Movies in Literature Part 2: John Steinbeck’s ‘The Grapes of Wrath’

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This novel came out in 1939. Steinbeck was trying to write, as he put it, a ‘truly American book’ – to speak to the people, through the troubles of the Great Depression. It’s a wonderful piece on that time.. One thing I like about this book is the way that it attempts to offer a “universality” that could speak to everyone, while at the same time remaining dispersive in its writing style.. It doesn’t assume that the poorest people, who were generally the least educated, only want to hear a good story..

The sequence below is from Chapter 23 of The Grapes of Wrath. This chapter has no relation really to the novel’s “story” as such and instead has a meditative, essayistic feel – it weaves its way through various amusements of the migrants of the Depression, moving from oral storytelling to cinema, then on to drunkenness, music, sex and religion. I’m quoting just the bits on storytelling and cinema – if you’d like to read the full chapter, please follow the link after..

*****

  The migrant people, scuttling for work, scrabbling to live, looked always for pleasure, dug for pleasure, manufactured pleasure, and they were hungry for amusement. Sometimes amusement lay in speech, and they climbed up their lives with jokes. And it came about in the camps along the roads, on the ditch banks beside the streams, under the sycamores, that the story teller grew into being, so that the people gathered in the low firelight to hear the gifted ones. And they listened while the tales were told, and their participation made the stories great.

  I was a recruit against Geronimo-

  And the people listened, and their quiet eyes reflected the dying fire.

  Them Injuns was cute – slick as snakes, an’ quiet when they wanted. Could go through dry leaves, an’ make no rustle. Try to do that sometimes.

  And the people listened and remembered the crash of dry leaves under their feet.

  Come the change of season an’ the clouds up. Wrong time. Ever hear of the army doing anything right? Give the army ten chances, an’ they’ll stumble along. Took three regiments to kill a hundred braves- always.

  And the people listened, and their faces were quiet with listening. The story tellers, gathering attention into their tales, spoke in great rhythms, spoke in great words because the tales were great, and the listeners became great through them.

  They was a brave on a ridge, against the sun. Knowed he stood out. Spread his arms an’ stood. Naked as morning, an’ against the sun. Maybe he was crazy. I don’ know. Stood there, arms spread out; like a cross he looked. Four hunderd yards. An’ the men- well, they raised their sights an’ they felt the wind with their fingers; an’ then they jus’ lay there an’ couldn’ shoot. Maybe that Injun knowed somepin. Knowed we couldn’ shoot. Jes’ laid there with the rifles cocked, an’ didn’ even put ’em to our shoulders. Lookin’ at him. Headband, one feather. Could see it, an’ naked as the sun. Long time we laid there an’ looked, an’ he never moved. An’ then the captain got mad. “Shoot, you crazy bastards, shoot!” he yells. An’ we jus’ laid there. “I’ll give you to a five-count, an’ then mark you down,” the captain says. Well sir- we put up our rifles slow, an’ ever’ man hoped somebody’d shoot first. I ain’t never been so sad in my life. An’ I laid my sights on his belly, ’cause you can’t stop a Injun no other place- an’- then. Well, he jest plunked down an’ rolled. An’ we went up. An’ he wasn’t big- he’d looked so grand- up there. All tore to pieces an’ little. Ever see a cock pheasant, stiff and beautiful, ever’ feather drawed an’ painted, an’ even his eyes drawed in pretty? An’ bang! You pick him up- bloody an’ twisted, an’ you spoiled somepin better’n you; an’ eatin’ him don’t never make it up to you, ’cause you spoiled somepin in yaself, an’ you can’t never fix it up.

  And the people nodded, and perhaps the fire spurted a little light and showed their eyes looking in on themselves.

  Against the sun, with his arms out. An’ he looked big- as God.

  And perhaps a man balanced twenty cents between food and pleasure, and he went to a movie in Marysville or Tulare, in Ceres or Mountain View. And he came back to the ditch camp with his memory crowded. And he told how it was:

  They was this rich fella, an’ he makes like he’s poor, an’ they’s this rich girl, an’ she purtends like she’s poor too, an’ they meet in a hamburg’ stan’.

  Why?

  I don’t know why- that’s how it was.

  Why’d they purtend like they’s poor?

  Well, they’re tired of bein’ rich.

  Horseshit!

  You want to hear this, or not?

  Well, go on then. Sure. I wanta hear it, but if I was rich, if I was rich I’d git so many pork chops- I’d cord ’em up aroun’ me like wood, an’ I’d eat my way out. Go on.

  Well, they each think the other one’s poor. An’ they git arrested an’ they git in jail, an’ they don’t git out ’cause the other one’d find out the first one is rich. An’ the jail keeper, he’s mean to ’em ’cause he thinks they’re poor. Oughta see how he looks when he finds out. Jes’ nearly faints, that’s all.

  What they git in jail for?

  Well, they git caught at some kind a radical meetin’ but they ain’t radicals. They jes’ happen to be there. An’ they don’t each one wanta marry fur money, ya see.

  So the sons-of-bitches start lyin’ to each other right off.

  Well, in the pitcher it was like they was doin’ good. They’re nice to people, you see.

  I was to a show oncet that was me, an’ more’n me; an’ my life, an’ more’n my life, so ever’thing was bigger.

  Well, I git enough sorrow. I like to git away from it.

  Sure- if you can believe it.

  So they got married, an’ they foun’ out, an’ all them people that’s treated ’em mean. They was a fella had been uppity, an’ he nearly fainted when this fella come in with a plug hat on. Jes’ nearly fainted. An’ they was a newsreel with them German soldiers kickin’ up their feet- funny as hell.

*****

My reading of this sequence can be found here.

The full text of the novel can be found here.

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2 responses to “Movies in Literature Part 2: John Steinbeck’s ‘The Grapes of Wrath’

  1. Have you ever listened to Springsteen’s “The Ghost of Tom Joad” record?

  2. Indeed I have- I’m a big fan of that record and I like a lot of Springsteen.. Nebraska is also incredible. I’m very much into We Shall Overcome at the moment, which is possibly better than both, not that you can compare these things when so different..

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