The Grapes of Wrath divided opinion when it was first published. Some declared it a masterpiece, others dismissed it as crude propoganda. Charles Angoff, in his contemporaneous review, noted:
There should be rejoicing in that part of Hell where the souls of great American imaginative writers while away their time, for at long last a worthy successor to them has appeared in their former terrestrial abode. With his latest novel Mr. Steinbeck at once joins the company of Hawthorne, Melville, Crane, and Norris, and easily leaps to the forefront of all his contemporaries. [The Grapes of Wrath] has all the earmarks of something momentous, monumental, and memorable: universal compassion, a sensuousness so honestly and recklessly tender that even the Fathers of the Church would probably have called it spiritual; and a moral anger against the entire scheme of things that only the highest art possesses.
High praise indeed, it wasn’t all uncritical acclaim: the novel was banned in Kansas and in Kern County, California (location of the Weedpatch camp in which the Joads stayed in the novel). In St Louis not only was it banned but the librarian was ordered to burn copies that had already been purchased. H. Kelly Crockett, a student in Oklahoma at the time of the novel’s publication, recalled in an article twenty years later that a common criticism of the novel at the time was that it was propogandist and, once the situation that had called into being the events it portrayed had been overcome, it would be read merely as a historical curiosity. Crockett’s conclusion, after twenty years, was that this had proved not to be the case and the novel retained its literary power. Seventy-plus years on, is that still the case? The fortunes of any novel wax and wane, and such is the case for The Grapes of Wrath. A largely positive review by Edward Galligan of the 1989 fiftieth anniversary reprint still balked at “purple prose, melodramatic plotting, and sentimental thinking,”, and enough “hamminess” to make us “gag at the prospect of rereading it.” Today, then, while Steinbeck is still read, it is mostly Of Mice and Men, while The Grapes of Wrath is perhaps out of favour. I would suggest that, for all the novel’s faults, this is a pity.
Frank Eugene Cruz suggests that most criticism of the novel categorises it in one of four ways – as a story of migration, a recasting of Christian themes and motifs, a work of social protest or a powerful, sentimental epic. And the latter three representations are, in part, responsible for some of the ambivalence with which we tend to confront the book today. The Christian moralising and socialist rhetoric which some discern in it are too didactic: and it is true that, at times, Steinbeck batters us with his message where some subtlety would have been more effective. The unfairness, for example, of the way the farm owners used the surplus of men to drive down pay does not become any more unfair because we read of it three or four or five or six times: it was unfair the first time and the reader could have been trusted to intuit that. And the sentimentality that gives rise to Edward Galligan’s gagging at the prospect of re-reading it is certainly an issue. But, nonetheless, I would argue that The Grapes of Wrath is a great novel.
What makes it so, for me, is the interconnectedness of those different categories that people ascribe to it. It is all of the things that people have described it as, but it is all of them in combination. If it can be read as a Christian narrative, then it is a highly political Christian narrative, as Stephen Bullivant demonstrates when he points to the novel’s connection of being a “red” with Jesus Christ, in the form of Jim Casy. Similarly, Stephen Railton suggests that Steinbeck’s use of Christianity, in the form of Casy, is a way of insinuating a revolutionary vision of militant socialism. Railton appears to posit this as a criticism, but for me the way the novel gives religious ideas political resonances is one of its great strengths. In any case, politics and religion are backdrops in the novel – essential, unavoidable, but backdrops nonetheless – and the central message is neither purely political nor religious, but rather about the nature of humanity and the need for community. And that transcends everything.
While there is a strongly religious element to The Grapes of Wrath, it is not straightforward. Stephen Bullivant notes a letter from Steinbeck to his editor in which he states that he wants “all all all” the verses of the Battle Hymn of the Republic to be printed at the start of the novel. The repeated alls demonstrate that he is adamant on the point and Bullivant therefore makes a study of the complete song in order to understand why. He notes particularly the final verse:
In the beauty of the lilies Christ was born across the sea,
With a glory in His bosom that transfigures you and me:
As he died to make men holy, let us die to make me free,
While God is marching on.
Bullivant is drawn to the third line, noting that, in religious terms, the concept of dying “to make men free” is novel. Martyrdom, in the Gospels, is a transcendent event rewarded by personal salvation; “making men free” suggests more of an immanent event. Such notions, of course, would have appalled social conservatives such as Eric Voegelin or Leo Strauss, suggesting, for them, the hubris of mankind, but there is nothing hubristic about The Grapes of Wrath. Far from it, there is a deep note of pessimism sounding throughout it. It may be replete with Christ figures – Casy, Tom, even Rose of Sharon – but the freedom granted by Jesus’s death is still, in Steinbeck’s vision, a highly qualified one.
