Anniversary Post: The Grapes of Wrath

The Grapes of WrathExactly 75 years ago today, The Grapes of Wrath won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction. It is such a great book, which shows humanity at its very best during the hardest of times. It’s remarkable that just a couple of years later, Ayn Rand would publish The Fountainhead — the psychopathic answer to it. A book that answers Steinbeck’s question, “What is it to be a human?” Rand’s answer: to act like a reptile.

The book starts with a drought and ends with a flood — and through it all, the Joads manage on. I am, I suppose, an optimist. I actually think that the Joads are a good representation of who we are as a species — flawed and slow to learn as we may be. It goes along with my 95/5 theory. I think that 95% of all people just want to live their quiet lives. All the problems in the world are due to 5% of the people who ruin everything for the rest of us. A great deal of cultural effort goes into explaining how we would be lost without that 5% — too much effort if it were such a social good.

What most struck me when I first read The Grapes of Wrath was the ending. I don’t think there has ever been such a beautiful ending to a novel. A Tale of Two Cities is also great. It’s ending is beautiful, “It is a far, far better thing that I do, than I have ever done; it is a far, far better rest that I go to than I have ever known.” But it is pale compared to this, which still makes me cry:

For a minute Rose of Sharon sat still in the whispering barn. Then she hoisted her tired body up and drew the comfort about her. She moved slowly to the corner and stood looking down at the wasted face, into the wide, frightened eyes. Then slowly she lay down beside him. He shook his head slowly from side to side. Rose of Sharon loosened one side of the blanket and bared her breast. “You got to,” she said. She squirmed closer and pulled his head close. “There!” she said. “There.” Her hand moved behind his head and supported it. Her fingers moved gently in his hair. She looked up and across the barn, and her lips came together and smiled mysteriously.

Happy anniversary to the public acknowledgement of the greatness of The Grapes of Wrath!

2 thoughts on “Anniversary Post: The Grapes of Wrath

  1. The book’s taken some heat over the decades from critics who point out that people in dire circumstances are usually less noble, not more. And that’s fair. But for one thing it’s not journalism, it’s a call to action. And for another we know that some people in dire circumstances do behave wonderfully. It happens all the time; it’s happening now. Unlike the super-rich doing anything good for society, which is rare enough to qualify as some kind of freak astronomical event.

    • What’s key, I think, is that the social bonds are maintained. People are noble in that context. People normally behave badly because they are alienated. The worst human behavior is done in pursuit of power not survival.

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