Today marks the 69th anniversary of Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath, which for my dime is the 20th century’s “Great American Novel.” Personally, I like Gatsby and For Whom the Bell Tolls better, but Gatsby is somewhat of an unbelievable character (he’s not the type of guy you’re ever likely to meet) and the Hemingway isn’t set in the U.S. Grapes is a distinctly American book relating a dark chapter in our history, and Tom Joad and Ma Joad, the all-time great mother character, are people you might meet.
The problem with Steinbeck’s longer novels is he never knows where to end them. I’m a huge fan of John Ford’s film adaptation, which Steinbeck himself said was a better telling of the story than the novel. It starts with Tom coming home to the family and ends with him leaving again. That’s the story, it’s about him and a new social conscience. When he leaves, the rest of the story with the flood and the sister breastfeeding the man in the freight car just seems unnecessary.
Nonetheless, Steinbeck captured the American nature of the real people, the hard-working, regular guys “just trying to get along without shoving anybody” as Tom says that Scott and Ernesto never did.
So here’s to Steinbeck, Grapes, and Tom and Ma.