One Steinbeck

This month, the California Council of the Humanities inaugurates its One State, One Book program, designed to get people to read the same California book at the same time. “This program,” the council promotes, “gives Californians from every walk of life a chance to read and discuss the book together … and discover the book’s relevance to current California issues.”

But there are some savory ironies operating here. The inaugural selection of the program is John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath. Supposedly, this is a nod to the centenary of Steinbeck’s birth and to the fact that Steinbeck is California’s lone Nobel Prize winner.

Now, I can see the state having an interest in promoting Steinbeck as a bona fide cultural hero, but does the state really want to encourage people to “discover the book’s relevance to current California issues"? Do Gray Davis’ agribusiness campaign contributors know about this? The California of 1937 and 1938 doesn’t come off so hot in this book, and, when examined through Steinbeck’s lens, contemporary California looks pretty bad, too. It’s very easy to read The Grapes of Wrath as one long howl of desperation directed at the forces of California’s big business that are working in concert with the state (particularly cops and judges) to take advantage of destitute migrants who are willing to work for pissant wages because it’s better than what they were making in the impoverished lands they left behind. Does this ring anybody’s bell?

When the book first came out in 1939, everybody understood it this way, which accounted for the fact that it was banned quickly in libraries statewide and considered by the Lynne Cheneys of the day as communist agitation. In fact, the campaign to discredit the book was furious, but to little avail. It sold hundreds of thousands of copies to a nation of readers who, 10 years into the Depression, knew goddamn well how big business exploited the vulnerable when it could.

The controversy surrounding the book died down after World War II. The factual basis for Steinbeck’s tale of the Joad family’s fateful trek from Dust Bowl Oklahoma to Bakersfield’s fruit and cotton fields may have been established, but, by the 1950s, American readers didn’t want to know from the poor. By then, the controversy had become mostly literary, shifting the focus of interest about the book from its politics to its aesthetics. That led to the book’s cozy domestication as a work of sentimental humanism and its current safe enshrinement in California high school English curricula.

The Grapes of Wrath is a terrific read, though, in high school or out. It’s long but easy to understand. The characters are sharply outlined, vivid and specific. Steinbeck clearly loves his people, he loves their fateful connection to the land, and his book testifies to a genuine grief about what happens when the forces of history overwhelm the poor.

The program is an honorable and moving idea, but the time’s probably way past when a book like The Grapes of Wrath can be politically efficacious, even if tens of thousands of Californians read it this month and start to wonder who the new Tom Joads are and what they’re putting up with these days up and down the San Joaquin Valley. I’d like to be wrong, but I suspect the One State, One Book program serves Davis and his agribusiness people just fine: If they can appropriate The Grapes of Wrath and turn it into an advertisement for the Golden State, then they’ve de-fanged one of the most powerful critiques California’s ever made of itself.