Charlotte Allen, guest blogging at the LA Times claims Steinbeck's Grapes of Wrath is "bad fiction and bad history". Here is her case, in a nutshell:
...the insufferable Ma Joad (she's symbolic, so she doesn't have a first name) -- who oscillates between threatening to bash her menfolk with blunt instruments ("knock you belly-up with a bucket," "slap ya with a stick a stove wood") when they don't do what she wants and serving as a mouthpiece for Steinbeck's hick-collectivist platitudes: "Maybe if we was all mad in the same way."Bad History:
The nearly nonexistent story line is a chronicle of lugubrious misery, as the massive Joad family in its overloaded, "Beverly Hillbillies"-style car lurches from one tragic mishap to another on a trek to California that reads as though it takes weeks, if not months -- even though Route 66 was a state-of-the-art highway for its time and the journey could be easily accomplished in from three to six days.
The main reason people think that "The Grapes of Wrath" is a good novel is that in 1940, director John Ford managed to turn it into a first-rate movie, with the help of stellar acting (Henry Fonda as Tom Joad, Steinbeck's jailbird hero-on-the-lam), haunting chiaroscuro cinematography and the ditching of the novel's bizarre ending, which features "Rosasharn" breastfeeding a starving man in the spirit of proletarian solidarity.
Furthermore, Steinbeck got the Okies historically wrong, probably because he himself hailed from an upper-middle-class family in Salinas and his experience with Okies consisted of interviewing a few of them for some newspaper articles. Just for starters, he had the Joads hailing from Sallisaw, in the far eastern part of Oklahoma, even though the Dust Bowl was confined to the state's western panhandle.
Second, as University of Washington historian James N. Gregory pointed out in "American Exodus," his magisterial 1989 book about Okie culture in California, many Okies were far from the barely literate rural victims that Steinbeck made them out to be. They were actually part of the huge demographic migration of people from the Southwestern United States to California during the first half of the 20th century in search of better jobs and a better life. Only about half of the Depression-era Okies hailed from rural areas, Gregory pointed out, with the rest coming from towns and cities. Many were white-collar and industrial workers. About half of the Okies, "Arkies" and other Southwesterners settled in Los Angeles, the Bay Area and San Diego and never picked a single crop.
And although there was genuine misery in some of the migrant camps, conditions "were not uniformly horrible," Gregory wrote. Most Okies found a better standard of living. Many of them also quickly moved out of farm work into better-paying jobs in the oil industry and, when World War II broke out, in the burgeoning Southern California defense plants. By 1950, most Okies had secured comfortable working-class and lower-middle-class lifestyles, and some had downright prospered.
Furthermore -- and here the last laugh is on Steinbeck -- the Okies turned out to be the exact opposite of progressive collectivists, becoming the backbone of California's political and social conservatism. Instead of fomenting a workers revolution, they led the Reagan Revolution. In "The Grapes of Wrath," Steinbeck relentlessly mocks the Okies' Pentecostal Christianity. In fact, their Pentecostal and Baptist churches were a source of moral cohesion. Gregory counted more churches in Bakersfield, where Okie culture influenced everything from spirituality to music, than in San Francisco. To this day, the Okie culture-saturated San Joaquin Valley remains California's only red-state region.
I only vaguely remember reading Grapes of Wrath, which, while I was in High School, shared the distinction with Moby Dick of being one of only two books that I started but never finished. I have sadly since learned that some books are not worthy of my time, but then I considered it a stain on my honor as an avid reader. So I feel somewhat vindicated to learn that the sense of hopelessness that Grapes conveyed was unjustified by the facts.
Still, while I will never be a Steinbeck fan, I feel the need to cut him a little slack for his touching and eminently chivalrous dedication to The Acts of King Arthur and His Noble Knights:
When I was nine, I took siege with King Arthur's fellowship of knights most proud and worshipful as any alive.
In those days there was a great lack of hardy and noble-hearted squires to bear shield and sword, to buckle harness, and to succor wounded knights.
Then it chanced that squire-like duties fell to my sister of six years, who for gentle prowess had no peer living.
It sometimes happens in sadness and pity that faithful service is not appreciated, so my fair and loyal sister remained unrecognized as squire.
Wherefore this day I make amends within my power and raise her to knighthood and give her praise. And from this hour she shall be called Sir Marie Steinbeck of Salinas Valley
God give her worship without peril.
John Steinbeck of Monterey