Illustration by Michael Willis
Illustration by Michael Willis

In times of crisis, few people have patience for complexity and ambiguity. When the economy fails -- as it did spectacularly in 1929, and almost did in 2008 -- we want to know who to blame and who to punish.

Over the last few years, some on the left have found their villains on Wall Street. On the right, the Tea Party has preferred to blame government, seeing the solution to every problem in less spending, less government power and a return to constitutional limitations.

The Great Depression was much worse than our recession was, and the literature it produced is correspondingly less tolerant of complex answers to economic troubles. We have already seen how writers such as Edmund Wilson and James Agee were drawn to the Communist Party, because it offered a simple and energetic solution to issues that the government was seemingly helpless to address. But it was John Steinbeck, in “The Grapes of Wrath,” who most effectively turned the Depression into a myth -- a clash of light and darkness in which the selfless poor do battle with the heartless rich.

The Grapes of Wrath” is a classic example of a book that has been domesticated -- made harmless through sheer familiarity. Millions of Americans read it in high school -- Steinbeck’s clear, simple prose and impossible-to-miss symbols make it ideal for English class -- and so we tend to think of it as a piece of official American culture. The story of the Joad family, trekking from Depression-ravaged Oklahoma to California, is remembered as a tale of heartwarming perseverance against the odds -- a modern version of the pioneer journeys that opened the West in the 19th century.

Genuine Radicalism

To take “The Grapes of Wrath” seriously, however, is to realize its genuine radicalism. Steinbeck intended the book to be a bomb hurled at American capitalism. At every turn, he denounces business and businessmen, large and small, as well as industrialism and mechanized agriculture -- in short, the whole economic system of 20th-century America. In its place, he would like to see a return to smallholding farmers, working their own land with their own, old-fashioned tools. It is, in one sense, a very traditional American dream -- a Jeffersonian vision of small farmers as the backbone of democracy.

At the same time, it is an all-but-explicit plea for socialism, which Steinbeck imagines as a benevolent anarchism in which small groups of the poor can organize to govern their own lives.

“The Grapes of Wrath” is simultaneously very effective and very dull. Steinbeck works from the first page to make clear that he is not telling an individual story but a modern epic, and the Joads stand in for all of the Depression’s victims. His prose cleverly combines the plain syntax and flat descriptiveness of Ernest Hemingway with the grand cadences of the Bible, forging a style that even today sounds like the voice of the common man:

“The people came out of their houses and smelled the hot stinging air and covered their noses from it. And the children came out of the houses, but they did not run or shout as they would have done after a rain. ... The men were silent and they did not move often. And the women came out of the houses to stand beside their men -- to feel whether this time the men would break.”

Every other chapter in the novel is told in this third-person plural, effectively turning a group of individuals into “the people,” the collective protagonist of a great struggle. This is the struggle of farmers driven off their land by the Dust Bowl -- the agricultural crisis of the mid-1930s, when soil erosion made the American prairies impossible to farm profitably. What happens to the Joads, Steinbeck means us to understand, is happening to hundreds of thousands of others.

Iconic Characters

By turning the Joads into emblems, however, Steinbeck also strips them of the depth and idiosyncrasy any novel feeds on. “The Grapes of Wrath” is perhaps the closest an American writer came to writing a work of socialist realism, in the Soviet style -- an explicitly didactic story in which the workers are larger-than-life heroes. This isn’t to say that they have no vices. We meet Tom Joad, the novel’s main character, when he is on the way home from prison, where he spent four years for killing a man in a bar fight.

But in the novel’s scale of values, such a murder isn’t a serious crime. Repeatedly, Tom tells us that he was provoked and that he would kill his victim again if he had to -- and Steinbeck means to endorse this manly nonchalance. One result of devaluing the individual character is that the murder of an individual has no great significance; it is just what happens when a man -- a real man -- gets drunk and angry.

On the other hand, the killing of Jim Casy -- the preacher-turned-union organizer who is Tom’s friend -- is clearly evil, because it is an act of class oppression. Casy is a martyr for the poor, and Steinbeck explicitly casts his death as a version of Jesus Christ’s: “You don’ know what you’re a-doin’,” Casy tells the strike-breaker who is about to murder him. (That Casy’s initials are “J.C.” is an example of Steinbeck’s blunt-force symbolism.)

Steinbeck succeeds in making his characters iconic: We will never forget the strength of Tom Joad, the endurance of Ma Joad and the humility of Jim Casy. But icons have a single profile, which never changes; over its 600 pages, “The Grapes of Wrath” begins to pall, because none of its characters ever faces an internal dilemma. Hunger, poverty, deserts and floods may do their worst, but none of the Joads is ever seriously tempted by selfishness, greed, anger or prejudice.

When the Okies, as the migrants are contemptuously known, gather in a clean, safe, government-funded camp -- an advertisement for the New Deal -- they immediately organize themselves in peaceable neighborliness. Poverty has purged them of the selfishness that afflicts the used-car salesmen, foremen, bankers and policemen who prey on them throughout the book.

Apocalyptic Struggle

Even today, “The Grapes of Wrath” reads like a call to arms. Steinbeck’s portrait of the Depression as a crisis of overproduction in which mountains of crops were left to rot while millions of people went hungry is a reminder of how enragingly incompetent the American system seemed at the time. But because Steinbeck has no coherent theory of what caused the Depression, other than human greed, he has no real way to channel the emotion he provokes into effective action. And so it remains as a source of self-satisfaction: The reader can congratulate himself on sympathizing with the Joads and enjoy their struggles vicariously.

Our recession didn’t produce any book as simple and powerful as “The Grapes of Wrath,” but that may be a good sign. Maybe it is only when politics ceases to function that it becomes, as it was for Steinbeck, an apocalyptic struggle of good against evil.

(Adam Kirsch is a senior editor at the New Republic and a columnist for Tablet magazine. He is the author of “Why Trilling Matters.” This is the last in a four-part series. Read Part 1, Part 2 and Part 3.)

To contact the writer of this article: Adam Kirsch at adam.kirsch@hotmail.com.

To contact the editor responsible for this article: Max Berley at mberley@bloomberg.net.