I have been listening to a series of hour long programs called The Big Read, produced in association with the National Endowment for the Arts. The CDs are available here at the Superior Library. Libraries are the one institution I am happy to pay taxes for, and the set of CDs has been interesting thus far. Tomorrow I will listen to a program on Jack London's Call of the Wild. Today, Ernest Hemingway's A Farewell to Arms. Yesterday, John Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath.
The title of Steinbeck's book was taken from a line in the Battle Hymn of the Republic, which in turn finds its roots in Biblical literature. Many of us recall studying it in high school English class. I was in Mr. Harris' class at the time and there was something about the way he taught it that made the book come alive for me, both as a saga of the period it covers, the Great Depression, and as a work of art. To this day I can recall that chapter three is about a turtle crossing the highway, and how Steinbeck used this incident to symbolically foreshadow the rest of the novel and the story of the Joad family. This simple explanation deepened my appreciation for literary imagery. And a careful reading of my own fiction will yield far more than meets the eye, if you know how to look.
According to The Big Read, Steinbeck's novel here is truly the "Great American Novel." Their rationale is that it shows truths about America in a vivid light, and America is its theme.
It's hard for me to pick one book as the greatest, so I wonder who these self-confident people are who get to make such momentous decisions.
As for the book itself, The Grapes of Wrath caused an enormous stir when it was published. Hundreds of thousands of people read the book the first year, and it wasn't long before a Hollywood epic starring Henry Fonda as Tom Joad was produced. And it wasn't long before Kern County in California banned the book. At first they tried to ban it on the basis of its untruths and the way it portrayed the California powers that be. When this approach failed, it was banned as obscene, perhaps based on the final scene of a man, dying of starvation, sucking on a woman's teat after her infant's stillborn birth.
This memorable and shocking image made an impact. But to call it obscene is to miss the point, obviously. The irony here is that mankind, as crown of creation, has survived by being "the fittest." But the dust bowl and political circumstances were a real test to what it means to maintain dignity.
Steinbeck won the Nobel Prize in 1961, a worthy recipient of this award, in my opinion. He went on to write many other fine stories and books, including one of the novellas on my Top Ten list, Of Mice and Men. If you've not read Steinbeck, you owe it to yourself to make a new literary acquaintance.
1. According to the people producing this series, The Big Read, reading has been in serious decline. Do you believe this is true? Or are people reading other things besides "classic literature"... such as magazines, blogs and other kinds of online content?
2. If you had to choose but one, what book would you select as the Great American Novel?