John Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath
John Steinbeck’s portrayal of farm workers gives a sense of history even as it allows us to see how far we have come as a nation
On a flight back from Washington, D.C., last week, as I finished the last hundred pages of John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath, I felt the emptiness that comes from reading a work whose characters have come to inhabit your world.
Growing up in India on British literature, I had not experienced the pleasure of reading Steinbeck in high school or college. I doubt that, given the lack of exposure to anything American back then, I would have found the book as deeply moving as now, more than three decades into my life in the U.S.
This brilliant masterpiece, published in 1939, won both a Pulitzer and was specifically cited by the Nobel Committee when it awarded Steinbeck the honor in 1962. The Nobel Committee’s picks are often not easy to read. A couple of years ago, I read East of Eden. But Grapes I loved.
The impetus to read this novel grew out of seeing the miles of vineyards flanking 101 South on the drive to and from Santa Barbara County this past Labor Day. The title led me to believe that the novel was about the grape pickers of California. (It isn’t, as a google search showed me. It goes back to the Bible or a song written at the time of the Civil War.) As I plan to cover all aspects of winemaking, understanding the history of everything, including grape growing, was key. That was my thinking when I picked up the book.
Written during the Great Depression, the novel traces the migration of the Joad family from Oklahoma to the Central Valley in California. Surprisingly for me, it is not about grape pickers. In the few days of farm work that Joad family members find, they pick peaches and cotton. Till the very end I waited for vineyards to materialize. Then came the realization that California was still reeling from the Prohibition, which ended only in 1933; farmers could not have seen a future in grapes at the time Steinbeck wrote his opus.
Farming, then and now
While big players still gobble up the small, much else has changed. Just this past summer, California passed a law that phases in overtime and a shorter work day over the next several years. Farm workers now earn a minimum wage and some communities are dedicated to ensuring proper living conditions for workers and education for their children. And now, instead of a glut of workers fleeing the Dust Bowl, the industry reports a severe labor shortage. This is bad news for the growers, who have a short window to have the fruit picked.
All these factors go into the making of the equation that enables the production of a glass of wine. Every side has its story and limitations and aspirations. With much more awareness of sources of food, consumers want to know the struggles and triumphs, natural and manmade. To me, this is the true story behind wine, which Steinbeck revealed to me in greater depth.
Most pertinent to my constant assessment of my preferences, as the time I spend in my adopted country puts a greater distance between me and the country where I was born, is the realization that had I read this book three decades ago, the author’s words would not have imprinted themselves on my brain. It is a sign of my assimilation that I now relate to the journey across the continent in ways impossible even fifteen years ago. Or maybe not. Almost two decades ago I remember being similarly moved by Émile Zola’s Germinal, his novel about coal miners in northern France. Maybe it was the subject: the aspiration of those who work hard but can’t earn enough to fill their bellies. At that time I had thought it was my intellectual proximity to European literature that made me relate. I don’t know.
When I picked up Grapes, I had read no reviews of the work, but the vineyards of Santa Barbara County had created a frame of reference, albeit faulty. On completion of the book, when I read reviews I was not surprised to find that some readers vilified Steinbeck for his harsh portrayal of farm workers and those who hired them. But isn’t that what happens to authors who hold up a mirror to society? And when we don’t like what we see, we work for change.
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