The wisdom of John Steinbeck and Grapes of Wrath

It is indeed the coming face to face with poverty, the realization that we cannot do anything grander than spread the word and share the knowledge of the horror with others, that we must respond according to our own gifts and not according to a prescribed notion, that action comes from the heart.

 The Writer’s Almanac for April 14, 2011 featured John Steinbeck and the backstory of his novel The Grapes of Wrath.  The entire piece is worth reading, but here’s a summary.

Steinbeck’s was assigned by Fortune magazine to write about the camps in Calfornia in the late 1930s.  The tour opened his eyes to the residents’ suffering, water a foot deep in the tents, no food, no fire; his intentions to rescue a boy from a jail sentence for theft when Steinbeck clearly thought the boy was forced to steal to survive.  Steinbeck could have written a quick piece and moved on.  He could have closed his eyes to the reality that he found. Steinbeck’s response was “…the argument that one person’s effort can’t really do anything doesn’t seem to apply when you come on a bunch of starving children and you have a little money. I can’t rationalize it for myself anyway.

When newspaper and magazine articles didn’t garner the attention he thought the situation needed (his editors apparently weren’t impacted as much as Steinbeck was; or were shying away from the controversy) , Steinbeck determined to do more.  The situation had grabbed hold of his heart and wouldn’t let him go.  His response was the novel “The Grapes of Wrath”. The novel’s title is said to have been borrowed from the lines of the “The Battle Hymn of the Republic”: “Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord;/He is trampling out the vintage where the grapes of wrath are stored.” Steinbeck knew the novel was “mean, nasty” and he intended it that way, hoping to jar readers into seeing the truths that Steinbeck saw. 

What’s the face-to-face I am ignoring today?

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