not make the land productive. It is also true that the tenants and land owners lived in communities for years or decades, knowing one another, socializing and sharing community responsibilities: Church, government, schools, community events.
These is no indication in The Grapes that the landowners “in closed cars” knew anyone they were driving out to see. Likewise, did the tenants or debt-ridden landowners know anyone who was arriving “in closed cars.” Steinbeck conveys no community – a banker or owner having extended credit or forgiven a loan, or knowing something about the tenants, gone to school together, to church together, played sports together, knew about health problems in the family and knew about marriages and events affecting that family from the outside. The 1930s American midwest presented a cruel environment, once kind for so long and then taking away lives and livelihoods. And the bankers and owners were not detached; they were unhappy about the destruction of their local communities.
However, The Grapes fails to respond to these circumstances. The next writing from Chapter 5:
“Some of the men were kind because they hated what they had to do, and some of them were angry because they hated to be cruel, and some of them were cold because they had long ago found that one could not be an owner unless one were cold. And all of them were caught in something larger than themselves. Some of them hated mathematics that drove them, some of them were afraid, and some worshipped the mathematics because it provided a refuge from through and from feeling.”
I wouldn’t blame mathematics for a novelist’s inability to explain human circumstances within his medium. Nor would I give mathematics the burden of motivating owners, banks and companies. Mathematics are convenient to Steinbeck because they were abstract and let Steinbeck inaccurately describe the whole situation in a non-human way. Steinbeck is not a novelist. Novelists have told about much more complex situations: Riots, wars and meetings, and successful novelists relay thoughts and feelings. Steinbeck is guilty of the exact faults he attributes to the Banks and the Companies: There are no “thoughts” and no “feelings” in this passage. Perhaps Steinbeck gives those thoughts and feelings attached to characters later, but why is he repeating this passage later by adding human beings? He has to delete this passage or be consistent and delete the next.
There is a reason why Chapter 5 begins without an identifiable human being, 12,000 words into the novel. and goes on without any sense of story telling. Steinbeck merely goes from point to point. This is obviously someone used to writing for the government entities, stating out-of-date motives, craving money for sloppy work, but unconcerned about human beings.This passage displays no traits of a novel, but it characteristics are more like a government story or a textbook.
The film with Henry Fonda is far superior to this novel. Screenwriters have never had to luxury of writing distractions, big generalizations, insignificant minutae and off-point scenes. Henry Fonda was the ideal actor – bitter on demand and an instant sulk as he lived and griped his way on the road from Oklahoma to California. In some ways Henry got typecast to these roles. [I prefer Henry Fonda in “Once Upon A Time in the West.”]
For Schools, it is not acceptable to assign a fat book for students to read for any class, especially English. It the writing – use of language, characters, story, vocabulary – that should recommend a book to students. However, The Grapes is poor; students have nothing to learn from it. It should be marginalized, although it was once considered socially significant.
Today, the grapes are sour and outdated. Knowledge about debt and losing property is much better understood. Millions of people lost their houses or are now underwater. The shenanigans by buyers and sellers abused the whole system that will not be cleaned up. No one is innocent and many are completely guilty of raping a corruptible system. My favorite passing-the- buck-story was about loan forms signed by a woman in Florida through 2006, I believe. She signed thousands of loan forms, the basis for the debt instruments providing security [collateral] to the lenders. I can’t remember which bank or loaning company she worked for, but she didn’t get paid for her years of service because in 1995, she died.
Today, Steinbeck would call the banks, money givers, loan owners: MEANIES. Poor old so-and-so lost her husband just before losing her house (she’s been married six times, is eyeing number 7). She now has to work at a convenience store. Job training has taught her to smile during hold-ups. Security tapes reveal she has lost her front teeth. [Dental Care is not covered by Obamacare – screw everyone with bad teeth like Harry Reid and Ted Cruz.] The widow-lady can no longer pronounce fricatives; she walks around all day saying “uck,” “uck,” “uck.” She’s fired for swearing uncontrollably but brings a disability lawsuit for unjust unemployment. That’s the problem because Obamacare cannot fix the housing market.
MORAL to this story: It is easy to write a character even if the writing is nonsense.