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John Steinbeck’s “The Grapes Of Wrath” was published 75 years ago this month. The epic work tells the story of Oklahoma farmers migrating to California after the dust bowl of the 1930s.
It won the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award. To mark the anniversary, there’s a beautiful new special edition of the book, published with the original cover painting and the original notes on the book flap.
Literary critic Steve Almond says of Steinbeck, “this guy, literally in the crucible of his artistic subconscious, I think, produced the great American novel.” Almond joins Here & Now’s Robin Young to discuss “The Grapes of Wrath.”
ROBIN YOUNG, HOST:
It's HERE AND NOW.
"The Grapes of Wrath," John Steinbeck's epic novel about Oklahoma farmers migrating to California to flee the Dust Bowl of the 1930s, was published 75 years ago this month. It won the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award, and it was made into an Oscar-winning film in 1940; Henry Fonda starring as Tom Joad, the young man just paroled from prison, to the surprise of his family.
(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "THE GRAPES OF WRATH")
JANE DARWELL: (As Ma Joad) Oh, thank God. Thank God. Tommy!
HENRY FONDA: (As Tom Joad) Ma.
YOUNG: Ma. Never has one word carried so much weight. Now, there's a new edition of "The Grapes of Wrath" to mark the 75th anniversary, and our literary critic Steve Almond has some thoughts. Steve, how many times have you read this book?
STEVE ALMOND, BYLINE: Many, many. An embarrassing number of times.
YOUNG: And you re-read it now?
YOUNG: Did you find anything new?
ALMOND: You always find things new in this book because it is like a whole bunch of different books in one book. It's the story - a story of personal struggle, family struggle, of a larger migrant struggle. It's a story of how wealth and poverty collide in this country. It's a story of moral and religious redemption. It's a story of environmental ruin. It's got all this stuff going on.
And the way that Steinbeck writes it, he basically used everything at his disposal - uses all of the rhythms of the King James Bible, for instance, the kind of dramatic structure of a Greek drama. He was interested in folk music, photographs, documentary film, other writers - like Dos Passos, who he was borrowing from. So this guy, literally in the crucible of his artistic subconscious, I think, produced the great American novel.
YOUNG: So how do you really feel about it?
ALMOND: Well, I'm mezzo-mezzo.
YOUNG: Well, let's tell people more about - most know but maybe in a distant memory - Tom Joad. Some compare him to, you know, he is an older Huck Finn. I mean, that iconic. Here's another scene from the film "Grapes of Wrath," directed John Ford in 1940. And the Joads are now on their way to California. They stop at a gas station in New Mexico. And Pa, Tom's dad, negotiates with a waitress at the diner for a loaf of bread.
(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "THE GRAPES OF WRATH")
KITTY MCHUGH: (As Mae) This here's a 15-cent loaf.
RUSSELL SIMPSON: (As Pa Joad) Well, would you - could you see your way to cutting off 10 cents' worth?
HARRY TYLER: (As Bert) Give him the loaf.
SIMPSON: (As Pa Joad) No, sir. We want to buy 10 cents' worth, that's all.
YOUNG: Steve Almond, it sounds almost too righteous through the 2014 ear.
ALMOND: Gosh. To me, it sounds like what a lot of people's actual experiences are in this country and all over the planet.
YOUNG: Even now? Even now? Yeah.
ALMOND: Yeah. I think people are still actually nutritionally deprived in great poverty and trying to protect their pride in the midst of that, but needing their fellow men and their government to be compassionate. And, of course, it was greeted with incredible wrath, shall we say, from, for instance, the farmers - the big farmers in California who were being written about. They're the villains of the book. These migrants who arrived in California are pretty poorly treated. They're expecting the promised land. And the farmers were really in an, you know, in an uproar about this. They burned the book.
YOUNG: They accused John Steinbeck of being a communist.
ALMOND: They absolutely did. In fact, Steinbeck knew that he was going to be let in for criticism. Part of the reason he named the book "The Grapes of Wrath" - it was actually his wife's suggestion, but that's taken from - originally, it comes from the Book of Revelations, but it was taken from "The Battle Hymn of the Republic." And in this new addition, which is the original, the 75th anniversary, you can tell that there is a single page of "The Battle Hymn of the Republic." Steinbeck wanted that whole song printed to try to ward off the accusations that he was a communist. I don't think he's a communist. I think he was arguing for greater compassion. He was arguing for social justice.
But it's also about a lot of other things as well. One thing that people forget is that Tom Joad is an unrepentant murderer at the beginning of this book. He's been released from prison. And one of the most powerful arcs of the book is that he is saved. By the end, he is somebody who's ready to move out into the world, focused on inhumanity and, you know, enforcing justice.