Tamara Rombold gives a persuasive account of inversions of the Bible story throughout The Grapes of Wrath, from the superb depiction of drought in the first chapter (an inversion, she argues, of the Creation story) to Exodus (unlike the Israelites who were spared the plagues, the Oklahoma drought blights everyone), to Moses in the bullrushes (Rose of Sharon’s baby cast dead into the water) to the final scene, after the apocalypse of the flood, with Rose of Sharon in the barn with the starving man, reminiscent of Isiaiah, and the New Heavens and the New Earth.
Rombold then draws on Jim Casy’s soujourn in the wilderness “like Jesus”, in which he realises the call of a new spirit, which he calls love. She makes persuasive allusions to Casy’s Christ-like behaviour in his arrest and death scenes. Curiously, though, she makes no mention of probably Casy’s most important speech, just prior to his death. In this, Casy himself makes an inversion of Jesus’s walk into the wilderness. The truth isn’t in the wilderness, says Casy, it is here, in the community, among the people. This is where he finds his soul. An this resonates clearly with Tom, of course, because it forms the basis of much of his later conversation with Ma Joad (and this exchange is related by Rombold), in which he reveals his intention to leave and follow Casy’s example, leading the community against the travails forced on them by the system. Thus, we have in Casy and Tom, two representation of Jesus. Casy, the pure-of-heart lover of humanity, a man who dies for his beliefs, is an earthly Jesus figure, preaching virtue and honesty and decency. Tom is at once his disciple and a symbol of the risen Christ, the one who is “with you always, even unto the end of the world” as it is written in Matthew. Or, as Tom says to Ma:
"Then it don't matter. Then I'll be aroun' in the dark. I'll be ever'where- wherever you look. Whenever they's a fight so hungry people can eat, I'll be there. Wherever they's a cop beating up a guy, I'll be there. If Casey knowed, why, I'll be in the way guys yell when they're mad an' I'll be in the way kids laugh when they're hungry an' know supper's ready. An' when our folks eat the stuff they raise an' live in the houses they build - why I'll be there."
Casy, then, can be seen as Jesus, while Tom is Christ. And the gospel they preach is a radical one. As Casy says to Tom:
"There ain't no sin and there ain't no virtue. There's just stuff people do. It's all part of the same thing. And some of the things people do is nice, and some ain't nice, but that's as far as any man got a right to say . . . What is this thing called sperit? ... It's love. I love people so much I'm fit to bust sometimes - an' I want to make them happy - maybe it's all men an' all women we love; Maybe all men got one big soul ever'body's a part of."
For all that, though, I don’t believe The Grapes of Wrath should be read as a Christian novel. It is, if anything, a humanist novel. There are clear Christian resonances, and central characters may be comparable with Christ-figures, but that is because the fundamental tenets of Christian religion such as fairness, sense of community and so on, borrowed as they are from pre-Christian Platonic thought, are equally relevant to modern humanist belief. And so you might consider the novel christian, in the sense of evoking an ideal of human decency, but not Christian, as in following the doctrinal beliefs of any Church of Christ. As Casy says, “Why do we got to hang it on God or Jesus?” Thus, the titular grapes of wrath are not those of The Battle Hymn of the Republic, but the spirit inside man which will rise against oppression and exploitation. Casy is no longer a Preacher of God but remains, throughout, a preacher of men for men.
Similarly, despite its sometimes overwhelming didacticism, in the end The Grapes of Wrath is not a political novel either. Politics is simply a by-product of Steinbeck’s true interest, which is human nature and human beings, the human community. In the 1930s, the prevailing difficulties which beset humanity were political, and that is therefore what he wrote about. It is Ma Joad who makes one of the novel’s most telling points: “Use’ ta be the fambly was fust. It ain’t so now. It’s anybody.” And earlier, she says: "I'm learnin' one thing good. Learnin' it all a time, ever' day. If you're in trouble or hurt or need – go to the poor people. They're the only ones that'll help – the only ones."
Warren Motley, writing in 1982, complains that much of the novel’s critisism until then had focused on Casy and Tom as the core of the film and that the central role of Ma Joad in explaining the family’s gradual realisation of the need for community and cooperation is underplayed. I would agree, and I suggest that Ma Joad is one of the great characters of American fiction. She develops throughout the novel and her gradual assumption of both actual and moral control over her family is beautifully drawn. She is superb. Motley draws on the writing of Robert Briffault to explain the sense of matriarchy as exemplified by Ma Joad’s growing sense of authority over her clan as defining a relationship of cooperation, as opposed to the typical patriarchal relationships based on power. And it is through this that one can sense a note of optimism in a largely pessimistic book. "Why, Tom,” she says, “us people will go on livin' when all them people is gone. Why, Tom, we're the people that live. They ain't gonna wipe us out. Why, we're the people - we go on."
And what a wonderful rallying cry that is.