Monday, February 27, 2012

Still Haunted by Tom Joad

Today is the birthday of John Steinbeck, whose critical reputation has had its ups and downs.  When I was in high school in the early 80's, he seemed an accepted great American writer.  In grad school, people were eager to shoot holes in his accomplishments.  I'm not sure where his reputation is today, but his work still reads well almost 100 years after he wrote it, and that's no small feat.

I loved Steinbeck's work as a teenager, despite having to read The Grapes of Wrath in one single school night. It was my fault, really. We had had plenty of time to complete the assignment.  In the eleventh grade, we were supposed to have the first several chapters of the book read, and my teacher figured out that none of us had read it. She said, "Well, you're having a quiz tomorrow. On the whole book. We'll spend the rest of the period reading. Go ahead. Take out your books. Get started."
Luckily, the plot perked right along, and I'm a fast reader, so it wasn't too bad.

And then, last year, I read the book again.  An old college friend of mine is trying to make himself read more classics, and sometimes, I read with him.  Sometimes I get to suggest works.  He recently loved Jane Eyre.  I felt inordinately proud of the fact that he loved it, even though I didn't write it--but I did suggest it.

And so, a year ago, we decided to read The Grapes of Wrath at about the same time.  I even read it on a plane, not the place where I like to revisit classic literature.

I had forgotten how beautiful the prose can be. I think of Steinbeck as a master of creating great characters, and he is. But alternating with each chapter that tells the story of the Joads comes an alternating chapter that tells about the historical situation with great lyrical intensity. The prose breaks my heart with joy for the fact that it lies there, nestled in between the narrative chapters. The history behind it breaks my heart.
I think back to my own farming people, not that many generations ago. How did they hang on to their land? My relatives of my grandparents' generation remember the Depression, and they remember that they wore holes in their shoes and patched their clothes again and again, but they were always well-fed, with enough to share, because they lived on the farm. They lived on Southern farms--maybe that was the trick. If they had lived on Kansas farms, my family's trajectory would have been very different.

Reading the book also breaks my heart because it still seems so relevant. All those people, losing their livelihoods and their possessions and their very lives, because of corporate policies--true for the Joads and true for us. I expected the book to seem like a historical artifact, but it vibrates with pertinence.

Part of me wants to revisit more Steinbeck.  Part of me wants to leave well enough alone.  Part of me wants to create a fictional family that will come to symbolize a whole generation.  But I would worry that as with Steinbeck, people might assume that my work was more artifact than living literature.

I think it's interesting how Tom Joad and his family continue to haunt our national consciousness and find their way into all sorts of pop culture. One of my favorite Bruce Springsteen songs is "The Ghost of Tom Joad."  I also love the cover version done by Rage Against the Machine on their Renegades album. Long ago, I was a member of a Rage Against the Machine group, and I got intriguing things in the mail. Long ago, I got a vinyl 45 of the song, long before it appeared on any album. Later, I was so happy to see the song on a CD that I could buy, back in the days when I assumed that CDs would be the way we'd experience music forever.

Go here to take a look at Springsteen singing "The Ghost of Tom Joad" with Tom Morello.  Then ponder how all the other ways that Tom Joad could function as a metaphor for our own time.  Sports stadiums, anyone?  The medical-industrial complex?  Students being preyed upon by schools that will let them accrue monstrous debt?

Who will be the great artists of this current depression? I'd probably look at people who have been writing about the dispossessed even when our national leaders denied their existence. I'd nominate Bruce Springsteen, whose song "The Ghost of Tom Joad" moves me to tears each time I hear it.   I want to write like that.

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