YOUNG: Well, I guess, that's what I meant. Because hearing the father say, no, sir, we want to pay for it...
YOUNG: ...you know, it tells us, you know, so good. But there are flaws in characters in the story.
ALMOND: Oh, absolutely. I mean, Rev. Jim Casy is, on the one hand, a man of great spirituality, and he's really this prophetic figure. Jim Casy - J.C.; the initials are no coincidence. And at the same time, he has libidinal appetites that have caused him to fall from grace. The way it's written, people forget, too, that Steinbeck both had a straight narrative style, but he also had these little chapters that are written almost in this kind of improvisatory jazz. I mean, the actual prose that Steinbeck produced in this book is astonishing. And I am begging you, let me read just a little bit.
YOUNG: I thought I was going to have to beg you.
ALMOND: No, you are not - ever.
YOUNG: There you go.
ALMOND: So this is how he deals with the natural landscape, and you can just hear the biblical rhythms here. (Reading) A large drop of sun lingered on the horizon and then dripped over and was gone, and the sky was brilliant over the spot where it had gone, and a torn cloud, like a bloody rag, hung over the spot of its going. And dusk crept over the sky from the eastern horizon, and darkness crept over the land from the east.
Nothing fancy. Part of what makes the book, to me, kind of amazingly prescient, there's almost no issue that we're struggling with today that isn't somehow written about in "The Grapes of Wrath." If you want to talk about undocumented workers, if you want to talk about our corporations, people, you know, John Steinbeck is directly addressing that question. At one point, there are a bunch of migrants who've been kicked off their land and one says, yes, but the bank is only made of men. And the men from the bank respond, no, you're wrong there, quite wrong there. The bank is something else than men. It happens that every man in a bank hates what the bank does, and yet the bank does it. The bank is something more than men. I tell you, it's the monster. Men made it, but they can't control it.
YOUNG: Well - and speaking of which, the Weedpatch migrant camp, where the Joads end up when they get to California, we understand it's still operating.
ALMOND: It is still operating. One of the amazing things about the book is that Steinbeck knew that he had an epic that he was going to write. He spent months researching it. He spent much of the mid- and late-'30s with migrant workers. He wrote a long series of six articles for the San Francisco News, and he knew that he had the raw material of an American epic. He was really almost kind of crushed by the awareness that he had this great book that he wanted to write, this large tale that was both personal but also societal; that was sort of economic but also moral.
And he was plagued by the pressure of it as he's writing it. In his journals, you can tell that he is really weighted by the idea of, I've got to get this right. And he wrote about it: (Reading) I've done my darnedest to rip a reader's nerves to rags. I tried to write this book the way lives are being lived, not the way books are written.
He wanted the book to become a part of the culture immediately, and it did. I mean, if you think about the idea that a major industry was burning this book and you - you know, you move forward to 2014, that's quite astonishing. Can you imagine a novel that would move a major industry to burn it? That speaks to how much of a nerve Steinbeck was hitting in.
YOUNG: It's a reminder, too, that we tend to think today that the debate over the worker - one that has to do with race or ethnicity. And for some people, it might. I mean...
YOUNG: ...this is a - you know, today we're talking about largely Hispanic undocumented workers. But this was a story about white Caucasians.
ALMOND: That's absolutely right on the nose. And the thing that really redeems the book, for me, is that it's suggesting two very powerful things. One, the hero of the book - if there is kind of a hero - is the government. The government camp is the one place where these migrant workers are treated with dignity, where they're given half a chance, where they're protected from the corruption of these deputies who are ready to bop them on the head at the orders of these rich farmers. And what did the migrant workers want to do that gets them in all this trouble? They want to unionize.
What Steinbeck was saying was not, let's be communists, let's be socialists. He was saying, let's be compassionate, let's be humane, let's recognize that suffering in the world is partly our responsibility.
YOUNG: Let's be American.
ALMOND: That's right.
YOUNG: Yeah. Steve Almond, HERE AND NOW literary critic, on the 75th anniversary of John Steinbeck's Pulitzer Prize-winning "The Grapes of Wrath," which we think he read for the 75th time.
YOUNG: Steve, thanks so much.
ALMOND: Pleasure to be here.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE GHOST OF TOM JOAD)
BRUCE SPRINGSTEEN: (Singing) I'm sitting down here in the campfire light, waiting on the ghost of Tom Joad...
YOUNG: "Ghost of Tom Joad," Bruce Springsteen - listen while you read it again. HERE AND NOW is a production of NPR and WBUR Boston, in association with the BBC World Service. I'm Robin Young.
JEREMY HOBSON, HOST:
I'm Jeremy Hobson. This is HERE AND NOW.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, “THE GHOST OF TOM JOAD”) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.